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How unsuspected metaphysical assumptions control us, and how to undermine this control...
Metaphysical musings about "what things really are" have been called "meaningless" by many modern thinkers. For example, consider these metaphysical statements:
How do you verify statements about the "true reality" (or "identity", or "essence") of God, Saddam Hussein or modern art? According to some people (eg the Logical Positivists), only verifiable statements have meaning, and metaphysics tends to produce unverifiable statements.
For example, how do you verify that modern art "is" (or isn’t) crap? Until somebody invents a Crap-o-Meter, the "crapness" remains a subjective evaluation – nobody can objectively detect "essence of crap" inside art.
What about "God is a gas"? We can verify gas, but not "God". And even statements such as "nitrogen is a gas" look dubious, since nitrogen "is" a liquid too.
Similarly, the statement "Saddam Hussein is evil" seems unverifiable, and therefore meaningless. So what can we verify? "Saddam gave an order to torture X people on date Y". We could verify that with documentary evidence. Prosecuting people under international law doesn’t require metaphysics.
For most of us, our habitual language expresses unconscious metaphysical assumptions. And since our language tends to program our beliefs about "reality", we perceive reality in terms of metaphysics. This makes us act stupid.
A lot of western metaphysics derives from Plato and Aristotle. Let’s call this unfortunate Platonic/Aristotelian legacy "essentialism". Essentialism views reality in terms of block-like entities inhabited by "true essences". So, for example, the essence of "evil" inhabits the entity Saddam Hussein. Therefore, Saddam "really is" evil.
Anything that makes us act stupidly without knowing it, controls us. Essentialism makes us act stupidly by the process of GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out). If our incoming perceptions consist of block-entities with "true essences", our resulting thoughts won’t exhibit much complexity, flexibility or subtlety.
For example, if we perceive a human block-entity with a "dumb asshole" essence approaching, we act accordingly (like a monkey smelling an enemy). But if we perceive that this person merely behaved in "asshole" fashion in the past, after having a hard day, we might act more intelligently.
Abandoning the habit of metaphysical essentialism not only raises IQ, it also helps us feel better emotionally. Imagine being surrounded by people who "really are" bastards, bitches, liars, cheats, assholes, etc. Now imagine being surrounded by people who contain no such "bad" essences/identities, but who only behave part-time in ways we dislike.
(Note: as an amateur satirist, I can say that politicians "are" Stupid Assholes without contradicting what I preach in this article).
On a more serious note, many unpleasant "isms" (eg fascism, racism, sexism) arise from the perception that some individuals "really are" just units of a group essence/identity. We could eradicate all such "isms" at the level of perception, given an education which removes metaphysical essentialism from language – something to bear in mind for people who think philosophy "really is" nothing to do with the real world.
"A change in language can transform our appreciation
of the cosmos"
Benjamin Lee Whorf
Over the last two centuries many strategies have emerged for undermining the metaphysical control system: Existentialism, Pragmatism, Instrumentalism, Deconstruction, General Semantics, Surrealism, etc. You could almost regard it as the major intellectual "conspiracy" of the 20th century.
Many fields besides philosophy have adopted this trend to a greater or lesser degree: modern science, psychology, sociology, anthropology, literature, etc. Unfortunately the fields that need it most – politics and religion/ideology – seem to have ignored it.
Let’s look at two popular strategies, one difficult and one easy: Deconstruction (difficult) and E-Prime (easy).
In seeking "essential truth", metaphysicians want a solid foundation, a fundamental grounding of "truth" at a central point. With this centre/origin fixed, they also need to define its opposite: the false/peripheral.
Everything then fits into binary opposites, with the first term articulating the fundamental, positive, true, solid "ground" – and the second term representing the negative, false, derivative, deficient, lacking, "dilution" or "corruption":
Being – Non-being
Presence – Absence
Good – Evil
Life – Death
Cause – Effect
Light – Dark
Strong – Weak
Pure – Impure
Simple – Complex
In this metaphysical system, the "negative" secondary term comes after the original term. The "primary", the "good", the "true" always comes first. Then the corruption follows. Politically and socially this translates into the belief that:
Like many 21st Century reactionaries, Plato believed in an original "Golden Age", with nothing but degeneration and corruption to expect in the future. You can see how this type of metaphysics might correlate with political conservatism.
A metaphysics of binary opposites limits logical reasoning to either/or choices. Either something "is" strong, or it "is" weak; either it "is" good or it "is" evil, etc. No in-between, no "maybe", no paradox, no irony.
Deconstruction subverts metaphysics by disrupting its foundations and dislodging its certitudes. How? By throwing a Zombie in the works. Zombies don’t fit into the metaphysical either/or categories of "alive or dead". And what about "inside or outside"? The force which controls a Zombie – "is" it inside or outside?
Metaphysical difficulties arise not just with "real" Zombies but also with glazed-eyed consumers in supermarkets (for example). Can you say with certainty whether zombie-like consumers "really are" hypnotised? Do you know anyone who "is" unhypnotised?
Deconstruction derails, destabilises, corrupts and contaminates metaphysical language. And that "really is bad" from the metaphysician’s perspective. But only metaphysics asks what deconstruction "really is".
"Whatever you say a thing is, it isn’t"
English Prime, or E-prime for short, arose out of General Semantics. It looks like standard English, but with the words "is", "are", "was", "would be" (and other cognates of "is") removed. Removing the "is" (of identity) from language effectively eradicates metaphysical statements about what things "really are".
For example, the sentence: "Fred is a commie" would appear in E-Prime as something like: "I regard Fred as a commie". E-Prime expresses what we perceive and think about things, rather than what things "really are".
E-Prime makes sense when applied to science – eg the argument over whether an electron "really is" a wave or a particle:
The two standard English statements contradict, whereas the E-Prime statements seem complementary. E-Prime makes sense of emotional "human" issues too:
With standard English, debates often degenerate into hysterical "Yes, it is!", "No it isn’t!!" type arguments (monkey metaphysics). E-Prime seems to avoid this.
Who knows: in the future, E-Prime might even help prevent a war.
Some of my favourite authors (eg Robert Anton Wilson and Albert Ellis) have written whole books in E-Prime. I wrote this article using a simple kind of E-Prime (it owes a lot to Wilson’s writings on the subject).
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