Metaphysical Cravings

Metaphysical Cravings

The soul craves metaphysics.[1] The thinking self wants to think about metaphysical questions. Why do they attract us so? I believe it is because we know (clearly and distinctly) that we are thinking beings: we are directly aware of ourselves as thinking beings. Not necessarily infallibly aware, but aware enough that we don’t question it. So, we know our nature—it is transparent to us. But we don’t know the nature of other things, not in the same way at any rate. We don’t know the nature of matter in this way; it is therefore a subject of controversy. Is it extension or solidity or energy or perceptibility? We can’t tell just by looking at it; we can only conjecture—debate, argue. We don’t know the nature of matter as we know the nature of mind. Or consider space, time, causality, necessity, goodness, number, meaning: it is all a matter of dispute. Is space absolute or relative? Is time composed of events or independent of events? Is causality constant conjunction or a type of necessity? Is necessity linguistic or language-independent? Is goodness happiness or justice or something else? Are numbers ideas in the mind or Platonic entities? Is meaning use or inner representation? We don’t know the answers to these age-old questions, not in the way we know the nature of ourselves as thinking beings. Yet we want to have the same kind of knowledge in their case that we have about ourselves. Thus, we are pitched into the subject of metaphysics, naturally, unavoidably. If we had no such knowledge of ourselves, we might be able to leave metaphysics alone, as we leave many questions alone; but each of us is confronted by the contrast between knowledge of self and ignorance of other things. We desire the same kind of knowledge across the board, because we have it in the case of the self. And if we had such knowledge in the areas mentioned, as well as in the case of the self, then we would not need metaphysics as a subject of study—we would already know what we now crave to know. It is the epistemological asymmetry that troubles us, goads us on. Metaphysics is therefore inescapable: it is built into human psychology once we become aware of ourselves as thinking beings. That is why it is so ancient and persistent. Knowledge of ourselves as thinking beings gives us a taste of what real knowledge of reality would be like, so we earnestly seek it, whether we can achieve it or not. I know what I am and I want to know what that is: this thought is the beginning of metaphysics—of the craving for metaphysical knowledge. It is wanting knowledge of what is alien to us as reflective thinkers—distant, removed. If only we could know the rest of reality as we know our own thinking consciousness!

[1] I would bet good money that you have never read sentence like this from an analytical philosopher; and yet it is not just pretentious nonsense but perfectly accurate.

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