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For a general introduction to the series of articles in the Foundations series read Foundations and Foundations2. The article here is an introduction to five others relating to the theme ‘Reality’. This article sets the scene and is best followed by the more general article on world views, followed by the examination of science in reason & science, science being a major metaphysical system second only to the great world religions in the number of people favouring it as an account of existence.


Any investigation of the world must declare the tools that are being used to carry out its research because the tools themselves can strongly influence the conclusions. Among the tools that science brings to its investigations are the general assumptions and intuitions we make about the nature of the world, of ‘reality’. If you are religious then, part of what you believe is ‘real’ includes the articles of your faith.

We talk of the true nature of the world as ‘reality‘. In casual conversation, we use the word ‘reality’ to focus our thinking and get back on track when our thoughts and words are beginning to wander. In this sense, reality is uncomplicated daily existence, so straightforward that we feel no need to ask questions about it: it is what we all experience all the time.

And yet we all, scientists included, struggle when asked to explain what we mean by this word. In fact, most people avoid the unnecessary discomfort of doing so. Trying to answer such questions seems foolish and unproductive and, if you want to get serious about what the world is like, then science provides perhaps the best answer we can ever hope to get – so we leave it there. After all, there is a limit to the time we can spend reflecting on such things.

Just occasionally, however, it is worthwhile examining the assumptions and intuitions that we bring to our work and lives . . . to our ‘reality’. If you ignore these things, especially if you are a scientist, then you have closed off a major source of both insight and inspiration. As Socrates famously declared, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’.

The study of reality is called metaphysics. To get us going on this esoteric and strangely named subject, let’s define metaphysics, for now, as the study of the ultimate nature of reality and confess, right at the outset, that the complexity and obscurity of its subject-matter has earned it a poor reputation, even among philosophers.

Studying metaphysics will not provide simple answers . . . perhaps no answers. Metaphysics, it seems, must persuade with reason but that is all, it cannot give us any further security, and herein lies the frustration. When we provide explanations based on physical evidence, on observation and experiment, then we are not doing metaphysics, we are doing science. 

We all seek intellectual certainty, but metaphysics as reason alone (hence Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason), though useful in logic and mathematics, does not provide us with the necessary tools to give compelling answers to questions about the world – about ‘matters of fact’.

Metaphysics is the knitting together of our intuitions into a coherent whole, the conclusions we come to about what we can justifiably claim to know (epistemology) and what we think exists or, in other words, what there is (ontology). Metaphysics puts under the microscope all the assumptions that we bring to . . . the sciences, humanities, and . . . everything. For a biologist the classification system for the world’s living organisms can be regarded as an ontology of life.

Rodin the Thinker
This series of articles devoted to philosophy began with an examination of worldviews. We feel intuitively that we all exist in the same world and yet, when we are asked to explain what this world is for, how it works, what it is made of, how it began, what came before it, why we are here, and what we should be doing here, then we get many different answers. Will there always be different answers . . . could we ever resolve these differing worldviews? Do we need to resolve them? Does it make sense to think that there is a ‘correct’ answer to such questions, or even that some answers are ‘more correct’ than others?

The article on Immanuel Kant looked more deeply at worldviews by asking how it is that we can claim to have any knowledge at all. How do we actually acquire knowledge, and how secure is that knowledge? What roles are played by our intuitions, reason, and our senses in the claims we make about the world?

Before Kant, philosophers had divided into two camps: those that thought knowledge must flow from reason (rationalists) and those that thought is must ultimately derive from our sense experience (empiricists). Kant’s solution to the dilemma was to claim that both are necessary: reason cannot operaste without the percepts of our sense experience (our perception), and empiricism cannot work without our mental structuring processes (our cognition).

Kant claimed that the way we experience the world is partly due to the non-experiential inner structuring of experience by our minds (giving us synthetic a priori, or intuitive, knowledge): today we might call this mental structuring an innate predisposition of the mind. These are, as it were, pre-conscious enabling processes. Kant included in this knowledge the propositions and judgements of mathematics, science, and metaphysics. Because these characteristics were innate (we cannot remove our innate filters of perception and cognition) he believed that they constituted both necessary and universal knowledge. This is what Kant referred to as ‘transcendental’ (before experience) knowledge. Among these filters (his Categories) Kant included our sense of Quantity, Quality, Relation, and Mode – all playing out on our mental stage of Space and Time.

Kant’s arguments are very persuasive, especially his claim that the way we interpret reality (metaphysics) is influenced by our mental predispositions or intuitions.

Pressed to answer questions about the true nature of reality today, people turn to science for answers. So what can science tell us about reality and the metaphysical assumptions that are embedded in its practice?

Metaphysics & science

We turn to science for explanations because it has a proven record as being predictive, testable, and amenable to modification – it is our supreme example of a subject that is evidence-based – our most secure and reliable source of knowledge.

Metaphysics sits at the edge of science: it can both inform, and be informed by, science but it is not science itself – so what is the difference?

Science uses empirical generalizations (what we refer to as ‘facts’) as its currency of information about the world. The scientific corpus is regarded as secure and cumulative knowledge of ever-increasing precision whose practical merits are demonstrated through its explanatory and predictive power and the complex technology created from its findings. Perhaps we can gain some insights into reality from the metaphysical worldviews that are popular among today’s practicing scientists?

A general affirmation of science comes to us through philosophical schools of thought like materialism, physicalism, scientific realism, and naturalism (see glossary below). However, scientists, like all of us, need and use representations, conceptual frameworks, and metaphorical narratives to help steer them through the rough waters of metaphysical explanatory abstraction.

A view from nowhere

Science has earned our respect because it desperately seeks an objective perspective (ideally no perspective) from which to survey the cosmos – a description of the world untainted in any way by human subjectivity or bias. This is the unspoken charter of science – a god’s-eye view of the universe and everything . . . from nowhere, no-place, and no-time, from – as it were – the point of view of the universe itself rather than the filter of human interpretation. Here we confront perhaps the most significant and divisive question concerning metaphysical claims about reality.

The belief that we humans can stand outside and beyond the universe and everything as impartial and objective observers persisted into the 18th century. Though this view was dismantled in the 20th century, many scientists still believe that they are studying the world as it ‘really is’, that science is moving inexorably towards an absolute and final truth, rather than best possible explanation. This view persists in the incoherent claim that beyond our human ‘take’ on reality there is the way the universe ‘really is’. We must ask who, or what, could possibly answer this question?

Based on these comments, and though metaphysically contentious, I will state a metaphysical position in a dogmatic way as Principle 1 of metaphysics – taking what philosophers would regard as a pragmatic view of reality. Much turns on this principle so it is worthwhile taking time to consider your own position on this claim.

Principle of Reality 1 – We cannot step outside ourselves to survey the world ‘as it really is’. This would be like a ‘God’s-eye view, or seeing things ‘from the point of view of the universe itself’ . . . a view from no time, no place, and no perspective. There is no such vantage point for humans. All science can offer is a progressively more efficient and predictive interpretation of the world as it exists both inside and outside our minds . . . but a ‘perspectiveless’ account of reality is not possible.

The physical world

A hard-nosed scientist may point to the physical world as a simple reality – that we should dismiss metaphysics as hocus-pocus and intellectual games in the face of the brute reality of matter. . . . The physical facts fix all the facts . . . [8] If anything is ‘real’ then it is the matter of the universe as described perfectly adequately by physics and chemistry.

This point of view, so appealing at first, is not so straightforward, and for the following reasons:

    • the irrationality of matter at small scales (quantum particles in different places at the same time, spread out or wriggling like a wave); the difficulty in comprehending the combined notion of space-time and its curvature; the ‘apparent’ solid composition of tables and chairs and their ‘real’ nature as consisting mostly of space; the ‘fundamental’ four forces of electromagnetism (explaining the behaviour of light and the coherence of atoms), the weak nuclear force (explains radioactive beta decay and stellar nuclear fusion), the strong nuclear force (holding together protons and neutrons in the atomic nucleus) and gravity (holding together galaxies, planets, and us on the earth); the overwhelming power of mathematics in describing the world and therefore the likely ‘reality’ of abstractions like numbers
    • ‘Real’ is thus what appears to the senses (real is what appears to me). But you might well believe that electrons, which are unavailable to the senses, are real – and the senses are easily deceived as when I dream – so this is not altogether satisfactory.
    • Even intersubjective agreement (real is what appears to groups of people) we know can be deluded.
    • Perhaps real things are simply those that cannot be influenced in any way by our wishes, desires, and imaginings (real is what exists independently of minds) – what is real is what would exist in the absence of humans, in a world without conscious minds?
    • Alternatively for some people the world is arranged in a hierarchy of levels from higher to lower – we explain humans in terms of their biology, biology in terms of molecules, molecules in terms of atoms etc. The ‘lowest’ level then becomes the foundation, the reality on which all else rests (real is the most basic level of existence, where analysis runs out (smallism)). On this last view although New York is mind-independent it depends for its reality on the fundamental individual particles of matter out of which everything is composed, these are the true reality, the foundation that grounds all existence.

Apart from the fact that physics has continued to find smaller and smaller particles of matter it is logically difficult to imagine even the smallest particle that does not have any extension and parts. There is the further difficulty that at this scale all we can say about anything relates to its properties not the thing itself.

In the abstract world of mass and charge, particle and wave, field and force, physicists resort to their mathematics. The world is not like billiard balls, vibrating strings, or even multidimensional space . . . it is more like a form of computation, collections of space-time points, not a physical thing at all but abstract information consisting of peculiar mathematical objects. This is hard to stomach. Perhaps what is fundamental is not material, certainly not ‘material’ as we tend to think of it – or perhaps nothing is fundamental we simply have things that are interdependent.

Subjective & objective

Discussions of science and reality quickly devolve into questions about ‘what is going on in the world’ vs ‘what is going on in our minds’, – a debate about what is objective and what is subjective. It helps to be aware of the dangers inherent in these words.

Ambiguity arises when we use these words sometimes in an epistemological way (what we know) and sometimes in an ontological (what exists) sense. The former relates on the one hand to truth claims that may be objectively settled as matters of fact like ‘In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue’ or ‘the toe bone’s connected to the ankle bone’ – or they may be subjective as in ‘Rembrandt was the greatest ever painter’. Ontologically mountains, molecules, and mice exist independently of experience, but pains and tickles are ontologically subjective in that they are experience-dependent. If we say that science is objective but consciousness is subjective and cannot be studied then we are making a mistake (the fallacy of ambiguity). In an epistemic sense science is objective because it seeks to find the nature of the world independent from the characteristics of its investigators but, importantly, we can make an epistemically objective study of a domain that is ontologically subjective, such as consciousness or pain.

A further distinction: mountains and molecules are observer-independent but money, banks, and marriage are observer-relative. Observer-relative phenomena all contain an element of ontological subjectivity but, for example, the fact that there is an element of ontological subjectivity in economics does not prevent us from having an epistemically objective study of economics.

Explanations of consciousness that appeal to observer-relative phenomena cannot be correct. Consciousness has an observer-independent ontology, even though it is a subjective ontology. In other words we know beyond question that we are conscious. But all observer-relative phenomena are created by consciousness, so consciousness itself cannot be observer-relative without a regress: you would not be able to explain observer-relative phenomena if the consciousness itself is observer-relative.

Consciousness though ontologically subjective but with an observer-independent existence means that you cannot explain consciousness in observer-relative terms. Two theories attempt to do this – the computational theory, which is observer-relative since computation does not name a natural force like gravity, it exists relative to the interpreter or user. If it is observer-relative then must it be arbitrary? Certainly not, but they only serve their function through their physical structure. So, for example, a comb exhibits ontological subjectivity since it would cease to be a comb if it became an object of religious worship or a paperweight. A pocket calculator is just an electronic circuit. No computational theory of consciousness because consciousness is observer-relative. The same applies to information-theoretic explanations. The syntax of a computer program is not sufficient for the semantics of cognitive states: syntax is not semantics.

Metaphysics & biology

Historically, more and more of metaphysics has been absorbed by science as former metaphysical puzzles have dissolved under the weight of scientific evidence. So – apart from concluding that the more brilliant our scientists and philosophers, the sooner philosophers will be out of a job – what lies, today, at the fringe of metaphysics and science?

One rapidly advancing part of science is the final frontier, the mind and consciousness, so perhaps we can find some inspiration here, especially as metaphysics is frequently associated with our ‘intuitions’ about the world? Might ‘intuitions’ be a source of inspiration? After all, as Kant pointed out, what we make of the world must depend, at least to some extent, on the preconditions of our minds.

Kant’s ‘categories’ were preconditions of the mind which he took to be self-evident – predispositions that today we would describe as being innate, inbuilt, or part of our biological wiring. There are additional biological predispositions that, simply through the historical accumulation of biological knowledge, we might now regard as biological ‘facts’. These are described in more detail elsewhere but briefly outlined here.

Our everyday experience of the world (Manifest Image – see Representation) is the experience presented to us by our species-specific perception and cognition. Minds and bodies have evolved in many ways in response to historical environmental circumstances. No organism has a privileged access to reality – to the external world ‘as it really is’: each sentient organism perceives the world through the limited capacities of its evolved sensory apparatus. Our ‘reality’ is different from that of our pets because our sense organs are different.

There are four additional innate capacities or predispositions of the mind that were not discussed by Kant and which have a bearing on our understanding of the world: discrimination (the capacity to perceive discrete objects and concepts); focus (the capacity to situate objects within a foreground and background); classification (the capacity to group or organize objects according to similarities and differences); ranking (capacity to prioritize objects most notably as it affects decisions and behaviour). These capacities merge into one-another but are worthy of recognition as predispositions of the mind that do not require experimental proof, even though experimentation might clarify their meaning.

Physics & smallism

In my view there are currently two loosely articulated and competing metaphysical systems assumed by scientists. One emphasizes the principles and practices of physics and mathematics, the other emphasizes the principles and methods associated with living systems of various kinds. These opposing metaphysical paradigms are like the scientific paradigms described by Thomas Kuhn (see science). To outline their metaphysical content I shall refer to them here simply, as ‘smallism’ and ‘hierarchy’. They will be discussed in more detail elsewhere but their content is outlined briefly below.

Smallism (reductive physicalism) combines a kind of material fundamentalism with foundationalism that uses analytical reductionism is its methodology.

From its very beginnings, science has proceeded mostly by a process of analysis. We explain communities in terms of individual humans, individual humans in terms of organs and tissues, organs and tissues in terms of cells and biochemistry, biochemistry in terms of molecules, molecules in terms of atoms . . . and so on down to the smallest known subatomic particles. Just like the ancient Greeks Leucippus and Democritus, the hope is to find the smallest possible indivisible unit of matter and therefore the fundamental building blocks of existence, the ultimate ingredients of ‘reality’. This is what is meant by analytical reductionism. Physicists following this path continue to find more fundamental particles . . . like the Higgs boson. But we cannot stop delving ever deeper into the nature of matter. Distilled from all these things we get near-abstract entities like the ‘wave’, ‘field’, ‘string’, ‘energy’, ‘information’, or ‘number’. If this is what we eventually have found to be ‘real’ then these are rather spooky realities (akin to irrealism). On this view the matter of the universe may not be nothing, but it boils down to something that is hardly coherent.

A recent compendium of the views of eminent scientists [5] quickly reveals that there is a long way to go in finding a scientific consensus on reality.

In an article published in New Scientist,[6] physicist Roger Penrose summarizes some of the difficulties confronting any scientific dogmatism about the nature of reality: the irrationality of matter at small scales (quantum particles in different places at the same time, spread out or wriggling like a wave); the difficulty in comprehending the combined notion of space-time and its curvature; the ‘apparent’ solid composition of tables and chairs and their ‘real’ nature as consisting mostly of space; the ‘fundamental’ four forces of electromagnetism (explaining the behaviour of light and the coherence of atoms), the weak nuclear force (explains radioactive beta decay and stellar nuclear fusion), the strong nuclear force (holding together protons and neutrons in the atomic nucleus) and gravity (holding together galaxies, planets, and us on the earth); the overwhelming power of mathematics in describing the world and therefore the likely ‘reality’ of abstractions like numbers (Platonic mathematics) – numbers that we seem to discover in the world rather than creating them as convenient mental tools.

For Penrose reality is tripartite: the physical, the mental, the Platonic-mathematical and a profoundly mysterious connection between the three. He is a mathematical physicist, so for him the world is ‘mathematics all the way down’.

Roger Penrose demonstrates that, regardless of our conclusions, we all have a desire for grounding – for something that is fundamental, basic, ultimate, or axiomatic – something that we can hold on to when the going is slippery, perhaps something on which all else depends. We need a metaphysical map or framework of ideas on which to build our science; it is something that our minds must have. Is there such ‘thing’ in the ‘real’ world or is this tendency an imposition of the mind, part of its innate structuring? If there is, then what is it – is it mass, energy, time, number, force fields, information . . . ? All this remains a (very) open question.

Famous cosmologist Stephen Hawking has argued that what he calls model-dependant realism , arguing that it is pointless to ask whether a model is ‘real’, only whether it agrees with observation‘. When we find that the same phenomenon can be described by different theories using different conceptual frameworks (frames) then ‘we use whichever model is more convenient in the situation under consideration’ which he explains as follows:

. . . there seems to be no single mathematical model or theory that can describe every aspect of the universe. Instead . . . there seems to be the network of theories called M-theory. Each theory in the M-theory network is good at describing phenomena within a certain range. Wherever their ranges overlap, the various theories in the network agree, so they can all be said to be part of the same theory. But no single theory within the network can describe every aspect of the universe – all the forces of nature, the particles that feel those forces, and the framework of space and time in which it all plays out. Though this situation does not fulfil the traditional physicists’ dream of a single unified theory, it is acceptable within the framework of model-dependent realism.

In the many difficult cases that have arisen in physics, like the quark, the model of the quark, over time, provided more and more correct predictions until it is no longer contested. Hawking’s criteria for what it is to be a model are that it should be elegant with few arbitrary and adjustable elements: it should agree with and explain all existing observations, and make detailed predictions about the future . There is nothing scientifically esoteric about this – it is an application of everyday reason.

Foundationalism assumes that the universe can be adequately explained using foundational axioms. These foundational principles we call the laws of physics. And we explain the ‘stuff’ of the universe (its matter) analytically by breaking it up into ever smaller ‘fundamental’ constituents in a regress, ending with the smallest or simplest entities that we can find, whether these be particle-like as with the Higgs boson, or something more difficult to ‘visualize’, like a ‘waves’, ‘fields’, ‘strings’, ‘energy’, ‘information’, or ‘numbers’. These entities and physical laws are thus assumed to be the building blocks of all matter and existence – the foundation on which the whole material edifice of the universe rests. They are the basis from which all other entities are constructed (derived, or depend). From this physico-mathematical foundation all else must flow, including the world of material objects that includes living organisms . . . even domains of knowledge like biology, sociology, and political science. It might be assumed, for instance, that the operations of the brain are just physico-chemical processes.

The scientific status of fundamental particles is thus enhanced, and that of more complex objects diminished: the objects of physics are given an enhanced metaphysical validity.

Another novel approach is that of Chiara Marletto, a physicist at Oxford University who, in her book The Science of Can and Can’t proposes ‘abandoning the idea of physics as the science of what is actually happening, and embracing it as the science of what might or might not happen, ‘a science of can and can’t’. Rather than focusing on what actually happens physical theories can be based on what could or couldn’t be (counterfactual).[9]

Life & hierarchy

For many scientists a Unified Field Theory would provide both a necessary and sufficient account of the universe, and therefore ‘reality’. But is this account complete? If it is not, then why is it incomplete and what is missing? Does the metaphysical picture of the world presented by smallism promote the progress of science? Can entire scientific disciplines, beginning with biology and moving into social sciences, be so easily subsumed under such a worldview?

There is another scientific representation of ‘reality’ as consisting of equally metaphysically and scientifically valid hierarchical levels of organization. These levels are layers of understanding and explanation that acknowledge analytical reduction – the explanation of communities in terms of individuals and so on, but the ‘layers’ are not (usually) treated as metaphysically different. Each ‘layer’, ‘domain’, or ‘discipline’ is of equal explanatory and ontological significance (equally real), not subordinated to something ‘more fundamental’ and therefore ‘more real’.The special (soft, or intentional) sciences are concerned with intention, purpose, value, and meaning in a way that has little connection with smallism, finding the metaphor of hierarchical organization more satisfactory. We think hierarchically, intuitively ranking the objects of our thought. To this ranking is generally added value such that the highest or lowest have some special significance. In the ancient world it was complexity and humans (overtopped by God) that were of greatest significance in the world of matter. We have overturned this mode of thought, replacing it with the philosophy of smallism so that the edifice of matter does not aspire or tend towards what is at the top, instead being constructed from the foundations that lie at the bottom.

Here it is argued that matter is simply matter: there is no top or bottom. Matter may well be comprised of small (even the smallest) parts, whatever we find them to be. But they are not fundamental or more real than any other physical manifestation. A scientifically verified entity such as an electron is as real as a rock, a fish, or a human being. Just as we have the notion of existence and non-existence so there is the real and the unreal. This is not a matter of degree, only interpretation. The contents of the physical world and their relations are equally real – but what we make of that reality depends on our human interpretation. Science attempts to minimize the humanness of our interpretation.

In the article on hierarchy I develop an argument defending a modification of the latter view that I have called aspect theory. Though not testable (it is a metaphysical assertion) it nevertheless provides, I believe, a more parsimonious and elegant metaphysical framework for current scientific knowledge.

However your opinions agree with or diverge from those presented here, there is one secure conclusion: there is no philosophy-free science.


So far we have followed the most popular route of metaphysics following the assumption that what we mean by metaphysics is:

1) the ultimate nature of reality – what there is and what it is like

In following this definition we have followed the path of science. It needs pointing out that there are other, more spiritual, routes like religion and mysticism. There is simply not the time to cover these extensive topics here so already we have a glaring omission from our metaphysical methodology since we have restricted our investigation to what might be called ‘scientific reality’. i

To tease out further what we mean by ‘metaphysics’ we can look at some more definitions – not of ‘reality’ but of ‘metaphysics’:

2) the investigation of the first principles of existence
3) a non-scientific (non-empirical) form of rational enquiry
4) investigation of the human place in the scheme of things

Perhaps, rather than looking to science, there is another way of starting metaphysical speculation, a different way of grounding our thought?

What about a search for the principles underlying everything?


Before starting out on the quest for reality we must acknowledge and confront the problem of skepticism. How can we make confident statements about anything at all? Right now, you and I could be dreaming or, in some strange way, we might be characters in the mind of an evil demon. This is an old philosophical chestnut that was given a modern twist in the film ‘The Matrix‘, and also through the philosophical idea of a brain kept artificially alive in a vat while being stimuated in various ways. How can you be sure that you are not a brain in a vat – and that, therefore, any ideas you might have about reality are just conjured up within the matter of the brain . . . just fantasies?

Brain in a vat

‘The Brain That Wouldn’t Die’
Film poster
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Reynold Brown Accessed 11 May 2017

Countering skepticism has proved a philosophical conundrum. René Descartes (1596-1650) attacked systematic doubt with the certainty of experience: ‘Cogito ergo sum’ (‘I think therefore I am‘) . . . and moved on from there. But, providing the convinced skeptic with compelling reasons to abandon their skeptical beliefs is a tall order.

Perhaps the best argument simply points out that skepticism is both an extreme and unlikely view of the world that runs counter to the way we all behave. Even so, with no knock-down argument against skepticism we are confronted with the spectre of philosophy as an exercise in futility and the absurd.

Why bother . . . ?

For most of us reality is something implicit: it is simply there, with no need to be backed up by intellectual arguments, complicated explanations, or justifications. There seems no need for what is real and true to be written down in some academic philosophical treatise. But some people (like philosophers, intellectuals, and the occasional scientist) are keen to understand and explain what it is that makes something ‘real’ – what it is that grounds its reality or, indeed, why we should ask such questions at all. Science is, itself, often referred to as a search for reality or truth. So, lets get started.

But before we begin, please take a moment to consider which of the following objects you think are ‘real’ and then consider the reasons for your decisions:

electrons, trees, God, numbers, money, corporations, time, space, properties, dreams, interest rates, relations between things, material objects, marriage, ghosts, causation, events, unicorns, species, genera, multiple universes, universals (things shared by objects – redness, squareness, treeness etc.), forces and fields (as in physics), order, possibilities, opportunities

Already you will be getting a sense of the problems ahead by realizing that the most interesting and productive answers will be achieved by asking the right questions.

The problem of philosophical progress

If metaphysics cannot provide evidence, then how can it make progress?

The world of discourse bounded by evidence provides us with not only testable but improvable means of common understanding. Outside of this is the world of faith, the supernatural, and pure (devoid of evidence from the senses) reason.

But note: this is not a place of chaotic futility. The world outside science is not necessarily meaningless (as claimed by the logical positivists) or nonsense (as claimed by Wittgenstein) but it is certainly treacherous, attracting relativistic ideas, mysticism, superstition, and unjustified dogma.

Part of the difficulty is that for much of history metaphysics has been bound up in grand systems, like the many religious doctrines, each claiming to have found the one and only ‘truth’.

The logical possibility space

One tool of pure reason that is available to us is logic. So, we can, for example, picture metaphysics as operating in logical space. Most questions have a restricted range of logical answers. Metaphysics may not provide answers but it can explore, in a systematic and critical way, the range of logical possibilities, making both problems and the possible range of answers more transparent.

Just because metaphysics can never give us intellectually justified certainty does not mean that all is futile. One useful mental tool for thinking about complex questions is the ‘possibility space’.[3] It is possible, for example, to populate the logical space we call ‘reality’. Consider the following schema of definitions and you will see what I mean.[1]

1. Skepticismwe can never know what is real and what is not
2. Universalismeverything is real. This view is difficult to sustain – consider merely possible objects like unicorns or my future life in the year 3010
3. Solipsismthe only reality I can posibly know is my own existence. I, as an individual, am the solitary fixed point of reference for everything: nothing else can be reasonably claimed
4. Anti-solipsismeverything is real except myself.
5. Irrealismnothing is real, in contrast to nihilism, the view that nothing exists
6. Selective realism – you and some other things are real – but which other things are real depends on your particular theory of reality (your metaphysics)

Though each of these positions can be defended with elaborate arguments, for most of us, philosophers included, it is category 6 that is considered most worthy of further investigation. Within this category there are several major schools of thought:[2]

1. Idealism (and its relatives)real is what appears real to you
2. Collective idealism real is what appears real to a group of people
3. Common-sense realismreal is what we dont make up
4. Apocalyptic realismreal is what is there anyway

Science, being a favoured system of explanation, comes in many metaphysical flavours including materialism, physicalism and reductive physicalism (smallism), scientific realism and so on. In spite of these nuanced metaphysical outlooks it seems to me that there are two prevailing metaphysical outlooks one pervasive among those influenced largely by physics and another that has been adopted by the biological and social sciences.

5. Smallism (the turtle definition)what is real is made from the basic stuff from which everything else is derived
6. Hierarchical organizationwhat is real are explanatory systems arranged into levels according to the size and/or inclusiveness and/or complexity of the objects it considers

A brief look at each of these positions (although there are many variants of each) will therefore give us some inkling of the metaphysical landscape:-

1. Idealism

This position is a strange hybrid. It can be interpreted as a form of empiricism in that ‘real’ must be what appears to the senses. But then what are we to make of the people and objects that appear in our dreams or hallucinations, and the scientific objects, like electrons, that we only infer?

2. Collective idealism

Perhaps if we acknowledge as real not just our personal impressions but those shared with other people then this would remove the criticism of individual subjectivity? But we can all think of examples where groups of people are collectively deluded so this does not seem to pass muster either although intersubjective agreement seems more powerful than individual experience.

3. Common-sense realism

Sometimes the wall of words we use to discuss reality just gets in the way of the seemingly obvious – when we kick a football or sit on a chair it seems absurd to then ask if the football or chair are real. We might wish that the world were other than it is – but wishing alone will not change it: there is a brute reality that we cannot override. But dreams can rarely be controlled and might override our desires.

4. Apocalyptic realism

Think of a world without humans and minds. To imagine that the Earth could not or would not exist without us seems extremely arrogant. Mars exists without us and the presence of life anywhere in the universe might be regarded as extremely unlikely – the universe does not need life in order to exist and be real. What is ‘real’ is matter, its interactions and relationships: it is what physics tells us about the world.

Reality and realism – in what sense?

After considering the above list you might think that the whole idea of reality is just a hodge-podge or schemozzle, such that any attempt to nail it down is a complete waste of time.

But maybe some headway can be made by examining the role of language and words in our understanding of ‘reality’. Is there some linguistic sleight of hand going on here?


Clearly what is ‘real’ depends, at least in part, on what we mean by ‘real’. So reality is ‘tied up’ with language and polysemy (multiple meanings of words) and various linguistic confusions. For example, we can distinguish between at least two senses of ‘real’:

(a) as the distinction between real and fake, as in real teeth and false teeth

(b) as the distinction between real and illusory, as in a real friend and an imagined friend. Lack of clarity on this point creates ambiguity. For example, there are real toy guns (a), that are not real guns (b).

Regardless of polysemy, we still have an intuition that some things are real, and others are not, and that this is important for our general outlook on the world – so how are we to express this – can we devise a worthwhile definition? This is tricky. If philosophers have largely tried and failed to give a universally-acceptable account of metaphysics – then how could it be possible to provide a definition?


Attempting to define ‘reality’ and ‘realism’ usually entails something being independent of human assessment . . . but we need to be clear about what is independent of what, and in what sense.

‘Real’ cannot mean ‘independent of humans’ because there are human artefacts that are real. And it cannot mean ‘mind-independent’ because we know that our thoughts and mental processes are real. One useful definition is that of philosopher Susan Haack, which she describes it as ‘innocent realism’ . . . real is ‘how it is, independently of what anyone makes of it’. This is a definition established in contradistinction to ‘fiction’, ‘figment’, or ‘imaginary’. Objects like money, numbers, marriage, and possibility, are thus all real.

For Haack ‘all is physical but not all is physics’. Beliefs are real but they cannot be explained by physics alone, the explanation must incorporate a ‘socio-historical and cultural loop’. This applies to all the ‘intentional sciences’.

What exists and what is real

Part of this view also concerns a distinction between what exists and what is real. Everything that exists is physical and real but some things are real that are not physical. This is a statement of metaphysical belief that we can use as a helpful baseline for subsequent discussion:

Principle 2 – Real is ‘How it is, independently of what anyone makes of it’.

Principle 2 draws attention to its own ncoherence. In addressing the metaphysics of ‘reality’ it soon becomes apparent that any understanding or explanation of the universe assumes a vantage point in time, space, consciousness (and more). This is an impossible God’s-eye view of ‘reality’. It is a condition of the human mind (as Kant pointed out) that we cannot view the world from no time, no place and, therefore, no perspective. There can only ever be perspectives on the world – there can be no eternal and god-like view of the way things ‘actually are’. Our perspective on the world is a human perspective, albeit a scientifically informed one.

To explore the topic further, consider the following definition-like principle:

Principle 2 – Everything that exists is physical and real but there are, in addition, some things that are real and not physical.


After this quick overview let’s delve a bit deeper. Aristotle described metaphysics as ‘first philosophy’ even though the word ‘metaphysics’ means ‘after physics’ (it followed ‘physics’ in the sequence of his writings). He regarded metaphysics as the basis of all other studies. So, what are the first principles of this study of existence, of everything?

2. The first principles of existence

Immanuel Kant asked the interesting question ‘What is necessary for us to have any experience at all?‘ His investigation of this question drew attention to necessary ‘predispositions of the mind’. If we treat metaphysics as the study of our mental intuitions as constrained by our mental capacities, and unaided by mental tools – the output of our bare brains (Dennett) – then this provides us with one near-scientific mode of investigation of our metaphysical outlook as a species. That is . . . our metaphysical predisposition as Homo sapiens or, in other words, the influence of the innate properties of our minds on our understanding of ‘reality’.

Thought & object

Descriptive metaphysics can, then, explore the framework of concepts we use to conduct thought.

We can take as a starting point Kant’s observation that we categorize everything we think about, do, and experience. Mental categories (concepts) are (along with our percepts) the building blocks of our mental existence as they relate not only to our own internal world, but also to the world that exists outside our minds.

Kant’s categories of cognition were, following Aristotle, essentially the preconditions of logic, while those of perception, the senses, were set on the stage of space and time.

But there is a wider array of mental structuring necessary for us to survive in the world. Our minds may be populated with concepts and percepts, but our brains also have the capacity to manipulate these objects. So, for example, part of this processing is the mental capacity to segregate, focus on, classify, and rank its mental objects (see representation). Without these mental capacities, life would not be possible.

We focus on mental categories, combining and arranging them into all sorts of groups, hierarchies, and webs of association that create yet more categories. We are all brilliant taxonomists who organize the potential chaos of experience into manageable mental units that facilitate our existence in the world.

If we think of our mental life as the totality of all the categories and their relations that are available to our minds, then we survive in our daily lives by ranking these mental categories in various ways depending on our current interests, needs, and concerns. That is, we give mental precedence to some categories over others depending on the particular circumstances: whether I am hungry, playing sport, or trying to solve a problem in maths.

Can we rank some categories as more basic to existence than others?

Aristotle devised a system of categories, roughly as follows: the world consists of primary and secondary substances: primary substances were, say one particular human being (particulars), whilesecondary substances were human beings in general (universals). These substances had accidents (properties) of quality, quantity, relation, location, time, position, possession, action (acting on other substances), and passion (being acted on by other substances). We can see what Aristotle is up to here and, as usual, he has provided us with something to take seriously: it is a compelling schema for existence. Enlightenment philosopher Kant went on to systematize the Aristotelian system by suggesting 12 categories in four groups: Quantity: unity, plurality, totality; Quality: reality, negation, limitation; Relation: inherence/subsistence, causality/dependence, reciprocity; Modality: possible/impossible, existence/non-existence, necessity/contingency.

There are of course many ways of framing existence, each particular classification derived for its own particular purpose. Aristotle himself divided his first philosophy (his foundational ‘science’) into the core disciplines of metaphysics (what is the case), ontology (what exists or is real), and epistemology (what we can know). Whether any of these has priority is contentious but philosophers have continued to work with these categories.

So, descriptive metaphysics is the way we order the world which, we might presume, depends on the interplay between the structure of the world itself (objects), the structuring capacities of our minds (thought), and the influence of their intermediary, language (words). This is core philosophical fodder – the interplay between language, thought, and the world.

The riddle of non-existence

The self-assured have no doubts about what exists and what does not exist. Maybe a good place to start looking at this issue is with a list of what does not exist, say, Pegasus and Santa Claus or, more generally, fictional and mythical characters. To this we can add the dead, the past, and the future. Also imaginary things like possible worlds, and maybe numbers.

Remembering Plato’s idea of the Forms as timeless and eternal non-physical objects, Philosophers have referred to all these abstract things as ‘Plato’s beard of non-existence’ because the list of invisible and causally inert abstract objects seems to get longer and longer the more you think about it. Remember, there are some spooky objects in physics too – forces, fields and speculative objects we have never really seen.

The riddle is that the sentence ‘X does not exist’ is that its very statement attributes existence, in some sense, to X.

The hard-nosed minimalist philosophical approach (Russell, Quine) simply denies such entities using clarifying logic like Ǝ (x) (There exists, an x) which manages to eliminate problematic things. Trouble is this can cast out of our world many things that we find extremely useful – in a practical sense we cannot, as it were, expel them from our discourse.

One way around this is to adopt a more easy-going understanding (Meinong) that of ‘x is a non-existent thing’ – which gives us more flexibility to use non-existent things in logic. (Suki Finn 27:00)

‘There are’, and ‘there exist’ maybe applied in different ways – ‘there are three detectives in the novel by Sherlock Holmes’.

Word, object etc

Will metaphysics ever tell us about the nature of reality?

You could be forgiven for concluding that we have no more insight into the nature of reality today than was bequeathed to us by the great philosophers of the classical era and 18th century Enlightenment. But this is to ignore one crucial advantage that we have over all those thinkers and that is Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Since the Enlightenment we have learned that we are more intimately entwined with the fabric of the universe than any of these sages could have imagined. We know, as they did not, that we are made of stardust. More significantly we know that as the living world emerged out of this stardust it did so in harmony with its surroundings. Those living organisms that were not in tune with the universe did not persist. Life is different but not separate from non-life. The living and non-living are continuous – there is an organism-environment continuum.

What this means is that our biology must, literally, embody the very character of the universe, of ‘reality’. Our bodies, thought, and language must have within them the ingredients of our existence in this universe.

But how do we access something so seemingly abstract?

Rather than gazing into the world of ideas we can investigate commonalities that underlie our bodies, thought, and language. Those features that have been engraved into our biology, which are innate, have come to us from the universe. Perhaps we can learn more about the nature of reality from our bodies than from our minds? But we are closest to our inner world, to our self-consciousness, so let’s begin here, with the genetically pre-determined nature of our consciousness and experience.

Philosophical weasel words:[4] reality, truth.

1. How does our grounding of perception and cognition in units of perception and cognition – our construction or interpretation of wholes and parts, relate to the scientific image?
2. What is the ontological relationship between the various scales or perspectives that we recognize: are one or some more basic or fundamental than others?
3. There is a question about causation. When we describe physical systems with different scales, levels, scopes, or complexities using different language we also recognize different objects as being causally connected to one-another. Is causality operating at all scales simultaneously? Is there just one ‘scale’ at which causality operates? Are there difficulties with the notion of causality itself. Is it possible to improve on the hierarchical mataphor of causality operating ‘top-down’ or ‘bottom-up’.

Principle – the appeal of small objects over large ones lies in their apparent explanatory power (epistemology) not their matter (ontology)
We can now combine the derived principles to express a preliminary view on reductionism that takes into account the constraints of our perception, cognition, and mode of communication. This will inform more specific discussion of more specific features of reduction in subsequent articles.

Science attempts to represent (reflect, copy, map, grasp, mirror – choose your metaphor) or explain as best it can, the external world that lies outside our minds – but it can only do this within the limitations of the biologically evolved human mind itself assisted by the technology that has allowed as to overcome, to some extent, our natural biological capacities and limitations. Our experienced world is a world of appearances passed to us through our perception, cognition, and scientific instruments. This does not necessarily entail deception or illusion but it does require interpretation. Any study of the methods and procedures of science must begin by addressing the character of the information processing that goes on our brains, specifically the constraints placed on scientific interpretation imposed by our perception and cognition.

Cognitive science shows us that our minds unconsciously (innately) structure the world before we begin the process of conscious rational deliberation. Cognition breaks up our understanding into adaptively meaningful cognitive categories (concepts and percepts) as units of representation. To act we do not think about these categories all at once but arrange or classify them into convenient groups depending on our particular interest or concern – our current frame of reference – what we can call our cognitive focus. Our cognitive focus is mostly directed towards our perception, the physical needs of the moment, and tasks of the day. Science, however, focuses on the categories that map the physical world as accurately as possible through the theories, names, properties, definitions, laws and other categories that we use in the scientific enterprise. We use science to assess how well these categories map the external world of noumena.

Then there are the various ambiguities and confusions that can arise through the language we use to share scientific information especially in the use of metaphor, anaphor, and polysemy.

The use of hierarchical language in science today confuses communication by imposing, or at least implying, rank-value to a metaphorical structure: by characterizing reality as a series of interacting layers, some of which are higher or lower than others. It imposes both at least two ways. First, in common usage hierarchies always rank their objects of study. This has been passed on to science which currently values small and simple over large and complex (we speak of fundamental particles). This is an interesting reversal of the perception of the world inherited from antiquity in which humans, in all their complexity, were placed at the top of the ladder of physical objects. Second, hierarchies entail the metaphor of ‘levels’ of various kinds, creating the false impression and mode of explanation that treats these levels as discrete objects in the physical world when they are different expanations of the same physical phenomenon. The point is that whatever significance we give to matter in its various forms, that value is added by our minds, the significance does not lie in the matter itself. Reductionism is therefore about epistemology not ontology. Our use of particular scales of thought does not relate to any intrinsic properties in nature or ontology but to the limits of our cognition in finding cognitive focus. Complexity leads to greater difficulty in prediction.

Usually explanations are most convincing when applied within their own domain or scale but this is not always so, and as science proceeds so boundaries are crossed and this is more likely when the scales are closely related.

Hierarchy is pervasive as a mode of thought as a form of prioritisation, classification, and decision-making. Chomsky with colleagues dissected grammar into hierarchical components, hierarchies in the conveyance of meaning. But is the universe hierarchical? “Language is compositional, it is also holistic: sentences are based on the meanings of words, but the meaning of a word depends on the totality of the sentences in which they appear.” Donaldson
But making decisions without emotion we cannot be motivated to reason, that without emotion we “can’t function at all” because we are not going to know what to want. Emotion prioritises our categories?

In summary ‘levels of organization’ are not objects that exist independently in the world, they are categories of human cognitive convenience: the phenomena they refer to are equally ‘real’ (see the macro-microscope). To provide a scientific explanation of the physical world we approach the limits of our human mental capacity. It seems that we can explain matters that lie within our biological range of cognition, but scientific technology has taken us beyond this range and here we have difficulty. Put simply, we cannot explain large-scale matters in terms of small scales: we cannot explain economic inflation or a football match in terms of molecules and physicochemical processes. This is partly because we do not have the computing capacity, and partly because we do not need it to provide satisfactory answers. We must reframe hierarchical language in terms of scale and inclusiveness.

We have one world and many ways of understanding, describing, and explaining it. Some explanations are a matter of curiosity satisfaction: science claims to give causal relationship.

We can conclude with a major metaphysical assertion to ponder. Today when two players in an international tennis match have differing views on whether the ball hit the line or not, they can refer to ‘Hawkeye’ an electronic recording of the actual events. This tells us what ‘really’ happened. But the universe is not like this.


Principle of Reality – We cannot step outside ourselves to survey the world ‘as it really is’. This would be like a ‘God’s eye view’ or seeing things ‘from the point of view of the universe’. There is no such vantage point. Science can minimize our human perspective on things but it can never achieve total objectivity: for humans that is simply not possible.

If this claim has merit then any talk of reality should immediately be met with a raised eyebrow because talk of reality must entail ‘perspective’, ‘aspect’, or ‘interpretation’. For simplicity this assertion will be referred to from now on as the Principle of Reality.

Subsequent articles on reductionism will consider scientific fundamentalism, the view that ‘physics fixes all the facts’ and the properties and characteristics of the way we divide the world into wholes and parts.

There is a strong sense in which philosophy is taxonomy – the taxonomy of everything – it is the study of the principles and practices by which we categorize the world and our experience of it. It is therefore about what everything has in common, so it is concerned with the subject matter of all disciplines and how they are related … how we ‘know our way around‘, our ‘reflection on the intellectual landscape as a whole‘.[14]

Further, we do not have direct access to the physical world ‘as it actually is’ (noumena), we can only experience it through our mental representations, our interpretations of it (phenomena).

The fact that we can only access the world through our human cognition and perception has spawned many philosophical problems. If this statement is true then perhaps either all I can know is what is in my own mind (solipsism) or what is collectively a product of the minds of humans (idealism). Science, in general, acknowledges that we do not perceive the world directly and completely (naive realism) but that our everyday world is an ‘interpretation’ of what is outside our minds. This may seem to be of little comfort but our cognition and perception are being constantly tested in their interaction with the external world.

Air and water are transparent, that is, they transmit light without appreciable scattering. Humans and other animals take advantage of this characteristic of matter since, using the faculty we call sight, they have evolved to use light as a medium for perceiving the differentiation of matter according to its various properties (qualities).

Though humans are part of the universe and continuous with it, it helps to distinguish between perceptions that are to all intents and purposes intrinsic (essential, inherent, arising from within) and those that are mostly extrinsic (arising from without), while acknowledging that this is a problematic distinction. My height is 175 cm and I possess this property independently of others, other properties, like colour, are my uniquely human take on the world. Philosopher John Locke made a distinction between ideas that resemble their causes, which he called primary qualities – texture, number, size, shape, motion – and secondary qualities, the ideas that do not resemble their causes – these being color, sound, taste, and smell. We can add space and time to the list of secondary qualities.

The two most important features of our perception, those grounding all our experience, are space and time. The scientific image presents us with the fusion concept of spacetime and although in everyday experience we recognize the individual categories space and time this has its analogues in the way they are often conceptually associated as when we spatialize time (‘It took a long time’). Similarly our perception of the temporal flux of the universe is one of abstract continuity, so our segmentation of it into meaningful units of various kinds: minutes, weeks, seasons, events, causes, and effects, are interpreted in terms of spatial change. Whatever the mysterious connection be between space and time its segmentation into discrete temporal units is clearly a division of human convenience. It would seem then that although causes, effects, and events can be circumscribed in terms of spatial change, their temporal boundaries are conveniently added by our minds.

This, for example, permits the scientific study of perception and cognition in other organisms. Though reasons exist in the world independently of humans only humans represent reasons to one-another symbolically

investigation of the external world that lies beyond the common-sense world as experienced using our biologically-given sensory apparatus (the Manifest Image), to a less anthropocentric world view (the Scientific Image) as revealed to us using abstract thought, reason, scientific instruments, and symbolic languages.

This is the genetically determined part of our cognition – innate cognitive faculties which we cannot alter by introspection, they are simply the way we humans experience the world.

This talk of innate ways of experiencing the world might seem to place us in a realm of inner subjectivity, uncertain of what there is outside our minds. This places us in a world of subjectivity, so how can we say anything at all about our innate cognitive categories? We must assume, however, from our survival as a species that natural selection has given us an effective toolbox to deal with the external world. Science, in its turn, has helped us correct many of our more ‘human’ interpretations of reality. How has it done this?


Philosophers themselves have frequently expressed doubt that anything worthwhile can be gleaned from metaphysics.

Skeptical Scottish philosopher David Hume famously stated ‘If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.’

English philosopher Bradley said that metaphysics was ‘Giving bad reasons for what we believe on instinct’.

German Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant believed that there were identifiable boundaries to justified knowledge. If a judgement is necessary and universal (a priori – a pure concept of the understanding, a rational concept not based on experience) then it must be metaphysical. Since it is beyond perception such a concept must be transcendental, an empty concept or, in other words, beyond the limits of understanding. Transcendental ideas like God, freedom, a first cause, and noumena (objects in themselves) are all outside space and time and therefore unknowable. Kant did not perceive this as a shortcoming since it released him to pursue his religious beliefs which he acknowledged could not be intellectually justified.

Later the logical positivists in the 1930s and 1940s followed Hume by asserting that only analytic and empirical statements are (cognitively) meaningful.

Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, sometimes associated with the logical positivists, concluded his famous Tractatus Philosophicus (which sets out to establish the limits of language) with an enigmatic reference to metaphysics . . . ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’ For Wittgenstein metaphysical propositions were not false but nonsensical – they could not be answered within language.

If we concur with these sentiments then any interest in metaphysics is doomed to disappointment. Wittgenstein in his later life saw the role of philosophy as therapeutic demystification, a procedure for demonstrating that the philosophical problems that bewitch us are really non-problems that need to be exorcised.

Many philosophers of subsequent generations have been more forgiving, stressing that metaphysics has much less to do with language and concepts, which are diversions, and much more to do with what was always its concern . . . the nature of the world . . . even though there may never be a compelling answer to the question of what constitutes secure knowledge when we yearn for certainty.

The question then arises that, if the whole field is ‘spooky metaphysics’, then should philosophy be the handmaiden of science? We have learned to be suspicious of grand metaphysical systems, so some metaphysicians today seem content as assistants to science, eking out small gains in clarity, simplicity, and explanatory elegance.

Certainly the world has become less ‘spooky’ as it has become absorbed into the body of evidence-based empirical knowledge, but this ignores several important points. ‘Hume’s Fork’ (above) is, itself, a metaphysical claim.

We do have a view on the nature of reality whether we can articulate it or not. My own preference is to acknowledge the power of science, avoiding mind-body dualism and supernaturalism. One contemporary scheme that appeals is the ‘innocent realism’ of Duns Scotus, modified by American pragmatist Sanders Pierce, modified again by Susan Haack. This ontology acknowledges the objects of scientific stuff as existing (including fields and waves) – a form of physicalism – while describing as ‘real’ those objects that are independent of the way we might wish them to be. ‘Physical’ equates with ‘stuff’ equates with ‘exists’. Included here would be numbers, universals, the so-called ‘laws’ of nature as patterns in stuff, it also includes the way that humans are ‘minded’ with beliefs and desires that are real but which cannot be explained by physics. Armed with this take on reality it is possible to return to the list of objects at the start of this article and state which you think both exist and are real, and which you think are simply real. Of course, you might think differently . . .

World-wide philosophy departments are under threat as hard-nosed administrators pull the purse strings of those disciplines that cannot attract revenue or demonstrate practical value.

I like the neo-Epicurean and Wittgensteinian notion of the the philosopher as a therapist with a medical role as physician. But while the psychologist acts as therapist for our emotional lives, the philosopher provides therapy for our intellects as it treats the philosophical neurosis that afflicts a small proportion of the population at all times. This is what, today, we mean by meta-physician. In Natura the shaman metaphysician would ‘hold your hand’ as you explored together the supernatural world of gods and spirits, and the unfathomable mysteries of the mind and cosmos. Now, in Informatia, the meta-physician acts as an intellectual intermediary between our species-specific umwelt – our human commonsense world of everyday human experience – and the vastly different world as interpreted by our best science.

Key points

  • Metaphysics is usually taken to concern the ultimate nature of reality but, less frequently, the first principles of everything or place of humans in the world
  • Science uses prediction, falsifiability, experiment and observation as its evidence. Metaphysics uses only reason
  • Pragmatic metaphysics, argued here, maintains that we cannot step outside ourselves to survey the world ‘as it really is’. This would be like a ‘God’s eye view’, or seeing things ‘from the point of view of the universe’ . . . a view from no time, no place, and no perspective. There is no such vantage point for humans. Science provides us with a progressively more efficient and predictive interpretations of the world as it exists both inside and outside our minds: but a ‘perspectiveless’ account of reality is not possible.
  • Kant’s ‘categories’ were preconditions of the mind which he took to be self-evident – predispositions that today we would describe as being innate, inbuilt, or part of our biological wiring. There are additional biological predispositions that, simply through the historical accumulation of biological knowledge, we might now regard as biological ‘facts’. These are described in more detail elsewhere but briefly outlined here.
  • Metaphysical theories frequently follow our intuitions and these, in turn, are determined, at least in part, by the innate structurung of our minds. Our everyday experience as a coherent whole (Manifest Image – see Representation) is a product of our species-specific perception and cognition. We gain insight into mental structuring through the categories formulated by Immanuel Kant and from modern psychology. Included in this mental structuring are four additional innate capacities or predispositions of the mind that were not discussed by Kant are: discrimination, focus, classification, and rank-value
  • The apparently simple world of physical reality breaks down into irrational and difficult categories at the macro- and micro-scales

Glossary of philosophical terms

This is a list of philosophical ‘-isms’ that you might encounter. They are, indeed, tiresome but they serve as useful abbreviations of long and often complex arguments. There are no universally agreed definitions: the following are offered as a guide only:

Analytical reductionism – explanation, especially in science, proceeds by breaking up entities into their parts: a view that the world can be adequately explained with a minimum of physical constants and laws
Anti-realism – views that contrast with realism including idealism and its close relatives phenomenalism, skepticism, eliminativism, instrumentalism, and relativism
Bigism (here defined) – the view that we can only grasp reality by widening the context. This is a synthetic ‘top-down’ view of the world cf. smallism
Conceptualism – explains universals as conceptualized frameworks situated within the thinking mind. Intermediate between nominalism and realism, conceptualism denies the presence of universals in particulars outside the mind’s perception of them. Universals, like numbers, seem especially curious since they seem abstract but we need them for scientific explanation, prediction,
Constructivism (constructive empiricism) – scientific theories are semantically literal (semantic component), they aim to be empirically adequate (normative component) and their acceptance involves, as belief, only that they are empirically adequate (epistemological component. A theory is empirically adequate iff everything it says about observable entities is true. A theory is semantically literal iff[7] the language of the theory is interpreted such that the claims are either true or false (as opposed to an instrumentalist reading) (see Bas van Frassen in The Scientific Image (1980) which is a defence of anti-realism
Eliminativism – the object of concern is unnecessary and can be ignored (e.g. there is no referent. This is a view of God often offered by atheists
Fallibilism – the acknowledgement that scientific claims are subject to further revision and refinement
Fictionalism – a form of eliminativism where the object to be eliminated (it has no referent) but must be retained for its utility (e.g. numbers, morality, grounding)
Foundationalism – the belief that explanations proceed by analysis until they find a bedrock of reliable or secure propositions: or conversely that a secure system of thought must proceed from a bedrock of unquestioned assumptions, like an axiomatic system of mathematics. This is also sometimes referred to as ‘grounding’
Grounding – see foundationalism
Idealism – the world is constructed by our minds
Innocent realism – ‘real’ is ‘how it is, independently of what anyone makes of it’ (Philosopher Susan Haack)
Instrumentalism – theories are just useful instruments not purveyors of truth (instrumentalism denies that theories have truth values) nor do they attempt to depict reality: their merit lies in their explanatory and predictive power. Articulated by John Dewey (1859-1952) and Karl Popper (1902-1994)
Irrealism – the view that nothing is real, in contrast to nihilism, the view that nothing exists
Logical positivism (logical empiricism, positivism, neopositivism) – the close association of philosophical discourse with that of the empirical sciences. The view that only analytic and empirical statements are cognitively meaningful. A movement associated with te Vienna Circle of philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians of the late 1920s and ’30s (including Carl Hempel, Ernst Mach, Morris Schlick, Rudolph Carnap, Otto Neurath, Alfred Ayer) and America in the 1940s and 1950s (Ernest Nagel)
Materialism – matter is the fundamental substance in nature. All phenomena, including mental penomena and consciousness are the consequences of material nteractions. Materialism is often treated as synonymous with physicalism
Mathematism – the reduction of reality to the eternal truths of mathematics cf. scientism and fallibilism
Naive Realism – the senses provide us with direct awareness of the natural world as it is
Naturalism – everything arises from natural properties and causes. Effectively the same as physicalism but tending to define itself by denial of the supernatural. Three flavours a)denies supernatural and purely a priori, b)claims philosophical questions will eventually be absorbed into science, c) claims philosophical questions are misconceptions that require ‘demystification’.
Nihilism – the view that nothing exists
Nominalism – denies the existence of universals (things that can be instantiated or exemplified by many particular things e.g. strength, humanity, being a tree) and abstract objects (objects that do not exist in space and time e.g. numbers), but affirms the existence of general or abstract terms and predicates, that is, the use of these terms in language. One version of nominalism denies the existence of universals (they are just names), the other denies the existence of abstract objects . Most nominalists claim that only physical particulars in space and time are real, and that universals exist only subsequent to particular things, but some versions of nominalism hold that some particulars are abstractions, while others are concrete. Realism about universals claims that universals exist. Platonism (Platonic realism) is the claim that abstract objects are real cf. conceptualism, realism
Phenomenalism – physical objects only exists as perceptual phenomena or sensory stimuli
Physicalism – the only things in the world are physical things – essentially the objects of scientific investigation. This includes non-material things like dark energy, space-time, force fields, waves etc.
Postmodernism – A movement that developed in the mid- to late 20th century across philosophy, the arts, architecture and criticism which marked a departure from modernism. A broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power. Definition is problematic since it violates the postmodernist’s premise that no definite terms, boundaries, or absolute truths exist
Pragmatism – thought is a tool to be used for prediction, problem solving, and action not for describing, representing, or mirroring reality. Philosophical questions concerning knowledge, language, concepts, meaning, belief, and science — are all best viewed in terms of their practical outcomes. The meaning of a proposition is grasped through the practical consequences of its acceptamce. Emphasis on ‘practical consequences’ affects notions of truth, of fallibilism in epistemology
Realism – the objects under consideration exist independently of our ourselves and our minds. Innocent realism would also designate as real those objects that the mind cannot wilfully change (e.g. numbers, laws, universals, properties & dispositions, relations) cf. antirealism, scientific realism, naive realism
Reductive physicalism – the view that all phenomena can be reduced to physico-chemical processes, what is referred to here as ‘smallism’, a form of foundationalism
Relativism – truth and falsity, right and wrong, standards of reasoning and procedures of justification are products of differing conventions and frames of assessment. Authority relates to context cf. postmodernism
Skepticism – there is no certain knowledge so we should refrain from making truth claims
Scientific Realism – there is a world independent of our minds as described by science (metaphysical claim) that gives us genuine knowledge corresponding with reality (epistemological claim) that its concepts and theories are more than convenient or useful tools or instruments for achieving practical ends (semantic claim). Scientific realists claim that scientific research produced reliable knowledge even when its phenomena are not observable. Science is a means of testing reality cf. realism, antirealism
Scientism – the claim that the predictive power, explanatory range, and technological success of science warrants its precedence over all other forms of knowledge, even though it cannot provide eternal truths cf. fallibilism, sometimes referring to the application of a supposed scientific method outside the scientific domain. Often used as a pejorative term implying undue deference to science
Smallism (here defined) – the view that we can only grasp reality by narrowing the context. For example, that the physical world consists of wholes explained in terms of their parts in a regression that ends with a foundation in the smallest possible parts of matter. This is an analytic or ‘bottom-up’ view of the world cf. bigism, foundationalism
Solipsism – the only reality that can be known is the reality of my own existence, nothing more can be coherently claimed

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Introduction to Metaphysics

Academy of ideas – 2013 – 8:10

What is Ontology & Epistemology?

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First published on the internet – 1 March 2019
. . . revised 19 November 2020

NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, captured this image of a hidden star-forming cloud of dust and gas located in the constellation of Cepheus. Cepheus, father of Andromeda, was a mythological king in the ancient Greek world. This image of dark nebulae lies near the heart of the king, as imagined by ancient Greek astronomers.

This complex spans about 120 light-years across and is located about 2,500 light-years away at the edge of a spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy, called the Orion spur.

These types of clouds are the locations where stars are born. When a cloud of dust and gas becomes so dense that it can block out light, it is ripe for parts of the cloud to collapse into newborn stars. The whole cloud doesn’t form stars all at one time. Some parts of the cloud go first, and the winds and radiation from the biggest and hottest stars in that first generation will blow away parts of the cloud and compress other parts causing further star formation to occur. Color in this image is representational. Blue and cyan represent light at 3.4 and 4.6 microns, primarily emitted by stars. Green and red represent light at 12 and 22 microns, emitted by the relatively cooler dust particles in the dark clouds.

Courtesy  NASA.

Image of Cepheus cloud
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