Why I Have No Metaphysic

My adolescent fascinations and undergraduate & graduate preoccupations were rather narrowly focused on the behavioral sciences. And not just at the macro-levels of ethology, ecology & comparative psychology, but at the nuts & bolts level of brain biochemistry.

One year, in high school, I advanced to and participated in the International Science & Engineering Fair, having constructed a rather colossal, rube-goldbergian perfusion apparatus, designed to keep rat livers alive, in vitro, while conducting biochemical experiments on them.

That same year, I had also worked with a friend on memory transfer experiments. She had already accomplished primitive memory transfers between classically conditioned & naïve recipient planaria (flatworms), so, I suggested we take that behavioral investigation to another phylogenetic level. You see, in what were to me the Disney-like stacks of the dark aisles of the LSU library, I had previously encountered the wondrous mysterium fascinans of mammalian memory transfer research.

So, we acquired the requisite hamsters, trained some in mazes, extracted their brain RNA and injected it into their untrained siblings. A half-century later, when I pass that little pine grove where we buried them all, I rather wistfully recall their sacrifice, less sure now than then whether it was truly for the sake of science.

Let’s just leave it at that.

In college, hyper-motivated to get out of the classroom and back into the boundless tremendum of those library stacks and the endless fascinans of the laboratory, I hardly knew where to focus degree-wise. No particular curriculum fully accommodated my feverish interest in being able to better account for animal and human behaviors, so to speak, reductively. I therefore accelerated my graduate school entrance by craftily employing a general studies degree program. Such programs “generally” foster a rather lax approach that allows one to optimally navigate past difficult subject matters, but I exploited its flexibility to pull off the informal equivalent of a triple major with roughly 30+ hours each in chemistry and psychology coupled with even more coursework in zoology, much of that in independent research. So, it was thereby that I had thus ended up spending more than three years of undergraduate & graduate work in a neuroendocrinology lab that had previously, for example, figured out certain of the physiological mechanisms of bird migration. Oversimplifying things, we could get these critters to fly north versus south with specifically timed hormonal injections!

It was also thereby that I had thus advanced my education with a veritable dearth of arts and humanities coursework.

“Advanced my education,” of course, if employed as a true term of art, would not really apply to one who, fifty years hence, has yet to take a single philosophy or theology course, although I did take a single course in literature, another perhaps in history, for what that’s worth.

No, for me, any employment of that phrase more so resembles the meaning behind the Bonnie & Clyde lyric, “advanced their reputation and made their graduation into the banking business.” Turns out, I retired from banking, having served on various venues as chairman, president & chief executive officer. I won’t suffer you that digression even though it would have deep spiritual implications, more than tangential to … what’s our topic? … oh, yeah, metaphysics.

Throughout these very same time periods, my other youthful preoccupations had me actively engaged with the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, youth retreat movements and liturgical music ministries, all great places, by the way, to meet nice girls, which was yet another major and mesmerizing preoccupation of mine. I mention my religious orientation only by way of emphasizing why I suffered neither existential angst about nor epistemic incongruities from my heavily reductionist behavioral bent. It wasn’t reductionistic by virtue of the fact that a Loyola Jesuit had already introduced me to the distinction between primary and secondary causality. That was the only metaphysics I needed to continue gleefully on my way while my more fundamentalistic friends were suffering crises of faith over little things such as … oh, let me think … evolution.

Throughout all of my coursework and research, especially when engaging the most highly speculative theoretical aspects of each scientific discipline that I had studied, I rather subconsciously and implicitly cultivated what I’ve now come to appreciate as a healthy aporetic sense. I became very aware that, in most every discipline, empirical research would inevitably be encountered by descriptive aporia, which, in turn, developed into various interpretive schools, each subscribing to an approach that variously over- and/or under- emphasized distinct aspects of phenomena, whether focused on specific entities, in and of themselves, or on their properties, or on their relations, inner or outer.

By distinct, I’d later come to appreciate, I mean to suggest that they were aspiring to develop speculative conceptions that make a practical difference.

The practical differences implied by various theoretical conceptions can take a long time in coming, empirically. I began to notice this pattern in college.

In physics, I saw how, while empirical quantum mechanics was indisputable, different schools of quantum interpretation proliferated. In cosmology, different cosmogonal models competed. In biology, different accounts of life’s origins grappled with the inexplicable leap from physics and chemistry to biology. In cognitive psychology, different philosophies of mind modeled the origins of animal sentience. In anthropology, semioticians devised conceptual distinctions in explanatory attempts to understand how symbolic language could arise from mere icons and indexes, taking us beyond a mere sentience to a robust sapience.

I never bothered to invest very much in one or the other interpretation. I was content, rather, to try to more so understand what their particular questions were ABOUT, less so what their proposed answers, sometimes pretentiously, suggested. My early grasp of the rudimentary distinction between primary and secondary causation, as conveyed by those happy charismatic Jesuits, who, to me, embodied both the epitome of erudition and pinnacle of evangelical joy, later evolved into more sophisticated intuitions, inchoate early on to be sure, but, later articulated in such heuristics as Gödel’s theorems, Agrippa’s trilemma, Peter Suber’s “problems of beginning” and other safeguards against epistemic hubris.

I had implicitly rejected any tidy epistemic compartmentalizations of supposedly non-overlapping magisteria and approached reality with a single, fallibilist epistemology. That’s to say that, to me, epistemology is epistemology is epistemology.

There are no such things as strictly religious or metaphysical or scientific epistemologies. My youthful reductive tendencies have not been shaken, but neither have they devolved into any unmitigated positivisms or vulgar pragmatisms.

None of this is to deny that certain ontologies, quantum interpretations, cosmogonal models, biogenetic theories, philosophies of mind or language origin anthropologies wouldn’t have even profound implications, existentially, regarding, for example, free will, or theologically regarding, the reality of God.

Those interpretations do introduce conceptual distinctions that can have profound practical implications. I just never got terribly engaged by arguments for or against such as solipsism or free will, much less first principles. Common sense abductions, reductio ad absurdums and methodological stipulations remain – not only necessary, but – sufficient for those types of realities without the further “benefit” of tautological deductions, formal proofs or metaphysical excursions.

My vague God-conceptions have always taken refuge – not in reality’s metaphysical gaps and theoretic aporia, but – at its perimeters, its initial, boundary & limit conditions, its axiomatic contours as defended by such epistemic bulwarks as, again, Gödel-like implications, Agrippa’s trilemma and Suber’s “problems of beginning.”

So, yes, I do rather pragmatically, not just a priori, eschew certain worldviews without feeling the need to engage in atheological mud-wrestling.

And I do very much appreciate that not all tautologies are equally taut vis a vis embracing epistemic virtue and avoiding epistemic vice. But even the best interpretations of our highly speculative theoretical sciences have not yet yielded a normalization of gravity and quantum mechanics, a biopoietic account of life origins, a sentiopoietic account of qualia, a sapiopoietic account of symbolic language.

So, I content myself by simply bookmarking these diverse aporia in terms of their ABOUTNESS that I can better inventory the nature of the questions they are asking in their methodological probes without overinvesting in the nature of the answers they pretend to proffer with their metaphysical conclusions. Such conclusions are too often not merely embedded in the premises and presuppositions of such metaphysical argumentation but in their very definitions.

The aboutnesses most often under consideration include (using some personal, idiosyncratic neologisms) the following aporia:

1) veldo-poietic regarding field origins that appear teleo-potent or end-unbounded;

2) cosmo-poietic regarding physical realities that appear teleo-matic or end-stated;

3) bio-poietic regarding life origins that appear teleo-nomic or end-directed;

4) sentio-poietic regarding sentience origins that appear teleo-qualic or end-purposed; and

5) sapio-poietic regarding language origins that appear robustly teleo-logic or end-intended.

In terms of aboutness, different interpretations at each emergent level employ metaphorical languages that are largely incommunicative in the other levels. This is to recognize, for example, that, if we reconciled quantum mechanics with gravity today, we’d be no closer, tomorrow, to delivering an adequate account of biogenesis, much less a philosophy of mind with a sufficient explanatory adequacy, much much less solve the riddles of indeterminacy that inhere in any account of free will.

Above, I referenced entities, properties and their inner & outer relations. In my encounters with different accounts of reality’s various emergent levels of aboutness, I noticed that, whichever chosen root metaphor, whether of substances, relations, processes, experiences or otherwise, each account variously dealt with those phenomenal categories as well as addressed the temporality of past, present & future, or possibilities, actualities, probabilities & necessities. Transcending the various root metaphors were vague conceptions like act & potency, which seemed to me like helpful placeholders for any ontology.

Because my passion had always been focused on the epistemic reduction of behavior, I was especially drawn to semiotic emergentist accounts that addressed human language origins. It was in my reading regarding same that I encountered for the first time, in a meaningful way, how indispensable were Aristotelian conceptions of formal & final causes, in addition to such as efficient, material, instrumental, exemplary & imaginal causes.

Nothing advanced my grasp of such teleodynamics more than my friendship with & generous tutelage by Ursula Goodenough, who’s long collaborated with her good friend Terrence Deacon regarding all things biologically emergent for decades. Introduced by a mutual friend, I recognized in their work the very same Peircean themes I had first grappled with when reading the philosophy & theology of the late Jesuit, Don Gelpi. Why was I reading him? Only because, fifty years ago, he was one of those crazy smart & crazy happy Jesuits, whom I saw every Friday night at Loyola prayer meetings.

So, there I was, outfitted with a triadic heuristic that approached vague phenomena, from the quantum through the mental, not with any metaphysic or root metaphor, but using placeholders like entities, properties & relations; possibilities, actualities & probabilities; past, present & future; act & potency; being, reality & existence; in/determined & in/determinable; and the full suite of Aristotelian causes, which was proving to be a useful epistemic heuristic for folks of otherwise diverse ontological persuasions, including physicalists. (I know that raises some questions for many but I’ve addressed it elsewhere at length and it’s not my purpose to flesh that out here). I will say this, however, as an emergentist, I do not subscribe to such distinctions as others often draw between strong & weak emergence, weak & strong supervenience. (I travel light, sans metaphysic, sans supervenience & sans filioque. It’s all of one fabric. Ha ha!)

Keep in mind, very little of the meta-metaphysical discussion consideration above had anything to do with my approach to theology, which, in my life, otherwise had focused on formative spirituality, the ascetical & mystical and interreligious dialogue. Instead, my biological interests had begun to intersect philosophy of mind (e.g. Deacon versus Dennett & Dawkins) and Aristotelian emergentist accounts made for a great heuristic.

I only ever employed such heuristics, as I mentioned above, to bookmark aporia, different types of aboutness, inventory the relevant questions & map concepts across competing interpretations. I otherwise remained and remain a metaphysical agnostic, a realist, to be sure, but with no interest in inhabiting any given system.

I suppose you could say that I’m putting off any serious metaphysical excitement and over-the-top ontological enthusiasm for any given theology of nature until I see how the ontology that underwrites same has normalized gravity & quantum mechanics, or proved empirically fruitful with its biogenetic stance or philosophy of mind deliverances.

So, my modest emergentist heuristic doesn’t really do natural theology. That task can be done with a Peircean-like abduction of the Ens Necessarium in a single afternoon’s parlor sitting, not explicitly employing Peirce, mind you, just competently engaging one’s common sense. We will typically bring three musements into play, whether inchoately or reflectively:

1) a mereological intuition regarding the relations between reality’s parts & wholes;

2) a metaphysical intuition reflecting some particular root metaphor for reality’s entities & their properties; and

3) an epistemic intuition (usually involving some version of the principle of sufficient reason) as to whether, regarding reality’s primitives & axioms, those are merely brute or clearly fruit about which reality, in principle or not, remains mute.

My own intuition suggests that, whichever stances one presupposes, mereologically, metaphysically or epistemically, will lead to an abduction of some Ens Necessarium, propositionally. Various quidditative attributes then get intuitively assigned, which can (presupposing an epistemic virtue not all attain) lead to competing equiplausible interpretations of reality writ large, which then get adjudicated mostly dispositionally by- not a vulgar, but – a semiotic realist pragmatism, wherein a plurality of defensible stances (metaphysical, even moral) can reasonably, hopefully peacably, coexist due to – not any relativism, emotivism or voluntarism, but – a metaphysical fallibilism.

Neither does my heuristic do theologies of nature. It only provides me some conceptual placeholders to map whatever it seems to me to be that competing stances happen to be talking about in terms of aboutness.

In other words, I’m rather content to say that something like Scotus’ formal distinction appears at stake, here; something like Thomas’ analogy of being, there; something like Peirce’s distinctions between Being, Reality & existence, here.

And I want to affirm, over against any silly ignosticism, that such talk is meaningful, existentially & theotically, even while insisting it has serious limits, speculatively.

I do rather believe that serious formal argumentation can take place, ontologically & modally, even syllogistically, as long as one guarantees the conceptual compatibility of one’s quidditative God-conceptions employing only apophatic predications. I think one can see, however, how that type of argumentation crosses only a very limited epistemic distance, rationally?

What about other positive God-conceptions? Can they be meaningful?

Well, semantically & univocally, I believe so. But with the caveat that, for dang sure, absent a robust root metaphor that travels up & down the great chain of being gifting us robustly empirical deliverances regarding our quotidian, finite, determinate & temporal realities, why in the world, much less out of this world, would we over-invest in their speculative conclusions regarding ethereal, infinite, indeterminate & eternal realities?

The same epistemic critique applies to any ontological analogy or semantical univocity of being. Our metaphors will collapse at pretty much the same velocity as they cascade.

I’ve addressed elsewhere why, beyond our onto-theological natural theologies & theo-ontological theologies of nature, which do aspire to systematic & syllogistic argumentation via root metaphors, most of our employment of analogies & metaphors otherwise more so amounts to the informal theophanic God-talk of our common sense & sensibilities.

And I’ve defended it as eminently actionable, existentially, and as soulfully dispositional, communally, aesthetically, normatively & liberatively, all which, integrally & confluently, can, over time, reasonably raise our confidence in all things hoped for, our convictions of things unseen and certainties regarding our practical & moral responses, relationally, to God, others, cosmos & even oneself.

Many seem to lose track, even in the very same conversations, of how they segue from onto-theology to theo-ontology to theophanic discourse and back, leading to all manner of category errors. Are we talking about God’s being, here? His ousia? And, there, a particular hypostatic thatness? Or, now, the divine energies? Or, then, the Reality of the Ens Necessarium? His will or intellect? Essential attributes or Cambridge properties? Determinate or indeterminate reality? Divine simplicity or freedom?

The categories in which we traffic, non-metaphysically via revelation, shouldn’t be facilely mapped to the theo-ontological categories of our metaphysics presupposing they can syllogistically overcome our theologically speculative aporia. These mapping exercises, rather, serve the missiological imperatives of Gospel inculturation, which presuppose a comprehensive epistemic journey, from start to finish, through Lonergan’s theological methods: research, interpretation, history, dialectics, foundations, doctrines, systematics and communications. The communication of an inculturated Gospel will often involve a translation between different metaphysical idioms. Not only that, as addressed above, even within a given metaphysic, manifold interpretations can compete. Further complicating translation efforts, the metaphysical idioms under consideration may be appropriated within any given culture more so implicitly and inchoately, less so explicitly and reflectively, all of this coming into play even in the etymological roots of each language’s concepts.

Why even expect our onto-theologies and theo-ontologies to overcome the aporia of our speculative, systematic theologies, before we’ve even see what Scotism & Thomism, Whitehead & Hartshorne, or, for that matter, Aristotle or Plato, have done with gravity & quantum mechanics or biogenesis?

So, when, at last, I did consciously engage natural theologies & theologies of nature, I had come from the world of the highly speculative, theoretical sciences, where I had learned of the time-honored efficacies of the long-banished Aristotelian formal & final causations and had become aware of the epistemic cul de sacs of logical positivisms & radical empiricisms. I had also learned of the tremendous heuristic value of the very vague categories of act & potency, determinacies & indeterminacies, vagueness & generality.

I came to theology already bearing the gift of my epistemic heuristic and discovered in its onto-theological & theo-ontological discourse that some of the vary same aboutnesses and causations and phenomenological categories were in play!

However, I also brought with me the same degree of epistemic humility that inhered in a fallibilist approach.

And, in theology, as in science, I encountered, in no too few theologians, the very same levels of unjustified epistemic hubris that I had witnessed among certain scientists.

But I had, still have, little interest in becoming a Scotist or Whiteheadian. And my introduction to Thomism was Maritain’s existential approach because it was the vehicle which had first taken me into serious interreligious dialogue. Thereafter, I soon learned there were Aristotelian, Transcendental, Analytic, Phenomenological, Process, Neo-Scholastic and Semiotic schools of Thomism, among others. I haven’t inhabited any of those either. Neither do I buy into Peirce’s metaphysical musings, only finding his phenomenological categories to be great conceptual placeholders.

I remain, therefore, for the most part, a thoroughgoing metaphysical agnostic.

Don’t get me wrong, though.

I do applaud those who engage fully any given school within onto-theological & theo-ontological enterprises, as well as regarding natural law deontologies.

I only ever insist, however, that …

any given metaphysic not be delivered with a confidence level that outruns its heuristic value in physics …

that our deontologies should be delivered at least as modestly as our ontologies are tentative …

that the normative impetus imparted to any epistemic stance be commensurate with the evidentiary standards it’s already met.

Christianity remains in search of a metaphysic?

So do I.

The Best Systematic Theologians Become Ascetics & Mystics!

The existential leaps entailed in our liturgical & devotional practices and dogmatic & doctrinal formulations can be normatively justified by foundational theologies – philosophical, historical & exegetical.

Most believers appropriate such norms w/a subconscious competence.

Theologians, as practical more so than speculative scientists, first, consciously appropriate & explicate those foundational & doctrinal disciplines, then craft systematic expositions that might best foster pastoral communications & complement pastoral practices.

At one level, such expositions, while yet vague & commonsensical and trafficking in contemporary idioms, can still be eminently efficacious in fostering ongoing conversion & in integrally applying a faith outlook to every sphere of human concern.

I say this because, at another level, systematic expositions properly aspire to go beyond our vague & idiomatic expressions, which rely more so on successful “references to” than on robust “descriptions of,” to more rigorously define reality’s entities & precisely specify their relations.

The more speculative a metaphysic, however, the more tentative will be its ontology, hence, the more modest one should be in urging its de-ontological implications.

Metaphysical idioms aid apologetics, deepen understandings & help us locate the theological tensions within dogmatic & doctrinal canons.

We can’t expect metaphysics to resolve any tensions, dialectically, but they can help us dissolve some, paradigmatically &, when unable, otherwise, can still open new horizons for us to exploit them, creatively.

Christianity remains in search of a metaphysic, as does any philosophy of science (due to manifold & multiform aporetic causal joints).

When theological opinions diverge, eg trinitarian, their impasses might be found at any number of methodological loci, but, among coreligionists, presumably not in foundational & dogmatic disciplines.

If impasses are located in such a choice as between substantive & relational ontologies, we can too often expect them to prove too much, theologically, especially since such idioms have done very little to adjudicate so many other aporiae, whether philosophically or commonsensically, eg quantum interpretations, philosophies of mind, in/determinist freedom, etc.

When systematics cum metaphysics do locate tensions we can exploit creatively, beyond apologetics & deepened understanding, what forms might such exploitations take?

It’s here that our systematics serve – not only the missiological & epistemic, but – the ascetical & mystical!

Good systematics foster intellectual, affective, moral, sociopolitical & religious conversions, instill humility & expand horizons on our journeys to authenticity. They integrate with our prayer, mortification & unitive ascents. They transform us from otherwise hopelessly & aimlessly wondering wanderers into hope-filled & purpose-filled worshipful wonderers!

The best systematic theologians become ascetics & mystics!