What is metaphysics?

Finnegan asked:

What is metaphysics for a contemporary philosopher? Is there agreement that it is still considered a valid field of inquiry within contemporary philosophy?

Answer by Peter Jones

Metaphysics is the same subject that it was on the day it was named and always will be. Among contemporary philosophers there are two schools of thought.

For the professional academic metaphysics is incomprehensible and a waste of time. This renders the whole of professional academic philosophy incomprehensible and a waste of time. This is made clear in the current edition of the Blackwell Guide to Metaphysics where metaphysics is described as unscientific, inconclusive and absent any decision-making procedure. Most philosophers of the Academy ignore metaphysics and form their opinions on philosophical issues as suits them.

For philosophers who take it seriously metaphysics is not merely a valid field of enquiry but the most important and valuable of all fields, If we do not understand metaphysics then for us philosophy must be a muddle of competing unworkable theories and inadequate conjectures. Thus Kant calls academic metaphysics an ‘arena for mock fights’.

The second school of thought would say that metaphysics is comprehensible and has an excellent system for making decisions and arriving at firm conclusions. This school is called the Perennial philosophy. It explains metaphysics and claims it is comprehensible. This school would include Plotinus, Nagarjuna, Lao Tsu, Francis Bradley, D. E. Harding, George Spencer Brown, Sri Aurobindo and a long list of others who are ignored in the philosophy department. As it would also include me I’ll offer as link to my writings on this topic. You might like the essay ‘Is Metaphysics a Waste of Time?’ https://philpeople.org/profiles/peter-g-jones.

To the question of whether metaphysics is considered a valid field of enquiry, then, there will be different answers depending on who you ask. Russell and Carnap would say not and it is difficult to think of any contemporary scientists who believe otherwise. It is not much easier to think of contemporary scholastic philosophers who believe otherwise. The Blackwell Guide states clearly that it is not a valid field.

The reason for this is that metaphysics is incomprehensible unless we assume that mysticism, specifically non-dualism,  is its correct solution. As a consequence, all philosophers who reject mysticism find metaphysics a hopeless and inconclusive area of study and so they often reject metaphysics as well. Meanwhile all metaphysical problems are solved by Nagarjuna in the second century in his Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way for a position known as the ‘Middle Way’, non-dualism, advaita, the perennial philosophy or mysticism. Those who endorse this view would argue that metaphysics is the way to unlock the secrets of the Cosmos. It’s your choice who to believe, but logic is on the side of Nagarjuna and Lao Tsu.

Thus we have two distinct global traditions of philosophy, one for which metaphysics is incomprehensible and a waste of time and one for which it is a path to truth and understanding. This means an uncontroversial answer to your question is not possible, It has to be you who decides which is the correct view.

Who is doing the talking?

Gary asked:

For a while now I can’t work out where, when I’m speaking out loud, the words come from; it seems like magic. The words come out without my knowing where they originate. They seem to emerge out of nowhere, even when I’m having a normal conversation.

When I want to think, I think in English (my only language), and I can comprehend what I’m saying to myself (obviously?). I’ve successfully ‘gagged’ my internal voice and when I do so, I can’t think. I can see pictures and have feelings, but no more. Perhaps like meditation? This is worrying me a little because it feels that ‘I’ am not in control — something is living my life for me and ‘I’ am merely an observer. I’m sure I’m not mad — can you enlighten me?

Answer by Peter Jones

As you seem to have already surmised, you ask a question that leads you straight into the depths of Yoga and meditation. Stilling the inner voice is a goal and a benefit. You say that when it is stilled you see pictures and have feelings, but the meditator will want to transcend these as well.

Fear not, you are not mad, or not obviously so, for thinking that someone else is living your life and you are just observing. The topic is too extensive for a simple answer but here’s an extract from The Ultimate Understanding by Ramesh Balsekar.  It may not make immediate sense but you’ll see the connection.

“Living volitionally, with volition, with a sense of personal doership, is the bondage. Would, therefore, living non-volitionally be the way in which the sage lives? But the doing and the not-doing — the positive doing and the negative not-doing — are both aspects of ‘doing’.  How then can the sage be said to be living non-volitionally? Perhaps the more accurate description would be that the sage is totally aware that he does not live his life (either volitionally or non-volitionally) but that his life — and everyone else’s life — is being lived.”

What this means is that no one can live volitionally or otherwise; that, indeed, ‘volition’ is the essence of the ‘ego’, an expression of the ‘me’ concept, created by ‘divine hypnosis’ so that the ‘lila’ of life can happen. It is this ‘volition’ or sense of personal doership in the subjective chain of cause-and-effect which produces satisfaction or frustration in the conceptual individual.

Again, what this means is that it is a joke to believe that you are supposed to give up volition as an act of volition! ‘Let go’ — who is to let go? The ‘letting-go’ can only happen as a result of the clear understanding of the difference between what-we-are and what-we-appear-to-be. And then, non-volitional life or being-lived naturally becomes wu wei, spontaneous living, living without the unnecessary burden of volition. Why carry your luggage when you are being transported in a vehicle?”

I hope the connection with your question will be apparent. For a deeper understanding of this view and the meaning of this feeling you have that your life is being lived while ‘you’ simply observe  you would need to study mysticism.

For the full story you could try Krishna Prem’s commentary on the Bhagavad Gita. This would be diving in at the deep end. To just get your toes wet you could try any introduction to Buddhist doctrine. If you search on YouTube for teachers of non-dualism  there are many relevant talks.and interviews. Rupert Spira, Mooji and Sadhguru would be three good examples and all talk about the issue you are asking about. For a gentle introduction you could try Carlos Castenada’s entertaining series of stories about his meetings with his teacher Don Juan, who spends much time persuading Carlos to still his inner voice and learn to live without it.

The only way you’ll get to the bottom of this issue is to study it by way of meditation since being told about it is not really much help, but there is a vast literature explaining that what we usually think of as ‘me’ is not ‘me’ at all but a fiction, while it is the observer who is non-fictional. This is the Perennial philosophy, and the Enneads of Plotinus would be as good a place to start as any.

It’s a fascinating, exciting and life-changing area of research. Good luck with it.

Utilitarianism and moral choices

Chrisie asked:

Utilitarianism weighs the moral worth of actions based entirely upon the amount of pleasure (or pain reduction) that results. Outcomes, or the consequences of actions are the determining factor of morality and not the intention of the person before (or even while) the act is being performed. Discuss whether a moral position that is entirely based on evaluating the consequences of actions provides an adequate foundation for making moral choices. Is more needed or not?

Answer by Peter Jones

Utilitarianism is not so one-sided as it might appear. If we act to increase the well-being of others then this will require assessing the outcomes of our actions and attempting to maximise their benefit to others. We are basing our action on predicted future outcomes but those actions are motivated by good intentions right now. If our actions have counter-productive consequences, as is so often the case for well-intended actions,  then it remains the case that they were well-motivated and will be defensible on the ‘day of judgement’ if there is to be such a thing.

The problem is that we cannot know which actions will be beneficial or harmful unless we have a thorough grasp of how the world works. Very rarely does anyone have a grasp of this so we have to make do with guesswork. Our idea of what will benefit someone else may therefore be utterly wrong.  For instance, if we give money to a beggar they may use it to kill themselves with heroin or to to buy a meal and improve their health. If we don’t know which it is going to be then out outcome-based decision procedure runs into trouble.

So I would say no, utilitarianism is not an adequate method for decision-making but is just one aspect of the procedure. We would help others more by pursuing a thorough understanding of ‘life, the universe and everything’ for without this we will be a bull-in-a-china-shop causing havoc by trying to be helpful. in the same way, we do not perform heart-surgery on others to save lives before we have had a medical training. Our intentions might be good but our reasoning would be ridiculous.

Utilitarianism is what ethics is all about since it is for the sake of its outcomes that we perform ethical actions. But what would we say of someone who with the best of intentions helps an old lady across the road without first checking that she wants to cross it? Our ethical responsibility must include coming to an understanding of the situation.

So utilitarianism will always be a factor in our decision-making but it describes only a part of the process. If we are ill-informed then we are not able to assess the utility of our actions.  Hence in mysticism and much of religion it would be for their utility that we perform ethical acts but our global ethical responsibility would be the acquisition of knowledge, selflessness and compassion in order that our ethical acts may be effective. If we ignore these areas of practice and knowledge then we can be as well-meaning as we like when we act, we are still shirking our ethical responsibilities. If we do not think carefully about what we are doing then again, our lack of attention to the situation might count against us when later, in hindsight, we judge our own actions. For this reason in Buddhism there is more to this than motivation. A lack of mindfulness and care may be a more important ethical issue than the outcome of our actions, which are largely unknowable in advance anyway.

I need to learn how to stop thinking

Daniel asked:

Hello. For two weeks I have found myself unable to generate a concrete thought as well as unable to avoid generating a thought, my body reacting to philosophical contradictions that always lead to nihilism. I can do almost anything except vomit and puke, and I feel as if my body is vanishing from space. This all seems ridiculous to me, as I have read existentialists such as Camus or Nietzsche (perhaps almost to the point of obsession) and I agree with their vitalist approach. However, my relentless mind and previously conditioned mindset to seek the truth and nothing else has stripped me of every other instinct. I need to know how to simply stop thinking about life and start living. Surely, an actual philosopher may have had a similar experience and learned how to control such things. I would greatly appreciate any form of advice.

Answer by Peter Jones

Hi Daniel.

It seems you have thought yourself into a corner. This may be something to do with studying existentialism.

If you were a meditative practitioner your state of mind would be considered a wonderful place from which to begin and make progress. You have spotted the contradictions that plague the world-view of most people, you are committed to truth, you have recognised your conditioning, you’ve begun to wonder if you’re disappearing in a puff of smoke and you want to stop thinking and start living. These are perfect conditions for a truth-seeker.  It takes some effort to reach this point.

You now have choices. You could try to control these thoughts and feelings. I would not advise this. It would be counter-productive and a waste of all your work so far. Or you could make use of of your situation. To build on this beginning you would need to forget all about existentialism and all other ‘isms’ and set out to discover what is true.

Meditation is the usual way forward. This entails doing just what you wish to do, namely stopping your wayward ordinary mind from controlling your life.  The topic is too extensive to discuss properly here but there is a vast literature. It will take you beyond the mind entirely.

I’d suggest a study of Zen. Perhaps you could try a book Cultivating the Empty Field by Dan Leighton, a compilation of the poetry of Zen master Hongzhi. His poetry says much about his state of mind and reveals a peace and tranquility that should appeal to you while the preface and introduction deal with the philosophical issues.

As for philosophical contradictions, which as you say can ‘do our head in’ and lead us into nihilism, for Zen and the Perennial philosophy there would be no such thing. This would be what is discovered in meditation. All contradictions would be misunderstandings. For more on this issue Nagarjuna would be your man. I’d recommend ‘The Sun of Wisdom: Teaching on Noble Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamptso.

I know of no other method for dealing with the problems you describe than meditation and a study of the non-dual philosophy of the mystics. This will require leaving behind the muddled and purposeless philosophy of our Western universities and it seems you’re keen and ready to do this. Frankly, while I admire Nietzsche I see a study of his thoughts as a fairly direct road to depression and insanity. The problems you describe do not arise for meditative practitioners because they don’t deal in theories or guesswork and become able over time to see the tricks of the mind for what they are. The purpose of the practice is to realise the truth about Reality so this is the go-to method for truth-seekers. The Oracle at Delphi was no fool.

YouTube is your friend. Try watching a few talks by, say, Rupert Spira, Mooji or Sadhguru. You’ll see that they show no signs of suffering from your problems.  They will explain that your body cannot ‘disappear into space’ since neither your body nor space would be truly real. Perhaps you’re intuitively sensing this. If you explore further you’ll find no need for nihilism or pessimism and your mind will become much easier to live with.

Good luck!