Picking and Choosing my Metaphysics

Erik and Ebonmuse together made the best critical responses to the question I asked on Monday: What should I conclude from the fact that Christianity’s metaphysics is a good predictor of my ethics?

Ebonmuse said:

You mentioned the numbers thing, that Christian philosophers have had the numerical majority just as they’ve had in larger civilization, and there’s probably some truth to that. But I’d take this point a little further: I’d say that there are so many different threads of tradition within Christian thought itself that it’s pretty easy for just about anyone to find one that appeals to them. This is probably an inevitable development in any belief system that’s been around for as long and spanned as many cultures as Christianity has.

Totally true. And it’s also true that plenty of strains of Christianity don’t appeal to me in the slightest. Even if I focus on only one tradition, there are plenty of conflicting voices such that I could always find someone on my side, so is it possible to make any conclusions about a religion or sect as a whole?

I say yes, to an extent, though it requires that I impose divisions both sides may not accept. For example, I’m all right with labeling Deists and people who believe that Christ was non-divine as not-Christian even though they might object to this schema. As a general rule, when I talk about Christianity on this blog, I am talking about the very, very basic creed of C.S. Lewis. About that kind of Christianity, I can still make some general statements, especially to contrast it with other religions. For instance, I find the idea of the Incarnation interesting because it provides a link between God and creation. Without this link, I have a harder time imagining a god that actually felt love for creatures so far removed or people that felt love for an abstracted god.

But when it comes down to distinguishing between sects, I’m sure that for any laundry list of provisions I could find a sect of Christianity that supported them. Some of these are self-refuting or inconsistent, and easily rejected but plenty appear solid. The trouble is that the human capacity for rationalization is near infinite, so it’s hard to figure out whether the apparent unity and truth is just a massive kludge, tweaked to fit specifications. (Think the epicycles of the Ptolemaic solar system).

Two competing philosophies could give me equally compelling systems, since they’ve had years of argument to pare off everything contradictory or to add in elaborate workarounds. How would I choose?

That brings me to Erik’s question. He wrote:

Why assume that because Christians have promoted the Core assumptions you make about the world that all of the add-ons (there is a god, Jesus was god, etc) to the philosophy are also correct without proof? This would be like accepting the word of an astronomer that there is life on mars simply because your experience is that when astronomy tells you the time of sunrise and set and phase of the moon has always been right. Each truth claim must stand or fall on its own merits. Anything less becomes an argument from authority.

Why not instead assume that Christians (and other religions)’have simply co-opted the best arguments from humanism? If the religious really believe these core values perhaps they should consider “converting” to humanism.

Maybe? I’ve certainly made that pitch to my Catholic boyfriend – that the ethics we share are compatible with atheism. He maintains that if he were an atheist he would be a nihilist materialist and I’ve been unsuccessful in convincing him otherwise.

If the basic premises of Catholicism are true, a lot of my ethics flows naturally from that fact. Thus far, I haven’t found an atheistic philosophy that necessarily supports almost anything I believe, so I haven’t any helpful humanistic metaphysics to convert him to. The most I can do is to convince other people to believe as I do – cling to the moral truths you’re most sure of in the absence of a metaphysical scaffolding until the truths are debunked or you find a system that explains them.

Unless any of you have metaphysical undergirdings to propose?

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  • NFQ

    Maybe I'm just being naive, but … I don't see the need for "converting" to a metaphysical "system." I don't see the need for "scaffolding." Granting that would seem to require religion in order to be moral — what else provides enough "scaffolding" around morality? — and I know (from personal experience…) that that's not true. I don't even know what you mean when you say you are looking for "an atheistic philosophy." What does this even mean? Do you mean you need to have some old book by a dead guy that lays out all of your ethical ideas? Why can't you just have your own philosophy, and be an atheist, and right there's an atheistic philosophy?You write, "If the basic premises of Catholicism are true, a lot of my ethics flows naturally from that fact." Can you elaborate on what that means? What parts of your ethics flow naturally from Catholic dogma? (I'm sure I don't have to remind you that, even if it is the case that P implies Q, this does not necessitate that Q implies P. But … apparently I'm going to say it anyway. 😉 )

  • Have you read "Sense and Goodness Without God?"

  • A Philosopher

    Here's a challenge: construct an argument from the metaphysical assumptions of Catholicism to any ethical conclusion whatsoever. I think you'll find it much harder to do convincingly than you might expect.

  • @A Philosopher: I think this is a moot point. Neither Leah nor anyone else I know of has much interest in some randomly selected ethical conclusion. What's at stake is the connection between Catholicism and the particular ethical beliefs Leah, or folks generally, hold. Since Leah says it works for her (suggesting she's already performed the exercise in the one instance which has stakes) I don't think your general exercise is very valuable. Or are you suggesting that Catholicism is structured such that any ethical system attached to it must necessarily result in a logical contradiction? If that's so, it seems necessary to demonstrate it. In other words, the onus is on you (not you personally, but "you" as place-holder for someone who wants to convince folks that Catholicism cannot consistently/convincingly generate ethical claims) to show the rest of us where the logical contradiction is, because we don't see it.My suspicion, actually, is that it would be dishearteningly easy to derive any ethical conclusion from any metaphysical system. Whether it's convincing or not is maybe the crux of the problem; what defines "convincing"? Who must it convince?

  • dbp

    A Philosopher is just arguing the same point he tried to make in a comment on an earlier post. That is, it can be very tricky to come up with a rigorous logical argument from a metaphysical system to an ethical system without bringing in some additional premises to guide the process. He is right, in general, which is why Catholics (and people of all other metaphysical schools) so often so widely diverge on specific ethical questions.However, it should be noted that Catholicism is not really a great example, because it is a lot more that a mere metaphysical system. Heck, the metaphysics took a long time to figure out, and there are still parts that need figuring out. Them's the breaks with revealed truth.But, with that said, the metaphysics do in fact support the ethics that came along with them. The understanding of mankind and its relationships to itself, the world, and its God do, in fact, provide a comprehensible and rational basis for the sort of behavior recommended to us. Furthermore, many of us find the harmonized whole satisfying (by being simultaneously affirmative of our basic sensibilities and desires and yet also perpetually challenging us to improve) and in accord with our subjective perceptions of ourselves– even when we would rather ignore those impressions.So yes, the waterproof, inescapable logical proof is elusive, but most of us don't need that. What I think Leah is getting at is that, despite her best efforts, she hasn't found any harmonized whole which incorporates atheistic metaphysics with ethics she can get behind. And from the sound of some of the comments here (like NFQ's above), the answer she is getting is that she is asking for too much. Probably not what she was looking for.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Leah,Do you have any posts detailing your present (atheist) metaphysical beliefs? I looked, but could not find.It's hard to know what to say without knowing where you stand, especially the reasons behind your current stance. Zac

  • Theophilus

    >plenty of strains of Christianity don’t appeal to me in the slightest

    The various strains of Christianity are more divergent than many people realize. In particular, there are ancient strains of Christianity that are not well-represented in the West; cf. Eastern Orthodox, Coptic, and Syriac Christianity, all of which are in many respects more similar to each other than any are to contemporary Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. I would urge you to take a peek. You might start with, for example, Timothy Ware’s “The Orthodox Way”.