Friday, October 30, 2015

Ineffability: A Serious Threat to Ambitious Metaphysics

Consider a squirrel on a tree. There are things we can represent that are simply not within the capacity of the squirrel's mental structure to represent. For instance, we can represent complex mathematical truths about the shapes and physical relations obtaining in the squirrel's environment. Despite the fact that all these facts are "happening" right in his face, our little squirrel hasn't the slightest clue about them. And it's not just that he's ignorant about them like someone who doesn't know math or physics; it's that it's completely beyond a mind like his to even represent things like facts and propositions. They are completely ineffable to the squirrel.

That all seems fair enough. But here's where things start to become worrisome: Why shouldn't we think that we are in relation to some possible being in the same way that the squirrel is related to us? (Or, if you believe in God, why not think that we are related to some actual being in the same way that the squirrel is related to us?) In other words, why not think that there are some aspects of reality that are completely ineffable to us, even if maybe they are effable with respect to some other, more advanced being? Why not think that there could be some species of creature who could comprehend things that are completely beyond our mind's capacity to even represent?

This is not a new argument or anything. See for instance Ch. VI of Thomas Nagel's book 'The View From Nowhere'. Moreover, I'm sure many of us have thought of this possibility before. But do we really consider the implications of this argument? I know that I've thought of this before, but haven't drawn anything of significance from this. However, I'm realizing now that this is a very important and deep question.

Note that this view seems to go hand in hand with the idea of metaphysical realism, which holds that there is an objectively existing world that is in some sense totally (or at least mostly) mind-independent. If you hold that view, it seems rather strange to think that somehow all of reality, of necessity, must be in principle comprehensible to us. And if reality were in its totality to be comprehensible to us it would be a rather strange coincidence. Moreover, there seems to be nothing particularly special about us. We are on a continumm with non-sentient creatures, insects, and squirrels on one side and with angels and God on the other (and probably a lot of things in between). Hence, it seems quite likely, on realism, that we are in a situation similar to that of the squirrel: There are aspects of reality which are simply beyond the representational capacities of our minds.

But then there is trouble. Interestingly, those who have high hopes for metaphysics tend to be metaphysical realists, but that very same metaphysical realism tends to undermine the high hopes for metaphysics. For example, suppose we characterize metaphysics as the study of the most fundamental or general aspects of reality. Suppose moreover that we are metaphysical realists. Then, probably, there are aspects of reality which are simply beyond the representational capacities of our minds. But in that case, for all we know, the most fundamental or general aspects of reality are within the sphere of things that are completely ineffable to us. So there is reason to doubt the possibility of having any substantial metaphysical knowledge.

In fact, maybe by a similar though distinct argument we can get a stronger conclusion. We have some reason to think that as minds become more advanced on the "great chain of being" that I've described, they become able to represent more (and more) fundamental aspects of reality than those before them. Higher beings have concepts that are more fundamental than those of the minds on lower levels. (Technically, they have concepts of things that are more fundamental.) And they probably have more of them. For instance, some lower animals can probably represent things like 'cause' and 'object' and even 'agent', but it seems doubtful whether bees could do the same (or to the same degree). But in that case, granted we are probably pretty far from the high end of the continuum, probably the most fundamental aspects of reality are only representable by beings on the higher end. So, probably, we cannot represent the most fundamental aspects of reality. So, probably, ambitious metaphysics is hopeless.

This might seem like a fun philosophical puzzle, but actually it is rather important, because if I sit down and ask myself whether I really think metaphysical realism is true, I am with utter and literal sincerity inclined to say, "Yes." And if I sit down and ask myself whether I really think some aspects of reality are ineffable for the reasons described, I am with utter and literal sincerity inclined to say, "Yes." And, to bring the trilemma to completion, I have high hopes for metaphysics and sincerely think it is essential to truly understanding the world.

What to do then? Does the argument against substantial metaphysics work? What are the implications for metaphysics and other areas of philosophy depending on which way one goes? How might different views solve the issues here?  These are interesting questions. Since I've been thinking about this stuff for a class I'm taking, I'll probably have a chance to write a term paper on it. I have inklings about where we might go, but I have no clear answer at the moment.


MiloŇ° said...

Maybe this essay can bring some light on this issue: However, I think that Hofweber metaphysics is to modest :)

awatkins909 said...

Thanks Milos! I haven't read that paper in a while but I'll go through with it and see if it can help. Actually, what brought this all up is a class I'm taking with Hofweber on idealism and ineffability in metaphysics. Hofweber has his own response to this argument, but it's one I'm rather skeptical of (though, in the end, it might be right). For what it's worth, Hofweber does tend to be a less metaphysical metaphysician than others (he tends to be skeptical of a lot of metaphysical notions), and I'm worried his solution might take us in that direction. Anyway, as I think about this more I will probably post about it more!

MiloŇ° said...

You are welcome. Meta-metaphysics is fascinating area! My first grasp of it came from David Manley introductory essay in collection where Hofweber essay appear. I haven't idea that you listen his lectures in vivo :D