TA 110 (Mind and Metaphysics)


Commentary 13 (to C12, Hontela)




by Herbert FJ Müller

28 December 2008, posted 3 January 2009


In response to the questions which Slavoj Hontela has raised about the  topic  in this discussion,  and which are of quite central importance.

Re <1-2>
Metaphysics-ontology  is the opinion that reality is mind-independent.   

SH objects to the term metaphysics, as the positivists did, but nevertheless postulates, as they did, that reality is mind-independent (MIR).    MIR-belief is self-contradictory :   how can one know something that is not in the mind ?    Because one cannot, metaphysics-ontology (or as SH prefers to call it, realism-empiricism-positivism-materialism) is wrong.   Plato and others had the puzzling answer that the MIReality is there (outside of our sight) but cannot be known, which describes the situation in MIR-terms, but I find unconvincing.   However, so long as an MIR-belief in ‘given’ or ‘found’ reality is maintained, metaphysics-ontology will always recur in some form, because that is the essence of the MIR position.  

A more accurate answer is that what we can know are mental structures that we create,  or accept from others,  within our mind;   ‘reality’ consists of those structures which we think are reliable.   

If we talk about black holes, sub-atomic particles, the lives and opinions of other people, about birds, the environment, or about the limits of the universe, we are always talking about notions we have structured (or accepted from others) in our minds.   These notions are opinions of what structures we should use if we encounter these situations, etc.   After the construction we try the ideas out, and correct them as needed if there are problems.    For instance it is more useful to think that the earth rotates while moving around the sun   than that the sky-goddess Nut eats the sun in the evening and gives birth to it in the morning, as the old Egyptians believed.  The reason is that although the notion of the goddess is ad-hoc, like other theories, it is not testable.    And also,  this point of view does not help for astronomical explorations.

That said,  it is clear that for everyday life, and for many scientific questions, such as in biology, it is more practical to treat ‘reality’ as-if it were mind-independent   -   but the   as-if   should not be forgotten.

Re <1>
Concerning philosophical dictionaries :   Jaspers has pointed out that everybody has philosophical opinions.    There is no choice, and the question is only whether the opinions are clear or unclear.

Re <2>
‘Analytical metaphysics’ is a recent development by the empiricist-positivist-analytical philosophers, as discussed in the material concerning Martin and others under this TA110.    My impression is that in the past few decades  some of them have finally discovered that they have been metaphysicists all along without being aware of it,  and now they are making it official.   One can do analytic metaphysics by assuming that reality is mind-independent and ‘given’ in pre-constructed form;  only then  can it be subject to ‘analysis’.   But, in my opinion, that development is a mistake, for the reasons given above, and in earlier comments.

Re <3>
The absolute knowledge claim of idealism refers to Hegel and his followers, such as the materialist Marx.

Re <4>
That the claim of mind-independent reality in metaphysics and similar views causes confusion has often been shown, recently mainly by Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida;   but the efforts to de-construct it have remained incomplete, to my knowledge.

Re <5>
Everybody I know wants  a (holistic) picture, of some kind, of all of reality,  and either structures one himself,  or accepts one from other people, or more likely, a mixture of those two possibilities.   The materialistic image is one such view.   They are all guidelines for thinking.   They are not true in themselves; that could only be a metaphysical dogma.


Herbert FJ Müller
     e-mail <herbert.muller (at) mcgill.ca>