Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Method versus Metaphysics

We are all born ignorant. We do not like being ignorant and (most of us) seek to alleviate ourselves of ignorance. We also do not like to be mistaken in our knowledge that we gain in alleviating our ignorance.

However there are two ways to alleviate this ignorance. One approach is to assume as many answers as possible about the world and assume the world fits these answers. The other is to assume as little as possible about the world and see what the world says first.  The former approach emphasizes metaphysics (or ontology- what there is) over method. The latter approach emphasizes method over metaphysics.

These are two poles in a continuum, of course. It is useful to look at these extremes in emphasis to clearly see the difference between them.

The metaphysics first approach provides answers, the method first approach provides questions. The metaphysics first approach protects answers, the method first approach questions questions. The metaphysics first approach seeks methods to support its answers. The method first approach seeks methods to challenge its answers.The metaphysics first approach rejects methods that deny its answers. The method first approach encourages methods that challenge its methods. The metaphysics first approach assumes certainty in its answers. The method first approach seeks errors in it's answers. The metaphysics first approach discourages questioning its answers.  The method first approach encourages questioning its answers.

The distinction becomes more highlighted when looking at methods. The method first approach seeks reliable, repeatable, reviewable, revisable, replaceable, robust, independent methods that converge on the same answer. It rejects methods provide divergent answers. It has found these latter methods not to be reliable, repeatable or robust. When subject to review, revision, replacement or rejection such methods have been rejected with no replacement being required,

Such rejected methods are typically subjective methods - those based on authority, texts, personal revelations, inner experiences. These have been repeatedly shown to to be unreliable, not robust and lead to divergent entailments with no independent means of selecting one entailments over another. These are some of the most popular methods to support extreme metaphysics first approaches. But this indicates there is no way to know if any of those metaphysical approaches are correct. They usually insist they are but are contrary because they make divergent claims of the world and they cannot al be correct and could all be false. There is no way of knowing.

In stating the above I have been employing the method first approach which some might argue is question begging. However since the metaphysics first approaches - such as popular religions and some extreme political ideologies - can offer no independent means to determine which, if any, are correct, then there is nothing else but such a method approach to help distinguish them and, possibly, eliminate them all. So it is no surprise that many of these metaphysics first approaches are opposed to method first approaches and seek to tarnish, devalue or deny the validity of such methods.

Now, sometimes, selectively, when the results of such methods could support the presumed answers of a metaphysics first approach, then such methods are used and encouraged. However this only goes to confirm a the problem with such metaphysics first approaches. If a method is only used when it supports the pre-determined answer and rejected when it does not, then there is no way to know whether the answer is correct. So there is no way to know whether one's ignorance has been alleviated or just deceived. The whole project that metaphysics first approaches were meant to answer - the alleviation of ignorance about the world - collapses. No true knowledge can results unless there are methods that can independently show this.

We are lucky to live in the 21st century where there has been some much progress in the development and refinement of methods based approaches that have not only demonstrated in far greater scope and detail what the world is like far beyond the imaginings of any metaphysics first approach - old and new. And we rely on the results of such knowledge in numerous ways on a moment to moment and day to day basis. There is no longer any excusefor seek a metaphysics first approach given the huge success of the methods first approaches that we cannot stop using and relying upon. We have no excuse, as in the past, not to seek methods that independently converge on similar answers - which are called and usually are  objective methods and to reject methods that independently fail to converge and provide divergent and incompatible answers. We have no excuse that is if we wish to free  ourselves of ignorance about the world. We know that subjective methods used in support of metaphysics first approaches have repeatedly failed to give us accurate knowledge of the world  and can only be used to provide comfort not truth.

The choice is yours, do you prefer comfort over truth or truth over comfort? Do you prefer an illusory certainty or over an actual uncertainty. Can anyone justify sacrificing truth on the altar of comfort if you aspire to knowledge of the world? Not without contradicting themselves they cannot. Is it not sensible to choose method over metaphysics?


Tony Hoffman said...

I like this; I tried to say something similar regarding the difference between skeptics and strong atheists over at TC. This is a topic that I don't know enough about (how the two approaches you describe influence conclusions, the history of these approaches, the point where they are not incompatible or necessary to one another, etc.). Anyway, I'd like to see more on this topic, so if you've got more or want to point to good literature I'm all ears.

faithlessgod said...

Thanks will blog on this some more but busy right now. In the meantime here is an old post, somewhat over-technical (not necessarily well expressed) which first noted these ideas on this blog. Enlightenment and follow the link to the simpler later version.