Metaphysics as Seeing: The Necessity of Metaphysics

Wolfgang Smith - Metaphysics as Seeing The Necessity of MetaphysicsThe journey toward metaphysics as seeing requires preliminary steps to be taken. The first step is to appreciate that when investigating the five most basic questions of life[1] a metaphysical schematic is required, that is, the importance of metaphysics must be recognized. After identifying the importance of metaphysics, another preliminary step is essential in the quest for truth – accepting the intellectual and spiritual necessity of metaphysics.

Comprehending the necessity of metaphysics is imperative because there are many who would deny both of these preliminary steps. However, these metaphysical scoffers do so at their own intellectual and spiritual peril. For it will be seen that those who deny the importance and necessity of metaphysics end up staring at the shadows in the cave rather than gazing upon the light of truth. There is no amount of epistemological trickery, semantic posturing, or scientistic shenanigans that will successfully eliminate the fundamental reality of metaphysical presence. Philosophy and the first principles of wisdom can either be united to a way of life moved by the divine light, or it can be a tool to justify a brutish existence blinded by sensual passion. Indeed, “philosophy always buries its undertakers.”[2]

Throughout the history of philosophy metaphysics has had to overcome challenges. Rather than a comprehensive survey, it would be profitable to focus on the modern confrontations our current era is up against. In his Encyclical, Fides et ratio, Pope St. John Paul II identifies five primary threats against a traditional understanding of Christian philosophy and metaphysics. These threats are eclecticism,[3] historicism,[4] scientism,[5] pragmatism,[6] and nihilism.[7] In addition to Pope St. John Paul II, Thomist philosopher Robert Koons identified a similar catalogue of modern threats to Christian philosophy and metaphysics. He argues “metaphysics faced opposition from five sources in the early twentieth century.”[8] The primary opposition came from subjectivism and phenomenology, positivism, relativism and historicism, pragmatism, and physicalism.[9]

Along with the general identification of philosophical schools of thought that are hostile to traditional metaphysics, there are some common objections routinely made against first philosophy. W. Norris Clarke zeroes in on three basic objections:[10]

  1. No distinctive subject matter.
  2. We, as parts of the Whole, cannot comprehend the Whole.
  3. Objections to metaphysics from modern restrictive theories of knowledge.

The first objection, that metaphysics has no distinctive subject matter, is an attempt to categorically transform metaphysics into something that it cannot be, which is a sort of empirical field of study. The objection amounts to nothing more than a complaint that metaphysics isn’t more like the hard sciences, but this makes no sense because metaphysics is the study of being qua being, and not observable quantifications of concrete reality. Metaphysics is the study of what is fundamental to all the sciences, which is being as such. As Clarke states, “Metaphysics does not have a distinctive subject matter, since it treats of all beings, but it does have a distinctive point of view from which it studies them.”[11] Clarke continues, “It [metaphysics] considers in them only their most fundamental attribute of being and the properties and laws which they have in common with all beings, or all changing and finite beings, as these beings exist in the community of other existent beings, acting and interacting with each other to form the universe in which we are all plunged.”[12][13]

The second objection, that metaphysics is impossible because we, as parts of the Whole, cannot comprehend the Whole, is arguing that in order to comprehend reality in its totality would require a God’s-eye-perspective, which is obviously impossible for creatures like us. It is due to this philosophical impasse that we must, maybe out of polite humility, focus on studying the parts rather than pretending that we can understand the whole.

Clarke does a beautiful job of refuting this objection (emphasis added),

“But this is precisely the wonder and paradox of the spiritual intellect we all possess. Because it is by nature ordered to being as such as its proper object, it is open to the entire horizon of being without restriction, and so can think about it as a whole and about our own place in it, can encompass it in a certain sense in its own thought – not in detail, of course, but in its broad outlines – which other non-intelligent beings in the universe cannot do. Hence, by the very fact that we can raise the question about being as a whole, the human person is not just a part of the universe but a whole, within the Whole. Every person endowed with intelligence is thus, at least implicitly, a point of view on the whole universe. This is an essential part of our dignity as images of God.”[14]

The third objection to metaphysics is based on the epistemological restrictions placed on reality by empiricism, Kantianism, and relativism. The empiricism of David Hume is quite restrictive and claims that all knowledge is derived from sense experience. Because of this limited source of knowledge, there can be no justification for claiming to know anything outside the realm of sense data. Kantianism is the view that knowledge of things-in-themselves is impossible, and the intelligibility of the phenomenal world comes from the categories of our mind as they are imposed on the world. Metaphysics, then, is an illusion of reason because each person is “locked without escape within the walls of our own minds.”[15] Finally, relativism, which is directly related to historicism and postmodernism, claims that every person is bound by the historical, cultural linguistic framework in which they live. Due to this constrained situational epoch, there is no such thing as objectivity or universal knowledge that can surpass the limits of historical circumstances.

A primary problem with empiricism is that it destroys experience for the sake of ignoring fundamental questions of reality. Moreover, empiricism as an epistemological theory violates its own criteria of what constitutes knowledge since the theory of empiricism is not subject to validation through the patterns of data collection required of the five senses. For example, in order to articulate a theory of empiricism an argument must be put forth to make the case. This argument will have basic premises to which our reasoning can syllogistically connect in our intellective capacities. The problem with this is that the premises themselves are not connected by way of sense experience because the intellect itself is not a product of the same sensory input. The intellect is extra-sensory, so to speak, and is the prerequisite for the intelligibility of sensory experience.

The Kantian assault on metaphysics, as sophisticated as it might be, is ultimately incoherent for the reason Clarke outlines,

“One of the central flaws in Kant’s theory of knowledge is that he has blown up the bridge of action by which real beings manifest their natures to our cognitive receiving sets. He admits that things in themselves act on us, on our sense; but he insists that such action reveals nothing intelligible about these beings, nothing about their natures in themselves, only an unordered, unstructured sense manifold that we have to order and structure from within ourselves. But action that is completely indeterminate, that reveals nothing meaningful about the agent from which it comes, is incoherent, not really action at all.”[16]

The objection of relativism, as well as the historicism and postmodernism that follow, fails the same way each relativistic theory fails. Every declaration related to a theory of relativism refutes itself because to claim that there are no objective or universal truths is itself an objective and universal truth claim. This becomes transparent when applied to the suggestion that there can be no objective and universal truth transcending the inherited cultural and linguistic frameworks. Due to the nature of the statement, this claim is itself an objective and universal assertion that allegedly transcends each cultural and linguistic framework because it is meant to describe every culture throughout all of history. It is a self-defeating statement.

These are the modern schools of thought and common objections against the necessity of metaphysics. And while there may have been a resurgent relevance in academic metaphysics during the twentieth century, this recovery has not been in any way influential in the culture. In fact, it might have worked to only further solidify what has already been established among these combative theories and arguments just outlined. The fusion of all philosophical heresies continues to jealously grip the soul of every Western cultural institution.

Despite this death grip, it is imperative to confront the errors of these despotic sophists combatting the truths of perennial wisdom. Although the lists provided above should be respected in their entirety, it is the united ideological synthesis of metaphysical naturalism and epistemic scientism that inexorably reduces to postmodern historicism, relativism, and nihilism. Our enemy, in a word – is atheism.

Brandishing the modern discoveries of science, atheists have proclaimed the death of philosophy, and therefore, the ultimate demise of metaphysical speculation.[17] And while philosophy is claimed to be dead according to atheistic champions, the important questions of life remain. The persistence of life’s ultimate questions needs a new guide, so to speak, since the advances of a technocratic scientism have outdone the ancient teacher.

Who wouldn’t argumentatively shrink from the obvious successes of modern science? Who needs theology and metaphysics when we can carry a computer in our pocket? What can religion offer when its mythical tenets are throwbacks to an era prior to the advent of scientific discovery, progress, and technology? How can the Davidic underdog of traditional philosophy dare challenge the Goliath of modern science?

The advance of scientific progress is a powerful narrative. But underneath the rhetoric of a premature declaration of victory lurks a dirty little secret atheists desperately want to keep hidden. The entire atheistic Weltanschauung depends on a metaphysical and epistemological schematic that is utterly incoherent. Moreover, the truth claims made by the atheist requires a metaphysical extrication from their own materialistic imprisonment so they might rob from the perennial wisdom previously spurned in order to feign intellectual superiority.

The atheist must take from what they have proclaimed to be dead.

It is metaphysical naturalism, however, that is ultimately dead on arrival because it epistemically depends on an ideological scientism that fails for the same reasons empiricism collapses into itself. Scientism cannot abide by its own principles without arguing in a circle, and begging the most important metaphysical questions. Without epistemic scientism metaphysical naturalism loses its offensive arsenal. Edward Feser provides the nails for the scientistic coffin:[18]

  1. Scientism is self-defeating, and can avoid being self-defeating only at the cost of becoming trivial and uninteresting.[19]
  2. The scientific method cannot even in principle provide us with a complete description of reality.[20]
  3. The “laws of nature” in terms of which science explains phenomenon cannot in principle provide us with a complete explanation of reality.[21]
  4. What is probably the main argument in favor of scientism – the argument from the predictive and technological successes of modern physics and the other sciences – has no force.[22]

If these four points are the nails sealing the scientistic coffin, this summary is the dirt pushed into the grave and guarantees its anti-metaphysical demise,

“For scientific inquiry rests on a number of philosophical assumptions: the assumption that there is an objective world external to the minds of the scientists; the assumptions that this world is governed by regularities of the sort that might be captured in scientific laws; the assumption that the human intellect and perceptual apparatus can uncover and accurately describe these regularities; and so forth. Since scientific method presupposes these things, it cannot attempt to justify them without arguing in a circle. To break out of this circle requires ‘getting outside’ of science altogether and discovering from that extra-scientific vantage point that science conveys an accurate picture of reality – and, if scientism is to be justified, that only science does so. But then the very existence of that extra-scientific vantage point would falsify the claim that science alone gives us a rational means of investigating objective reality.”[23]

It should be evident that any attempt to avoid, discredit, undermine, or eradicate metaphysics from the human pursuit of truth in the quest to see reality utterly fails. No matter the school of thought or the argument presented attempting to do away with metaphysics through the front door, an instantaneous attempt to smuggle in a schematic of first philosophy in order to maintain rational cogency is ushered in the back. Now that the importance and necessity of metaphysics has been established, the final step toward metaphysics as seeing is possible.

To be completed…


– Lucas G. Westman

[1] These questions were referenced in the previous installment, Metaphysics as Seeing: The Importance of Metaphysics. The questions are – Does God exist; Why is there something rather than nothing; Who am I in relation to all that exists; What is the good life; What happens when we die?

[2] “The reality of the fact itself seems to be beyond question. Plato’s idealism comes first; Aristotle warns everybody that Platonism is heading for scepticism; then Greek scepticism arises, more or less redeemed by the moralism of the Stoics and Epicureans, or by the mysticism of Plotinus. St. Thomas Aquinas restores philosophical knowledge, but Ockham cuts its very root, and ushers in the later medieval and Renaissance scepticism, itself redeemed by the moralism of the Humanists or by the pseudo-mysticism of Nicolaus Cusanus and of his successors. Then comes Descartes and Locke, but their philosophies disintegrate into Berkeley and Hume, with the moralism of Rousseau and the visions of Swedenborg as natural reactions. Kant had read Swedenborg, Rousseau and Hume, but his own philosophical restoration ultimately degenerated into the various forms of contemporary agnosticism, with all sorts of moralism and of would-be mysticisms as ready shelters against spiritual despair. The so-called death of philosophy being regularly attended by its revival, some new dogmatism should now be at hand. In short, the first law to be inferred from philosophical experience is: Philosophy always buries its undertakers.

That is the reason why, at the very time when he was denouncing the illusory character of metaphysical knowledge, Kant sought the root of that illusion in the very nature of reason itself. Hume had destroyed both metaphysics and science; in order to save science, Kant decided to sacrifice metaphysics. Now, it is the upshot of the Kantian experiment that, if metaphysics is arbitrary knowledge, science also is arbitrary knowledge; hence it follows that our belief in the objective validity of science itself stands or falls with our belief in the objective validity of metaphysics. The new question, then, is no longer, Why is metaphysics a necessary illusion, but rather, Why is metaphysics necessary, and how is it that it has given rise to so many illusions?” The Unity of Philosophical Experience, Gilson, Pg. 246, 247

[3] “The first goes by the name eclecticism, which is meant the approach of those who, in research, teaching and argumentation, even in theology, tend to use individual ideas drawn from different philosophies, without concern for their internal coherence, their place within a system or their historical context. They therefore run the risk of being unable to distinguish the part of truth of a given doctrine from elements of it which may be erroneous or ill-suited to the task at hand. An extreme form of eclecticism appears also in the rhetorical misuse of philosophical terms to which some theologians are given at times. Such manipulation does not help the search for truth and does not train reason – whether theological or philosophical – to formulate arguments seriously and scientifically. The rigorous and far-reaching study of philosophical doctrines, their particular terminology and the context is which they arose, helps to overcome the danger of eclecticism and makes it possible to integrate them into theological discourse in a way appropriate to the task.” Fides et Ratio, Pope St. John Paul II, Pg. 108, 109

[4] “Eclecticism is an error of method, but lying hidden within it can also be the claims of historicism. To understand a doctrine from the past correctly, it is necessary to set it within its proper historical and cultural context. The fundamental claim of historicism, however, is that the truth of a philosophy is determined on the basis of its appropriateness to a certain period and a certain historical purpose. At least implicitly, therefore, the enduring validity of truth is denied. What was true in one period, historicists claim, may not be true in another. Thus for them the history of thought becomes little more than an archeological resource useful for illustrating positions once held, but for the most part outmoded and meaningless now. On the contrary, it should not be forgotten that, even if a formulation is bound in some way by time and culture, the truth or the error which it expresses can invariably be identified and evaluated as such despite the distance of space and time.

In theological enquiry, historicism tends to appear for the most part under the guise of ‘modernism.’ Rightly concerned to make theological discourse relevant and understandable to our time, some theologians use only the most recent opinions and philosophical language, ignoring the critical evaluation which ought to be made of them in the light of the tradition. By exchanging relevance for truth, this form of modernism shows itself incapable of satisfying the demands of truth which theology is called to respond.” Ibid, Pg. 109

[5] “Another threat to be reckoned with is scientism. This is the philosophical notion which refuses to admit the validity of forms of knowledge other than those of the positive science; and it relegates religious, theological, ethical and aesthetic knowledge to the realm of mere fantasy. In the past, the same idea emerged in positivism and neo-positivism, which considered metaphysical statements to be meaningless…Regrettably, it must be noted, scientism consigns all that has to do with the question of the meaning of life to the realm of the irrational or imaginary.” Ibid, Pg. 109, 110

[6] “No less dangerous is pragmatism. An attitude of mind which, in making its choices, precludes theoretical considerations or judgments based on ethical principles. The practical consequences of this mode of thinking are significant. In particular there is growing support for a concept of democracy which is not grounded upon any reference to unchanging values: whether or not a line of action is admissible is decided by the vote of a parliamentary majority. The consequences of this are clear: in practice, the great moral decisions of humanity are subordinated to decisions taken one after another by institutional agencies. Moreover, anthropology itself is severely compromised by a one-dimensional vision of the human being, a vision which excludes the great ethical dilemmas and the existential analysis of the meaning of suffering and sacrifice, life and death.” Ibid, Pg. 110, 111

[7] The positions we have examined lead in turn to a more general conception which appears today as the common framework of many philosophies which have rejected the meaningfulness of being. I am referring to the nihilist interpretation, which is at once the denial of all foundations and the negation of all objective truth. Quite apart from the fact that it conflicts with the demands and the content of the word of God, nihilism is a denial of the humanity and of the very identity of the human being. It should never be forgotten that the neglect of being inevitably leads to losing touch with objective truth and therefore with the very ground of human dignity. This in turn makes it possible to erase from the countenance of man and woman the marks of their likeness to God, and thus to lead them little by little either to a destructive will to power or to a solitude without hope. Once the truth is denied to human beings, it is pure illusion to try and set them free. Truth and freedom either go together hand in hand or together they perish in misery.” Ibid, Pg. 111

[8] Metaphysics: The Fundamentals, Koons and Pickavance, Pg. 6

[9] Ibid

[10] The One and the Many: A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics, Pg. 8-14

[11] Ibid, Pg. 8

[12] Ibid, Pg. 8, 9

[13] “This fundamental dimension of being itself, of the actual existence of what they are studying, is taken for granted by all other branches of knowledge, which then go on to study what it is and how it works. But just because something is taken for granted does not mean that it is unimportant. This is just what metaphysics, and it alone, aims to do: to draw into the explicit light of reflection what all other human inquiry takes for granted and leaves implicit – the foundation of actual existence upon which all else is built and without which all subject matter vanishes into the darkness of nonbeing, of what is not. Martin Heidegger, the great contemporary German metaphysician – not himself a Thomist at all – complained that the whole of Western metaphysics, from Plato on, lapsed into a ‘forgetfulness of being,’ not of what things are, their essences, but of the radical fact that they are at all, standing out from nothingness and shining forth to us.” Ibid, Pg. 9

[14] Ibid, Pg, 10

[15] Ibid, Pg. 11

[16] Ibid, Pg. 12

[17] “We each exist for but a short time, and in that time explore but a small part of the whole universe. But humans are a curious species. We wonder, we seek answers. Living in this vast world that is by turns kind and cruel, and gazing at the immense heavens above, people have always asked a multitude of questions: How can we understand the world in which we find ourselves? How does the universe behave? What is the nature of reality? Where did all this come from? Did the universe need a creator? Most of us do not spend most of our time worrying about these questions, but almost all of us worry about them some of the time.

Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.” The Grand Design, Hawking and Mlodinow, Pg. 5

[18] Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction, Pg. 10

[19] “First as I have said, scientism faces a dilemma: It is either self-refuting or trivial. Take the first horn of the dilemma. The claim that ‘the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything’ (Rosenberg 2011, p. 6) is itself not a scientific claim, not a something that can be established using the scientific method. Indeed, that science is even a rational form of inquiry (let alone the only rational form of inquiry) is not something that can be established scientifically.” Ibid, Pg. 10

[20] “The second main problem facing scientism, I have said, is that science cannot in principle provide a complete description of reality. Indeed, it cannot in principle provide a complete description even of physical reality. The reason, as paradoxical as it sounds, has to do precisely with the method that has made the predictive and technological achievements of modern physics possible. Physics insists upon a purely quantitative description of the world, regarding mathematics as the language in which the ‘Book of Nature’ is written (as Galileo famously put it). Hence it is hardly surprising that physics, more than other disciplines, has discovered those aspects of reality susceptible of the prediction and control characteristic of quantifiable phenomena. Those are the only aspects to which the physicist will allow himself to pay any attention in the first place. Everything else necessarily falls through this methodological net.” Ibid, Pg. 12, 13

[21] “If there are limits to what science can describe, there are also limits to what science can explain. This brings us to the third problem I have claimed faces scientism – the fact that the ‘laws of nature’ in terms of which science explains phenomena cannot in principle provide an ultimate explanation of reality.” Ibid, Pg. 18

[22] “Now if scientism faces such grave difficulties, why are so many intelligent people drawn to it? The answer – to paraphrase a remark made by Wittgenstein in another context – is that ‘a picture holds them captive.’ Hypnotized by the unparalleled predictive technological successes of modern science, they infer that scientism must be true, and that anything that follows from scientism – however fantastic or even seemingly incoherent – must also be true.” Ibid, Pg. 21

[23] Ibid, Pg. 10, 11

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