A balanced view of the metaphysical world
Regular Network Norfolk columnist James Knight reflects on how empirical knowledge and metaphysical beliefs can relate to each other.
On top of our most common kind of knowledge – the empirical knowledge we have through the means of engaging with the physical world - there are many metaphysical beliefs we hold in addition to this knowledge.
Metaphysical beliefs do not qualify as knowledge (in the philosophical sense of the word 'knowledge', posited by the Empiricists Locke, Berkeley and Hume) because they cannot be empirically verified in relation to the physical world - but they may be thought of as concepts related to knowledge. Examples of this would be belief in God, belief in an absolute moral law, and in teleological concepts related to justice, purpose, happiness, and so forth.
At the heart of this debate are two extremes, and at each extreme you’ll find too many people reasoning poorly. The extreme sceptics scoff at metaphysics because they fail to see that it is actually intimately connected to our empirical knowledge; and the extreme metaphysicians embrace it too much by confusing it with genuinely verifiable empirical knowledge. If one holds a balanced view, then both can be enriching. A quote from Pascal usually serves to make a good point even better:
“Man does not prove his greatness by standing at one extreme or the other, but by touching both extremes and filling all that lies between”.
Treat metaphysics too fanatically or too lightly and it will fail to enrich. Jesus embodied the Pascalian advice when He touched the extremes of Heaven and earth and showed us how to fill all that lies between. I suppose one could take it like this; if you embrace earth for all that it is, and do the same towards the heavenly pursuit you will bring heaven closer to earth. In Matthew 24:35 Jesus makes a metaphysical claim; he says "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away."
Aside from regular interpretations about prophecy and end times, this is precisely the sort of truth about existence that conveys a purpose beyond that of ordinary empirical knowledge acquired in our earthly experiences. But treat it as only metaphysical and it will likely not be applied to the earthly pursuit of goodness. That is how metaphysical concepts like love, grace, kindness, generosity, justice, happiness and mercy relate to the empirical as well; they are concepts that one doesn’t grab hold of like a physical object – but they exist in their abstract form ‘because’ of our experiences in the physical world.
If Jesus is to be equated to 'Truth' then I presume metaphysical propositions are the only true forms of knowledge that will remain in the end. Philosophically speaking, we can't of course verify any of this knowledge as being empirically true - but that doesn't mean we should dismiss it. I would say faith in such things is good for those who can acquire it - as long as one isn't dogmatic or prescriptive with it. One caveat, I wouldn't put metaphysical knowledge up against empirical knowledge in any kind of rivalry - instead I would look for a rational and harmonious co-existence between the two. This is consistent with the Christian teaching that we are commissioned to begin the process of heaven right here on earth, and that we are all a work in progress attached to a much bigger picture.
It has been considered by many that knowledge of metaphysical things is absolute, and other kinds of knowledge are relative. But that cannot be exactly right, because absolutism is always relative to the particulars of the thoughts about it (that is, the individual interpretations of the absoluteness in question). Many people are defensive about relativity because they think it means they have to foster an uncertain subjectivity. When this feeling creeps up, you’ll find most would prefer a hasty assent towards a rigid set of certainties – which is usually the very basis for unqualified dogma. You’ll hear them say things like “If 2 + 2 = 4 isn’t the same for everyone, then what hope is there?”. This is a confused way of looking at things, because it misunderstands relativity. Relativity doesn't mean that 2 + 2 = 4 only applies in some cases. What it actually means is that the application of numbers gives a consistency that shows relativity is true.
I have a real life analogy to illustrate that if numbers weren't consistent we wouldn't have relativity in the first place. For some people this analogy will provide a clear illustrative picture to elucidate what I said above; for others it will be a superfluous confusion. If it adds clarity, keep it, if it confuses, ditch it. Here it is. I can conceive of a situation in which 2 +2 = 4 isn't the same for two people in relation to the physical world, but yet remains consistent at the numerical level.
Imagine 2 objects, both identical in composition and both 4 metres in length, and two people in different inertial reference frames travelling at different speeds. Intuition tells us that an object cannot be both 4 metres long and not 4 metres long at the same time - it seems logically impossible, particularly as Euclidean geometry forbids it. Euclidean geometry is an intuitive part of our brain that holds that 'a line connecting two points can only have one length'. But Einstein showed that the faster an object moves, the more compressed it becomes, and that if a 4 metre object was travelling at a substantial fraction of the speed of light, then someone measuring it who was moving at the same speed could measure 4 metres in length long, whilst an outside observer would observe it as not being 4 metres in length.
The reason for this occurrence is that in the physical world minds can impute different meanings to different subsets of reality which, although they appear to be ‘absolute’ to one perceiver, must be subject to change as we change our relative positions. Euclidean geometry is a good approximation to reality, but relativity rejects the concept of an ether with respect to which there can be determinate motion, meaning that the length of a mass gaining object in uniform relative motion is less than that measured by an observer at rest with respect to the Lorentz-Fitzgerald contraction*
So, if you want a less technical way to say the above - the upshot is, relativity is in place in our knowledge not because reality is tenuously linked to truth, but because there is such a thing as truth, as exemplified by the law of numbers. What the metaphysical claims of Christ exemplify in His statement 'My words will never pass away' seem to be in relation to a set of truths like love, grace, kindness, generosity, justice, happiness and mercy. If these are the things that will outlive the physical reality (whatever that means) then they are to our emotions as the law of numbers is to the physical substrate of reality. Like numbers they are a truth around which all other tenets of our earthly reality revolve. They give us the purpose and the goals beyond the daily activity – which is exciting, given how wonderful the world can be even in present times. And it seems quite understandable that people would wish to put their faith in metaphysical things – not because the earthly things are banal (as some assume) but for the opposite reason – because earthly things are so rich in potential.
* That is, a material body moving through the ether with a velocity v, contracts by a factor of V(1-v2/c2) in the direction of motion, where c is the speed of light in a vacuum.
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James is a Christian writer and local government officer based in Norwich. You can access his current collections of columns here
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