Let’s Not Get Metaphysical
November 10, 2013
The ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, called metaphysics the “first philosophy”. Metaphysics (literally: what comes after physics), is the branch of philosophy that addresses the constitution of reality and is something most of us are engaged in whether we know it or not.
You are a practical metaphysician if you’ve ever wondered and tried to answer questions about the reality of appearances, about distinctions between mental and physical categories, where the universe came from and why, or (the big one in 21st century American politics) the existence of God. Of course this doesn’t cover all possible metaphysical queries, but you get the gist.
In important ways we might say that the USA is not only in the midst of an economic and political crisis, but also a metaphysical one. Questions of fundamental reality affect political issues and policy in ways they have not for some time. For instance, questions about life and when it begins; whether the earth is gift from God or just property and ownable, and if so, who should own it; where the authority to govern comes from, Man or God; whether certain books are divine; what divinity is; what’s sacred, what profane; right down to how many capitalists can dance on the edge of a moral razor.
All of these are questions that “go beyond physics” and have stumped some of the most brilliant minds since before Aristotle, and are stumping ours to the point of national clog and decline. They are also questions that crafty and glib con artists use to mislead, manipulate and to mire minds that are not so crafty or glib —or minds that may be as potentially astute as Aristotle’s but simply so caught in the accidental circumstances of their lives —in immediate issues of survival— they have little time to deal with whether Ted Cruz is the slipperiest god-endorsed shark-in-a-suit to come swimming up the bay, or if Barack Obama is a secret Allah-worshipping Muslim. Metaphysics in America is the playground of the false and faithful as well as the free.
The nation and the globe face a set of circumstances unlike any we have faced before, the most far-reaching in terms of consequence being global warming. The vast majority of environmental scientists agree that this is so yet, here in the USA, science is often trumped by ancient metaphysics. American policy and action is determine more and more not on the basis of science, but on the basis of a world view originating over 3000 years ago. Sadly, and dangerously, science is often presented as if it were less reliable than Genesis in explaining our origins and what makes the world tick. Yet, the very people who show contempt for science when it comes to climate change would probably not place their injured child’s life in the hands of a priest or minister rather than that of scientists we call doctors.
What this “beyond-physics” (or beyond-science) world view has produced is a type of American politician who spouts personally invented metaphysical statements as if they were writing Bible verses.
Take Joe Barton, for instance. Barton (R-TX) said recently, “Wind is a finite resource and harnessing it would slow the winds down which would cause the temperature to go up.” Written 3000 years ago Barton’s statement might sound something like this (if written by a King-Jamesish, time travelling, 21st century meteorologist):
“Lo, the wind bloweth until it smacketh thee and, therefore; shall not bloweth over the one who follows haply in thy steps, nor anyone else down the line because the Lord diminisheth the wind after it hitteth thee. The Lord rendereth it impotent then, regardless of the continued demands of low pressure areas and His laws of physics.” —The Book of Barton 2:23
Winds may be finite and temperatures may increase when they’re not present, but Barton’s ignorance of their global effect is profound. When it comes to how winds happen, the conditions of their movement, how they are affected by temperature and the earth’s rotation upon them Barton’s limited understanding and statement may have made him at home in 3000 BC, but depressingly, he happens to be the current Chairman of the House-Senate Energy Conference Committee.
And then there’s Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia who recently told New York magazine in an interview that he believes in the devil. “Of course! Yeah, he’s a real person,” the justice said. “In the Gospels, the Devil is doing all sorts of things. He’s making pigs run off cliffs, he’s possessing people and whatnot. And that doesn’t happen very much anymore.”
There are effects to this kind of thinking not unlike the effects of a typhoon: a Satan-believing wind is just fifty miles-per-hour or so away from becoming the wild gale of a witch-hunting one.
I don’t know about you, but having a Satan believer on the Supreme Court citing the devil during a line of questioning by Justice Samuel Alito about whether any conceivable prayer could simultaneously be acceptable to Christians, Jews, Muslims and Hindus, is not comforting to me.
“What about devil-worshippers?” Scalia said from the bench.
Indeed, and what about facts? What about reason? What about science?
by Jim Culleny