What’s your Personal Metaphysics?

Many people are curious about philosophy, but few study it. This is understandable; the subject-matter of philosophy—the vague and pretentious topic of “being qua being”—yields little or no practical benefit when all you do is sit back and think about it, but sitting back and thinking about being is a pretty good description of what philosophers do. Philosophy can be abstract, complex, and remote from day-to-day life, but I nevertheless believe that every person (no matter how un-philosophically they claim to be), has their own personal theory of metaphysics, even if they aren’t aware of it. 

Let me clarify what I mean by metaphysics before I get to the epithet personal. Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of reality or existence in general. “What kind of things exist? How does one kind of being relate to another? Why does anything exist at all?” These are metaphysical questions, and when someone tries to answer questions like this in a systematic way, that person can be said to have a metaphysical outlook or worldview. Most people who do not study philosophy claim they lack such a metaphysical outlook. On one level this is often true; most people simply do not explicitly ask themselves questions of this kind; but this, I would argue, does not completely absolve them from the charge of being metaphysicians. Even if someone lacks a genuinely reflective metaphysics (a theory of reality that comes about through careful thinking), they still possess what I would call a reflexive metaphysics―that is, a kind of instinct, hunch, or “gut feeling” of what the world is like, and this, I would argue, is something of a rudimentary or embryonic form of systematic metaphysics. 

One of my favorite ways of discovering someone’s reflexive metaphysics is to ask questions in relation to nature and the supernatural. I expect most people have some idea of what I mean by these terms. When I say nature I mean some thing or event which occurs with regularity and consistency— something which is explainable by the regular and empirically-observable laws of nature. When I say the supernatural, on the other hand, I mean some thing or event which is not explicable by the laws of nature, but by some power that has causal independence from them. My normal line of questioning does not consist in asking whether or not my interlocutor believes in the supernatural outright. That would be no fun at all. Instead I ask them to consider a situation that can be interpreted in either a natural or a supernatural way, and see how they conceptualize it. The question I normally ask is this: consider you are alone in an old house. You are sitting at a table alone just minding your own business, when suddenly the chair next to you scoots a few inches and falls over backwards. Do you assume a natural or a supernatural cause? The question doesn’t seem philosophical at all. Creepy maybe, but not metaphysical, and most people aren’t aware that in answering this question—in telling me what their reflexive interpretation of this peculiar situation would be—they are disclosing a piece of their own personal metaphysics. 

I asked this question to my dad once, and although few men less philosophically-minded than him have walked upon this earth, his metaphysical reflex response to the question was strong and clear: “I would of course assume some natural explanation” he said; “there’s always a logical (i.e. natural) explanation to stuff like that.” It was interesting to me that he would conflate the meanings of the words logical and natural, especially considering he is a conventionally religious man who believes the supernatural doctrines of his faith. Although he would never have framed it in these terms, the philosophical metaphysical meaning of his response was something like this: although there is some relationship between the natural and the supernatural realms, it is a rather distant one—a courteous relationship wherein nature goes on and does its own work, producing all of the phenomena in this world below, while the supernatural mostly leaves it alone to do its own thing: they are two parallel realms with limited interaction. 

Beyond telling me what he believes about the general relationship between nature and the supernatural, his answer to the question also reveals his stance on evidence and plausibility. Assuredly, seemingly autonomous motion is very strange behavior for an ordinary chair bound by the laws of nature alone, but if ghosts exist (and this is a big if) tossing objects about is decidedly normal behavior for them. His decision, therefore, is to assume a natural cause only because he knows nature exists (despite the fact that nature would have to be acting in a very strange way to produce the phenomenon in question), rather than assume the supernatural only because he does not know ghosts exist (despite the fact that, if they do exist, tossing chairs about is the exact kind of behavior we would expect from them). For my dad, therefore, certainty of existence trumps “expectability” of evidence, and his personal metaphysics entails a preference for natural explanation against all alternatives—regardless of how irregular nature must be acting in order to produce the phenomenon in question. 

I have no doubt that several other theoretic commitments can be drawn from my dad’s answer to the question I asked him, but I cannot extract an entire metaphysics from it. Countless other questions are requisite for drawing a systematic picture of his tacit understanding of reality, and I doubt he has the patience for such a comprehensive inquiry (most people do not, including myself at most times). The point stands, however, that each of us have a rough, pre-systematic, reflexive metaphysical vision of what the world is like, and all it takes to develop this reflexive metaphysics into a reflective and systematic philosophy is thought-out answers to the right set of questions, no matter how strange they may be. 


Image: Kamil Klyta via Unsplash

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