A Short Piece from (Re)constructing “A is A” by O.G. Rose
Is Metaphysics Unfalsifiable?
“What Is Metaphysics?” (the first section of A Philosophy of Glimpses, a prolegomenon to a “New Metaphysics”) suggests that “metaphysics is mostly unfalsifiable,” and I received feedback and responses that disagreed. Thomas Jockin, particularly, presented strong arguments against the idea, disagreement for which I am grateful, for they stimulated my thinking on the topic. I’ve personally tried to make the case that it didn’t matter if metaphysics was unfalsifiable, but it’s still a debate that I’ve been convinced is worth entertaining. Please note that Mr. Jockin is focused on a “metaphysics of lacks,” and it is regarding that kind of metaphysics that he mostly wants to defend the possibility of falsification.
When I talk about “falsification,” I’m mostly using it in the narrow sense meant by Karl Popper: I do not mean that metaphysics isn’t “disprovable” or that the field is ultimately a collection of phantasms. What is “falsifiable” is that which Popper argued could be a science, and by suggesting metaphysics could be “unfalsifiable,” I’m suggesting it might not be a science like Physics. Is this right? Perhaps not: we’ll have to debate and see, as we’ll also have to determine if something that is “falsifiable” must also be “objective,” and vice-versa — a number of terms must be examined and pulled apart.
As discussed in The Science of Things Failing by O.G. Rose, there is an apologetic argument for God’s existence that claims that if one person in all of human history actually experienced God, then God would exist. Since billions of people genuinely claim they have experienced God, even to the point of being willing to die and suffer for their beliefs, then it is extremely probable that God exists. No, this doesn’t prove God exists, but it at least makes theology a rational subject to explore.
If for one person on the planet a “lack” is objectively real, while for everyone else the “lack” is only subjective, is it the case that the “lack” is objectively real? I think this is an important question for considering Mr. Jockin’s objection to the idea that metaphysics is “unfalsifiable.” While Mr. Jockin may agree that “mind-dependent lacks” might be “unfalsifiable,” he wants to make a careful distinction with “object-based lacks” so that we can highlight the objective and falsifiable reality of “lacks.” I think this is a very fair point and deserves consideration (as elaborated on in Section V of A Philosophy of Glimpses), though I would note that regardless if the “New Metaphysics” proves “falsifiable” or “unfalsifiable,” the overall project and trajectory remain constant. If anything, Jockin’s point on the “possible objectivity of (certain) lacks” will only strengthen the case for the “New Metaphysics.”
Ultimately, I think the question comes down to what criteria something must pass in order to be considered “falsifiable,” and if it the case that what is “objective” is necessarily “unfalsifiable” and vice-versa. Personally, I like how Jonathan Rauch lays out the case in his amazing Kindly Inquisitors for what constitutes “falsifiable beliefs,” where he writes that science relies on experience, but ‘only the experience of no one in particular.’¹ For Rauch, science makes ‘particular persons […] interchangeable,’ which means something cannot be “falsifiable” if that status is “people dependent,” especially particular persons with particular subjectivities.²
If a bridge collapses and turns into a pile of debris, certainly to the original builder the “pile of debris” will objectively “lack” “bridge-ness.” In the very “object-ness” of the debris, there would also be embedded a “lack” to those who once saw and/or used the bridge, to those who could see the parts of the road out of which the bridge fell, and to those who helped build the bridge. Relative to these people, the “pile of debris” would be “lacking” something, and not just “in their opinion”: there really was a bridge that they could use and stand on; to claim “the bridge only existed according to them” would seem silly and strange. Their sense of “lack” would be based on a “hard reality” of a bridge they used and that was actually (not potentially) present: to refer to “the existence of the bridge” as “subjective” like some opinion about a movie would seem absurd.
Well, that’s true, and certainly it would be wrong to say the existence of the bridge was just “a matter of opinion,” as it would also be strange to suggest that “the lack of the bridge” in the debris was in no way whatsoever based on an “object-based” reality. But the question we face is this: is the “lack” of the bridge what “anyone would experience” when they encountered the pile of debris? Is the experience of this “lack” ‘only the experience of no one in particular?’³ If not, the “lack of bridge-ness” could in some way be “object(ive) based” and yet not falsifiable according to Popper or Rauch.
Jonathan Rauch claims that the falsifiable is ‘what […] anyone [would] have seen in the lab,’ which, assuming this criteria is valid, means the “pile of debris” only has falsifiability as “the remains of a bridge” if anyone could look at the debris and know “bridge-ness” is lacking.”⁴ For falsification ‘particular persons [must be] interchangeable,’ which begs the question: does this hold regarding “lacks?”⁵
Please note that even if it didn’t, there would be something to the argument that the “lack” of the bridge was based on an “object” (the debris) and the “object-ive reality” that people once used the bridge to cross a river. Considering this, it’s possible for metaphysics to be “object(ive)-based” even if it is not always “falsifiable.” It might be the case that everything falsifiable is “object(ive)-based,” but it perhaps doesn’t have to be the case that everything “object(ive)-based” must be falsifiable. The categories might ultimately prove distinct, though that doesn’t mean the ultimate validity of the subjects changes at all.
For the engineer of the bridge, everyone who used the bridge, and everyone who can observe the context or “setting” of the pile of debris, the “lack” of “bridge-ness” is objective — it is not merely subjective — but does that mean it is falsifiable? Following Popper’s critique, it doesn’t seem so, because if I were to find a boy raised in the forest by wolves and brought him to the pile of debris, that “wolf child” would probably not experience “a lack of bridge-ness.” Rather, the “wolf child” would experience “a pile of stones.”
This might be a silly point, and certainly for the majority the debris is “lacking” its prior form, but “x lacking y” for the majority is not technically enough for the premise “x lacks y” to be falsifiable. Now, to go back to the opening paragraph about the existence of God, perhaps we believe that if “x lacking y” is falsifiable to a single person on the planet, then “x lacking y” is objectively falsifiable, but that would not hold for the criteria of Popper. At the very least though, we could say that “lacks” exist in a “space between” objectivity and subjectivity, falsifiability, and un-falsifiability, and that is indeed an important point to recognize.
If a bridge collapsed and left a pile of debris, and someone looked at the debris a thousand years later, would that person objectively experience a “lack” of bridge-ness? If the road which the bridge was once part of eroded away, if the river which the bridge reached across dried up, and if the very existence of “bridges” was forgotten thanks to the invention of hovercrafts, then the observer probably would not: the “pile of debris” would just be “a pile of debris.” Hence, knowing that “the object-ness” of the pile was “lacking bridge-ness” would be contingent upon knowing its past use, being able to observe its context, and even possessing “the idea of a bridge.” Considering this, the understanding that the pile was “lacking” would be contingent, not “universally objective,” even though the “lack” would be based on the “object-ness” of the pile.
Okay, but come on: outside these strange thought experiments, the “lack” of the debris would be objective, right? Isn’t there something to be said about the “lack” being “practically objective?” There is, and I like the word “practical” here, for it means “almost” and “lived out” simultaneously. Certainly, the “lack” of the debris is “practically objective,” but for Popper that would not be enough to make something “falsifiable.” The bar something must overcome to be “falsifiable” is a very high bar indeed, and very few things pass over it. And it should be noted that many “philosophers of science” today disagree that falsification should be used as a hard criteria for defining “pseudo-science” from “real science” (after all, is M-Theory falsifiable?). But if we’re sticking to Popper and following Rauch’s understanding of falsification (which I share), then “lacks” and a metaphysics based on “lacks” will mostly prove unfalsifiable.
To stress, this does not mean metaphysics can’t orbit around “object-based realities,” nor does it mean metaphysics can’t be “practically objective,” only that metaphysics probably doesn’t fall under the narrow understanding of falsification presented by Popper. As I’ve hopefully made clear though, this doesn’t matter. Additionally, in my other works, I hope I’ve disproven those who believe that “everything which isn’t falsifiable is nonsense” — that is taking things way too far.
Lastly, I want to stress that saying “metaphysics is mostly unfalsifiable” does not mean metaphysics isn’t testable or disprovable. “Testable” and “falsifiable” are not similes: it is possible to test and disprove what cannot be falsifiable. But wait, how can I disprove what cannot be falsified? That doesn’t make sense. Well, it’s because I can build evidence against a case to the point where it eventually becomes untenable, even though I can’t establish with certainty that the case is false (this is often the case with conspiracy theories). No, I can’t disprove with certainty the unfalsifiable, but I can disprove it with confidence.
“Falsifiable,” “objective,” “testable,” “disprovable,” “empirical” — all of these similar and often overlapping terms are ones that I hope to keep distinct. By questioning the falsification of metaphysics, I have not meant here to suggest that metaphysics is a game of imagination or some purely “speculative art.” Metaphysics is based on “object(ive) realities, experiences, practical uses, and the like — it’s just that metaphysics doesn’t seem like it depends on ‘the experience of no one in particular,’ thus rendering it unfalsifiable.⁶ That said, readers may disagree with my understanding of Popper’s falsifiable, and on those ground the debate may continue.
There is also room for debate because someone might disagree that something must be “universally objective” to be objective at all, as they might disagree that something has to be “universally falsifiable” to be falsifiable at all. It would seem everything falsifiable must be objective, but it might not be the case that everything objective must be falsifiable — I don’t know.⁷ On these points, I don’t have a strong view.
I want to stress that metaphysics doesn’t need to be falsifiable to matter and prove itself a valid undertaking. This work has meant to entertain a debate, but ultimately it is not a debate that I think is necessary for the justification of a “New Metaphysics.” Regardless, the work continues.
Still, before closing, it should be noted that Javier Rivera poised some interesting questions and points regarding the subject. What is the nature of reality that makes some things falsifiable and not others? How can we connect the falsifiable with the unfalsifiable, “what is person-dependent” with “what is non-person-dependent” (to allude to Rauch)? If we could determine this, we might be able to determine the “perimeter around reality,” which would help us understand metaphysics.
Generally, it seems that metaphysical entities like “lacks” and “being” exist in “between spaces.” “Lacks” are falsifiable in one sense but not in another; beauty is “here” in one sense but also “elsewhere”; “form” is present in matter and yet at the same time can’t be found in matter. Metaphysics are about these “between” things, things that entail a kind of “both-ness’ — it’s difficult to describe. Unfortunately, we often hear “metaphysics” and, influenced by Plato, think “transcendent” and/or “totally other” from physicality. But “lacks” are not “totally other” from our lives: Thomas Jockin is correct that we experience and recognize them constantly.
“Through (No)thing We Know” by O.G. Rose argues that we often are lacking a “third category” which we need to understand our world: we’ve had the categories of “thing” and “nothing,” but thoughts are more like “(no)things,” between “thingness” and “non-thingness”; we’ve had “inanimate” and “animate” objects, but laptops are more like “(in)animate objects,” because they would not exist without (animated) minds; and so on. Regarding entities that fall under “third categories” like those described, categories like “falsifiable” and “unfalsifiable” don’t readily apply, and perhaps even contribute to us missing the existence of entities that fall under “third categories” we don’t traditionally acknowledge. If we believe everything which exists is either “falsifiable” or “unfalsifiable,” for example, and if it is the case that “lacks” fall between these categories, then we will conclude lacks are nothing. But “lacks” very much exist, even if they aren’t real like clouds.
Perhaps “the metaphysics of lacks” brings to our attention the need for a third criteria like “(un)falsifiable,” which would signify a “conditional falsifiability.” Relative to the designer of a bridge, those who used it, and the like, the idea that “a pile of debris” is in fact “lacking bridge-ness” is very much falsifiable, though this “lack” wouldn’t be falsifiable to a “wolf boy,” per se. To say, therefore, that “lacks are unfalsifiable” is true relative to Karl Popper, but the statement also feels inadequate: it feels like we want to say that “lacks are conditionally falsifiable.”
Is metaphysics (un)falsifiable? Is that the conclusion we should reach? Perhaps, but I will leave that thread to explore another time.
PS. As of 6.9.21, Mr. Jockin released a tremendous reply to the above arguments. Be sure to listen!
¹Rauch, Jonathan. Kindly Inquisitors. The University of Chicago Press. Paperback Edition, 1994: 52.
²Rauch, Jonathan. Kindly Inquisitors. The University of Chicago Press. Paperback Edition, 1994: 53.
³Rauch, Jonathan. Kindly Inquisitors. The University of Chicago Press. Paperback Edition, 1994: 52.
⁴Rauch, Jonathan. Kindly Inquisitors. The University of Chicago Press. Paperback Edition, 1994: 55.
⁵Rauch, Jonathan. Kindly Inquisitors. The University of Chicago Press. Paperback Edition, 1994: 53.
⁶Rauch, Jonathan. Kindly Inquisitors. The University of Chicago Press. Paperback Edition, 1994: 52.
⁷For Derrida, where disagreement of “is-ness” is possible (because everything is “in the text,” per se, meaning interpretation is inescapable), objectivity is impossible.