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We Are at a Metaphysical Nexus
Our deepest beliefs are changing radically. What does it mean?
Back in the 1930s, the British philosopher R. G. Collingwood developed an idea that would puzzle—even anger—his colleagues. Some, like his friend T. M. Knox, even went so far as to suggest that Collingwood’s later ideas might have been the product of a deteriorating mind caused by illness.
What was it that people had such a hard time wrapping their heads around, perhaps even to this day?
Simple. Collingwood believed that when it comes to metaphysics, we should give up our ambition to finally, one day, arrive at the truth. Instead, he held that the metaphysician’s job was to uncover and describe the historical evolution of metaphysical thought, including the logic inherent in these developments. While he saw value in the formulation of philosophical systems, he was convinced that they will never be able to pass the test of time and can never be considered true (or false).
Now, why would he think that?
To him, our thinking depends on what he calls absolute presuppositions. These are the fundamentals we take so for granted that we can’t even see that we hold them—like fish can’t perceive the water that defines their very existence. They are the assumptions that, if we keep asking ourselves deeper and deeper questions, represent sort of a cul-de-sac: at some point, we cannot even ask the question, much less answer it.
To give an example, in today’s world, when I look out of the window and I see a bird, I might ask myself: which species is that? What advantage for survival might have brought about some of its features? How did its mating behavior evolve? Etc. However, I don’t ask: what does the appearance of this bird mean for my day? What does the universe try to tell me here? Perhaps it is a sign that I need to pay more attention to something I’m neglecting?
I can’t ask this question because of various presuppositions, such as that mind and nature are separated, that there is no such thing as a cosmic intelligence able to produce personal guidance, causality depending on physical contact, and so on.
The kinds of questions we ask, that we can ask, depend on our absolute presuppositions: unconscious assumptions that form the boundaries of our very thinking, including basic values. But we hardly see them, and are incapable of even formulating questions about them, much less questions which implicitly deny their truth.
For Collingwood, then, analyzing these boundaries as they develop and change can lead to a better understanding of our own situation and put things into perspective. This in turn leads to a better understanding of the “thought worlds” of the past, which helps us understand ourselves better, and so on. In other words, such an undertaking helps us see more, question more, and understand more clearly.
A Form of Metaphysical Relativism?
However, this was, and is, a bitter pill to swallow not only for philosophers, but for everyone concerned with the pursuit of fundamental truth. After all, Collingwood seems to advocate for a form of relativism here: our fundamental worldviews, our metaphysics, can never be considered to be true or false. They are just the product of a certain development, following a certain logic. But ultimately, we cannot arrive at the truth of the matter. And we cannot even rule out certain metaphysical ideas: these are, and were, just the boundaries of thought of different people at different times, which produced a certain way of looking at our condition, which then played themselves out, leading to modifications and changes, to produce a new set of boundaries, and so on.
“But how on earth,” some might object, “can Collingwood seriously suggest that, say, a belief in divination or sign reading is equal to a belief in universal physical laws?”
It seems to me that the issue here, and one of the reasons why so many people have hated Collingwood’s idea, is that we often react very badly when confronted with questions about some of our fundamental beliefs. (Collingwood himself called such reactions a “neurotic habit.”) These are beliefs we don’t even know we hold, that we assume to be just part of reality. We don’t question them the same way we don’t ask ourselves why it is we can’t walk through walls.
If I asked someone who strongly rejects the equal status of universal physical laws and reading signs of the universe, for example, why he feels that way, a likely answer would be something like “divination is impossible, while physical laws are proven”. Or, if he has thought about it some more, he may reply with a whole list of philosophical points, getting deeper and deeper into the weeds of it. But ultimately, such a discussion can’t be settled in a satisfactory way. At the end of the day, it boils down to our most sacred priors: our deeply held presuppositions about the world.The water in which we swim.
Well, it is a bitter pill to swallow. One thing seems certain to me, however: whatever we think about Collingwood's idea, tracking and studying the development of deeply held presuppositions avoids many of the problems associated with the philosophical cage fights we are all familiar with and can produce great insights.
So let’s have a look at where we are at.
A New Fundamental Story Emerges
In a recent essay,outlined a new fundamental myth, a new story, that is emerging and spreading. In Collingwood’s terms, our absolute presuppositions are currently changing in profound ways, as they always do eventually. It’s just that most people haven’t gotten the memo yet.
Eisenstein puts forth his own idea about what these new, soon to be dominant, presuppositions are. Here are a few examples of how he sees it:
Old Story: I exist independently.
New Story: I exist relationally.
* * *
Old Story: What happens to other beings or the world need not affect me, because I am separate.
New Story: What happens to others or the world will always affect me, because self and other are inseparably related.
* * *
Old Story: The driving force of human behavior, especially economic behavior, is to maximize rational self-interest.
New Story: Human beings yearn to express their gifts towards something meaningful. We each have a unique and necessary gift for the world.
* * *
Old Story: The driving force of biological behavior and evolution is the maximization of reproductive self-interest. Nature is best understood as a life-or-death competition, a war of each against all.
New Story: Living beings seek not only to survive, but to express their gifts to the ecosystem and the totality of life, to fulfill their role and function.
* * *
Old Story: The forces of nature are indifferent to humanity. The other beings of nature are indifferent or hostile to human well-being. Progress therefore comes through domination of nature.
New Story: The universe is generous. We can thrive by cooperating with the forces of nature and the rest of life.
* * *
Old Story: The selfish gene is the subject of evolution, which happens through random mutation followed by natural selection.
New Story: Symbiosis and the merger of organisms into larger wholes drives evolutionary novelty. Mutations are not random. The needs of the organism, the community, the ecosystem, the planet, and even the cosmos affect the direction of genetic and epigenetic change.
What Eisenstein describes here is very much along the lines of what thinkers such as A. N. Whitehead, Henri Bergson, or, recently, Iain McGilchrist have put forth. We might even describe it as a new Renaissance, as in some important ways these new ideas are a move away from modernity and towards the ideas of the ancients. And although the details might turn out to be different, overall, I think Eisenstein is on the right track: this could be roughly where we are headed.
The old assumptions seem to have run their course. Materialism, strict atheism, even naturalism in the strictest sense and its associated presuppositions, have come “under strain,” as Collingwood would put it.This means the contradictions and limits of the current fundamental beliefs become too apparent, too obvious, for those beliefs to be sustainable and to provide the basis for a more or less coherent and shared understanding of the world.
Some of us have already realized that the previous system is broken, while many people, notably in the institutions, might only perceive a slight strain, a subtle yet increasing pressure.
Curiously, however, it seems to me that these old presuppositions had already become untenable in Collingwood’s own time, during the 1920s and 30s. Indeed, to say they had come “under strain” would be an understatement. While scientism was strong at the time, and the Vienna Circle and others were busy glorifying what they took to be the scientific method and proclaiming the end of metaphysics, we often forget that authors such as William James, A. N. Whitehead, Samuel Alexander, Henri Bergson, or Collingwood himself offered a very different take. And these were not fringe thinkers: although largely forgotten these days, they represented a powerful force, perhaps even at times a dominant one. Meanwhile, modern physics, first with relativity theory and then even more so with Quantum Mechanics, had dealt a decisive blow to naive 19th century materialism in showing that whatever the truth of the matter, it’s much more complex, and much crazier, than anybody had thought. What Karl Popper later would call “promissory materialism”—the forever unfulfilled materialist promise to solve our fundamental philosophical conundrums—became even more untenable.
So, why did the materialist-reductionist package survive to this day? Why hadn’t a new story, a new set of absolute presuppositions, emerged back then? It is a fascinating question that merits more attention. I think that two developments have greatly contributed to this sort of intellectual freeze: first, the advent of genetics and the formulation of Neo-Darwinism as the new orthodoxy. Even now, the materialist picture seems to be driven in large parts by biologists or biological reasoning. Second, by the invention of the computer, which led to the brain-computer metaphor. This metaphor has allowed us to keep pretending that man is just a biological machine with no purpose whatsoever, and even to brush off the issue of consciousness, otherwise considered by many to be the smoking gun showing that physicalism is fundamentally incoherent.
In any event, better late than never: here we are, at a metaphysical breaking point. Or are we?
Which Way, Humanity?
While it seems indisputable to me that we are witnessing a major shift in how we think about reality and our place in it, it is less obvious that this shift will reach humanity as a whole. We might be dealing with two possible futures here, two teleological attractors that are pulling in different directions: a technocratic, materialism-on-steriods world of cyborgs, AI, and tyranny, and one that realigns itself with a cosmos that is alive, intelligent, and intelligible—one we can be directly in touch with. In the latter picture, our new assumptions might enable us to experience the world in radically new ways, developing innate but dormant skills we have previously deemed impossible. The first one, on the other hand, represents a further regression towards enslavement, dominated by deterministic raw power, and spiritual descent and fragmentation.
We might even witness a sort of reality split, where one part of humanity will go one way, while the other will attract a different future. It seems strange to us to contemplate this possibility, but remember that it may all depend on our priors, our assumptions—the story we embody and live in.
Coming back to Collingwood: assuming that we are indeed at a metaphysical crossroads, can we even say that one way is true, the other wrong? After all, his theory says that metaphysical assumptions don’t have a truth value. I would say: perhaps they simply represent two different ways of being, two paths, two possibilities. Ultimately, it is not so much a matter to decide which is true or false, but which path we want to choose, which path seems like a natural fit.
I will add though, and I believe Collingwood might have agreed, that we should take our sets of presuppositions, our myth (in Eisenstein’s terms), as lenses through which we look at the world: each of these permits us to see a specific chunk of reality. While this picture implies a certain amount of relativism (perspectives aren’t really true or false, they are merely different ways to look at things), it also leaves room for truth: after all, some lenses allow us to see more than others.What’s more, some of them might be better or worse in bringing into focus those parts of reality we most need to see at a given time. Hence, I believe that if we choose the non-dystopian, non-materialist path and the perspective that comes with it, we will ultimately gain a wider vision, see more of reality, and can come closer to the truth.
Where will we go from here? We’ll see. But it would be wise to prepare ourselves for more shocks to our absolute presuppositions, to the belief systems we are currently immersed in, as the structure of reality and/or our understanding of it give way to something fundamentally different.
And, if we are to choose our destiny, we need to understand the options.
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See foreword by T. M. Knox to Collingwood’s The Idea of History, Oxford University Press, 1946 (republished by Martino Publishing, 2014)
For Collingwood’s ideas about absolute presuppositions, see his Essay on Metaphysics.
Or, perhaps, a “brute clash of intuitions,” as David Chalmers put it in Conscious Mind.
By the way, Collingwood didn’t argue for the “deconstruction” of our absolute presuppositions, merely for a better understanding of them and their development. On the contrary, he speaks of the importance of actively affirming them, a role that he thought had been fulfilled historically by the religious authorities. Perhaps he realized that while our presuppositions are subject to change and evolution, trying to eradicate them can only lead to mayhem: a mayhem that is foreshadowed by the negative reaction of most people when they are made aware of their deepest assumptions and that these might be questionable.
Collingwood himself applied his own method with great success. I can highly recommend his Essay on Metaphysics, The Idea of Nature, and An Autobiography.
I’m not talking about nuances here (for example, you can be an atheist and still believe in a karmic system of reincarnation), but about the “standard package” that has been taken for granted by mainstream academics, mainstream institutions and culture at large for a long time.
I’ll leave the possibility open for a formal theory that can describe all possible “lenses” and therefore reality itself, perhaps along the lines of Chris Langan’s work. My hunch is, however, that we might achieve formal precision and “meta-ness” at the expense of the substance and richness that come with looking through a particular lens. Perhaps it’s also about the difference between the two brain hemispheres. It might be possible, for example, to express the same metaphysical picture both in more abstract and mathematical terms and in more poetic, mythological, or philosophical terms. They may be seen as complementary.