“After Aristotle had sketched the best science available in his day, he wanted to go further. What implications did that science have for the nature of the physical world with which it dealt? His intention was to develop the meta-physics only after the physics. If science had always followed this pattern the role of metaphysics would have been far more positive. Unfortunately, once a metaphysics is formulated, it is likely to take on a life of its own and to force science and theology to adjust to ideas that may not fit what is known in actual experience. This is why metaphysics has done damage.”
Above is a great passage from a paper John Cobb wrote about the practical need for metaphysics, which I re-read recently because I’ve been trying to pinpoint why I am so interested in metaphysics. To put it way too simply, when I speak about metaphysics I’m referring to the branch of philosophy that deals with truth beyond the physical realm. Two helpful analogies for metaphysics I’ve come across are 1) metaphysics (perhaps) creates the membrane of the organizational structure of our worldview(s), and 2) metaphysics are like our operating systems, which application programs usually require in order to function.
At this point in my life adventure (despite it not being a popular position) I find it difficult to understand how anyone could be “post-metaphysical.” To me, this is kind of like saying one could be “post-ethical” and, more often than not, what I think happens is that people associate Metaphysics with a particular type of metaphysics…
Following the operating system analogy, it seems to me like we all have these human constructed metaphysics running in the background to some degree. It also seems to me that every worldview, in order to cohere as a system for people to situate their consciousness within, has to answer basic questions like: What are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? What’s the meaning(s) of life? What is reality? Are there actually many realities? etc, etc, etc…
Now I’m particularly interested in the process-relational variety of metaphysics. And I think some of the reasons for this are that, for me, process philosophy is the perfect open ended blend of aesthetics/poetics (art), empiricism (science), theology, philosophy (both Eastern and Western) AND, because of this integral composition, it takes intuition incredibly seriously. And that’s important to me.
One of my faults, or strengths (depending on how one looks at it), is that I’m a synthetic thinker. I like stepping back and looking at the big picture. I think a comprehensive understanding is the best understanding. I enjoy knowing the purpose or goal of a task before getting into the nitty gritty details, otherwise I get lost and/or disinterested pretty quickly. Being a synthesis-oriented type person also makes me aware that there are larger structures present and at work in the world, thus I also tend to be a systems thinker.
In regard to process-relational thinking, one of the most informative and edifying insights I’ve gleaned from it (other than learning to conceive of reality as a relational, experiential, multiplicity of realities in the process of becoming something other) is just how much ideas do influence us, whether we know it or not. Further, the notion that ideas and mental events are REAL things (participants and actors in the play) is also pretty friggin’ mind blowing if you ask me!
So it’s really troubling to me when I come across binaries like “practical/theoretical”, or “action/contemplation”, as if they’re mutually exclusive. On the one hand, yes, I understand what someone may be trying to say when they set up this type of binary. In the case of “practical/theoretical” a practical theologian, for instance, might say they like theory, and find it fascinating, but are more interested in how these theories could affect the everyday, walking around, enfleshed, PHYSICAL lives of people. Obviously the thinking here is one similar to what an American Pragmatist might say, that philosophical ideas are tools which are useful only in the sense that they help solve physical, substantive problems. And that’s fine. I like this clinical approach, actually. It’s just that it assumes there are indeed “tools” and therefore tool makers and tool users.
To put it another way, just because one is not interested in asking, exploring, and engaging metaphysical questions does not mean those questions go away or remain unasked and unused as “tools” by other people. Speaking personally, I’ve found that if I don’t engage with metaphysical questions consciously, I will just do so unconsciously, which can be kind of a scary thought.
While not speaking directly about metaphysics, Tripp Fuller basically made the same point recently in a podcast interview at Homebrewed Christianity. Discussing the violence of the cross, and the Liberal Christian aversion to it, Tripp points out that we can’t escape asking certain questions:
“[In regard to violence, part of the problem] for people of privilege in the first world, is that if we got rid of the cross we would never be honest about just how much violence there is in the world…so there is a sense when liberal Christians want to cut confessions out of their liturgies…or we want to talk less about the cross…we think we’re getting rid of violence when what we’re really doing is wanting to create a world where we never admit it’s as violent as it is. And part of the cross being there, I think, is [having to say] ‘no you can’t escape this question.’ When yo try to escape it, then the Church just remains blind, passive supporters of all sorts of systems of violence and oppression…”
Along these lines, In the Cobb essay I quoted above, he points out just how much unquestioned Cartesian metaphysics influenced the Western scientific method (for example), leading to the assumption “that human beings, like everything else, are to be fully explained without any reference to their subjective experience. Our decisions are supposed to have no causal role in the world. If the reality of subjective experience is acknowledged at all, it is held to be fully caused by physical events and to have no reciprocal causal influence on them. Strictly speaking, human beings are automata.”
The sad thing, as Cobb points out, is that no one REALLY believes this! And the only reason to hold to this view is metaphysical. Cobb again:
“I am quite sure that no one really believes this metaphysics, and the actions of scientists themselves certainly show that they do not. But it remains the systematic implication of what most scientists believe about the nature of science. They believe it deals comprehensively with nature, and they believe that the nature with which it deals is objective. This excludes the subjective from nature and from playing any role in nature. Thus a metaphysics that no one can believe shapes the self-understanding of science.”
Everyone knows, intuitively, that human minds and bodies are BOTH REAL THINGS and that they are both intimately intertwined. BUT, as Cobb writes, “the intended rejection of metaphysics prevents any questioning or examination of the denial that human decisions can have a role in what happens in the world.”
I really do think Cobb is right here. Certain operating systems can only run certain programs. We can only see what we can imagine. Not asking certain types of questions, and not searching for certain types of answers, does not make things better. If anything, we should probably ask MORE questions! All kinds of questions! New questions, creative questions, weird questions, and then seek creative answers for those questions, always being fully aware, of course, that wisdom cannot be satisfied. As Whitehead reminds us “There remains the final reflection, how shallow, puny, and imperfect are efforts to sound the depths in the nature of things. In philosophical discussion, the merest hint of dogmatic certainty as to finality of statement is an exhibition of folly.”
Art above by Alexander Aksinn