Tuesday 21 July 2020

The importance of metaphysics

I have found extremely few people who share my conviction of the centrality of metaphysics in life! (Metaphysics being one's primary understanding of the basic nature of reality.)

For most people who can even bother to think about such matters for ten minutes (and these are extremely few!), metaphysics seems like almost the definition of that which is most remote and irrelevant to actual life. But to me, nothing is more relevant - and never a day - hardly a waking hour - passes in which I do not think about such matters.

The reason is that I see metaphysical assumptions behind almost everything of interest to me; and that I am continually aware that the basic understanding of others is nearly always very different from my own.

Here is an example (in italics; which I have edited for clarity and explicitness), from John Michell, at the end of his (excellent and inspiring!) book from 1990: New Light on the Ancient Mystery of Glastonbury. :

One of the conventional symbols of earthly paradise is the union between two cities: the heavenly Jerusalem and the actual city of Jerusalem below. William Blake drew on that image in prophesying that the New Jerusalem would first become manifest in England... 

Plato was more practical-minded than Blake. His imaginary republic was based on the archetype of heavenly paradise, and from there he descended into the world of matter; interpreting the ideal in the form of a social order which he considered to be its best possible reflection. 

Due to its material nature, Plato's republic was necessarily structured, and was governed, by a code of laws. 

It was, as Plato admitted, a mere third-hand version of the ideal; for the original is the heavenly archetype, and its clearest secondhand reflection on earth is that primordial paradise remembered in the Garden of Eden [and substantially experienced by historical nomadic tribespeople...]

From this secondhand version of paradise we have long been barred due to the necessary inhibitions of civilization. 

Most people today enjoy the civilized state and its comforts, and therefore - like Plato - we are concerned in practice with the [third hand] reflection of paradise: a perfectly ordered, permanently settled human society. 

This is not the innocent paradise of Eden, but is the next best thing; and Plato promised that, if its standards were scrupulously maintained, it would be almost as good and long-lasting as the original.

Thus we have the original and best - because perfect, permanent and unchanging - reality located in the transcendental realm of spirit; and all possible earthly and material manifestations as symbolic, temporary secondary and symbolic.

We are removed a step further by 'civilization' - which constrains the originally natural and spontaneous order of Eden (approximated by nomadic hunter-gatherer life) into hierarchy and law: a system into-which individual humans must be conformed.

By my understanding; this Platonic metaphysics has been adopted by mainstream Christian theology; and its assumptions underpin the Christian churches from most of the earliest records - because the Christian churches were themselves of a civilized nature, secondary and symbolic, hierarchical and derived-from laws - and expressing Christianity in the form of hierarchy and law. 

In different words; this is an abstract metaphysics; in which reality is regarded as primarily spiritual and metaphysical. And so dominant is this way of thinking that few people can even imagine any alternative.

But that is the focus of my life work: I mean, to imagine and describe, and then to try and live-by, a different basic understanding of the nature of reality.

That is what I mean when I assert (over and again) the primacy of the Fourth Gospel, and emphasise that it embodies a profoundly, indeed qualitatively, different basic understanding of the nature of reality; and records this as being the teaching of Jesus.

This is the metaphysics in which Beings and their relationships are primary; reality is seen as developmental ('evolutionary'), with mortal life on earth as - not secondary, but a part of this primary reality.

Thus earthly material life is not secondary, nor is it ultimately abstract, nor symbolic; but part of a developmental 'process' (but 'process makes it too abstract) - a history of groth and development - which began before mortal life and continues after biological death.

And this very different metaphysics affects (or ought to affect, if believed and lived-by) pretty much everything that happens in every persons' life; in the most immediate and practical sense of transforming its meaning and relevance.


Anonymous said...

Though I do perceive the physical world as a sort of shadow of the spiritual world, I never thought of earthly manifestations as symbolic....Instead I tend to think of the spiritual as symbolic, but thanks to this post I realized I had that backwards, since the spiritual is the true underlying nature of reality. Sometimes I wonder, though, what's the point of the temporary stage? Why doesn't God set up the millennial kingdom right now?

The theme recurs often in the Bible, such as the temple replacing the tabernacle, then the temple being destroyed and replaced by a permanent temple in the Millennium. Maybe I'm just impatient, but sometimes I'd rather skip the temporary stuff and go straight to eternal perfection, if that makes sense.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ED - I agree with your criticisms of assuming that the spiritual is the true underlying nature of reality. Which is why I Don't hold that metaphysical belief!

Sean G. said...

Your notions on metaphysics brought everything in my spiritual life into focus and helped me escape my gnomic will. I'm surprised it's hardly discussed among Christians and other religious people.

The Social Pathologist said...

@EDF Free

I tend to think of the world as being "sacramental" in that we perceive only one aspect of the reality of our existence. Let me illustrate this by way of analogy: if you give a blind person a ball, they are able to perceive the weight and shape of the thing but the reality of the colour of the ball escapes them. I think we human beings are limited in our perception of things and lack the perceptual abilities to see ourselves as we really are.

James said...

Thank you Bruce for another thought-provoking post. It is funny how a view point becomes so natural after a time, you forget you have one!

While I was thinking through this, I came across the phrase "the Truth is a Person", which is just restating "I am the way and the truth and the life" John 14:6, but I think it might have been to help me understand.

I struggle a lot with the tension between the universal/abstract and the particular/real in Christianity. Not just in understanding, but in considering how to act: love everybody? treat everybody the same? But when I look at the western world, it seems to be striving toward the universal and becoming more abstract and less human. Was the incarnation of Jesus not making the universal/abstract something very particular/real?

Bruce Charlton said...

@James - "when I look at the western world, it seems to be striving toward the universal and becoming more abstract and less human"

Yes. I was thinking about how, in these Antichrist/End Times, we observe a deceptiveness applied to our aspirations. So the demonic pwoers take a Good and legitimate desire, and re-direct it into something evil (or with the potential more easily to be corrupted).

Thus the unseen and pervasive world of 'spirit' is redirected into 'electricity', electrical media and other technology - such as the internet. Locked-down Christians are supposed to compensate by replacing human interaction with various electrical media. Yet there is a deep sense in which electricity is a kind of anti-spirit, and intriniscally abstracting and demonic phenomenon.

Another is that the desire for freedom is directed into chaos. Chaotic violence (of language as well as physical) and the chaos of being against some values - but without having genuine coherent positive values. The idea that destruction of 'bad things' will automatically lead to more 'good things'. Chaos - anti-creation.

On the other side - law is changed to bureaucracy.

Or, proposing incoherence as a substitute for intuition. So, we need more intuition; but what is on-offer is incoherence, arbitrary impulsivity, wishful thinking in specifics, will-full-ness... Mere anti-rationality. I want... I am entitled...

And so on. This is the Antichrist process - the germ of Good is taken-up, redirected and transformed into that which is net-evil.

William Wildblood said...

We are living at a time of the materialisation of spirit which is the very opposite of what should happen. Matter should be raised up into spirit as in the Ascension but now spirit is being dragged down into matter. Hence the tendency towards abstraction and the predominance of quantity (egalitarianism, for instance) over quality.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - Yes. Our society may acknowledge the problem, but the solution suggested/ provided is invariably at-best a very-partial truth that makes matters worse overall and in the long-term. e.g. to escape from the compulsory materialism of work we are offered the passive distractions of the mass media (or intoxication), so we temporarily 'forget' work.

Brief Outlines said...

This was helpful Bruce - I assume you have read Steiner's book called Goethe's World View? Your metaphysical understanding regarding one-sided Platonism (where the abstract is seen as the only real) is exactly what Steiner reveals as being necessary to over-come, so that we can see that the ideal and the real are in fact but two sides of one and the same world.

I still have my differences regarding tribal societies. I continue to imagine a future civilisation (or city) as being perfectly possible without abstract codes and laws underlying it. In fact I maintain that the burden of proof lies with those who imagine the opposite; that civilisation could ever have been formed and maintained by a few intellectuals sitting around making up all the rules and then getting the populous to act accordingly. Such a picture of the metaphysical structure of civilisation is totally fallacious to me, for it cannot see that it is making use of the already existing civilisation to then implement its rules upon. Such abstract laws and codes imposed from outside are the death of civilisation, they are not its underpinning structure. Unfortunately this is becoming very obvious today, where the "rules" are increasingly more and more destructive to any internal (self regulating) coherence, and eventually it will lead to what you predict - complete destruction.