Why Metaphysics Matters: The Matrix of Existence
A lively discussion about why metaphysics matters in our current Metamodern era
The Matrix of Existence
I teach a masters course in consciousness studies at The Graduate Institute. In the first weekend I ask the cohort to agree on a Venn Diagram to illustrate the difference between what is “real” and what “exists” (or alternately, between “reality” and “existence.” Invariably, people agree that existence is the larger set, and within it is a subset called “reality.” It is reasonable common sense to see that some “things that exist” are not “real.” Yet they never turn that argument upside down and say that there are things that are real that do not exist. Following Whitehead, a process philosopher might say just that, since potentials may be real potentials but not (yet) exist where “to exist” means to be “actualized” (become what Whitehead called an “actual occasion). In process metaphysics, real potentials differ from Bhaskar’s alethic truths, because Bhaskar’s subtle ontological reductionism suggest that alethic truths actually exist, but in process metaphysics, real potentials do not (yet) exist, and maybe never actualize. What is true in both cases, is that the alethic truth and the real potential both make a causal contribution to what is eventually becomes either 1) known in the sense of epistemologically verifiable truth or 2) actual in the sense of an actualized existing occasion. To simplify the field, it might be useful to look at the following diagram which I call the Matrix of Existence.
This matrix says that everything that either actually exists or can possibly exist, fits into one of four locations. Here existence is not a binary, but a kind of spectrum, from ordinary observable objects (where here “observable means perceivable through our senses) to forces which we cannot observe, but can infer with the aid of conceptual abstractions, technological facility and methodological discipline. The matrix also includes forces we can imagine in the abstract but have no means of validating them, as well as objects and forces we do not see because we have no technology or conceptual apparatus to reveal them. Finally, the most subtle category in the matrix concerns abstractions and conceptions, logics and mathematics, which have not (yet) been conceived. As long as metaphysics sticks to the right hand quadrants, it is safe from the post-modern critique. Kant described the “stuff” in the RH quadrants as “transcendentalia” – a word whose meaning runs close to Russ Cohle’s description of “mainlining the secret truths of the universe.” Henceforward, we were left with the uncanny prospect of “mapping” instead of inhabiting territories as the number one project of human knowledge building. On the other hand, the post-modernist has completely eliminated the “stuff” in the left-hand quadrants — namely, the concrete objects that exist the same as they do, with or without human conceptualization. Henceforward from there, curiously, paradoxically, and rather humorously, the post-modernists have anchored themselves firmly in the RH world of Kant’s transcendentalia and the metaphysics that they so strongly deny. Gotta love that twist!
The matrix of existence helps us define the “existential status” of “things.” It says, quite naively, that all this stuff really exists, but there is a range or field of existence — some of which is concrete and obvious (the UL), some of which is more subtle and less obvious, some of which is so subtle that it needs more “help”, conceptually and imaginatively to bring it into awareness, and some of which is unknown, but none-the-less part of what is “really existent” because everything is mutually interdependent (all causes, conditions and effects are mutually arising), and some of this stuff is so very subtle, that it exists in potential only.
Depending on who you are, and how you relate to different “stuff”, you will assign more or less “existence” to them. Some mathematicians for example, think numbers are really very real, so that numbers, which are UR quadrant stuff, would be assigned a much higher level of existence by them than by your average textile worker. For the mathematician, numbers are more like the territory, but for the textile worker, they are more like the map. Plato placed a high level of existence on ideas, that’s why he capitalized the word. Plotinus set out to create a taxonomy of the Ideas, a project he construed as discovering the language of God. His project was, of course, a great exercise of pure metaphysical creation. A fun parlor game might be to sit with your friends and parse out what fits where in the matrix of existence, and grade them according to the status of existence you would give them. You might discover that metaphysics not only matters, but that it can be fun, and can reveal the rich multi-layered textures in the spectrum of existence. Which, actually, is what metaphysics is for.
When we add a process inquiry to the question of metaphysics, we get into some really tricky territory. How, for example, does stuff move through the levels of existence? How do subtle experiences become solid objects that are easily shared? Most people would agree that Leeuwenhoek discovered microorganisms, and that Galileo discovered the moons of Jupiter. We are comfortable with the idea that microorganisms and Jupiter’s moons were always already there, except we just didn’t have the means to observe them. Their existence depended upon particular inventions – microscopes and telescopes. Now consider the atom. Before electron photography was invented, direct observation of atoms was impossible. But the atom was “discovered” decades prior to that invention. In the case of the atom, discovery and invention are more closely intertwined. At first, atoms were partially a discovery, but mostly an experimental and conceptual invention that was ongoing for two centuries! and involved at least nine significant scientific advances.
Where do we place stuff like “causally effective illusions?” —that, like the rope that is mistaken for a snake, is an observable (rope) improperly entangled within a mis-conception (snake)? What is the relationship between the left and right quadrants, or the upper and lower ones? What is the relationship between invention (as a product of imaginative inquiry and creative response) and discovery (as a product of refined search and discernment)? If it suits you more to say “we invent new ways of discovering,” you are subtly biasing an ontologically real reality, which is a subtle type of Realism that is situated mostly in the LH quadrants. On the other hand, if you are more inclined to say “we discover new ways to invent,” you are subtly positing the realm of ideas and logos as ontologically existent—a subtle form of Idealism that is situated mostly in the RH quadrants. These are all metaphysical considerations and thinking through them illuminates how embodied minds construct thought.
But do embodied minds construct reality, as the postmodernists claim? This poses a metaphysical challenge. First, I would like to take a very close look at the word “construct.” Taking a closer look at the ordinary “naïve” meaning of a word is often a good first step in taking up a metaphysical challenge. It tells us that we can trust words because they evolved without top-down planning. This means simple words help us escape the kinds of metaphysical priming that makes meaning-making so suspect. Later in this article I will explain that making language more precise is one of the four phases of metaphysical work, and this is why the language of science is mathematics, which is a pure form of metaphysical precision. For now, let’s stick with the challenge in front of us – Do minds construct reality? – by starting with a close examination of the word “construct.” I will borrow from Bruno Latour’s (2007) Actor Network Theory (ANT) here by saying, yes, minds construct reality, but that’s not as weird as you might be imagining. Here I want the word construct in the phrase “construct reality” to operate in the exact same way as it does in the phrase “construct a house.” First I search for a suitable forest near a suitable spot. Then I go into the forest and chop down some suitable trees and mill lumber from them. Eventually I build myself a house, but I am not shocked that I have constructed a new reality “out of” the forest. I do not say “where did the forest go?” nor question whether the forest was “really there” before the house “took its place.” It is simply that before the construction, there was one set of relationships in the world, and afterwards, another set of relationships. In between work was being done. What is the work of construction? 1) I have to be able to imagine (LR) how a forest can become a house; 2) I have to be able to envision the steps of construction (UR); I have to be able to build it, to manipulate it as concrete objects, and then in the process 3) I stumble across something that is useful in a way that I don’t see, something that would have made a firmer joint or a better blade if I saw it that way (LR) until 1b) I imagine-into-a-seeing-how that something could indeed make a firmer joint or better blade… and round and round we go. Now consider the atom. It, too, is a construction. The atom is constructed through sophisticated work of all kinds, and depends on the ongoing processes and practices of the scientific enterprise. And just like the house which may one day be deconstructed by the termites and, over time, “return to being just a forest,” the scientific enterprise also works such that “things” like “atoms” may one day be deconstructed and abandoned. “Did the atom exist before it was discovered?” can now be seen as a question of the same type as “Did the house exist before it was built?” This is the kind of work that good metaphysics can do.
 Bhaskar most probably intuited what process metaphysics would make more explicit, and what complexity science would eventually re-imagine as dispositional states of a system. The dispositional state of a system entails all the possible future states (weighted differently) as they “juggle their way to a final configuration” in the next adjacent moment (solving problems, as it were, much like the tiling problem in crystallography). In this prior state, potentials are causally implicated in the “deliberation of the final configuration” but neither necessarily realized as actuals (actual causes) or sustained as future potentials. Therefore, in complexity science, as in process philosophy, “origin” or “sources” may have only existed in potential, and as a result the present is not even theoretically traceable to something like a past origin. Rather, “origin” is in the preservation of the protocol for potentials to advance into the future, whether as realized actuals, realized effects or as “nothing at all.” Given this, it can be said, that while both prior potentials and future actuals are infinite, they are not exhaustible, since some potentials and some actuals are eliminated from the infinite set. For example, there was a time when there were no elephants, and there may be a time when there are no longer elephants, but there will never be a time when there were never any elephants. There is a cosmological moral imperative to this “fact.”
 See https://www.timetoast.com/timelines/the-scientists-who-discovered-atoms