Posted by: N.S. Palmer | January 16, 2011

Metaphysics and Metaphors

By N.S. Palmer

“Metaphysics is the finding of bad reasons for what we believe on instinct.”
F.H. Bradley

Theists and atheists argue about a lot of things, but most of the issues that divide them are derivative. They almost never* address the fundamental point of disagreement:

Is this universe a manifestation of something else, or is this universe all that exists?

The “something else” can be imagined in different ways, such as:

Based largely on the spiritual insights of great men and women as recorded in religion, theists (a group that includes me) argue that this world is just a temporary residence where we live until we’re ready to go someplace else, variously defined.

Based largely on the undisputed usefulness of science and a considerable amount of hubris, atheists argue that Goddammit — excuse me, that should be only “dammit” — this world is all that exists, and that anyone who disagrees with them is an idiot.

Neither side has proof. Theists usually cite their sacred books, which they believe without evidence to have been written by God, a being they cannot define. Atheists cite the ability of physical science to explain processes within the physical world, which they fail to see is irrelevant to explaining the existence of that world in the first place.

It occurs to me that there’s a reason for all that fruitless disagreement.

I tend to think of this world as being like a metaphor: a poetic use of words that is related to their literal use.

When Homer says in The Iliad that the goddess Athena seized Achilles‘s arm to prevent him from killing Agamemnon, we understand that it means Achilles restrained his murderous rage. We’ve seen people go into a rage and restrain themselves, so we’re familiar with the situation to which the metaphor refers. We don’t believe that the gray-eyed goddess flew down from Mount Olympus and grabbed someone’s arm.

When Alfred Noyes says in his poem “The Highwayman” that “The moon was a ghostly galleon,” we understand the imagery he is using and the emotional mood he is trying to create. We’ve seen the moon look spooky at night, so we know the situation to which the metaphor refers. We don’t believe that a sailing ship was flying around in the sky.

But suppose that we didn’t know who Athena was, and that we didn’t know what “galleon” meant? Suppose that we’d never seen someone go into a rage and we’d never seen the moon at night. Would we be able to start from the metaphorical use of those words and deduce their literal meaning?

No. We could guess. We could cite evidence and reasoning. We could argue. We could exhort. And we might be right, but we couldn’t prove it.

The same thing applies in other areas.

In mathematics, if one thing is a projection of something else, we can identify precisely what the “something else” is — but only if we know the values and system of equations that generated the projection. In physics (except for quantum physics), if one event is caused by another event that is unknown, we can work backwards to the cause if we know the exact forces, masses, and physical processes that led to the effect.

If we lack the relevant knowledge to connect the original element of a mathematical system with its projection, or to connect a physical event with its cause, then we can guess, argue, and exhort. We might even be right. But we can’t prove it.

The same thing applies to our universe. Whether you think of it as a metaphor, or as a mathematical projection, or as a metaphysical effect of an unknown cause, all we see is the result. We not only don’t see the cause, we also have no experience or knowledge of what the cause might be like. And we have no discursive knowledge of the nature of the poetic imagery, the equations, or the processes that might lead from something to end up with our universe.

As a result, we latch onto hypotheses, clues, and intuitions. Then all of us — theists and atheists alike —  decide what we’re going to believe about our world and about ourselves. As a matter of ego, we don’t like to be “wrong,” so we defend our beliefs against all comers. But ultimately, all we have are the metaphor and what we make of it.

What are you going to make of it?

If I may invoke my own version of the metaphor, don’t worry too much about your verbal answer: God loves you no matter what you believe about Him. Answer with a life of love, truth, generosity, and forgiveness. The rest will take care of itself.

* An outstanding exception is John F. Haught’s book Is Nature Enough? Meaning and Truth in the Age of Science.

Copyright 2011 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL ( are included.


  1. You know, I think you and I may have ended up in similar places via perhaps different roads. But I finally decided that having all the answers isn’t really all that important. Well, better said: What’s much more important is living a life that shows love and care.

    • Hi, Jim —

      Very true. When I was 20, I thought that I really did have all the answers. Life cured me of that delusion. 🙂

      We just do our best, and trust in God to take us the rest of the way.

  2. Okay, I’ll bite on this one. 🙂

    I don’t agree that neither side has the proof. Evidence is what science is predicated on; anything worthy of acceptance is underpinned by evidence demonstrable to any objective independent observer and the theories to characterize it must make predictions that can withstand falsification on an ongoing basis; anything else is at best conjectural. That’s why science doesn’t shard off into ever more mutually-contradictory doctrines; it’s why we don’t have churches of cold fusion vs. churches of denial of cold fusion, for example: the original results were intriguing, but ultimately could not be independently reproduced, and flaws were demonstrated in the methodology. Cold fusion may exist… but the experiments of the late 80s are not the demonstration of it; conducting our affairs as though it were real is not justified, and so we don’t.

    Religion and metaphysics do not adhere to such objective mechanisms. The canon of the Jewish bible, for example, was decided during the 1st Century CE by a set of utterly arbitrary criteria: with few exceptions, they had to be written in Hebrew; they had to be written before the time of Ezra; they had to have sanction in Jewish usage; and they had to be written in the Holy Land. Entire books and parts of books (two parts of Daniel, for example: one central to how he came to be esteemed for his wisdom in the first place) were thus discarded. Protestants tended to relegate these parts to the “Apocrypha” of their bibles (which is rarely printed, post-1826 or so; I happen to own a copy of the KJV with the Apocrypha and it was not easy to find); Catholic bibles include most of these books and partial books intact (Daniel is considerably longer in the New American Bible (Catholic) than in the New King James Version (Anglican), for example). Also, the nature of the Jesus’s relationship to God the Father was decided by a vote in the Council of Nicaea; holders of the minority opinion (“Arians”) instantly become heretics who where hounded for three hundred years. None of this was on the basis of any evidence; just opinion and force. It took three hundred years of persecution to disestablish Arianism; it took less than three years of peer review to discredit cold fusion. This is the very essence of science, and the reason I dispute the suggestion that “neither side has the proof” (unless the contention is “proof of entirely everything possibly imaginable”).

    Science isn’t, and doesn’t purport to be, a holistic body of all knowledge, holding within it the answer to all questions. First of all, not all questions are equally worthy of answers (I’ll come back to this). Secondly, it’s no shame for science to admit something is unknown; on the contrary, that admission and the identification of precisely what remains to be discovered is the very foundation of science and the reason for pursuing it.

    When you say no one believes Athena actually flew down to stay Achilles from killing Agamemnon, I have to take issue. This is precisely the kind of thing theists say every single day. If you take out the name of “a” god, and substitute the name of “the” God, you’ll see what I mean. Chilean miners worked for 33 days and nights at the risk of their own lives to free fellow trapped miners, and yet when they were interviewed, who did those rescued miners give credit to first and foremost? God. They really did believe he actually flew down and stayed the rocky, smothering hand of Achilles from slaying them, the Agamemnons of the deep. I understand being grateful for a deliverance one had despaired of. But it was human beings and human effort, every shovelful demonstrable, that brought them back from the brink of death. Listening to these people was like listening to peasants from the Dark Ages. Frankly, I found their attitude kind of insulting; it was as if to say that human beings on their own could not possibly imagine the plight of other people, and be driven by empathy and the horror of the idea to compassionately rescue others from a fate they themselves would never want to suffer; that it could only have come about if they were spiritually ass-kicked into it. Every time human beings do anything great, or noble, or in any way outstanding, the cream off the top of the hard-earned milk is supposed to automatically go to God. Human beings only get the “credit” for whatever debased or venal things they do. I’m so tired of hearing that kind of thing, even among enlightened First World people who live every day with the hard-earned material and medical wonders human enterprise has provided them; things that all the prayer to all the gods of thirty thousand years did never once deliver.

    With regard to questions that deserve answers… just because a question can be phrased in the English language is not an indication it’s deserving of an answer (e.g., “what colour is time?”) Likewise, simply because it’s possible to ask “Why does the universe exist?” is not to necessitate the existence of a corresponding reason. Why can’t it, why shouldn’t it, simply be? Before anyone scoffs this off, stop for a moment and replace “universe” with “God” in either case, and you’ll see what I mean. Whether the universe simply exists and always has in some fashion (and if, as thermodynamics holds, matter and energy can neither be created nor destroyed, then this seems to follow), or God did, is much of a muchness, with two important distinctions: one, the perpetual existence of a god necessitates one more step than the perpetual existence of the universe his existence is meant to explain does; and two, we know for certain that the universe exists (even if it’s watered down or corrupted into some “Matrix” version it’s still self-evidently something), while we do not know for certain anything metaphysical like a god does. Again, the evidence is all on the side of naturalism; metaphysics is based wholly on conjecture and interpretation of the physical world in manners accordant with the notion; conclusion preceding evidence.

    Those who suggest that science disproves, or seeks to disprove, the existence of a god or gods betray a lack of real understanding of what science is and does. Metaphysical claims can’t be objectively addressed by science; science is about the demonstrable — the natural world. If something can’t be objectively demonstrated, science can say nothing about it (though it’s worth pointing out here that something that has no effect demonstrably discernible from the workings of the natural world has the exact same properties as something that does not exist at all; that is to say, “nothing”). There will always be room for those who choose to believe, to believe (though one would like to think less and less impetus to as our understanding grows…). What we can say, however, is that there is no compelling evidence establishing the existence of a god. This is not the same as saying none exists, of course: we can never conclusively say that. But in a day-to-day practical sense, this is what it amounts to, or should. It’s the same reason virtually no one conducts his or her life as if unicorns, Bigfoot, or UFOs were real and something they should expect to encounter in some way in the course of their lives: that is, there’s no evidence for their existence and thus, no reason to believe (any or all of them might be real, but that has yet to be established). But if we were brought up from infancy to accept their existence without need of evidence, if the adults around us seemed to “know” they lurked unseen forever just around the next corner, if our society in general paid annual tributes to them every year, I think it would be a different story. Peer pressure makes a very effective substitute for evidence (it’s often even purported itself to be evidence; à la “fifty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong”… well, yes, they can; they thought the Maginot Line was a good idea, for one thing).

    But even so, some might notice and say it was odd that Arabs had their UFOs, and the Chinese their unicorns, and North Americans their Bigfoots (Bigfeet?), with no concordance between them other than a general admission that “yup, there’s strange goings-on out there; exactly what we’ll agree to disagree”, but inevitably such observations would be waved away simply as trumped-up justifications for wanting to romp in the woods, shoot Bambi’s mom, and set forest fires as though no reckoning with Bigfoot was looming, based on the outrageous idea of equating him with the obviously silly notions of UFOs and unicorns…

    I don’t think it’s justified, though it’s obviously entirely possible, to use the gaps in human knowledge to insist a god into existence. If a god exists, it ought to exist and be manifest on its own merits, not simply as an excuse to pretend we’ve explained what we really have not.

    • Hi, LP —

      Thanks for another thoughtful and well-researched comment.

      However, you don’t seem to disagree with me at all. I argue that neither theists nor atheists can prove their belief conclusively. The best they can do is cite evidence and argument that support their beliefs — just as you have done.

      Let’s look at the conjunction: I claim that theists cannot prove theism AND that atheists cannot prove atheism. That claim is true if and only if both conjuncts are true. You say that it’s false.

      First, because you think that theism is mistaken, you agree with me about the first part of the conjunction: theists can’t prove theism. It is of course possible to prove incorrect propositions, but only if either the premises or the reasoning are flawed. I’m sure you don’t mean “proof” in that sense.

      Second, the other part of the conjunction states that atheists cannot prove atheism, either. You give an admirable summary of the scientific method, after which you state:

      (( Those who suggest that science disproves, or seeks to disprove, the existence of a god or gods betray a lack of real understanding of what science is and does. Metaphysical claims can’t be objectively addressed by science. ))

      I agree completely. Science does not disprove (or prove) the existence of God. Science has nothing to say about the question because it doesn’t deal with issues like that. So it seems to me that you agree with the second part of the conjunction.

      Because you agree with both of the assertions in my conjunction, you agree with me.

      What I think you’re really getting at is not that science disproves theism, but that you don’t respect religion as you do science. That’s fine. You probably have that in common with most intellectuals. It’s not proof of anything.

      (( Religion and metaphysics do not adhere to such objective mechanisms. ))

      That is true only if you restrict the meaning of “objective” to “empirical.” Religion and metaphysics, at least as done in the West, subject their claims both to logical analysis and general conformity to the world we see around us. They are not empirically testable in the same sense as physical science, but then, neither are history and art, both of which — like religion and indeed like science — are ways of interpreting and responding to the world around us. Read any good Jewish or Christian theologian and you’ll see the careful thinking that goes into their work. They might be right, they might be wrong, but they don’t simply throw out some nonsense and see what they can get people to believe.

      (( it’s why we don’t have churches of cold fusion vs. churches of denial of cold fusion ))

      Actually, we do. If you’re ever in town, let me introduce you to one of my co-workers. He’s a heck of a smart guy, but he has unorthodox scientific opinions. And if you think that science has no orthodoxy, you need to spend more time around scientists. 🙂

      (( If a god exists, it ought to exist and be manifest on its own merits, not simply as an excuse to pretend we’ve explained what we really have not. ))

      When I see Him, I promise to relay your suggestion. But I think He’s gotten that one before. 🙂

  3. Very well done! Finding undeniable proof for the existence (or non-existence) of God is like trying to hit a moving target, because a person’s perspective changes how the evidence is interpreted.

    • Hi, Holly —

      Thanks very much! Proving any idea to one’s own satisfaction is quite different from proving it to other people. 🙂

  4. Hi, Scott; thanks for responding. There were a couple of points you made that I’d like to take issue with and/or clarify.

    You seem to be equating the positions of theism and atheism – suggesting that they both make improvable positive claims. This isn’t the case where atheism is concerned. Atheism does not make a claim (e.g., “there is no god”). Atheism is a response to the claim made by theism, i.e. that a god exists (and further, in most cases, that certain things are known about it); that response being the withholding of belief in the merits of that claim until such time as it is substantiated by evidence. These are not equivalent positions, and there is no burden of proof on the side of atheism. This would be obvious in any other case of the assertion of a positive claim. For example, if you claim to own a particular building, the burden of proof is not on me to prove that you don’t own it. How could I? The deed (potentially disproving your claim) could be anywhere, or it might have been destroyed, or someone could be actively concealing it. This is why the burden of proof is on the person making the positive claim. If you own the building, you ought to be able to produce the deed. If you can’t, I’m in no way obliged to believe you, or conduct my affairs as though your ownership of the building were a fact (such as paying you rent, or a toll to enter it, etc.). Relatedly, theists assert that a god exists, and to know certain things about that god – what it’s done, what it wants, its moods and opinions, its intentionalities, and so on. Non-believers in that god (theist and atheist alike) are justified in asking on what basis believers claim to know that, particularly in the case that they want to use such claims to establish cultural, legal, and moral principles to which non-believers are to be subject. Barring such evidence, they are within their rights not to be bound by the strictures based on that belief.

    Art is indeed a case beyond a rigid empirical quantification, but that’s because it’s effectively a matter of personal opinion rather than quantifiable fact, like anything else the appeal of which is purely subjective (food, romantic attachments, political persuasion, religious outlook, and so on). But there are still things that can be known about it. The nature of “Art” is hard to pin down, but the existence of works of art can be demonstrated. The Mona Lisa, the statue of David, War and Peace, cave painting in France, and Beethoven’s 9th Symphony are all things that can be shown to exist. What you think about them, and how much you’d be willing to pay to own a given work, is another matter. This is to say, opinions about facts can vary. But the facts about which those opinions are made are demonstrable to anyone.

    To say that careful thinking goes into something is not the same thing as claiming it has merit. Johannes Kepler spent the balance of his life trying to work out how the six perfect solids could be nested to contain the six then-known planets in their orbit, founded in his mystical conviction that the Sun represented God the Father, the stellar sphere God the Son, and the space between them the Holy Spirit. He put a great deal of thought bolstered by an impressive armory of calculation into that effort. But in end, it was not a sound pursuit. Just because people think a lot about something does mean it’s real, or that they’re onto something.

    “When I see Him, I promise to relay your suggestion. But I think He’s gotten that one before. :-)”

    I’d like to think if he’s really concerned about what we think, do, and how we conduct our lives, he would have done something unmistakable and indisputable about it the first time someone spelled that out for him. Alas, in the musical words of Joseph, “the world and I, we are still waiting; anticipating…”

    • Hi, LP —

      Ahh, Andrew Lloyd Webber. That was a good musical. At least we agree on that. “Any dream will do.”

      And based on your latest missive, I still don’t think we disagree very much. I would characterize the position you described as agnosticism rather than atheism: as a former atheist, I think that I know the difference. 🙂

      Agnosticism makes more of an epistemological point than a metaphysical or theological one: It contends that one shouldn’t believe anything without adequate evidence. And you correctly point out that it doesn’t make a positive claim, except for the epistemological claim I just noted. I don’t think that epistemological rules like that can be proven or disproven, but I do think that at least half of what we think we “know” would fail the test of adequate evidence. As Bertrand Russell said, we believe all kinds of things based on no reasons worthy of the name.

      I would also contend that both agnosticism and atheism arbitrarily limit the field of evidence they are willing to consider — much like the logical positivists, who disposed of all difficult moral and metaphysical questions by declaring that they were meaningless. All of the empirical evidence can be interpreted either way, as supporting or denying God’s existence. Therefore, empirical evidence isn’t of much use to either side of the argument.

      When I became a theist, I didn’t have any emotional “conversion experience” or anything like that. I just gradually came to believe I had neglected intuitive evidence that, although elusive and difficult to interpret, points to a benevolent reality beyond the one we see around us. You can argue quite rightly that such evidence doesn’t prove a darned thing, and I will agree with you. I choose to interpret it in a way that is possible, though not provable, while noting that its converse isn’t provable either. The Buddha said something similar: If there’s life after death, I’ll deal with it then; but I’m happy now. If a different interpretation makes you happy, then by all means, follow it. I should warn you, however, that when we both get to the other side, I plan to tease you mercilessly about the fact that I was right. 🙂

      • Hi, again. 🙂

        Bertrand Russell’s point seems more of an apology than an advocacy. It may be all too human, but how is it praiseworthy to believe things for no reason? There are many things humans do that we’ve have to leave behind or even legislate against in order to survive as a society. Human beings can be mistaken in opinions and observations. Finally, what ought we to be convinced by, other than those things that can be demonstrated to any objective observer? There’s room within this to be convinced of the insubstantial, I suppose, but not to oblige others to behave in accordance with what they do not believe to be real, or pay lip-service to its supposed reality.

        I don’t agree that empirical evidence is not germane to the question of the existence of a god. We are told that this being exists – that’s necessarily an empirical claim (it immediately spawns the question, “how do you know?”, which is a request for the evidence by which the person making the assertion came to that realization). Now if we are created, then we are created to acquire information about existence in certain limited ways; and if this being exists, exists somewhere in some manner by his own choice imperceptible to us, and truly has our interests at heart and is at the same time responsible for those sensory limitations, then it follows that the moral onus falls on such a being, supposedly willing to damn us merely for disbelief, to act to remove that doubt, for each and every being at risk of this fate, in a manner accordant to those limitations. No half measures, no efforts prone to ambiguity or dispute are acceptable. Further, we’re told that this being can, and routinely does, interact with the material world. The obvious reason would be to facilitate something impossible given the ordinary workings of the universe (if he operates to merely facilitate outcomes that could have occurred naturally, there is no basis for calling it a “miracle”). Such an occurrence would be plainly obvious to a reasonably sophisticated civilization with a grasp of even basic physics. Given the claimed powers of most deities, there are any number of ways one of them – the “real” one – could manifest plainly and remove all doubt, this making the choice to follow or fall away a truly fair one. But as sophisticated a civilization as we are, we have never yet seen this.

        I question the validity of “intuitive” evidence that’s wholly subjective. There are plenty of Napoleons out there who simply heeded the “intuitive” evidence that they were l’Empereur, after all. Again, I’m not saying there is no god – I cannot say that. I’m not saying it’s impossible to interpret existence as consistent with there being a god per se (though it’s inconsistent with certain models of a god), or illegitimate to do so… I myself still find it a pleasing notion in poetic moments. But I do draw the line at two crucial junctures; one is the suggestion that believing something, anything, without evidence (“a reason”) is or even can be equal to believing something because of evidence (“a reason”); and two, that the sincere and personal or even collective belief in a particular deity and claims to know its will ought to be in any way binding on non-believers or society in general. Unfortunately it’s clear to me that second battle will be waged for as long as religion remains a feature of human culture.

        “I plan to tease you mercilessly about the fact that I was right.”

        In truth, nothing would please me more. But I just don’t see it. I sure tried.

      • Hi, LP —

        My point is simply that you’re applying a much stricter standard of evidence to theism than all of us (including you: admit it) apply to a large number of other beliefs. It’s the same argument that drug companies and conventional medicine use in assessing the value of nutritional therapies. They demand absolute, iron-clad evidence of effectiveness: a level of proof that they never demand of their own patented, profitable therapies.

        As for intuitive evidence, it is in fact the foundation of our knowledge. Intuitive knowledge doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the transcendent: it tells you that yellow is different from blue, that a toothache is different from a tickle, and that whatever is coloured is extended, none of which you can prove discursively. You just “see” certain things or you don’t see them. Even in mathematics, fundamental concepts and axioms simply have to be accepted on intuition. Scientific principles such as induction, causality, and the uniformity of nature are likewise intuitively plausible but impossible to prove.

        My point about the uselessness of empirical evidence for deciding transcendental questions rests on two grounds, one theoretical and one practical. First, on theoretical grounds, there is no reason to suppose we could find a direct logical link between the garden-variety phenomena we see around us and realities that are in some sense “outside” of our universe. That applies equally to questions about God and to more conventionally scientific speculations about multiverses, as well as (Lee Smolin would argue) to talk about string theory. Smolin is interesting, by the way, because he detests string theory and is an atheist, but believes in a multiverse that is just as unverifiable as the other two ideas.

        Second, on practical grounds, any empirical evidence that atheists cite as a disproof of God’s existence can be turned around to support God’s existence. You can cite the problem of evil as a disproof of God (as I did in an article for the Journal of Religious Humanism back when I was an atheist), and then I can tell you why evil in this world is completely consistent with an all-powerful, infinitely good God. I can also give you a perfectly good explanation of why God’s existence is not provable from within this frame of reference. So neither of us can get much traction from empirical evidence.

        By the way, the logical “elephant in the living room,” which I’m surprised you haven’t mentioned, is that I haven’t defined what I mean by God; and I will freely admit that I can’t. Whether empirically or logically, it’s impossible to prove or disprove anything if you haven’t defined what you’re trying to prove or disprove. Your arguments frequently allude to less-than-Godly characteristics attributed to God by the Bible: those characteristics bother me as well, but I regard them as artifacts from the process of limited, sometimes animalistic human minds trying to describe realities that transcend their understanding. I contend that I, and many other people, are intuitively aware of a reality that transcends the one we see around us: a reality of infinite intelligence, love, and goodness. I can’t define it and I can’t prove it (much as I can’t prove that I am conscious or that I’m the same person as I was yesterday). If you don’t sense the same thing, then you don’t, but I suspect that it’s either true or it isn’t, for everyone whether they sense it or not.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: