Why We Need Metaphysics

Why We Need Metaphysics September 20, 2022

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One of the main ingredients of any religion is a belief in some sort of god. There are atheistic religions, but in general, religions maintain that there is some sort of superior being. It’s very common for people to believe in a god that we cannot see. In many cases, god lives in some unseen realm. Some will say, “Well I just believe in some kind of higher power” and in that case perhaps the discipline of metaphysics may not interest you. But if you are interested in seriously exploring the nature of God, you will engage in metaphysical speculation. The only question is whether or not you will be good at it.

Concerns About Metaphysics

Christians who are unfamiliar with the discipline of philosophy might be hesitant to take up a study of metaphysics. The word “metaphysics” might conjure up psychedelic figures meditating in front of colorful geometric patterns. However, the study of metaphysics has a long and respectable history in western philosophy and Christian theology. Our creeds reflect that Christian intellectual tradition.

Some Christians see the influence of Greek philosophy on Christianity as a perversion of Christianity’s truer Jewish roots. For example, advocates of Open Theism are known for their criticism of philosophies’ influence on Biblical interpretation. Fundamentalist Christians are under the impression that they just “read what the Bible says” without importing any kind of philosophical notions into the text. Thus, any addition of philosophy to a “pure” reading of the Bible is seen as undesirable.

What Is Metaphysics

There is no single definition or understanding of what metaphysics is. Furthermore, some philosophers have declared the death of metaphysics. In this article, it would be impossible to lay out the different views on the nature of metaphysics and provide a defense for the view that I hold. Rather, I will provide my understanding of what metaphysics is and lay out some reasons for thinking that Christians should study it.

Very Brief Statement About Metaphysics

Ask yourself, what is the most general thing that you can study? Perhaps you have physics in mind. After all, it studies that which makes up all of the stuff of the universe. Surely that is the most general thing you can study. However, that would not be quite right. Physicists study fundamental properties of matter and energy, but this could include a study of plasma, liquids, gases, subatomic particles, or gravity waves. Is there something common to all of the different things that physicists study that is even more general?

The metaphysician’s answer is: Yes!

All of the things studied in physics, biology, chemistry, psychology, etc. have one thing in common. All disciplines study things that exist. Metaphysics is the discipline that studies the thing that is common to all existing beings, namely their existence. Physics studies being insofar as it is in motion. Biology studies being insofar as it is living. Metaphysics, however, studies being insofar as it exists. Another way of saying this is to say that metaphysics is the study of being qua being.

Kinds of Metaphysical Questions

Metaphysics deals with the broadest categories of things and as such, it sets the context for how we think about the world. There are many basic questions that metaphysicians like to ask:

  • What is change?
  • What does it mean to be a being?
  • How do different things in the world have unity?

How you answer these sorts of questions, sets the stage for how you answer questions of a more specific nature. For example, how you answer the question “What does it mean to exist” has implications for all things in the category of “existing things”. Your answer to the first question about change has particularly profound implications for the nature of God. The classical doctrine of divine simplicity, for example, relies heavily on an analysis of change.

Some downstream questions have to do with the nature of knowledge. The ancient and medieval thinkers took the study of knowledge to be an extension of metaphysics. Contemporary studies of the nature of knowledge typically focus on what is called “justification” and “warrant”. They tend to be more concerned about what constitutes an item of knowledge and under what conditions we can be said to have it. Ancient and medieval thinkers were more concerned with understanding the act of knowing from a metaphysical point of view.

Trickle Down Metaphysics

The amount of confidence you have in your beliefs has as much to do with trickle-down philosophy as it does with your personality. Those who hold to metaphysical realism tend to be more confident in what they think. They are generally more optimistic about our ability to know the world as it is. People who have a generally skeptical disposition often maintain some sort of metaphysical nominalism. They like to talk more about “nuance”, “possibilities”, and “contours of thought”. Talk of “certainty” and “proof” is generally grating for them as they are often more skeptical about strong knowledge claims. There are exceptions in both cases. I’m speaking here in generalities.

The distinction here isn’t between “thinkers” and “feelers”. There are many brilliant philosophers on both sides. The distinction here has to do with the way the world is, and the way in which we know it. Realists think that the world presents itself to us in ways that inform us of the true nature of the things we know. Nominalists deny that things have natures. Trees, cats, and humans, for example, don’t have natures that present themselves to us as intelligible. Rather the world is made of variously arranged atoms and we as humans assign names to the different arrangements of atoms.

Realism vs. Nominalism

This philosophical difference is an important delineator between Roman Catholics and Protestants. To be sure, there are nominalist Catholics and realist Protestants. But Protestantism has trended nominalist while Catholicism has trended realist. This is not mere happenstance. These philosophical differences provide a context for theological speculation. They set boundaries for acceptable and unacceptable theological conclusions. If you are not aware of how this is the case, then my point is made all the more. The resulting theological system that you accept is animated by categories of thought of which you are not aware.

Not Everyone Studies Philosophy

You might be thinking, “I don’t study philosophy, how can I be a realist or a nominalist?” That is a great question. The answer, I think, is that we imbibe philosophy uncritically and unknowingly as we go through life. When you don’t study philosophy, you tend to reverse engineer philosophy from the non-philosophy courses you take. We do this because the conclusions of many English and Science teachers are laden with philosophy. Sometimes you are learning philosophy without knowing it.

Consider the question “What is the most basic unit of reality?” You might think that the atom is the most basic unit of reality as it makes up all other things. And if you keep going, you might change your mind and think that strings or some other subatomic particle are the most basic unit of real things. But this way of thinking is to already accept a certain philosophical point of view. We learn about atomic theory in science class without being presented with the different philosophical views that inform our science. Thus we do not have an alternative way of construing the science.

Christians Need Metaphysics

Dialogue With Those Who Disagree

Our need for metaphysics becomes more clear the more we interact with people of differing opinions. Our conversation might start with some specific topic, say the deity of Christ or the ethics of abortion. Very often you will find that you need to back up to some more general principle to find agreement with your interlocutor. The ultimate general discipline is metaphysics. Understanding what metaphysical assumptions or convictions are at play can truly help you get to the root of many disagreements.

The problem, however, is that most people are not skilled at thinking metaphysically. It takes a long time to become proficient at it. So when you get to the root of your disagreement, you are more likely to stop the conversation and throw your hands in the air in frustration. If you are trained in philosophy, and more specifically metaphysics, these root disagreements are where the conversation starts to get interesting and enjoyable.

Biblical Interpretation

Another area where metaphysics is helpful is in the area of Biblical interpretation. The Bible presupposes that you have some understanding of the basic categories for thinking about the world. It does not contain a treatise on the nature of free will or the divisions of the soul. It talks about these things and alludes to others, but it doesn’t present a treatise on such things. Like it or not, there are important topics that need to be adjudicated on non-Biblical grounds. Of course when Scripture talks about a matter, what it says is true. But the broad categories we use to understand the world around us will be leveraged when we read Scripture.

An obvious example of the importance of metaphysics in Biblical interpretation is found in the Open Theist debate. Open Theists make a compelling case that Scripture does not yield the God of classical theism. If you do a “plane reading of the text” you would be hard-pressed to defend that God is immutable or impassible. Maintaining classical theism in the face of Open Theism demands that you do some metaphysics. If not, the Open Theist wins the debate.

Inevitability of Metaphysics

We inevitably bring our philosophical presuppositions into the text when we read it. This is not bad, per se. It means that we bring our basic notions about the world into our reading of any text, including the Bible. The danger of not studying philosophy in general and metaphysics, in particular, is you will be unaware that you are taking a side on a position prior to engaging the text. Everyone does this, the only question is whether or not you are aware of it and whether or not you have critically analyzed those presuppositions.

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