Section One of A Philosophy of Glimpses
What Is Metaphysics?
It’s hard to think of a more loaded word in philosophy than “metaphysics,” and it can mean a hundred different things to a hundred different people. To start, it would be useful to review some possible understandings of the term.
A. The section next to the Physics section in the library.
The origin of the term, following Martha Nussbaum, is (undramatically) just a library designation. Obviously though, the term has gained a lot more meaning over time.
B. Unfalsifiable theorizing.
Metaphysics seems like it is unfalsifiable, which would mean it was not a science in the same way as was say astrophysics (according to Karl Popper). Here, I don’t mean “unfalsifiable” as a simple simile for “disprovable,” but instead I’m using the term in the narrow sense meant by Popper (my favorite description of which is found in Kindly Inquisitors by Jonathan Rauch, pages 52–55). Basically, the question is if metaphysics is like regular physics or unique in certain ways.
Even if metaphysics wasn’t a “hard science,” would it follow that metaphysics was a waste of time? Not at all, and even Popper, the father of falsification, didn’t believe that everything true and meaningful could be falsified (the criteria of “falsification” was for defining “science” from “pseudo-science,” not for defining “what can be true” from “what cannot be true”). In fact, what’s unfalsifiable can describe the most important things in our lives, say our relationship to our spouse, our passions, and so on.
If there are things in our lives that matter which cannot be falsifiable, then we must figure out how we are going to live with and approach those things. If we don’t take the time to think about how we’re going to do that, we’ll still have ideas of how we “ought” to live with the unfalsifiable, but we’ll likely construct and “live out” those ideas poorly. On these grounds, metaphysical considerations are valid, assuming they are indeed about things that matter (as we will discuss).¹ If not though, then metaphysics might fall victim to a classic critique that it is like astrology: there’s a lot going on, but not really. Yes, metaphysics might uncover some truths, but we could walk outside right now, count the number of grass-blades in our yards, and discover truths. “Discovering truths” is not the same as “discovering significant truths.”
(Before moving on, please note that Thomas Jockin believes that there is reason to think that “a metaphysics of lacks” is objective and falsifiable, and he offers a wonderful explanation on his channel, “1B. What is Metaphysics? A Reply to O.G. Rose.”)
C. A study of what is “beyond the physical.”
The term “metaphysics” seems like a good umbrella term to describe everything that is “beyond the physical.” Today though, we generally seem to think that everything ultimately has a physical origin, and that therefore there is nothing “beyond the physical.” As a result, we tend to disregard metaphysics without the slightest worry that we’re losing all that much.
But we shouldn’t be so hasty: even if “beauty” ultimately has a physical origin, we do not experience “beauty” as just physical; in fact, it can strike us as transcendent. We do not experience “love” as chemicals in the brain; we do not experience “success” as a social construct. Telling us that our thoughts are composed of neurons does not tell us what we should do with our thoughts, and furthermore there is an assumption embedded in this notion that things are “really” just what they are composed out of. But why couldn’t it be the case that things are “really” what they “build up into?” Why must the smaller be more?
Who has a right to claim that thoughts are more so neurons than to say that neurons are more so thoughts? Who has a right to say love is more so its evolutionary benefits than to say that the evolutionary benefits are more so love? We have absorbed an “ontological hierarchy” where we assume parts are more real than wholes, which is perhaps a legacy of nominalism. The very fact we have an “ontological hierarchy” (without realizing it) is evidence that we will inevitably possess some philosophy/metaphysics, whether we realize it or not.
There is a lot of talk today about “emergent phenomena,” the “wisdom of crowds,” and the like, but philosophy sometimes seems yet to get the memo.
To decide that things really are what they are made out of is a metaphysical assumption (that overlooks emergence and the like), and so if we view the world this way, then though we may think we have avoided metaphysics, we in this very act engage in metaphysics. If we believe that things are what they are made out of versus believe parts are what they make, we have accepted a framework to understand the physical which is not found in the physical: we have absorbed something “beyond the physical.” In this way, metaphysics is unavoidable, and if we don’t take the time to “own” our metaphysics, we will still live with a philosophy, but probably not one we have thought through. As a result, we will probably reason poorly.
D. A study of forms over and in contrast to matter.
The “idea of a cat” isn’t the same as a “cat”: the “form” by which a cat is comprehended is not identical to the matter which composes a cat. Without forms, the world of matter wouldn’t make sense to me; without ideas, my experiences would be meaningless. Even if I can locate the neuron in my head that corresponds with “the idea of a cat,” I will not find that idea in the neuron: ultimately, ideas are not in the world and yet of it.
Forms exist but aren’t real, per se; they are “beyond the physical,” and yet forms make it possible to meaningful organize and operate in the physical. Yes, we can associate “forms” and “ideas,” and, if we do so, we can quickly realize the importance of metaphysics (just try to get through a day without thinking about it). And we should ask ourselves: does the composition and origin of ideas help us know what to do with them? If not, then metaphysics will prove critical and necessary, especially once we understand its relationship with phenomenology (as will be discussed).
E. A study of what can only be understood “through living it.”
In the important and profound Religion and Nothingness, Keiji Nishitani writes that ‘[t]he religious quest alone is the key to understanding it; there is no other way.’² By religion, Nishitani does not mean a dogmatic institution like the word typically conjures up in us; instead, “religion” has to do with a concern that ‘has to do with life itself.’³ It is a certain “mode of being,” a method of attention and concern perhaps akin to the “ultimate concern” of Paul Tillich. But to really grasp the details of this subject, I suggest giving Religion and Nothingness a read.
The main point I want to focus on is that religion can only be understood in a religious life: if we are not religious, we cannot understand it (and will even see good reason not to understand it). We have to be participating in it and “toward” the aims of religion; otherwise, we will see no reason to ascent to these aims. But doesn’t this risk brainwashing? Easily, but perhaps this is the only way to “brain-wash” ourselves, meaning “clean ourselves” of false ideas and Cartesian hangovers. Hard to say, and we certainly should be aware of possibilities of self-deception, but if we pay attention to how things “unfold” to us, as opposed to what we “think about” things, we will help ourselves avoid “confirmation bias,” precisely because the focus of our attention will be external to us. Admittedly though, we could still fall into trouble, which suggests the desperate need for us to “learn how to think,” but exploring that topic is the focus of The True Isn’t the Rational: that topic requires its own series of books.
Like religion, “perceptive phenomenology” must be tried and lived to be understood. If we never hold up our hand and really try to look at it while turning off all our thoughts, the distinction between “thinking” and “perceiving” will seem incorrect. And if that distinction seems misplaced, the entire project of a “New Metaphysics” will be straw. To fully grasp what is articulated in this treatise (and the works inspired by it), we must try what is described.
Metaphysics seems to be a study of what is “non-physical,” with a special focus on the “forms” that render matter intelligible. There is a debate to be had on how “falsifiable” metaphysics is (it might depend), but I personally believe that metaphysics is a valid enterprise either way. Even if metaphysics is not a science like astrophysics, metaphysics still matters.
Moving forward, Nishitani provides us with a thought that can suggest the importance of phenomenology in our “New Metaphysics,” which we will explore next. Discussing Dostoevsky, Nishitani writes:
‘It is extremely rare for us […] to “fix our attention” on things as to “lose ourselves” in them, in other words, to become the very things we are looking at.”⁴
Nishitani associates this with ‘the real self-awareness of reality,’ which suggests the proper subject of phenomenology.⁵ The phenomenology of a “New Metaphysics” should not so much be after what things are “like in of themselves,” but seek to outline “the apprehension of things,” with the main subject being the nature of that very apprehension. This brings us to phenomenology.
¹It’s interesting to wonder if all of philosophy is ultimately metaphysical, despite how much modern philosophy might attempt to suggest otherwise. Is the study of ethics really not a metaphysical study? What about the philosophy of science? A “philosophy of science” will involve hermeneutics and frameworks, which means metaphysical entities are involved. Perhaps it’s not by chance that the dismissal of metaphysics has coincided with a general decline of philosophy, because despite what philosophy thinks, philosophy is simply unimaginable without metaphysics.
²Nishitani, Keiji. Religion and Nothingness. Berkeley, CA. University of California Press, 1983: 2.
³Nishitani, Keiji. Religion and Nothingness. Berkeley, CA. University of California Press, 1983: 3.
⁴Nishitani, Keiji. Religion and Nothingness. Berkeley, CA. University of California Press, 1983: 9.
⁵Nishitani, Keiji. Religion and Nothingness. Berkeley, CA. University of California Press, 1983: 5.