Metaphysics Matters

Part One:  Metaphysics as the Science of Presuppositions

R.G. Collingwood, in his An Essay on Metaphysics (1940), attempts to defend metaphysics from attacks upon it leveled by early analytic philosophers.  To make his defense, Collingwood has to separate two Aristotelian propositions regarding “first philosophy.”  On page 11 of his text, Collingwood notes them:

1.  Metaphysics is the science of pure being.

2.  Metaphysics is the science which deals with the presuppositions underlying ordinary science.

Collingwood believes that in order to defend metaphysics one must deny Proposition 1 and properly understand Proposition 2.  As an Aristotelian, I am dubious about Collingwood’s skepticism regarding Proposition 1; as a postmodern, I am sympathetic to his Proposition 2.  But for the moment, let’s grant Collingwood his argument, that metaphysics properly understood is the uncovering and articulating the historical and contextual presuppositions without which we cannot think systematically at all, let alone engage in science.

What are our ruling presuppositions?

Part Two:  Food, Not Nutrients

In an earlier post, I noted that my version of postmodern peripatetic ontology–a term that Collingwood would have us do without–would be based on such things as apples, things you find and sometimes eat.  I contend that we run into trouble if we don’t start with such things. 

Michael Pollan, in his writing about food, gives us plenty of examples of such problems.  Look, for instance, at his New York Times essay, “Unhappy Meals,” from January 2007.  Pollan shows us what we all ought already to know:  whereas we used to eat “food” (for instance, apples), now we eat “nutrients” or else we try to avoid certain chemical elements that come in (what we used to easily call) “food.”

More important than mere foods, the presence or absence of these invisible substances was now generally believed to confer health benefits on their eaters. Foods by comparison were coarse, old-fashioned and decidedly unscientific things — who could say what was in them, really? But nutrients — those chemical compounds and minerals in foods that nutritionists have deemed important to health — gleamed with the promise of scientific certainty; eat more of the right ones, fewer of the wrong, and you would live longer and avoid chronic diseases.

This way of looking at our understanding of food is known as “nutritionism.”  Pollan warns us not to confuse “nutritionism” with “nutrition.”  Like any -ism, nutrionism is “not scientific subject but an ideology.”  He reminds us:

Ideologies are ways of organizing large swaths of life and experience under a set of shared but unexamined assumptions. This quality makes an ideology particularly hard to see, at least while it’s exerting its hold on your culture. A reigning ideology is a little like the weather, all pervasive and virtually inescapable.

And, like most ideologies, they would seem to require someone, some sort of avant garde, visionary, expert, or elite to interpret reality for us in terms of the ideology.  In this case,

the widely shared but unexamined assumption is that the key to understanding food is indeed the nutrient. From this basic premise flow several others. Since nutrients, as compared with foods, are invisible and therefore slightly mysterious, it falls to the scientists (and to the journalists through whom the scientists speak) to explain the hidden reality of foods to us. To enter a world in which you dine on unseen nutrients, you need lots of expert help.

The experts will “help” us to think and act in terms of some dubious propositions: 

  • that the sole purpose of eating is to maintain health (and not enjoyment, community, even worship)
  • that different foods are not really different if the same “nutrients” can be derived from them; so fish is beef is soy is chicken [note: does this not have the ring of the “ethics” of PETA’s Ingrid Newkirk:  “A rat is a pig is a boy is a dog. They are all mammals”?]
  • that processed food and whole or raw food are simply delivery systems for nutrients, with no essential difference between them

“Nutritionism” is a goldmine for manufacturers of what Pollan calls, “edible foodlike substances.”  Raw and whole foods are a commodity–you can’t do much to a banana or avocado (not yet, anyway).  But you can add all sorts of “nutrients” to cereal grains, tout their “healthfulness,” and jack up the prices.  Pollan writes,

So nutritionism is good for business. But is it good for us? You might think that a national fixation on nutrients would lead to measurable improvements in the public health. But for that to happen, the underlying nutritional science, as well as the policy recommendations (and the journalism) based on that science, would have to be sound. This has seldom been the case.

But, if this “value added” processing of what used to be food is both good for business and not so good for those of us who eat this stuff, the source of the trouble can be traced to the presuppositions under which we are operating here.  There is a generic name for these sorts of ruling presuppositions:  reductionism.  Pollan writes (with emphasis added):

Most nutritional science involves studying one nutrient at a time, an approach that even nutritionists who do it will tell you is deeply flawed. “The problem with nutrient-by-nutrient nutrition science,” points out Marion Nestle, the New York University nutritionist, “is that it takes the nutrient out of the context of food, the food out of the context of diet, and the diet out of the context of lifestyle.”

If nutritional scientists know this, why do they do it anyway? Because a nutrient bias is built into the way science is done: scientists need individual variables they can isolate. Yet even the simplest food is a hopelessly complex thing to study, a virtual wilderness of chemical compounds, many of which exist in complex and dynamic relation to one another, and all of which together are in the process of changing from one state to another. So if you’re a nutritional scientist, you do the only thing you can do, given the tools at your disposal: break the thing down into its component parts and study those one by one, even if that means ignoring complex interactions and contexts, as well as the fact that the whole may be more than, or just different from, the sum of its parts. This is what we mean by reductionist science.

Scientific reductionism is an undeniably powerful tool, but it can mislead us too, especially when applied to something as complex as, on the one side, a food, and on the other, a human eater. It encourages us to take a mechanistic view of that transaction: put in this nutrient; get out that physiological result. [But…] There is nothing very machinelike about the human eater, and so to think of food as simply fuel is wrong.

Not only wrong, but potentially dangerous.  As Pollan notes: 

Also, people don’t eat nutrients, they eat foods, and foods can behave very differently than the nutrients they contain. Researchers have long believed, based on epidemiological comparisons of different populations, that a diet high in fruits and vegetables confers some protection against cancer. So naturally they ask, What nutrients in those plant foods are responsible for that effect? One hypothesis is that the antioxidants in fresh produce — compounds like beta carotene, lycopene, vitamin E, etc. — are the X factor. It makes good sense: these molecules (which plants produce to protect themselves from the highly reactive oxygen atoms produced in photosynthesis) vanquish the free radicals in our bodies, which can damage DNA and initiate cancers. At least that’s how it seems to work in the test tube. Yet as soon as you remove these useful molecules from the context of the whole foods they’re found in, as we’ve done in creating antioxidant supplements, they don’t work at all. Indeed, in the case of beta carotene ingested as a supplement, scientists have discovered that it actually increases the risk of certain cancers. Big oops.

Reductionism and methodological analysis, powerful as they are, when jacked up into an ideology usually end up leading to the “big oops.”

Part Three:  Working Against Reductionism

So we need to be working against reductionism (emphasis on the “-ism” of course!) if we are to avoid certain tragic consequences.  It is good that we engage in this work.  It is good work.

E. F. Schumacher has given some thought to the notion of “good work.”  He writes (and you can find the essay from which I quote in Mindfulness and Meaningful Work:  Explorations in Right Livelihood, edited by Claude Whitmyer (Paralax Press 1994, pp. 130-135.):

Traditional wisdom teaches that the function of work is at heart threefold: (1) to give a person a chance to utilize and develop his faculties; (2) to enable him to overcome his inborn egocentricity by joining with other people in a common task; and (3) to bring forth goods and services needed by all of us for a decent existence.

The trouble, says Schumacher, is that we seemed to have lost the ability to distinguish between good work and bad work.  Why is that?  Good work is the joy of life, but bad work is that which is “meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-wracking,” that which makes a person “the servant of a machine or a system.”  But we’ve no right to expect good work when we have

been conditioned to believe that man himself is “nothing but” a somewhat complex physico-chemical system, “nothing but” a product of mindless evolution.

Schumacher writes (with emphasis added) that

it is interesting to note that the modern world takes a lot of care that the worker’s body should not accidentally or otherwise be damaged.  If it is damaged, the worker may claim compensation.  But his soul and his spirit? If his work damages him, by reducing him to a robot–that is just too bad.  Here we can see very clearly the crucial importance of metaphysics.  Materialistic metaphysics, or the metaphysics of the doctrine of mindless evolution, does not attribute reality to anything but the physical body: why then bother about safety or health when it comes to such nebulous, unreal things as soul or spirit?  We acknowledge, and understand the need for, the development of a person’s body; but the development of his soul or spirit?  Yes, education for the sake of enabling a man or woman to make a living; but education for the sake of leading them out of the dark wood of egocentricity, pettiness, and worldly ignorance? {…}  Materialistic metaphysics, therefore, leaves no room for the idea of good work, that work is good for the worker.  Anyone who says, “The worker needs work for the development and perfection of his soul,” sounds like a fanciful dreamer, because materialistic metaphysics does not recognize any such need.

Schumacher argues that unless we alter our metaphysical presuppositions about human beings and about work, we will never really be able to distinguish good work from bad work, let alone be able to educate human persons for good work.  Schumacher warns:

If we continue to teach that the human being is nothing but the outcome of a mindless, meaningless, and purposeless process of evolution, a process of “selection” for survival, that is to say, the outcome of nothing but utilitarianism–we only come to a utilitarian idea of work: that work is nothing but a more or less unpleasant necessity and the less there is of it the better.

Our ruling presuppositions will prevent us from learning the nature of humanity and of good work, unless we revisit them.  And the presuppositions that Schumacher draws our attention to are just those of scientism, yet another dangerous “-ism” that prevents us from attaining a richer education.

Our ancestors knew about good work, but we cannot learn from them if we continue to treat them with friendly contempt–as pathetic illusionists who wasted their time worshipping nonexisting deities; and if we continue to treat traditional wisdom as a tissue of superstitious poetry, not to be taken seriously; and if we continue to take materialistic scientism as the one and only measure of progress.

Schumacher reminds us:

The best scientists know that science deals only with small isolated systems, showing how they work, and provides no basis whatsoever for comprehensive metaphysical doctrines like the doctrine of mindless evolution.  But we nevertheless still teach the young that the modern theory of evolution is part of science and that it leaves no room for divine guidance or design, thus wantonly creating an apparent conflict between science and religion and causing untold confusion.

Not only do our guiding presuppositions make it difficult or impossible for us to know and pursue good work, those same presuppositions have created the illusion that there is a conflict between science and religion.  Now this illusion has become a cash cow for certain faux-philosophers, dogmatic philosophasters who supplement their income by mass-marketing this set of narrow-minded presuppositions as if it had dropped from heaven ready-made (how’s that for an ironic turn of events?!). 

But this illusion has a cost for the rest of us:  it damages our ability to seek and be provided with a full, rich, genuine, human education, an education that frees man from his ego, “so that the divine element in him can become active.”  This is not simply “philosophical fluff.”  And it has real world consequences.

“The world of work,” as seen and indeed created by this modern metaphysics, is alas! a dreary place.  Can higher education prepare people for it?  How do you prepare people for a kind of serfdom?  What human qualities are required for becoming efficient servants, machines, “systems,” and bureaucracies?  The world of work of today is the product of a hundred years of “de-skilling”–why take the trouble and incur the cost of letting people acquire the skills of a craftsman, when all that is wanted is a machine winder?  The only skills worth acquiring are those which the system demands, and they are worthless outside the system.  They have no survival value outside the system and therefore do not even confer the spirit of self-reliance.  What does a machine winder do when (let us say) energy shortage stops his machine?  Or a computer programmer without a computer?

I think there might be a corollary to Schumacher’s point.  Consider what has become of higher education.  It is mainly a fragmented smorgasbord of disciplinary practices (defined with analytic rigor by breaking things into parts without context) that have their own set of “skills” that students must learn to be “competent.”  Think of how we train our philosophy students.  Are they trained to become wise?  Or are they taught a series of argumentative tactics and “research” skills that lead to a debilitating disdain of metaphysics–even as the very practices in which they are engaged are caught in the iron grip of the metaphysical presuppositions of scientism and reductionism?  And, yes, that includes a lot of you “Continentalists” who have been Pavlovianly trained to attack at the very sound of the word “metaphysics,” which, ironically, you take (rightly) to be at the root of scientism and reductionism!

Is Schumacher pessimistic?  No, but a change is going to have to come:

Maybe higher education could be designed to lead to a different world of work–different from the one we have today.  This, indeed, would be my most sincere hope.  But how could this be as long as higher education clings to the metaphysics of materialist scientism and its doctrine of mindless evolution?  It cannot be.  Figs cannot grow on thistles.  Good work cannot grow out of such metaphysics.  To try to make it grow from such a base can do nothing but increase the prevailing confusion.  The most urgent need of our time is and remains the need for metaphysical reconstruction, a supreme effort to bring clarity into out deepest convictions with regard to the questions:  What is man?  Where does he come from? and What is the purpose of his life?

The work we do, the “we” who are engaged in a transdisciplinary approach and a renewed quest for wisdom, think we are engaged in good work, work that takes us out of the safe-zone of our academic disciplines, out of the security (sometimes, at least) of our institutional regimentation, but that leads us to opportunities for enrichment, intellectual and spiritual growth, the development of our whole person, the chance to engage in collaborations and common tasks, and to bring forth a service to our fellow human beings who all too often are chained up in meaningless work they trained for in meaningless curricula at institutions that have lost their way.  In our exploring and learning and teaching, we want whole food, solid food.  This kind of intellectual and spiritual food, the food for which we offer our daily labor, our good work, this food will still have all its nutrients and constituent parts.  How could it not?  Transdisciplinarity requires the disciplines.

Howard Gardner’s Five Minds for the Future, the specific cognitive abilities we will need to confront our common problems for a better future, include:

  • The Disciplinary Mind: the mastery of
    major schools of thought, including
    science, mathematics, and history, and of
    at least one professional craft.
  • The Synthesizing Mind: the ability to
    integrate ideas from different disciplines
    or spheres into a coherent whole and to
    communicate that integration to others.
  • The Creating Mind: the capacity to
    uncover and clarify new problems,
    questions and phenomena.
  • The Respectful Mind: awareness of and
    appreciation for differences among
    human beings and human groups.
  • The Ethical Mind: fulfillment of one’s
    responsibilities as a worker and as a

Certainly we must have disciplined minds.  But without synthesis, creativity, respect, and ethics, by reducing our mission as intellectuals, researchers, teachers, and students to the merely disciplinary, we allow our full humanity to recede from our horizon.  [Listen to a provocative talk by Philip Clayton on minds for the future at the 2007 Metanexus Conference on iTunes.] 

Seeking “whole food” does not mean avoiding “nutrients.”  Seeking wisdom does not mean denigrating knowledge.  But we must not stop short.  If we think “what is” can be reduced to this or that disciplinary knowledge, we do no more than generate yet another “-ism.”  We cut ourselves off from any hope of wholeness, any hope of wisdom.

Hope, not guarantee.  A recovery of metaphysics means to move deftly and hopefully between the “foolishness” of thinking the whole is wholly inaccessible, and the “idolatry” of thinking that the whole is wholly articulable in some sort of “superdisciplinary” form.  It is a fine line, and it is of vital importance to preserve this hope.  That’s why we do what we do.

What are you going to do? 

Join Metanexus Today

Metanexus fosters a growing international network of individuals and groups exploring the dynamic interface between cosmos, nature and culture. Membership is open to all. Join Now!