Like most technical terms, the
word "metaphysics" has changed its meaning considerably in modern times.
It originates with Aristotle (384-322 BC) and an untitled group of his
writings which Greek commentators called meta ta physika. This
means literally "after natural things", an account of the most basic
constituents of reality.
Today's technical meaning is usually closer to that
given by Emmanuel Kant, to whom it meant speculation from first principles
(axioms) about matters which can't be answered by scientific observation
and experiment. But the meaning for most people nowadays is a discussion
or debate about things religious or spiritual - things "outside" or "over
and above" the physical world we all live in day-by-day.
By definition, then, most metaphysical talk is treated
as controversial because it's conclusions tend to be regarded as
ultimately a matter of opinion. Some point out that even those who discuss
metaphysical matters can't agree what the subject is about. The line
between analytical or scientific talk and metaphysical talk has proved
extremely hard to draw clearly.
What is the state of metaphysics now?
First, one would have thought that a degree of consensus
about "meta-physics" might have emerged after more than two thousand years
of discussion. On the contrary, there seems to have been a multiplication
of standpoints and theories instead of a dawning resolution of differences
Second, metaphysics depends for its apparent validity on
the prior assumption that underlying the natural world, there is a "meta"
reality which we need to discover and describe if we possibly can.
According to some, this meta-reality is a continuation of the physical
world and harmonises with it. It comprises systematised thinking about
reality. Others think that the meta-real is different in kind from the
natural world we normally inhabit. It's a sort of spiritual or "more real"
part of things. The idea of a meta-reality goes back at least to Plato and
probably long before that.
Third, many claim that metaphysics encompasses all other
disciplines and therefore has pride of place. Perhaps this is why theology
and metaphysics tend to conflict. The former claims to be the "queen of
sciences". The latter regards theology as a sub-set of philosophy. Both
disciplines maintain they are dealing with fundamentals.
Fourth, metaphysics claims to begin from a point at
which there are no prior assumptions. It therefore has primacy over other
disciplines because they all depend on basic axioms, and these are the
province of metaphysics. Metaphysicians point out, for example, that
# mathematics begins with certain assumptions, such as
the principles of logic, or the distinction between odd and even numbers.
# Some scientists claim that their type of knowledge
will eventually be able to describe every aspect of nature, including
humanity. But many aspects of life outside the scope of science are within
the ambit of metaphysics. Indeed, the very assertion that the scientific
method is the only valid means of establishing truth is metaphysical.
# Theology assumes the existence of God or a Creator as
Fifth, metaphysics insists that it alone as a discipline
relies entirely on reason. All other realms of discourse depend either
upon observation (science) or revelation (theology). This is why Rene
Descartes as a metaphysician thought it essential to establish an
indisputably rational starting point with his "I think, therefore I am."
Anything else, he proposed, is subject to doubt or error. Observations may
be incorrect and revelation can't be verified. Only metaphysics,
therefore, is rationally potentially impregnable, according to Descartes.
Greater minds than mine have turned themselves to an
assessment of metaphysics, especially since the 1700s. A great variety of
positions has resulted. While some are attractive, many appear to me to
verge on the ridiculous.
It seems to me (aided, I must add, by intellects far
superior to my own) that the more convincing responses fall roughly into
the following categories:
- There are those (David Hume for example) who say that
metaphysics is about how concepts relate to each other, rather than
about fundamentals abstracted from reality. Mathematics begins with
necessary truths (like 2 + 2 = 4) but these remain entirely abstract
until they are related to the physical world. Thus 2 + 2 = 4 is not much
use to us, while the conclusion that two marbles plus two more marbles
makes four marbles can be used in a practical way.
- Both John Locke and Thomas Aquinas thought that
metaphysics could properly extend itself from experience into
"meta-experience". We can, they said, validly know things about the real
world and then use that knowledge to draw larger conclusions about the
meta-real. So Descartes thought it possible to reason from "I think,
therefore I am" to a primary consciousness called God.
- More recently many have argued that all valid
knowledge depends upon experience (observation). Such knowledge can
always be tested for its truth or falsity. But the supposed truths of
metaphysics (such as that of Descartes) can't be tested. They are merely
statements which give us no information about anything real.
Metaphysics, it is argued, is the ultimate in delusional navel-gazing.
- Allied to this last position is radical materialism.
It asserts that everything without exception can be explained in terms
of the natural order. Whatever we think or do is the result of natural
causes. Reality is a vast mechanism which can be explained only in terms
of itself. This means, for example, that both religion and metaphysics
can in theory ultimately be satisfactorily explained in psychological
and social terms.
Does all this mean that metaphysics isn't useful or
valid to ordinary people in our ordinary world?
It seems to me that metaphysics serves some important
[A] The rigorous application of reason and logic in
metaphysics may sometimes be the only way of testing the internal
validity of an axiom, no matter from where it has been derived. For
example, is it reasonable to hold the axiom that the material world is
our only valid source of truth? Does that line of thought hold together
when it's tortured in all imaginable ways? Do the logical connections it
gives rise to hold together? If we observe that p is true, and if
implies q which in turn implies r, can we be committed to
as a true statement? Does humankind survive by bread alone? What, if
any, non-material elements or entities are required to render human life
These and a thousand other questions are, it seems to me, the concern of
metaphysics - which may or may not provide good answers. But the outcome
of a metaphysical enquiry, while it may not be definitive, will often
(and often has) demonstrated that a particular line of thought either
has no future or can be further developed. Needless to say, this process
often takes time.
[B] We are constantly discovering new aspects of the
physical world. That is, our experience of reality is constantly expanding
and developing, sometimes slowly, sometimes fast. Metaphysics may or may
not depend for its validity on experience. But it is surely true that the
relevance and usefulness of experience as part of the bigger picture can
be helped and even sometimes established by metaphysical enquiry. For
example, we all use numbers every day. But it's important to realise that
they have no reality in themselves, that they are "true" only when applied
to the real world.
We make a mistake, however, if we suppose
that metaphysics is able to come up with final or definitive answers about
anything. Life poses problems and we can solve them only by thinking them
through. Metaphysics is about thinking without boundaries. For that
reason, it can often result in silly or plainly false conclusions.
An important aspect of metaphysics is that
in it is the contrary of dogma and ideology. That is, metaphysics both
protects and affirms human freedom because religious or other ideologies,
in specifying certain truths as beyond the test of reason, inevitably
limit us. As long as we remain as unfettered as possible by ideology,
prejudice or preconception we are likely to arrive at valid and useful
solutions to problems. Metaphysics ceases to be what it is the moment its
use of reason is restricted.
But it seems to me, on the other hand, that a
metaphysics which has little or no connection with raw data about the
physical world may be worse than useless. Hume's arguments, for example,
may establish (given certain axioms) that we can't be sure we exist.
Whatever the internal validity of his argument, his conclusions are
contradicted by common sense. Only someone who exists can suspect his or
her non-existence. A metaphysic which rambles off into the distance like
this on the basis of axioms not founded on information from the world
isn't generally much use.
If it has proved impossible to find axioms from which to
deduce absolute truth, it should be possible to work out in a metaphysical
way why we experience certain aspects of reality as true and others as
false. Perhaps the proper task of metaphysics is to provide an exploratory
account of our experience of the world, rather than a set of final answers
to all fundamental questions.
That is, it might be better viewed as providing a
framework or cognitive system which contains all other types of
knowledge. Metaphysics may be the only means of welding together into a
unified whole what otherwise may seem disparate branches of knowledge. It
may one day be able to work out what history has to do with cybernetics,
for example, or how biology relates to quantum physics, and how all of
these relate to matters of right and wrong.
Similarly, new information about the natural world may
indicate or even establish the need to think in new ways, to construct a
different type of metaphysic. So, for example, Albert Einstein conceived a
new way of perceiving what were previously understood as two separate
entities - time and space. A contemporary metaphysic which doesn't take
the conjoined nature of space/time into account may well founder. Once a
new paradigm such as this has been adopted, it inevitably affects the
whole of metaphysics.
Witness how the Copernican revolution impacted, and
still impacts, how we think about ourselves as entities in the universe.
On a similarly large scale, a new and evolving paradigm has begun
impacting the human sphere. Study of the natural world indicates now that
every part depends on every other part. Not only do we interact with a
huge range of systems in our daily lives, but we are ourselves systems
composed of a myriad of sub-systems. At a quantum physical level, every
particle of matter is linked with every other particle of matter. The
universe is a total system. A contemporary metaphysic which fails to take
into account this interlocking nature of reality, may in future find
itself relegated to the margins of error.
From a traditional Christian point of view, however, any
metaphysic must be absolutely ruled out as a source of final or absolute
truth if it contradicts revelation. For if we have received truth by
divine revelation, only rationally-derived conclusions which harmonise
with God's revelation can be valid. This implies that the only avenue open
to Christians is to construct a "Christian" metaphysic - that is, a
rational system based upon revealed axioms about the basic constituents of
reality. This is, as I understand it, precisely what the Church has always
So Christians can't, in terms of the way they define the
world, correctly derive axioms from natural information which contradicts
revealed truths. Thus if it has been revealed that Jesus is the Messiah
(the "Son of God" in modern terms) and that he came alive after having
died, then any contrary conclusions of natural reason must perforce be put
aside. The Christian system allows neither science nor metaphysics to
stand against truths which come from God. This is because God can't, by
their definition (a Christian axiom), be wrong.
It seems to me that Christian axioms about resurrection,
for example, by definition require Christians to reject all science. The
intrinsic nature of science contradicts traditional formulations of the
nature of physical reality in relation to the finality of death. Any
living living system which suffers cellular death cannot by definition be
revived. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead, if true, renders all of
science an absurdity.
In conclusion, it seems to me that metaphysics as a
source of truth about reality fails when our expectations of it are
unrealistic. Metaphysics cannot, as past millennia have shown, provide us
with complete or final answers to anything. But it does give us a broad
canvas upon which to paint our conceptions of the form and meaning of our
lives as we experience them.