Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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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 and complications. 

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 its basis.

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 purposes:

[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 p implies q which in turn implies r, can we be committed to r as a true statement? Does humankind survive by bread alone? What, if any, non-material elements or entities are required to render human life meaningful? 

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 attempted.

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.

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