What I mean when I say "metaphysical"
The first principles of reality are in the eye of the beholder
“I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, to think it possible you may be mistaken.” —Oliver Cromwell
I’ve had a couple of people message me something along the lines of “wtf is metaphysics what are you talking about I can’t even.” So, here’s a stab at an explanation. In my ongoing efforts to un-ego-trap myself I’m just going to stream-of-consciousness out this thing, typos and all, so feel free to clarify and interrogate as needed!
Indulge me in a little thought experiment. If we are all, in fact, living in some kind of evolved Matrix-like interface, as Don Hoffman suggests; or if it’s just simulations all the way down and we’re glorified Sims (as Elon Musk and Scott Adams among others believe), how could we prove (or disprove) such a thing from our observational position as a character in the game? You cannot decisively, case-closed, do such a thing. (You can of course “follow the science” close the case, but that’s an entirely different and Very Problematic epistemological matter.) There is abundant evidence in favor of both arguments. You cannot objectively assess that evidence as a subjective participant.
From your position as a character in the game, perhaps your mystic chip makes you a tiny bit suspicious there’s Something Going On, but who really can be sure? Perhaps you have dreams, visions, personal revelations. Other characters in the game share similar revelations, from near death experiences perhaps, or psychedelic use. They report there is another world, a world just on the other side of the veil; what we think is fixed and permanent is nothing of the kind. Then there’s all that quantum physics “spooky action at a distance,” as Einstein called it. Sometimes you think about all the dark matter in the universe and how the values assigned to it are just made up to make the equations work and it gives you pause.
But at the end of the day, who can argue with physical materialist reality right in front of you? Who can argue that bodies get sick and die? That telekinesis conveniently never works on television? If psychic powers existed, they’d be so evolutionarily advantageous that that surely everyone would have them. It’s all just wishful thinking. And then there’s the famous story of an early materialist/idealist debate between Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, summarized by the latter:
After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, “I refute it thus.” — James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson
This literal “appeal to the stone” argument, however, does not close the case. Fundamentally, you cannot assert final evidence on the nature of reality from within the paradigm of that reality. You can choose what evidence appeals most to you, and accords most favorably with your own preferences. But it is a preference. We select our metaphysics. For a variety of reasons of disposition (#mysticchip), social expediency and status, cultural norms, contingent influences and guru encounters—we may not think we are choosing it (“I’m just following the evidence!”)…but we are.
If we can choose it, we can un-choose it. I have experienced this in both directions. I went from fairly-but-not-unreasonably woo-woo to “science killed it” when I first got serious about EP. As I’ve spoken about, this had real effects on my quality of life. Existence in a “life sucks and then you die” paradigm made hard things harder. It made losses almost unbearable, but at the same time emotionally sterile—a horrendous combination. It sustained me in a near-permanent state of intense self-loathing punctuated by only fleeting moments of relief. It was decidedly no bueno.
When I started to open back up to some non-materialist thinking, I began by revisiting the so-called “hard problem of consciousness.” This is essentially the question of which comes first: consciousness or matter. If consciousness is primary, it seems pretty straightforward how matter comes to be (or seems to, anyway.) If matter is primary, however, how exactly does the the brain boot up consciousness—not just in humans, but certainly across the animal kingdom and extending to some indeterminate point beyond that (where you draw that line is another metaphysical question. Single-cell bacteria? Okay, fine. Plants? Now you’ve gone too far. Except…)
With a bit of reflection and just a bit of re-exposure to other consciousness-first weirdos like Hoffman, Iain McGilchrist, Bernardo Kastrup, Rupert Sheldrake, etc…it became clear to me that the primacy of matter just doesn’t pass my metaphysical sniff test. As Hoffman says: space-time is not fundamental. And once that’s your first assumption, well, everything gets very strange. And much, much more (to me) interesting.
I am grateful to the gods for an innate quality I’ve always had since I was a (very odd) little kid, which is something like that which John Keats called “negative capability.” That is—I am not even a little bit bothered that I don’t know, and not just that I don’t know, but that I might never know. And indeed, that by making it “more complicated” I have made it less likely that I will ever decisively know anything at all. I am totally cool with that, and greatly prefer it to the claustrophobia of ideological and scientific certainty, which strikes me as anti-inquiry, anti-truth, anti-reality. Call it openness, call it a mystic chip, whatever.
In addition to all of its other problems and mismatches with us as a species, the modern environment conspires in every possible way to divorce us from mystery. The basic metaphysical assumptions that underpin our daily existence (and inform the essentials of evolutionary psychology, unavoidably) are, frankly, terrible. They are profoundly nihilistic and alienating. “You are an accident of the universe, your life is basically meaningless, there’s nothing else out there but The Void, if you can’t win beauty and mating and other popularity contests then that just sucks for you, loser.” If you don’t find yourself feeling at least a little bit depressed and helpless about these assumptions you are a wonder of science and should be studied in a lab. And all of this was already very bad, but then we added the relentlessness of “always on” technology and then (my god) social media to the mix, like the absolute psychopaths that we are.
EP offers terrific—the best available!—tools for navigating existence within the absolute worst set of metaphysics humans have ever imposed on themselves in their collective history. But wouldn’t it be an improvement extremely worth investigating to embiggen—if we could—the metaphysics themselves?