Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

The Resiliency of Metaphysics

Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

The Resiliency of Metaphysics

Article excerpt

Earl Hautala's critique of metaphysical thinking ("Developing a Prudent Society," ETC., Fall 1994), has provoked several writers to respond at length. (See, for example, correspondence from Allan Brooks in the Summer 1995 ETC.) Craig Payne offers here another defense of metaphysics. Mr. Hautala's response follows.

As we consider the various topics of contemporary linguistic study, one issue stands out as being probably the most hotly debated in the field: the problem of meaning in metaphysical language. Scores, if not hundreds, of books have been written on the subject, as well as multitudes of articles (including the one you are now reading). Perhaps many readers of these books and articles have already reached the point described by David Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion: "All men of sound reason are disgusted with verbal disputes, which abound so much in philosophical and theological enquiries" (1:217).

However, to deny the ongoing existence of these disputes is to deny the obvious. Moreover, and more to my point, to deny the validity of these disputes is itself problematic. In this brief article, I propose to explore why this is so, and to discuss the amazing resiliency both of metaphysics and its language.

Is Metaphysical Language Unavoidable?

We might begin with definitions. According to philosopher Frederick Sontag, "metaphysics" is "simply basic philosophy, the search for and the questioning of first principles" (2:1). The seeking out and questioning of these "first principles" then inevitably leads us to questions of "ends" and "purposes" and "goals" in existence, which in turn leads us to propositions regarding these ends, purposes, and goals.

And it is precisely onto this propositional territory that the linguistic analyst, particularly when he or she is of a positivist or materialist bent, says we cannot venture. For example, noted positivist philosopher A.J. Ayer applies his famous "verification principle" to metaphysical propositions and finds them meaningless:

The criterion which we use to test the genuineness of apparent statements of fact is the criterion of verifiability. We say that a sentence is factually significant to any given person, if, and only if, he knows how to verify the proposition which it purports to express - that is, if he knows what observations would lead him, under certain conditions, to accept the proposition as being true, or reject it as being false. If, on the other hand, the putative proposition is of such a character that the assumption of its truth, or falsehood, is consistent with any assumption whatsoever concerning the nature of his future experience, then, as far as he is concerned, it is, if not a tautology, a mere pseudo-proposition. (3:35)

For an example of the type of proposition Ayer would consider a "pseudo-proposition," we may look to any basic metaphysical or theological declaration, such as "God exists." Ayer would insist that this proposition is meaningless, since to the religious believer, the assumption of the truth of this statement is consistent with any sort of future experience; that is, nothing in our typical experience could occur which could possibly prove or disprove this statement. Ayer would say the statement is not susceptible to empirical validation or in-validation and is therefore without meaning.

Typically four different responses arise to this challenge. The first is simply to accept the terms of this problem as outlined by Ayer, and to maintain that belief in God is based entirely on the grace of faith, and not on any other type of validation. The second is to maintain that belief in the existence of God is not entirely a matter of faith, but may also be empirically validated in the realm of reason as it contemplates sensory experience. (This response has been abandoned by most of the Protestant theological world, but is prevalent in the Catholic sphere.)

The third response is to appeal to a sort of "eschatological verification" - that is, to say that metaphysical statements may be said to possess meaning, even if we cannot immediately prove or disprove them, if we can specify the conditions under which such statements may be proven or disproven in the future. …

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