By N.S. Palmer
“Metaphysics is the finding of bad reasons for what we believe on instinct.”
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:
- The will of God.
- A cosmological multiverse of which our universe is one of an infinite number of variants.
- The virtual reality depicted in the “Matrix” movies.
- The surface world described by Plato in his book The Republic.
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 (http://www.ashesblog.com) are included.