The Value of Metaphysics

by Dwight Furrow

Among the ideas in the history of philosophy most worthy of an eye-roll is Aristotle’s claim that the study of metaphysics is the highest form of eudaimonia (variously translated as “happiness” or “flourishing”) of which human beings are capable. The metaphysician is allegedly happier than even the philosopher who makes a well-lived life the sole focus of inquiry. “Arrogant,” self-serving,” and “implausible” come immediately to mind as a first response to the argument. It’s not at all obvious that philosophers, let alone metaphysicians, are happier than anyone else nor is it obvious why the investigation of metaphysical matters is more joyful or conducive to flourishing than the investigation of other subjects.

Is there an insight here to be salvaged? Can this implausible argument about the glorious lives of metaphysicians be separated from the rest of Aristotle’s argument that philosophy is not only a way of life but the quintessentially superior way of life?

Aristotle argued that the activity of all beings is governed by their characteristic function which drives developmental processes. Reason is the characteristic function of human beings, and it’s the perfection of our capacity to reason so that we come to know the truth about a subject matter that constitutes flourishing. All human activity is directed toward this goal of flourishing although most human beings haven’t grasped its true nature or lack the necessary habits and self-control to achieve it. Thus, our pursuit of it is confused. Read more »

Mind And Tense: Zombies In The Here And Now

by Jochen Szangolies

Figure 1: A philosophical zombie is a being physically/behaviorally identical to a human, but lacking any ‘inner’ experience.

Zombies have become a mainstay of philosophy as much as of pulp fiction—a confluence that it would be fallacious to assume implies some further connection between the two, naturally. Zombies are beings that act in many ways like living humans—they move around, they interact with the world, and they, to generally horrific effect, consume resources for sustenance—not ending up as which is the typical goal of the protagonists of various kinds of zombie media. Yet, they lack the crucial quality of actually being alive, instead generally being considered merely ‘undead’.

Zombies are thus creatures of lack, creatures that have been robbed of some quality we otherwise think essential. Consider, for instance, the notion of the soulless zombie: a being which, despite acting and reacting just like any other human being—in fact, we might stipulate, in a way exactly paralleling your actions and reactions—lacks a ‘soul’ of any kind. If this is imaginable, then, the argument goes, there’s nothing that you’d actually need a soul for—and hence, we can strike it from the list of essential qualities without any resulting deficit.

A counterpoint to this particular argument is the floating man thought experiment of Ibn Sina (often Latinised as Avicenna), the eleventh century Persian polymath and physician. Ibn Sina imagines being created ‘at a stroke’, fully formed, in a state of free fall, and in darkness. Lacking any external sensory impression, one would still be certain of one’s own existence. But if there is nothing physical one could be conscious off absent such sensory data, then that sensation of being aware of one’s own self must be a sensation of something non-physical—the soul, or Nafs in the Quran. To Ibn Sina, then, the soulless zombie would merely show that the world is not exhausted by the physical, by our behaviors and reactions to external stimuli. Read more »

Wine and the Metaphysics of Time

by Dwight Furrow

Old wine storageWine is useless. It bakes no bread, does no work, and solves no problem. The alcohol loosens tongues and serves as social lubricant, but wine is an inefficient delivery system for alcohol—there are faster, cheaper ways of getting drunk. No one needs wine. Wine does nothing but give pleasure.

Love of wine is thus a useless passion, an arena of pure play, but therein lies its peculiar power. It joins the realm of those objects that express rather than perform–objects like old musical instruments, ancient manuscripts, childhood toys, or Grandma's jewelry. Useless but precious because of the experiences they enable.

When we are consumed by a useless passion, we become more attuned to the allusive meanings and hidden dimensions of the object of love. The object acquires an aura of mystery when unmoored from practical function and can serve as a universal talisman to which all sorts of meanings can be attached. Those moments in which we experience a useless passion and grasp the intrinsic, non-instrumental value of things are not only moments of pleasure but moments in which we glimpse a world of the imagination yet one in which matter resists conceptualization, the hard surfaces of reality resist manipulation because they have their own capacities and developmental direction, and meaning expands beyond what can be calculated or measured.

Among objects of love, wine has its own peculiar attractions. Wine, when considered aesthetically, brings traces of the sacred to our lives that are otherwise thoroughly enmeshed in practical tasks. The demand to slow down and savor opens a time and space in which we can be receptive to multiple ways of understanding the interplay between nature and culture because wine partakes of both.

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The continuing relevance of Immanuel Kant

by Emrys Westacott


Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is widely touted as one of the greatest thinkers in the history of Western civilization. Yet few people other than academic philosophers read his works, and I imagine that only a minority of them have read in its entirety the Critique of Pure Reason, generally considered his magnum opus. Kantian scholarship flourishes, with specialized journals and Kant societies in several countries, but it is largely written by and for specialists interested in exploring subtleties and complexities in Kant's texts, unnoticed influences on his thought, and so on. Some of Kant's writing is notoriously difficult to penetrate, which is why we need scholars to interpret his texts for us, and also why, in two hundred years, he has never made it onto the New York Times best seller list. And some of the ideas that he considered central to his metaphysics–for instance, his views about space, time, substance, and causality–are widely held to have been superseded by modern physics.

So what is so great about Kant? How is his philosophy still relevant today? What makes his texts worth studying and his ideas worth pondering? These are questions that could occasion a big book. What follows is my brief two penn'th on Kant's contribution to modern ways of thinking. I am not suggesting that Kant was the first or the only thinker to put forward the ideas mentioned here, or that they exhaust what is valuable in his philosophy. My purpose is just to identify some of the central strains in his thought that remain remarkably pertinent to contemporary debates.

1. Kant recognized that in the wake of the scientific revolution, what we call “knowledge” needed to be reconceived. He held that we should restrict the concept of knowledge to scientific knowledge–that is, to claims that are, or could be, justified by scientific means.

2. He identified the hallmark of scientific knowledge as what can be verified by empirical observation (plus some philosophical claims about the framework within which such observations occur). Where this isn't possible, we don't have knowledge; we have, instead, either pseudo-science (e.g. astrology), or unrestrained speculation (e.g. religion).

3. He understood that both everyday life and scientific knowledge rests on, and is made orderly, by some very basic assumptions that aren't self-evident but can't be entirely justified by empirical observations. For instance, we assume that the physical world will conform to mathematical principles. Kant argues in the Critique of Pure Reason that our belief that every event has a cause is such an assumption; perhaps, also, our belief that effects follow necessarily from their causes; but many today reject his classification of such claims as “synthetic a priori.” Regardless of whether one agrees with Kant's account of what these assumptions are, his justification of them is thoroughly modern since it is essentially pragmatic. They make science possible. More generally, they make the world knowable. Kant in fact argues that in their absence our experience from one moment to the next would not be the coherent and intelligible stream that it is.

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