What Can Metaphysics Say About Reality?

For a metaphysician to ask about the nature of reality, she is already engaging in metaphysical ideology, as she is presuming there is such a thing as “reality”. Metaphysics is the process of doing exactly what I am currently doing: explaining and understanding concepts. Except instead of concepts, metaphysics attempts to understand everything, thus “meta” (beyond) “physics” (the nature of matter and energy). For metaphysicians, what exactly constitutes dreams or ideas cannot simply be ignored, as is done by physicists. The physicist speaks a scientific language confined by pre-determined scales that are useful to human understanding. Physicists don’t ask, for example, if the metric system could be considered an “objective truth”. They don’t have to think about that, but metaphysicians do. Metaphysicians ask questions about things like the universality of mathematics, as they are engaging in a fundamental inquiry into the nature of reality (if there even is such a thing).  

    So, in order to get answers about the nature of reality, we first have to decide what we think of as being “real”. For one thing, we can ask questions about the physical world and its features (color, shape, extension). We can also ponder about time and whether or not it is real or illusory. Another target seems to be moral facts: are they “objective” or just a product of our customs? And finally one could inquire about beauty being intrinsic to the object or the subject. These four categories (the physical world, time, moral facts and beauty) have come under scrutiny of many metaphysicians holding opposing views. If indeed metaphysicians can say anything about the nature of reality, then surely they will take a stance regarding the existence of these categories. There exist more or less four different word-views regarding the existence of ... well, stuff

    I first assume the most common attitude towards the world, which is a form of realism. That is, I take for granted that entities have an objective reality, one that is ontologically independent of our mind and perception. This view seems least abstract and most plausible at first glance. Looking at the way we interact with the world, there seems to be an assumption that external objects like tables and external concepts like time actually do really exist independently of us perceiving them. If we thought otherwise (that is, time as a concept which in its function depends on our minds to exist), then it would be very strange indeed that we thought it useful to invent a device which measures it. For if we thought that time was not “real” in the sense that it didn’t exist independently outside of us, then what exactly are we measuring with clocks and watches?

    The view that legitimizes clocks, so to say, is called existence realism, which holds that abstract objects, universals and concrete objects exist “out there” independently of perception. According to this view, there are ontologically independent entities that make up existence. If one were to conduct a survey of the general public’s opinion, this would possibly be the most popular view. It’s certainly the most practical view to have in order to function in everyday endeavours. However, there is a distinct problem that arises in this theory. It’s called the problem of universals and refers to qualities attributed to certain entities. For example, one quality of an apple is that it’s spherical. Another is that it’s red (or green, or yellow). Another is that it’s sweet, and so on. The apple has many qualities that, combined, make it “an apple”. This is where the difficulty arises, for it isn’t obvious to a metaphysician how to categorize these qualities. On the one hand, these qualities could be categorized as existing only in the mind, that is, we are projecting certain things into the world that seem attached to specific entities, but really they’re just concepts constructed in our minds. On the other hand, one could see a quality like “roundness” as something intrinsically attached to the apple. In other words, roundness can only be found when its attached to physical objects. An existence realist would look at the sentence “there is an oil spill in Vancouver” and think of it as either true or false, as there is such a thing as an “oil spill” and it could have happened in a real city called “Vancouver”. In other words, there’s a truth value assigned to claims about the world because they happen independently of our conceptual schemes. 

    A more refined account of realism could be stated as mind-independence realism. According to this view, the qualities of the objects and entities are mind-independent, but not the objects themselves. That is, the entities themselves may not actually exist, but the qualities that make them up (i.e. color, shape, etc) are “real”. Take for instance the sentence “there is an oil spill in Vancouver”. The mind-independent realist doesn’t necessarily think there is this entity called “the oil spill in Vancouver”. However, they do think that the qualities of the event are real: that “oil” is not actually its own entity, but simply a combination of independent qualities like black, gooey, sticky, toxic, etc. So then, all of the hundreds of qualities that make up “the oil spill in Vancouver” are real and exist independently of our perception, but the event itself is not “out there” as an independent entity. 

    From a word view called realism I now attempt to understand a different view called idealism, or, anti-realism. Specifically I look at mind-dependence anti-realism. It may sound like a hard pill to swallow, but in fact it’s a delicate response often associated with the 18th-century writings of George Berkeley. Contrary to realism, this view entails that the physical world only exists as features of the experience of the mind. In other words, the physical world is in some sense a product of the mind. It is important to note that metaphysical idealism does not deny the reality of the observable world, although material things owe their existence to minds. At first this might sound confusing and contradictory, but Berkeley actually held that it is in some sense the most commonsensical approach to the nature of reality. He posits that there is no such thing as what philosophers call “material substance”. Most people however think of the observable world as existing independently outside of our minds, whereas the idealist thinks that the observable world depends on minds and the activities of minds. One should understand that claiming the world is dependent on our minds is not the same as claiming the world is not really there.             

    Furthermore, it does not imply that your own mental process affects the actual course of material events. In fact, all idealism aims to suggest is that the physical world (i.e. matter) is a construct built up from the mental contents of the mind which observe it. In order to understand this process, Berkeley wants us to think of two kinds of things: sensible things and material things. Sensible things are things which we have direct sensory experience of. Material things are things which are mind-independent material. In other words, for “things” to have “real existence”, they must exist outside of the mind. But only immediate things count as sensible, not things that are suggested by them (i.e. their cause). Everything else outside of direct sensory experience has to be deduced by reason. This can be clarified in the following way: the “pain” is not in the pin which pricks your skin, the pain is in the perceiver. The “heat” is not in the coal which warms the grill, the heat is in the perceiver. If things like extension or heat were in the objects themselves, we’d have to say that on object is both big and small or hot and cold at the same time. According to Berkeley and others, this is a contradiction. 

    To really grasp what metaphysical idealism is about, I think of a computer as a metaphor for the mind and its processes: the computer is constantly receiving random bits of information which it doesn’t understand. In order to dissect and understand these bits of information, the computer has many different programs, each catered to understand a different piece of the puzzle. The “programs” correlate with the different concepts in the mind. For example, the “heat” program identifies information coming in that could be understood as “heat” and processes them in this category. Then, when “heat” is identified, it translates that information so the computer user can understand it and react to it. Or when “extension” is identified, the “extension” program translates that information to make it understandable for the computer user. This, in a nutshell, is what metaphysical idealism is all about. However, we can go even deeper.

    The fourth world view which one can adopt as a metaphysician is existence anti-realism. Like all philosophical theories, this view comes in many different flavours. But the main idea here is that either nothing exists outside of the mind or that we would have no access to a mind-independent reality even if it may exist. Opposite views may give some sort of causal agency to mind-independent objects, that is, perceptions and sensations are caused by mind-independent objects. However, our understanding of causality entails that the same effect can be produced by multiple causes, which leads to an uncertainty of the exact cause. What this shows is that although we may be seduced by our senses into thinking there are these real, mind-independent objects, the problem of causation can lead to a justified skepticism about whether or not they really exist. That is not to say that what we perceive isn’t real, it simply doesn’t exist. If this sounds confusing, then that’s because it is. 

    But to understand this view in more detail, let me propose an example. Let us think back to the sentence “there is an oil spill in Vancouver.” For an existence anti-realist, such a sentence could be true if it refers to our perception. That is, for an existence anti-realist, the sentence should go as follows “I perceive that there is an oil spill in Vancouver.” Most of what we believe about the external world, if there is one, is due to how our minds process whatever information is out there. Because there is no objective reality, according to the anti-realist, we cannot really give any truth value to any statement about the world. However, we can commit to certain observations about the world based on pragmatic utility. In other words, there is an unspoken belief circulating newspapers, media outlets and citizens that there in fact is an oil spill in Vancouver. We can even walk down to the beach where it happened and clean up some of the oil. Even though this situation may look very different if there were none there to perceive it, we have an interest in believing that there was an oil spill in Vancouver and so it becomes a conditional truth. 

    So, from the rejection of ordinary objects to the declaration of physical matter, the question “What can metaphysicians say about reality?” is not answered so easily. In fact, there is the possibility that no such answer exists, for one must first decide which reality we agree with. This could be described as the plight of metaphysicians: what to accept as “real” and why. Whether it is a universe in which things are ontologically dependent from the mind, whether its only their qualities that are real, whether our mind is in fact an organizing contributor, or whether there is no such thing as matter at all: these are the four theories we have looked at in this essay. The fact that there is no easy answer reveals something about metaphysics and about reality. It reveals that metaphysics is an inquiry into the nature of reality, during which one may acquire a particular position on the existence of reality. However, one may also end up more confused than ever, which reveals that reality may not be operating in accordance to human perception and it is in fact much more difficult to make any kind of definitive statement about existence theories. Metaphysics entails the unlearning of concepts and perceptions that may seem commonsensical and obvious at first, but when further scrutinized they appear contradictory or nonsensical. In the end, what can metaphysicians say about reality? Probably not that much at first, but if anything it is the metaphysical inquiry (contradictions and all) in which a cohesive sense of reality will be found.