Some problems: Common language and metaphysics

The problem of the relationship between grammar and metaphysics begins with the fact that communicable truth exists only in language. Is a wall true? No, because it cannot be false. It can only be true to say, e.g., ‘that is a wall;’ ‘there exists at least one entity we define as a wall;’ ‘that wall exists, and I will bump into it if I proceed directly toward it.’ All these sentences can be true or false. But without yet defining the problem of truth itself, we recognize the obvious, that what we call a wall, as an entity standing at a certain point in space-time, just is; and if a wall is not, well, and then it is not. Only when we need to remark to another intelligence the existence of the entity, or our inability to discover the entity where we expected it to exist, or if we choose to discuss the possibility of bringing such an entity into existence, do we need to posit a truth, that is, a true statement, concerning the entity’s existence or lack of existence. Metaphysics is a communicable system of thoughts concerning existence, or presumably possible existence, in a series of true statements. But if this is the case, is metaphysics made manifest in such a system, that is, in such a series of true statements? Or is it in fact composed by and as this series of statements? In which case metaphysics is merely a construction of language. This raises the horns of an idealist dilemma first noted by medieval nominalists. If language is discovered to be all that we can “know”, then metaphysics is either completely fictional since it cannot encompass all that we can experience, or metaphysics is the only reality we can know, and thus constitutes reality itself. Many of the brightest minds of modernity have become hopelessly befuddled by this dilemma. I touch the entity which we have agreed to call Wall. I say, this is a wall, and I’d be telling a fiction? but if the truth of “Wall” is only what I say of it, what is this thing I touch? It is surely not a wall, since ” wall ” is a word, and I cannot touch words. Even if I paint the word ” wall ” on the wall, and touch the entity at the spot where I have painted the word, I am not touching the word, I am still touching the entity we agree to call Wall; no word ” wall ” can exist anywhere but in the human mind.
It is the very humanness of language that frightens us; perhaps this tells us metaphysics is not a system of knowledge concerning the universe but a projection of mind as knowledge concerning experience we can share in no other way than in language. One way we know this is in the perennial problem concerning the relationship between Universals and particulars, which is really a relationship between Universals and individuals (singularly or in groups), except that individuals are not accessible by any terms within metaphysics, at least not such as we know it today. (They are subsumed into sets having one member.) But I want to be able to state ” this wall “, and refer to the entity I am experiencing right now, this moment in time and space. But ” wall ” refers to any such entity, and the word ” this ” doesn’t itself refer to anything until given a designated reference. The sentence ” this wall exists ” translates as ” directional reference to any entity x such that entity x presents all necessary requirements for membership in logical class Wall, such that entity x can be encountered experientially by any intelligence capable of comprehending this sentence “. There are may even be some professional philosophers who would indeed have us translate common expressions into such terms. But, were we all trained to speak in such language, the fundamental problem would remain the same; the individual entity must exist in order to be addressed in our language, but it cannot exist within our language. Thus we find ourselves ever talking around the material stuff of the universe and never about it.

Here we begin to see the real problem in the relationship between grammar and metaphysics. Metaphysics as a system of true statements about the universe must be coextensive with the logic by which the statements are elaborated and constructed as such a system. But language is not reducible to logic. That is why we can construct a grammatically correct sentence that happens to be false, and why we can construct arguments that are logically valid and completely nonsensical. ‘All balloons are made of iron;’ that is a grammatically correct sentence. ‘If all balloons are made of iron and iron tastes good, then all balloons will taste good.’ If the premises are true the conclusion will be true; thus this is a valid argument. Even though all the premises are false. But wait: WHAT IF it is true that at least one human intelligence finds iron to taste good? what if he/she finds balloons to taste good? would that make this argument more true? Obviously not, but that raises a problem. Obviously taste belongs to an intelligence with the capacity for taste [in the sense of preference]; but no intelligence has the capacity to choose balloons to be made of iron.

What we find in this example is the possibility that there are degrees of truth, a possibility that Western logic long ruled out of court. It has reappeared surreptitiously in the use of statistics, probability, fuzzy logics. But long before these, grammar not only assured us of this possibility, but necessitated it.

Children especially love to play on this principle even though, of course, they are incapable of articulating it. Nonetheless, consider two children; both are sent to the store, both instructed to go “directly” to the store, to buy a loaf of bread. The first child walks straight down the street to the corner where there is a store that sells bread; the child buys a loaf of bread and walks straight up the street back to his/her point of origin. The second child begins walking down the street, recognizes a friend in the playground, goes to meet said friend; they play a game of hide and seek; then the two friends catch a bus downtown where they see a movie together; as they come out of the feature, the second child remembers that he/she needs to pick up a loaf of bread before returning to his/her point of origin. He/she stops at a store near the theater, buys the bread, hops on the bus which he/she rides back to the point of origin, where he or she is asked to explain what took so long in completing the assigned task. To which the child responds in perfect innocence “I went to the store and bought a loaf of bread, just as I was asked to.” Is this statement false? No; it is reduction of the child’s narrative of his/her own behavior to the the points of beginning and end, which corresponds to the parent’s initial request. Thus it is true to a certain extent. The parent or other adult who begins to respond to this response by asserting its falsehood, is wrong, but also not stating a falsehood. The adult was expecting compliance with his or her desire, which was expressed adequately; the child is not unaware of that. But the child recognizes that the deployment of the term ” directly ” leaves considerable maneuvering leverage by way of interpretation. Unfortunately adults rule the world, and they insist that their children comply with their intentions and pay no attention to their language.

So in discussions of existants, such as walls, and how we address them logically, we come up against all kinds of problems, such as found in epistemology or ontology, trying to get a metaphysics that is necessitated by our definitions and arguments, but remaining somehow just beyond our reach. We want to have absolute certainty that our claims on the existants are true. But centuries of debate have gotten us no closer to this, and we are now left with probabilities – which, fortunately work pretty well for the accumulation of scientific knowledge.

But common language reminds us that common experience has always operated with an implicit understanding that there are degrees of truth, that absolute truth is a matter of agreement only in terms of actual behavior. When I ask someone, “please hang this painting on that wall,” the problem of defining the wall or its existence is irrelevant; the degree of certainty of the understanding between us will be clear if the other person hangs the painting on the wall.
On the other hand, if I am on trial for a crime, and I have a good lawyer, and there is serious disagreement between eyewitnesses, the prosecutor will be hard pressed to prove the case “beyond a reasonable doubt,” even if I committed the crime.
But if I am pursuing a lawsuit against a neighbor I may still be able to win my case based on “the weight of the evidence,” which does not necessitate going beyond a reasonable doubt. That is, there may be reasonable doubt concerning the case, but is there just enough evidence to indicate that I have a claim? – is the question the judge or jury need to ask.

We seem to have come quite a distance from the question of whether we could make metaphysical existence of objects we call walls. But the problem is that language begins socially, in an effort to determine behavior between relating individuals. I suggest that the grammars of common language actually come embedded with a metaphysics – the world exists such that paintings can be hung on walls; such that determinations between adversaries in court need sometimes reduce to judgmental weighting of the evidence producing no certainty; such that children can run off and play when their parents want them to buy a loaf of bread. Yet it is just because of this that philosophers (and, in a different way, scientists) then begin extrapolating what might be said of the world beyond what is commonly experienced.
The problem may be that there is a severe disjunction between the common language used in addressing our actual experiences and the languages we use to go beyond it. This has long been noted; but the answers to the problem have not yet been satisfactory, or at least not satisfactorily deployed.

More questions than answers, I’m afraid. But certainty may prove a needless limitation on the possibility of knowledge, after all*….

[*Note: I am not claiming this for all sorts of knowledge, e.g., math or pure logic; but certainly much social knowledge is contingent and it is possible that much metaphysical knowledge – including that derived from natural sciences – may also prove contingent, at least to some degree.)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s