Empiricism and the Possibility of Metaphysics

Before the birth of empiricism, philosophy was considered responsible for discovering the general laws of being. Its tool was syllogistic reasoning and philosophic thought moved from general to more particular propositions. Not only metaphysics and ethics but also such sciences as physics and psychology lay within the sphere of philosophy. However, the experimental method and induction took the sciences, each of them devoted to a specific class of phenomena, out of the purview of philosophy, which was left to deal with issues which fell within the purview of pure reason. The empiricists claimed that there is no field of knowledge beyond the field of experimentation that the sciences have divided among themselves, leaving nothing for philosophy. The only scope that was admitted for philosophy by some schools was that of discovering the relations and links among the sciences and to postulate general scientific theories based on the outcome of experiments in various scientific fields. Foremost amongst them were the schools of Marxism and positivism.

The logical positivists were not satisfied with the empiricist attacks against metaphysics. They did not limit themselves, for instance, to the assertion that metaphysics was useless since its propositions could not be demonstrated by the scientific method. The positivists went on to assert that the propositions of metaphysics were meaningless. The criticism of the positivists against metaphysics can be summarized as follows:

  1. Metaphysical propositions deal with matters that lie beyond the sphere of experience and experiment. Hence they cannot be verified.

  2. Their being true or false makes no difference so far as the world of experience is concerned.

  3. Metaphysical propositions are meaningless because they do not give any information about the world.

  4. It is inappropriate to ascribe truth or falsity to them.

The author suggests the following lines for answering this criticism:

  1. If we refute the empirical theory of knowledge and affirm the existence of a primary knowledge prior to experience in the core of the human mind, we can demonstrate that the mind has the capacity to confirm the veracity or falsity of metaphysical propositions.

  2. Although metaphysical propositions have no direct bearing on the data of experience, these data are not altogether irrelevant to metaphysical statements. Further clarification to be given later.

  3. The logical positivists describe a proposition as 'meaningful' if its truth or falsity can be affirmed within the limits of sense experience.

This is equal to saying, "The content of metaphysical propositions lies beyond sense experience". With this, the positivists assert an indisputable truth, that the subjects of metaphysics are not empirical something which the rationalists have stressed all along.

What would the positivist say about such propositions as relate to nature but cannot be verified by sense experience, such as a statement about the existence of mountains and valleys on the other side of the moon? Positivism revises its original position to assert that that which is important here is logical possibility, not actual possibility. However, the notion of logical possibility is a metaphysical notion, and thus positivism, in the last analysis, has to adopt a metaphysical criterion of 'meaning'. Metaphysical propositions are as meaningful as any other, in that they relate to realities independent of the mind and the logical possibility of being true or false holds in their case.