Tuesday, June 15, 2010

One-Hour Metaphysics

(4:33 p.m.)It’s been one of those days when projects are on hold for one reason or another. Waiting for proofs, waiting for a blurb…waiting for a job. Having biked down to Majors and Quinn to pick up the latest issue of RainTaxi, I attempt to plow through Siri Hustveld’s essay “Yonder,” but have trouble keeping my interest up. Opening Marilynne Robinson’s little volume, Absence of Mind, I find myself once again in the midst of the science-religion “debate.” Robinson is a smart woman (I had an interesting chat with her once about Calvin) and early on in the introduction she notes that general understanding of the matters under review has never really recovered from the decline that metaphysics suffered during the nineteenth century. This is true, up to a point, though metaphysics did not really decline at that time. Some of our greatest metaphysicians were active during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It’s rather that metaphysics became harder to grasp and easier to dismiss as empty wordplay in light of the very concrete (and also quasi-metaphysical) discoveries being made by scientists in many fields.

Having read these remarks, my first impulse was to leap from my chair and set off on that long-delayed task of producing a concise metaphysics that would be intelligible to everyone. Can I do it in an hour? We’ll see.

The first step would be to clarify what metaphysics is. Maurice Blondel defined it brilliantly and succinctly: metaphysics is the logic of action. It might be helpful, expanding that definition slightly, (but at the risk of undermining its truth) to say that metaphysics is that process by which the structure and logic of experience is exposed and illuminated. (Experience is not, perhaps, the same thing as action. Then again, maybe it is. A matter to be resolved somewhere down the road.) In any case, this process of exposing and illuminating is done not through controlled experiment, but through the analysis of personal experience. It’s a thought process.

The first principle uncovered by such analysis is this: Life has an inside and an outside. We notice this because we find ourselves “inside” pondering what the world is like “outside.”

Two points follow. Metaphysics concerns itself with Life. Not with “the World” nor with “the Universe” but with Life. Yes, the world is “out there”; the universe is “out there.” But we can only engage in metaphysical inquiry “in here” because we are alive, and find ourselves in the midst of Life, which is not only “out there” but also “in here.” Finding ourselves in such a state, we begin to wonder what we ought to do. Thus, metaphysical inquiry is directed toward the solution of not one, but two, questions:
1) What is Life like?
2) What should I do next?

These two questions impinge upon and spur one another. The key word here is “should.” After all, metaphysics is not a parlor game. It’s not an idle exercise in formal logic. It’s a quest inspired by the vague desire to make our lives meaningful. It’s a quest inspired by that thing we call conscience.

It’s a strange situation to be in. We feel we ought to be doing something, but we’re not sure what that “something” is. That’s conscience.

It may be argued that some people don’t have a conscience. That’s true, but it isn’t relevant. (Metaphysics isn’t for everyone.) We call such people sociopaths. Their answers to metaphysical questions (if they have any) don’t impress us much. They tend to fall into the categories of “I got mine,” and “Do unto others, before they do it to you.” Such views don’t answer the questions of conscience.

Conscience is spurred by transgression and betrayal—we let someone down, we done someone wrong. But it’s also spurred by the desire to impress upon the world the image of “right” living we sometime feel—an image of the sanctity of existence.

I’m afraid we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. That feeling, of the sanctity of existence, is but one manifestation of a more widespread phenomenon that encompasses an array of responses to the world “out there.” Philosophers have troubled themselves for centuries about the accuracy or “truth” of their impressions, while too often overlooking the valences of their impressions. That is to say, in many case our experiences are accompanied by a sense of like or dislike, attraction or repulsion, love or hate.

This is a new metaphysical principle of enormous importance—the principle of value. That “principle” is based on the experience that bridges the chasm between “in here” and “out there.” Yes, we have affinities with other entities. Some of them are staggering. Mother and child. Love at first sight. Reims Cathedral. A moonless night under the stars on the snow-covered ice at West Bearskin Lake in the dead of winter. Pasta with porcini mushrooms and bacon. This is all metaphysical stuff. (6:37 p.m.)

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