The “usefulness” of metaphysics

8 09 2010

It is frightening to think of the extent to which people are now being encouraged to banish from the minds of their children great questions as devoid of all meaning; to dispel the wonder which is a young mind’s birthright; to confine their spirit to petty problems that can be answered once and for all to the satisfaction of reasoners incapable of raising a question to begin with. We now have a philosophy to show that there are no problems but those which it has shown to be no problem; and to decree that there is no philosophy other than one that is a denial of philosophy. Under the twinkle of a fading star, Hollow Men rejoice at a hollow world of their own making.

-Charles de Koninck, The Hollow Universe

I am very sympathetic to this type of comment. For one thing, I think one of the problems with anti-abortion advocates is that they fail to understand how anti-metaphysical our thinking and the thinking of democracy is. The inability of many good intentioned people to see the usefulness of metaphysical first principles prevents any real discourse on morality whatsoever.

On the other hand, you can’t eat metaphysics. We live in a profoundly anti-metaphysical world, and to pretend that these questions mean exactly the same thing as when Aquinas or other scholastics posed them would be the same as saying that a costume ball constitutes an exact re-inactment of the customs of the past. I was struck by this most in my own readings of Aquinas, before I started blogging, in which I concluded that one could not pretend to understand Aquinas unless one begins to try to grasp what kind of world he lived in. What was the “metaphysical atmosphere” in which he thought, how did he envision the cosmos working, how did social and economic factors influence how he approached questions, and so forth. I feel that I need to emphasize that his vision of the cosmos as run by cosmic hierarchies and according to the traditional rhythms of the seasons and the heavens is a much different place from our coldly measured mechanistic universe.

For that reason, I understand why the idea of both Maritain and de Koninick that modern science and human knowledge in general suffer because of a lack of a metaphysical component often falls on deaf ears. Modern science, as a quantitative tool, has no need of anything beyond the physical to explain its object. And quite frankly, it has proven far better than religion or metaphysical thought at feeding and caring for the people who employ it. Perhaps we are missing something even in the neo-Thomist advocacy of metaphysics. Perhaps there is a whole aspect of these propositions, a whole approach to the logos of things that we are missing. If that is the case, we may need to go beyond even the books by chairs of the philosophy programs at Catholic universities.