Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Logical Flowering of Western Metaphysics

When searching the tag metaphysics on Technorati I came across this nice post. Although I have never read Heidegger, it's nice to run across someone who has and is able to eloquently describe what he's saying - that is a rare find. Even if he (Peter Rohloff) is eloquent, it's hard to understand exactly what he means when he talks about Being with a capital B. Eloquence does not necessarily imply clarity - probably because clarity is impossible when it comes to Heidegger. Does he mean existing, as in existentialism? I'm not familiar with Heidegger enough to know, but it makes me want to read Heidegger. I can empathize with the statement that "nihilism is the logical flowering of Western metaphysics."

Philosophy has sometimes ignored what is staring it in the face for what it can analyze abstractly - past, present, future. When philosophers discuss metaphysics they cam go into great lengths on the nature of time, God, matter, and other things without discussing consciousness and time from the perspective of a human agent and life itself - at least, that's been my impression. It also continues to reason and judge in the face of obvious paradoxes (for example, determinism - nobodoy is morally blameworthy for any action, and the fact that philosophers continue to this day to cast "moral" blame on people is a testament to the fact that they are in blind denial and just don't get it. Note that I did not say that people are not causally responsible for actions which they cause).

Rohloff finishes with Heidegger's amusing reply to Leibniz' old sayind:

"Nihil est sine ratio" : nothing is without reason.

"Nichts ist—ohne grund" : nothing is - without grounds.

Though I don't completlely understand the latter sentence, anyone who's read Leibniz' philosophy knows that the man was deluded (through math, perhaps) enough to assert the former.

I can easily feel like I'm venturing off into silly land when I discuss vague topics like "Being" - the fact is that sometimes the most fundamental philosphic truths may not be so easy to analyze. The real truth is probably like quantum mechanics - completely bizarre and unapproachable through the formal dichotomies and theories of our grammatical logic. Thus the approach of Zen Buddhism and other "Enlightenment" religions, which probably have similarities, at their core, to Heidegger's approach.

Philosophers have always said they are interested in one thing, and one thing only: truth. But what if the truth is in conflict with life? Philosophers have also been interested in goodness. Socrates proclaimed that "the good life is the only life worth living", according to Plato, and he said that was the truth. But what if it isn't the truth? Ultimately philosophers may need to make a choice between the two.

If one believes in practical philosophy, as I do, one can easily question all this nonsense. Did Socrates ever do much to help people while he strode around arguing from his high horse? Did Diogenes? Did Nietzsche? Did Heidegger? Did Buddha? What's the point of all these vague philosophical people? Why should we take cues on living from losers like these rather than hyper-analytical types like Leibniz (who developed calculus) or Aristotle, who laid the foundations of science (and who's philosophy arguably slowed down its progress)? What's the point, really?

First of all, it is probably wrong to say that the former did not believe in practical applications of hard logic (especially Socrates, of course, even if he never wrote down anything and devoted his inquiries mainly to justice and how to live life). They have different natural abilities, and promote different things - they have been the greatest spiritual advisors for our race. Diogenes and Nietzsche have the right message: don't be afraid to contradict your betters and blaze your own path. Seek the truth even if it hurts, and if the truth doesn't exist than create a truth that you like. Or something like that. I don't know, and I've rambled on long enough. I guess I enjoy thinking like this, even if it amounts to nothing and distracts me from practical pursuits, so if you don't enjoy reading it, you can bite me. :)


Peter Rohloff said...

Thanks for visiting. Being becomes Nothing because, for Heidegger it is not important for the history of metaphysics. Metaphysics preoccupies itself only with the being (what you seem to call existing, in the sense of existentialism perhaps). That which you ignore theoretically or practically (in this case Being) is of no value to you, or is Nothing. Hense Being as Nothing and nihilism as the end of Western metaphysics. What Nietzsche does in his metaphysics is make overt what has been implicit in the entire history--'to stamp Being with the character of becoming' he declares to be the goal of his project. Meaning to make explicit the omission of meditation on Being, Being as becoming--that is 'becoming' elevated to the level of highest ontological priority. Being disappears in all of this. This is for Heidegger both necessary (Being as keeping away is the presencing of the being) and also tragic (the absence of Being creates the feeling of loss and homelessness.

ADHR said...

You should read about embodiment and the mind. There's a literature. You should also read some more about free will and determinism and moral responsibility. (For eg, Harry Frankfurt famously argued that determinism and moral responsibility are perfectly compatible.) Don't get too hung up on what gets taught in intro classes. It's usually outdated stuff, but it's what you need to know in order to be able to understand everything else.

undergroundman said...

Harry Frankfurt famously argued that determinism and moral responsibility are perfectly compatible.

That sounds interesting. I've always thought Hume's argument was a cop-out. It seems circular to me: our actions are causally determined, but we have free will (and our responsible) because... we have free will? Or did I miss something in that argument?

I've never been really convinced by any free will or compatibilist argument. Maybe I've missed something in them? My own argument for responsibility would be, I suppose, that we have it because we are capable of evaluating our actions. But if that evaluation is deterministically caused (or not caused), how can someone be responsible for it?

Meh. At the same time, I believe people can do things which are wrong - I just think people who do wrong things are flawed people, and not wrong in any metaphysical sense, which provokes thoughts of hell and damnation. It almost seems to me that this moral system is a system working deterministically to prevent people from doing "bad" actions.

The one thing that really gets me is - if you take the deterministic attitude towards life, it will causally effect how you act. If you think you can choose, you will act as if you can choose.

ADHR said...

Here's Frankfurt's point. It's not at all similar to your misgivings.

He makes the argument on the basis of a (he says) plausible sort of example (Frankfurt-style example). Suppose that Descartes' evil demon is watching you and could, if he wanted to, force you to do what he wanted. So, determinism is true: you can't help but do what the demon wants you to. However, by sheer happenstance, everything you do just is what the demon would've made you do. So, the demon never intervenes. By definition, you don't have any "free will", because your choices are completely irrelevant to what you do. However, says Frankfurt, you're still responsible for your actions because they came from you and not the demon.

I think the examples are question-begging, but the underlying idea (agent-causation as underwriting responsibility) is interesting.

undergroundman said...

You can probably guess how I feel about it.

Actually, I just don't really get how this demon crap is at all relevant.

At the same time, I have sort of adopted that same position - people are causally responsible for what they do, regardless of whether they have free will. But as part of that I like to do away with this moral crap - people are causally responsible, sure, but we shouldn't act as if they had a choice in the matter, which is how we act right now.