The Absolute Need for Metaphysics

Where the West went wrong – and took the rest

of the world with it.

by Colin Tudge

Eastern observers of the western scene are wont to point out the sad demise of metaphysics. The idea of it – even the word – seems to have gone missing from western thinking over the past few hundred years. Certainly it’s not to be found, in word or deed, in the discourse of what passes as economics, or government, or law, or science, and certainly not as agriculture – yet everything we do and think about should be rooted in it. Indeed, the Professor of Islamic Studies at the George Washington University, Washington DC, Said Hossein Nasr, suggests that all the present ills of humanity and the Earth might reasonably be traced to the loss of metaphysics from western thinking – since western ways of thinking now dominate the whole world.

For, says Professor Nasr, metaphysics deals with “ultimate questions” – which I reckon might roughly be summarized under four headings, as follows. (1) — What is the universe really like? What lies behind the appearances – what we can see and stub our toes on? (2) – How come? Why should things be as they are? Science has defined “the laws of physics” – but why are those laws the way they are, and how come they exist at all? (3) – How much can we really know? Not just, “What are the limits of our knowledge?” but “How much are we really capable of finding out?” Finally, (4), in the light of the answers to all of the above (insofar as answers are possible) – How should we behave in this universe in which we find ourselves? What should our attitude be towards it, and our fellow creatures, and other people?

The standard western answers to all those questions, implicit in all you may read in The Wall Street Journal and The Financial Times, and espoused by politicians and by the hard-nosed scientists who draw their salaries from Monsanto and who dominate modern academe, are as follows:

(1): “Don’t be silly! What you see is what there is! Nothing lies behind the appearances, apart from the laws of physics, which we have already worked out (or soon will)! What you see is what there is!”

In other words, the standard western view is entirely materialistic. The universe and all that it contains, are just “stuff”. Other animals are not our fellow creatures — or as St Francis said, our brothers and sisters. At best, in the modern parlance, they are “biodiversity”. They are part of “the environment”, which is the politicians’ name for real estate.

Many of those who take this view strongly imply that their thinking on this is ruthlessly hard-nosed and therefore unimpeachable. In fact they claim that “What you see is what there is” emerges from science itself. But of course it doesn’t. Out-and-out materialism is simply an exercize in denial: a straightforward refusal to contemplate seriously the possibility that there might be more to the universe than meets the eye. To make this refusal seem respectable, some sceptics try to root it in the principle of Occam’s razor: a paraphrase of the warning issued by the Franciscan Friar, William of Occam, or Ockham, who in the 14th century declared that we should never, when trying to find out what is true, drag in ad hoc notions that the data don’t seem to require. Thus the materialist argument goes – “We don’t have to suppose there is more to the universe than meets the eye, do we? So don’t do it!”

Yet there is plenty of reason to suppose that there is more to the universe than meets the eye – so much so, that most people through most of history have assumed that this must be the case. So Occam’s caveat does not apply. In any case, Occam never suggested that his adage was a royal road to truth. In reality, the modern, materialist scepticism is a hangover from the days of the logical positivists, who argued about 100 years ago that questions that cannot be answered definitively are “meaningless”. So they dismissed the very idea of metaphysics out of hand. Their modern successors simply declare that “What lies behind apparent reality?” is a non-question. But actually, it isn’t.

Question (2) – “How come?” – receives the same dusty answer. It cannot be answered definitively so it should not be asked, is the modern view.  In any case, if you want to know why the laws of physics are how they are – well, we now have the multiverse theory, and half a dozen others to choose from if you don’t like that one. Of course you might ask, “But where did the multiverse come from?” – but the hard-nosed, at this point, tend to get huffy, and declare the discussion closed.

The standard modern answer to question (3) – “What can we really know?” – is that “There is no theoretical limit”. Science alone can take us as far as can be gone. As the Professor of Chemistry at Oxford, Peter Atkins, once put the matter, “There is no reason to suppose that science cannot deal with every aspect of existence. Only the religious – among whom I include not only the prejudiced but also the underinformed – hope there is a dark corner to the universe, or of the universe of experience, that science can never hope to illuminate. But science has never encountered a barrier, and the only grounds for supposing that reductionism will fail are pessimism on the part of scientists and fear in the minds of the religious”.

In other words, science, all by itself, can lead us to omniscience, and with omniscience will come omnipotence. Indeed, we are already well on the way to both. Human omniscience and our pending omnipotence formed the subtext of Sir Nicholas Stern’s much-praised report in 2006 on climate change: we know what we need to do to control global warming, he said, and we have the technologies that can do it – it’s just a question of spending the money (so we must make lots of money first, even if we make things worse in the attempt). The belief in human omniscience and omnipotence, too, lies behind present-day biotech: the belief that we really do understand living organisms well enough to be able to re-fashion them at will (we just have to re-arrange the “genetic code”); and that we have the technology to do exactly what we want; and that we can anticipate all the possible hazards. Rich companies want to believe this, and some individuals within those companies apparently do believe it, and governments are more than happy to believe what rich people tell them, and scientists who should know better are content to take their salaries and keep their fingers crossed.

As for (4) – well: there simply is no such word as “ought”, the hard-heads tell us. “Morality” in the traditional sense – absolute rights and wrong – is a dead concept. Charles Darwin told us (didn’t he?) that life is one long competition and our only role in life is simply to compete: to make sure that we survive, and reproduce, despite the opposition. The new genetics has told us (hasn’t it?) that we are all driven by our genes, and the genes that we now have are the ones that competed successfully in the past, so they can’t be bad. The modern economy is designed along Darwinian lines – which means along scientific lines, which means it can’t be wrong. Competition is the thing, above all, which in practice means we each and all of us have to acquire as big a share as possible of the global pie. Do we have a right to do this? Again – don’t be silly! The universe and the creatures within it are just stuff, and don’t care, and neither does anything else because there is nothing else; and we are stuff too, and programmed to survive and spread our genes, so there is no good reason why we shouldn’t just grab as much as possible to help us do so. That’s logical. That’s science. Can’t be bad.

This hard-nosed view of life is rarely spelled out in such stark terms. Most politicians and even most scientists in public debate couch what they have to say in what can be made to sound moral, as in: “Well, the hard-nosed view of life may be unpalatable, but it’s true – and it is good to face up to the truth!”. Or, “Indeed it may seem as if the present economy is based on greed, but it’s important that we should all try to get rich, because you can’t do anything without money, good or bad, and the more money you have, the more good you can do!” Thus Mrs Thatcher once told the Elders of the Church of Scotland to their evident bemusement that this is what Jesus was trying to convey in the parable of the Good Samaritan – for (she said) the Samaritan would not have been able to help the wounded stranger if he hadn’t been rich, so it’s essential to become as rich as possible. If she was still compos she’d be holding up Bill Gates as a model for us all.

Why does it matter?

This modern western view, thoroughly leached of metaphysics, unpolluted by any inkling of anything that cannot be seen, touched, and given a price tag, leads us to a view of human progress that has three components:

Commodification. Since the world – and our fellow creatures! – are just “stuff”, and since our only role in life is to compete, we should regard the fabric of the Earth, and other species, purely as “resource”, and we should be striving to acquire as much resource and power as possible. Indeed, if we can get away with it – and we can, surprisingly often – we are fully justified, if we follow the logic of what now passes as Darwinism, to regard other people as a “resource”, as in slavery, or what is now called “cheap labour” (which in truth can be cheaper than slavery). The point of all serious endeavour, therefore, and the root of all economies, is to turn the resources of the world, including living resources, into commodities – things that can be sold and turned into money.

Bureaucratization. Bureaucracy in essence is nothing more or less than a formal exercize in tidy-mindedness, a way of keeping track of who’s who and what’s what within the society – which is difficult when the society grows bigger than a tribe. All governments need their bureaucracies, or they wouldn’t even know who they were trying to govern; and the citizens need them too, or we could never have pension schemes, or hospitals that are more than apothecaries’ huts. So let’s hear it for bureaucrats.

But it has a downside. Too much bureaucracy reduces us all to form-fillers and box-tickers. Even worse, it is the natural and necessary agent of oppressive governments, as demonstrated both in Tsarist and Stalinist Russia – and, nowadays, albeit with a smilier face, in Britain. Civilized societies need to be tidy-minded but societies that are really worth living in also value individual freedom and individual creativity, and bureaucracy threatens both. It is seen nonetheless to be a necessary goal of “development”. It is deemed unsafe simply to allow people to do their own thing.

Centralization. It is taken to be self-evident that all groups of people must be ruled, for their own good, otherwise they will tear each other to pieces as in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. The rulers may often in practice inherit their power over the rest of us, or more or less. But the general route to power is again Darwinian (as Darwinism is now perceived). That is, the people rise to power who are best equipped to rule. So the politicians, corporate bosses, bankers, salaried scientists and other intellectuals who now dominate are there because they are the best people for the job. The rest of us might not always like everything that the top people do – sometimes our rulers have to take “tough decisions” – but the status quo nonetheless represents the best of all possible worlds. We need top people and the people at the top are the best people for the job. It follows that we should take every step to ensure that the top people do indeed have control. Ergo, power must be centralized.

This, then, is what progress means, according to the prevailing western view; and it is indeed what “civilization” is taken to mean. Countries that espouse this view of progress – commodification, bureaucratization, and centralization – are deemed to be “developed”. Those that seem to be moving towards such a view and the ways of life that goes with it are said to be “developing”. Those that seek to pursue a different course are said to be “backward” or “laggard” (which I am told in Africa is a standard term) and if they protest too loudly they are said to be “rogue” states, or at least to be “failed” states who need taking in hand for their own good.

All of these ideas, which dominate the modern world, are junk, and most of them are vile. No wonder the world is in a mess. But what are the counter-arguments? What is the alternative?

The return of metaphysics

Those who espouse the modern western view and act upon it are absolutely sure, above all, that they must be right. Their ideas, after all, are founded in science, and can’t be wrong.

But actually, the modern view is not founded in science – or not at least when science is properly construed. If they were founded in science, and science was properly construed, they would not lead us to feel so certain, because science does not and cannot deal in certainty. In fact, the four basic questions of metaphysics can be answered in a quite different way – a way that is at least as deeply rooted and as justified as allegedly modern materialism. Thus:

(1): The notion that the universe and our fellow creatures are just “stuff” –“What you see is what there is” — is nothing more than an assertion. The alternative proposition – that there is more to the universe than meets the eye – is at least equally plausible, and indeed is what most people intuitively believe. The suggestion that there is nothing more is merely a denial which, as discussed above, has no respectable roots at all. Actually, hard-line materialism is simply a dogma. It is ironic that the hard-line materialists who include many scientists should so often so roundly condemn the dogma and doctrine of religion, when their own philosophy depends upon dogma absolutely.

(2): No definitive answer can be given to the question “How come?” We may indeed choose to give up on it on those grounds, as recommended by the logical positivists. But the fact that we choose to ignore some particular question surely does not mean that that question then ceases to have meaning, or to be important. If we cannot answer a question by science and by rationality alone, it seems to follow that if we really want to gain some insight into the ways of the universe, we have to move beyond science and rationality. This is what metaphysicians have been saying for the past 3000 years at least. (What they may have said before that is hard to know, since there aren’t many written records before that time – or not, at least, of a metaphysical nature). The extra-rational route to insight is via our intuitions. Our intuitions tell us a great deal, and there is no reason not to take them seriously. The role of religion is to cultivate intuition. The multiverse hypothesis and its stable-mates are exercizes in arm-waving, and the fact that they are put forward by scientists does not mean they are “scientific” (unless, like some modern scientists, you define “science” as whatever a scientist says it is).

(3): “How much can we know?” Our knowledge is very definitely limited. Science can describe only aspects of the universe, and only provisionally, and in any case, “description” is not reality. It is a story about reality. Rationality, in which science is conventionally said to be grounded, is itself limited in what it can tell us. In the end, the universe is beyond our ken. Most philosophers from the past few thousand years, and especially most philosophers of science from the past 100 years, would not agree with Professor Atkins, that science will one day tell us all. Science can look only at aspects of reality, and its conclusions are always provisional. Omniscience is not in our gift, and never will be, for reasons both practical and absolute. What we cannot exhaustively understand we cannot hope ultimately to control – so the dream of omnipotence is ludicrous.

If we don’t really know what we do (and we don’t) and we cannot hope for perfect control (which we can’t) then, surely, if only in the interests of our own survival, we should treat our little Earthly corner of the universe with extreme caution. Humility, in short, is the only sensible course – as well as the course recommended by most of the moralists whom the world takes seriously including, for example, the Buddha, Jesus Christ, and the Prophet Mohammed. This is the very opposite of the arrogance that now prevails in our metaphysic-free world.

(4): What is it right to do? “There are no hard-and-fast rules”, is the modern, fashionable answer:  “There is no morality. There is only survival”. Hard-line atheist are wont simply to say that there can be no absolute moral laws because there is no-one to make those laws. Morality must be a purely human invention. Many go on from there to argue that moral codes differ from society to society, so they are all just convention. Enthusiasts for the supremacy of the global market, who nowadays seem to include most politicians in the world’s most powerful governments, tend nowadays to argue that morality, like everything else, should be defined by the market. Whatever people are prepared to pay for, is ipso facto OK. I have even heard human cloning defended on these grounds. It is, after all, a marketing opportunity, or oppertoonidy, and therefore self-justifying. In fact, arguably, the only taboo that’s left in our market-dominated morality is paedophilia. Most people condemn it even though some people are prepared to pay for it.

Most people feel in their bones, though, that there are absolute or at least solid rules of morality. Indeed, the taboo on paedophilia shows that this is so. Even the materialists, who do not suppose there is more to life than meets the eye, feel that morality is somehow rooted in the way things are. But this raises a huge issue which belongs very firmly in the realm of metaphysics, rather than moral philosophy: “What is the relationship between the way the world is, and the way we ought to behave”.

Some people simply assume that what is natural is what is right – which is how the Enron CEO Jeff Skilling justified the way that he ran off with the investors’ loot, just before his company crashed. Darwin has shown that human beings are innately selfish, said Skilling (though actually he quoted, or to be fair misquoted, Richard Dawkins) and therefore he was only doing what came naturally so that was OK. I have often heard the entire neoliberal economy and all its social destructiveness justified in just these terms.

But others insist that there is no relationship, or at least no logical relationship, between what is, and what ought to be. Most famously, David Hume said in the 18th century (although this is a paraphrase) “You cannot logically derive an “ought” from an “is””. In similar but not identical vein G E Moore in the early 20th century spoke of the “naturalistic fallacy”. Quite obviously, a lot of things we would consider to be bad happen in nature, including rape and infanticide. Yet all is not so simple, as Cardinal Newman pointed out in the 19th century in response to Hume. He conceded that there is no logical path from “is” to “ought”. But, said Newman, a million lines of thinking and strands of evidence connect the two anyway, and those million strands create a firm connection just as the million threads of hemp combine to form a rope that can bind a battleship to the quayside. If Newman had been party to modern parlance he might have spoken of a “non-linear relationship” between what is and what ought to be. Certainly we are particularly repelled by acts that we feel in our bones are “unnatural”. A feeling in the bones might seem like a poor basis for making huge decisions – but in truth, in moral matters, our feelings must be the final arbiters. As David Hume said in a general context, “Reason is, and ought to be only the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

Then again, the idea that it is OK to be selfish and cruel because nature is selfish and cruel fails absolutely if, in fact, nature is not selfish and cruel. To be sure, Darwin emphasized competition; and Darwin was perhaps the greatest of all biologists and must be taken seriously. But as Darwin himself acknowledged (because he really was a good biologist) nature is not always competitive; and in any case, as many later biologists have pointed out, competition does not necessarily imply conflict or selfishness; and indeed, the more you look at nature, the more you see that, above all, it depends on collaboration. If nature is innately collaborative, then a morality based on nature would be most acceptable – indeed it would be what most people feel morality should be. Then if you chose to argue as Cardinal Newman did (and the Catholic Church as a whole tends to argue) that what is natural is at least relevant to what is good, you would be on easy ground.

In short, whatever way you want to argue it, the simplistic modern notion that morality is just what we choose to say it is, and can safely be allowed to emerge from the market, is the most specious nonsense.

What difference does it make?

All the difference in the world, is the short answer. If we once perceived that the universe and our fellow creatures aren’t just “stuff” – or at least, that we can’t just assume that this is so – then, surely, we would not treat them so insouciantly. If we once acknowledged that life and the universe in the end are beyond our ken, and omnipotence is a dream, we surely would not attempt to take the world and our fellow creatures by the scruff and try to beat them into shape for our own convenience. If once we saw that it is natural to be collaborative and that competition is not the great driver of everything then perhaps we would more easily see through the rhetoric of the people have assumed control and begin to trust our own more kindly natures. If we once began to suspect that the materialism and self-confidence and sanctimoniousness that have overtaken the west are not what western civilization ought to mean then we would be less keen to impose this attitude on everybody else, and listen more carefully to their different points of view. All these notions spring from metaphysics. In short, if we reintroduced the concept of metaphysics, and took it seriously, the world could be a much better and safer place.

Other-worldly though this may seem – as indeed it is – I reckon this is a priority.

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