Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Metaphysics versus the world

Metaphysics refers to a person's understanding of and belief concerning the basic set-up of reality.

For example, which side a person assumes is real between the religious view of the universe being essentially purposive and meaningful - or, alternatively, the modern mainstream assumption that the universe is some mixture of deterministic causes and random events (e.g. some mixture of relativity and quantum theory).

Metaphysics affects everything, sooner or later; because it frames all legitimate questions and dictate the legitimacy of answers.

Mainstream, normal, modern morality is is based on the assumption that everything which happens is either caused or random - and therefore ultimately meaningless and purposeless. By this account, all morality is therefore necessarily and only a matter of feelings; and is indeed a 'projection' of our own subjective feelings onto an uncomprehending and dead universe. Thus (according to mainstream modern metaphysics) things are good or bad, ultimately, because they make us feel good or bad - and this is universalized into a 'moral system' along the (dubious) lines that we feel better or worse when we feel that other people feel better or worse.

(Yes, I am aware that this is not actually 'a morality' - but that is what passes for morality in the public arena - see After Virtue, by Alasdair MacIntyre.).

There is no possibility of genuine moral debate within this modern secular framework, which is why we never see any. We see only assertion and counter assertion of feelings, and the imputation of feelings to various others.

For a Christian this makes honest 'casual' discussion about moral issues (around the water cooler, as it were) impossible - because all casual discussion is non-Christian, indeed anti-Christian, in its basis and tendency. To converse honestly about morality, the modern Christian must define and contrasts his metaphysics - which hardly makes for casual 'water cooler' conversation!

When an 'issue' arises in everyday conversation - such as whether tattoos are a good thing (or, some specific person's particular tattoo), or whether somebody's divorce was a good or bad thing and why, or what should be government policy about uncontrolled mass immigration, or whether some friend has behaved well or badly...Well, the honest Christian is faced with reinforcing, tacitly by participation without clarification, a moral system he deplores - or saying nothing, which dishonest but antisocial. 

But I can well recall, when I was an atheist, how absurd it seemed to me to envisage 'a moral universe' - I thought of stars and planets and volcanoes and I could not imagine how they could be part of a moral plan - and since that was most of the universe, then objective morality seemed absurd. Likewise with 'love' - how could love be the most important things (as Christians assert) is most of the universe is dead and non-conscious? At most I could imagine that the whole universe was a means to the end of the Christian God's purposes for humans - but that seemed like an absurd overkill when comparing the size of the universe with the tiny planet earth with its scattering of people.

I was, in sum, trapped by my metaphysical assumptions concerning the nature of reality - and I was trying to 'insert' God into this ready-made modern secular 'universe' (which had, as a matter of historical fact, been constructed so as to render God at best superfluous, and indeed to mainly and specifically to eliminate Him).

It is a great liberation of spirit and source of energy and hope to identify, challenge, recognize the ridiculousness of, then discard the nihilistic metaphysics which we had inculcated by mainstream, secular, modern society - via the mass media, the systems of education, politics, law, by work and bureaucracies... To see that this metaphysics is arbitrary, absurd, unnatural, self-refuting.

And then to realize that I have the power, right and autonomy to replace it with something that is spontaneous, natural and Christian - and to discover (despite my knowledge being radically incomplete and imperfect) that then, suddenly, everything makes sense!


Nicholas Fulford said...

It seems to me that the essence of your point is that a particular non-theistic metaphysics - one in which a tiny segment of the universe is ‘alive’ and unfolds upon and within a lifeless universe - carries with it an inherent nihilism due to the implication that all life is epiphenomenal and is therefore ultimately dead as well. The extended implication of life being a mere epiphenomenal froth upon a vast dead ocean is that it is ephemeral, fortuitous and ultimately meaningless.

Weighing against that is the visceral scream of revulsion, ‘NO!’

This seems to make the universe absurd and the implication is madness of the type that Golyadkin experiences in Dostoyevsky’s “The Double”. If meaning is not intrinsically based - i.e. if the universe is not in some fundamental and non-contingent sense meaningful - then morality and meaning are a bizarre bit of fluff, and that is abhorrent and terrifying. Being that this is an unacceptable reflection to be faced with, one either goes mad, escapes into distraction, commits suicide or changes the prime metaphysical axiom.

I do wonder though if there is another view which is consistent with an essential drive towards expressing and experiencing meaning, but is not based upon theism.

What if absolute emptiness is an essentially unstable state such that a universe happens ‘every now and again’? From a perspective of meaning being intrinsically based, that instability is the abhorrence of non-being requiring a mirror of unfolding in which that meaning is reflected back in the complex ways in which a universe - like ours - unfolds.

Where I am resistant to simply recasting my prime metaphysical axiom from a non-theistic to theistic one lies in the problem of the idols of human projection. I have to acknowledge that any prime metaphysical axiom is incomplete in its ability to account truthfully and fully. This might be thought of as a variant of Godel’s Theorem of Incompleteness. There are epistemological limits inherent to what can be known and accounted for with any language or model.

So where does that leave me with the question of intrinsic meaning?

I experience meaning in life without a prime theistic metaphysical axiom, and I acknowledge that many people are grounded and thrive in theism. Hence, intrinsic meaning transcends the limits imposed by a prime metaphysical axiom that is theist or non-theist. Even in the dead universe metaphysical axiom the terrible existential angst within it may propel a person away from its chaotic implications. I tend to see it as a transitional metaphysics for any person who is seriously wrestling with the deep questions. It may, however, be a blind that is facilitated by the hedonistic focus of Western society, which I also hold as deeply flawed, though very easy to become addicted to.

Bruce Charlton said...

@NF _ I think Deism - belief in an abstract divinity not a personal God concerned by me personally - may be a coherent view, in terms of there being meaning and purpose - although it has no place or role for the individual.

(Some mathematicians and physicists are deists, even nowadays - usually Platonists.)

The usual tendency is to assert the the individuals role in a deist universe is to conform to it, assimilate to it - at least, this is what leads to 'happiness' in the sense that to do otherwise is to swim against an overpowering current. But there is no 'ought' to be had - conformity to the deistic universe is merely a matter of hedonic expediency.

On the other hand, the bottom line for almost al religions is hedonic.

The main trouble with deism is that it is psychologically-feeble and meta-stable - readily tipping either into theism or atheism. Given that deism is non-natural, non-spontaneous, unsatisfying - it does not have much going for it at a metaphysical system... But it is a possibility.