Commonsense obliviousness, which can include philosophical commonsensical obliviousness, forgets how pervasive and ubiquitous metaphysical beliefs are.
Whenever we are not thinking phenomenologically — carefully bracketing the sources of our experiences (a very strenuous and unnatural effort!) — and instead take our experiences at face value as experiences of reality, we live metaphysically.
Humans are naturally (and second-naturally) metaphysical.
One of our most primordial, ordinary and important metaphysical beliefs the faith in the reality of past and future. To interpret our memories as records of a reality that has passed, or to understand our imagined anticipations as attempts to foresee a reality to come — both of these take the given present as a part of a larger transcendent reality.
The same goes for the reality of what we experience as phenomena — Kant’s noumena, and the reality of the space within which they extend, which stretches on into the distance beyond our vision, and according to modern commonsense, endlessly into space — these are also metaphysical beliefs. We naturally (and in the case of “infinite” space, second-naturally) go beyond the present givens and take these experiences as parts of a larger transcendent reality.
But our most important metaphysical beliefs concern the reality of other people — not as space-extensive noumena, but as fellow selves. If we take fellow selfhoods as a transcendent reality we begin to see our own selfhood as part of a larger transcendent reality of multiple selves.
And less obviously, our own selfhood is also a matter of metaphysical belief. The nature of this selfhood, and the possibilities of change in one’s selfhood (or even how we conceive selfhood) go far beyond the given present — far further, in fact, than the other metaphysical beliefs.
Of course, philosophers love playing the epoché game, bracketing this dimension or that, or all of them together in radical skepticism, or even total Humean solipsism.
But playing around with concepts and seeing what one can construct and argue is not at all the same as changing beliefs. We can affirm or deny assertions all day, and we can claim that we believe or doubt these assertions, but, fact is, whether anyone can prove it or not, these claims are truthful or untruthful reports on our real beliefs.
This line of thought always brings me to C. S. Peirce’s call to intellectual conscience: “We cannot begin with complete doubt. We must begin with all the prejudices which we actually have when we enter upon the study of philosophy. These prejudices are not to be dispelled by a maxim, for they are things which it does not occur to us can be questioned. Hence this initial skepticism will be a mere self-deception, and not real doubt… Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts.”
In the last couple of decades, and especially in the last year I’ve given a lot of thought to the distinction between those thoughts we think with, and the thoughts we merely think about.
The distinction I am making here might parallel that between beliefs and assertions.
How do we know the difference? One test is whether the truths asserted are consistent with truths performed. If one asserts a moral principle, does one act in accordance with the principle, and its full pragmatic consequences — or least hears and responds to appeals? Or does one find reasons to disregard the principle when it makes claims on oneself instead of others. Hypocrisy is a sign that one uses assertions that one does not really believe.
But belief goes beyond simple avoidance of hypocrisy.
I’ve been reading about Habermas, and he talks a lot about the performative truths inherent in discourse. The very act of engaging in discourse implies beliefs, and to deny them is a performative contradiction.
Habermas is a holdout for absolute morality, as something distinct from relative ethics. And his arguments seem to point to precisely my own beliefs on morality, as evidenced by what actually offends me and inspires my contempt — not only of others who offend against me, but also myself when I offend against others. My formulation would almost certainly bother Habermas, but here it is: Thou shalt be fully metaphysical. For me, I feel this belief most intensely with respect to other people, which is a Jewish attitude.
I cannot doubt in my heart that there is something contemptible about treating others as less real than oneself.
I believe that denying the full metaphysical reality of other selves is a betrayal of what we cannot doubt in our hearts is evil — and that any theories that support that effort is also evil. Conversely, any theory that intensifies our awareness that other beings are both real and other is, at least in that respect, good.
Another insight from Habermas has captured my attention is this: morality is not to be determined monologically, but rather dialogically.
And this might reveal another angle for unlocking the full value of the Electrum Rule: “Do to others only what you would have them do to you.” Wouldn’t we always have others involve us in decisions that impact our lives? The Electrum Rule is essentially dialogical, and it is this dialogical reciprocity that drives its non-linear development through degrees of prime.
If philosophy aims at changing our beliefs, and we authorize our intellectual consciences to serve as referee, this certainly does raise the stakes of philosophy — but it does it make philosophy less playful? — Only if by playful we really mean frivolous.