Dr Ben Holloway, Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

Some people reject Christianity and other religions because they don’t like mystery. God, angels, souls, and other entities complicate things. It is simpler to consider the world in terms of objects that are more familiar to us.

Any cursory glance at the discipline of metaphysics soon puts such an objection to rest. Although we take them for granted, even the most mundane objects are very difficult to think about clearly.

What is Metaphysics?

Metaphysics is a core domain in philosophy concentrating on the nature of reality. Enquirers into the nature of reality ask questions about things. Things are known as objects, entities or beings. Metaphysicians are interested in what kinds of objects exist, the existence and nature of God, and the relationship between minds and bodies. They are also interested in other questions about reality such as the freedom of the will.

Metaphysics has always played a central role in theology. For example, metaphysics helps with issues such as the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation, and a coherent doctrine of God. It also aids discussions of divine providence, the nature of human persons, and in obtaining a better comprehension of other religious views. Further, apologetics relies on the yields of metaphysics for arguments for the existence of God.

Objections to Metaphysics

Metaphysics as a subject of study has come under severe criticisms in the past. Immanuel Kant argued that the distinction between how things appear to us and what is real implies that we cannot know the world as it is in itself. Instead, we can only know the world as it appears to us. Since metaphysics is the study of the world itself, metaphysics is impossible.

Such an objection suffers from an internal incoherence. If we can’t know anything about the nature of reality, then we can’t say anything about it. But if we can say that it is unknowable, we are saying something about it. Thus, it is not unknowable.

In the 20th century, the logical positivists argued that the only meaningful statements we can make about the world are verifiable through observation (or they are true by definition). Metaphysical propositions aren’t verifiable. Therefore, no metaphysical propositions are meaningful.

Logical positivism also suffers from an internal incoherence. The principle itself—that only statements that are verifiable (or true by definition) are meaningful—is neither verifiable nor true by definition. Thus, the view is self-refuting.

Contrary to its detractors, metaphysics is a legitimate domain of inquiry and worthy of our attention.

What is the Nature of the World?

Perhaps the first question to ask about the nature of reality is: what is the nature of the world? By world, I mean everything that exists. Is it made up of one kind of thing or many? If one, what kind of thing is it?

According to dualists, there are two kinds of things in the world, material things and immaterial things. Dualists might believe that you are a soul with a body, or that there are three apples on the table and both the apples, and the number three exist. They may hold that God and the proposition, ‘God exists’ are immaterial objects.

Dualism is a very plausible view. It explains the unity and diversity of experience. We see particular things and they are united in sharing a form or instantiating a property. It explains consciousness and mental properties. Physical things don’t seem capable of possessing beliefs and desires. The common assumption that I can exist apart from my body also confirms dualism.

Dualism is not without its critics. Objectors argue that there is no good way to account for the causal link between mental things and physical things. Mental things do not take up space. Physical things do. How can a non-located thing cause anything to happen in a located thing (and vice versa)? Further, though dualism might help explain things like consciousness, it does so at the cost of positing a vast array of entities. It is simpler to posit fewer entities and attempt to explain things using only physical objects.

Alternatively, one might hold to a form of materialism according to which there exists only one type of thing and that thing is material/physical. Common materialist theories include atomism, the view that only the smallest indivisible physical particles possess properties.

Materialists argue that their view is simpler than dualism. Further, if materialism is true, then we don’t need theism to explain anything. Indeed, naturalistic science has increased its output over the previous years to encompass multiple fields. There is no reason to suspect it won’t keep doing so. Naturalistic science attempts to provide materialistic explanations for all phenomena. Therefore, there is no reason to suspect that materialist explanations won’t be available for even the most difficult to explain phenomena (like consciousness, for example).

Objectors to materialism often reply by suggesting that materialism may be a simpler explanation in that it postulates fewer entities and kinds of entities, but it is not a better explanation because it fails to adequately explain fairly evident phenomena such as mental properties, moral responsibility, or our experience of unity and diversity.

They will argue that though science has answered many questions, there are some questions that science could never answer. For example, asking about metaphysical issues such as the nature of concrete objects, time, or truth cannot be answered using scientific methods.

A final view is worth mentioning. Idealists contend that the only kind of thing that exists is mental. Look at your pen. What colour is it? Say it is a blue pen. Is the blue of the pen in the pen or is it dependent upon how the physical properties of the pen interact with your visual system and your mind? Similarly, is a boiling pot of water hot if you don’t touch it?

For some philosophers, many properties like colours and heat are mind dependent. If there is no mind to perceive the colour of your pen, then there is no colour. The same could be said for the taste of food, the soaring melody of a symphony and many other qualities of the world.

According to John Locke, these kinds of qualities are secondary qualities. In contrast, primary qualities such as mass, extension in space do not depend on mind for their existence. Idealists generally take the distinction as their starting point and then ask what prevents us including everything within the category of secondary qualities. George Berkeley, for example, asks us to imagine any object. He contends that its existence depends in part on its perception. Thus, to be is to be perceived. What of things that no human is presently perceiving? Berkeley contended that no object is unperceived since God perceives all things.

The popularity of idealism has ebbed and flowed over the years and its Berkeleyan version is by no means its only version. Some forms of Buddhism and Hinduism are idealist. As are many who follow Hegel’s philosophy in the West.

In the next few posts, I will try to explain the major views on objects. We tend to take them for granted and talk about them as if they are obvious and easily intelligible. Metaphysics tends to make us realise just how strange reality is.