concepts section: copyright Robert Ellis 2011

Negative metaphysics

Negative metaphysics is the type of metaphysics that involves an assertion of the falsity of metaphysical claims. Since metaphysical claims lie beyond experience, the assertion of their falsity also involves claims that lie beyond our experience. This can be easily seen with some example metaphysical claims: "God exists" vs "God does not exist"; "The universe has an end" vs "The universe is endless", or "human beings have freewill" vs "human beings are determined". We can never establish the truth of any of these metaphysical claims, but we cannot establish their falsity either. Since they are absolute and non-incremental, we have to either accept or reject these claims or their denial as a whole, for they are not amenable to degrees of evidence or to incremental justification. No matter how far we travel or how far our telescopes penetrate, for example, we can never in principle establish that we have found the end of the universe, nor that it has no end. Greater distances of observation do not make these possibilities any more or less likely.

Negative metaphysics is thus just as dogmatic as positive metaphysics. This is an important point to stress, because the failure to appreciate it gives rise to a great deal of confusion. People who liberate themselves from one metaphysical view, recognising the lack of evidence for it, frequently then fall into the opposite negative metaphysical view e.g. from realism into idealism, from the soul-theory into materialism, or from theism into atheism. This becomes especially important when the rejection of an absolute source of moral values (i.e. rejection of eternalism) turns into a belief that there is no justification for moral values beyond preference or convention (i.e. nihilism). Both of these positions distract us from our experience of incrementally-justified moral values. The perfect (and its negation) become the enemy of the good.

The genuine alternative to metaphysics is not negative metaphysics but metaphysical agnosticism. If we make a consistent effort to avoid metaphysical beliefs, we can think in different terms, justifying our beliefs incrementally in relation to experience and letting go of metaphysical obsessions. If you really want to get free of the oppressive effects of theistic belief, for example, do not choose atheism. Atheists are often obsessed with theistic belief and wanting to 'disprove' it. Agnosticism is a far more dangerous long-term option for the future of theism. It is those who are prepared to let go of metaphysical commitments, even if they choose to work within religious groups, who are best placed to engage with conditions anew, rather than using up their energies fighting a dualistically opposed view.

Links to related discussion

Metaphysics (introductory page)

Philosophical problems (introductory page)

Features of nihilism (thesis)

The Philosophy of the Middle Way (thesis)


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