Procrustean Metaphysics

I suspect the vast majority of mankind does not concern itself with metaphysical speculation. Nevertheless, one cannot help having a position on metaphysics. One may be unable to articulate one’s position, having simply assumed the unspoken assumptions of one’s culture or peers, one may even be convinced that metaphysics is a meaningless waste of time, yet one’s actions and beliefs all necessarily betray metaphysical assumptions.

The uncritical assumption of prevailing cultural norms is probably the best course of action for most people, who have more immediate concerns than recondite philosophy. But if one wishes to make certain assertions, to claim that such and such a practice is right or that so and so’s beliefs are wrong, then one is obligated to take a stand on metaphysics and to declaim one’s position.

The first position that I wish to consider is that of Scepticism. It is necessary to distinguish between the critical methodology that goes by that name, which might be described as the opposite of gullibility, and the philosophical theory which denies the validity of all truth claims that are not logical tautologies. While the former is a laudable approach to life, the latter is confused. As a metaphysical position, scepticism fails to grasp the nature of reason. It asserts that the only valid truth claims are those that can be proved by logical deduction but fails to provide any convincing rationale for why this should be so. Perhaps the best debunking of scepticism, at least by a modern philosopher, can be found in J. R. Lucas’ Reason and Reality.

Second, consider the Mechanistic Philosophy. This has many different flavours — such as Materialism, Physicalism and Naturalism — but all have at their heart the assertion that everything either is or can be explained in terms of the mechanical interactions of matter obeying the laws of physics. This metaphysics owes its prominence — it is probably the most widely adopted system in the modern West — to its association with the great achievements of science. It is the key assumption of the scientific method and thus every scientific success lends credence to its tenets. But the methodological naturalism of science does not imply metaphysical naturalism, however much it might encourage it. Furthermore, in Reason and Reality, J. R. Lucas shows that neither ontological nor explanatory reductionism is viable. Besides there being no particularly good reason to accept the Mechanistic Philosophy, V. Reppert argues convincingly in C. S. Lewis’ Dangerous Idea that it is self-refuting.

Less conclusive, although to my mind still quite compelling, are arguments that identify what appear to be basic facts of human existence and experience which do not fit easily into a mechanistic metaphysics. Although such things (for example, intentions, morality and truth) can be explained away by mechanistic philosophers, the explanations tend to feel like rather desperate attempts to cram inconvenient facts into an incompatible philosophy. I am reminded of mediaeval attempts to fit inconvenient astronomical observations into a Ptolemaic model of the solar system: epicycles on epicyles on epicycles…

The failure of scepticism leaves me obligated to choose some metaphysical system and the failure of mechanistic philosophy prevents my adoption of what would otherwise, given my upbringing, have been the obvious choice. The next most obvious choice is Christianity. The inconsistencies of which mechanistic philosophy is charged do not appear in the classical theism of Christianity. Indeed, in many respects, Christian doctrine appears to better fit the facts than much of modern philosophy. For example, J. P. Moreland argues in The Recalcitrant Imago Dei that the Christian doctrine according to which humans are “created in the image of God” is more realistic than naturalism.

As I explained in a previous blog post, I have already come to the conclusion that theism is more rationally plausible than atheism. However, I have yet to accept any particular orthodoxy: I find it hard to make the jump from the philosophical principle of theism to any particular religion. How does one derive Christian doctrine, for example, with its bold historical claims of the Incarnation and other miracles, from rational theist metaphysics?

It seems that one cannot perform such a derivation. Perhaps to attempt it is to miss the point. Maybe the best we can do is to consider the alternatives open to us. Which systems of metaphysics, which worldviews, are possibilities? Then which of those possibilities best fits the facts available to us? It is neither necessary nor possible to derive every element of one’s worldview from first principles, since it is one’s worldview that determines what one considers to be a first principle anyway, thus one looks not for an incontrovertible logical deduction but rather for a best fit.

J. R. Lucas ends his discussion of scepticism in Reason and Reality like so:

The final counter to the sceptical questioner is to ask what alternative he has in mind. Since reasoning is typically two-sided, it often involves an assessment of alternatives. If alternatives are offered, we can compare them with what we ourselves have put forward, possibly finding them preferable, but more probably finding them less well supported than the position that is under attack. But if, as often, no alternative is offered, we are not engaged on a serious exercise. It is the converse of an argument of Hume’s, who concluded that “a total suspense of judgement is . . . our only reasonable resource”, arguing that, since “every attack and no defence . . . is successful, victory must go to the man who remains always on the offensive and has himself no fixed station or abiding city which he is ever, on any occasion, obliged to defend”. But guerilla warfare wins no territory. The metaphysician is looking for a position in which he can abide, and which he would be willing to defend. His thoughts and communications may sometimes be troubled by a Humean sceptic, but he will have no incentive to abandon his position for another, if no other is on offer. For he is serieux; metaphysics is not a dilettante occupation, but a guide to life, and life is short and will not allow an indefinite suspense of judgement.

— J. R. Lucas, Reason and Reality, published on the author’s website, pp. 76-77

Published in: on November 3, 2010 at 1:42 pm  Leave a Comment  

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