The Importance of Metaphysics

Saint Paul on PhilosophyMetaphysics is a very important area of philosophy. In many ways, metaphysics is philosophy, since everything else that follows in the philosophical imagination rests squarely upon metaphysical assumptions. Metaphysics is vitally important for apologetic discourse since most philosophical disputes with unbelievers, as well as people of other religions, stem from metaphysical disagreement. Not recognizing this can result in argumentative misconceptions, which lead to talking past the person you are conversing with. Metaphysics is also an important pedagogical tool when leading a person to the true God of classical theism and our Lord Jesus Christ. Moreover, our method of presenting the Catholic metaphysical world picture should be informed by the teaching of Saint Paul,

Beware lest any man cheat you by philosophy, and vain deceit; according to the tradition of men, according to the elements of the world, and not according to Christ:” – Colossians 2:8. 

We should never forget that philosophy is the handmaiden of theology, and never its master.

Consider this excerpt from Peter Van Inwagen’s book titled, “Metaphysics”:

Metaphysics attempts to tell the ultimate truth about the World, about everything. But what is it we want to know about the World? What are the questions whose answers would be the ultimate truth about things? There are, I suggest, three questions:

  1. What are the most general features of the World, and what sorts of things does it contain? What is the World like?
  2. Why does the World exist – and, more specifically, why is there a World having the features and the content described in the answer to Question 1?
  3. What is our place in the World? How do we human beings fit into it?

One way to get a feel for what is meant by a question is to look at possible answers to it. I will lay out two sets of answers to these questions, in hope that they will make the questions clearer by showing what sorts of statements count as answers to them. The first set of answers, which was most widely accepted in the Middle Ages, is this:

  1. The World consists of God and all He has made. God is infinite (that is, he is unlimited in knowledge, power, and goodness) and a spirit (that is, He is not material). He has made both spirit and material things, but all the things he has made are finite or limited. God has always existed, and at a certain moment in the past He first made other things; before that, there had never been anything besides God. God will always exist, and there will always be things He has made.
  2. God has to exist, just as two and two have to equal four. But nothing else has this feature; everything besides God might not have existed. The things other than God exist only because God (who has the power to do anything) caused them to exist by an act of free will. He could just as well have chosen not to create anything, in which case there would never have been anything besides Himself. Moreover, God not only brought all other things into existence, but he also keeps them in existence at every moment. If God did not at every moment keep the sun and the moon and all other created things in existence, they would immediately cease to exist. Created things no more have the power to keep themselves in existence than stones or lumps of iron have the power to keep themselves suspended in the air.
  3. Human beings were created by God to love and serve Him forever. Thus, each of them has a purpose or function. In the same sense in which it is true of John’s heart that its function is to pump blood, a human being has free will and can refuse to do the thing for which it was made. What we call human history is nothing more than the working out of the consequences of the fact that some people have chosen not to do what they were created to do.

The second set of answers, which was most widely accepted in the nineteenth century, is this:

  1. The world consists of matter in motion. There is nothing but matter, which operates according to the strict and invariable laws of physics. Every individual thing is made entirely of matter, and every aspect of its behavior is due to the workings of those laws.
  2. Matter has always existed (and there has always been exactly the same amount of it), for matter can be neither created or destroyed. For this reason, there is no “why” to the existence of the World. Because the World is wholly material, and because matter can be neither created nor destroyed, the World is eternal: it has always existed. The question ‘Why does it exist?’ is a question that can be asked only abut a thing that had a beginning. It is a request for information about what caused the thing to come into existence. Since the world is eternal, the question ‘Why does the World exist?’ is meaningless.
  3. Human beings are complex configurations of matter. Since the World is eternal, the existence of complex configurations of matter is not surprising, for in an infinite period of time, all possible configurations of matter will come to exist. Human beings are just one of those things that happen from time to time. They serve no purpose, for their existence and their features are as much accidents as the existence and shape of a puddle of spilt milk. Their lives – our lives – have no meaning (beyond such purely subjective meaning as we choose to find in them), and they come to an end with physical death, since there is no soul. The only thing being said about the place of human beings in the World is that they are – very temporary – parts of it.

These two sets of answers are indeed radically opposed.

It seems relatively obvious then, given that these are the questions asked and the potential answers being prescribed, why metaphysics is a rather important field of study for doing apologetics.


– Lucas G. Westman

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