Friday, February 03, 2006

Philosophy and Metaphysics and Theology, Oh My!

"You'll have to explain the value of metaphysical thought to me. I just don't see any value in the "study of what could be" (my words). Can you give some examples of what theology has given humanity?"

Metaphysics is the place where all thinking goes as it gets more abstract and universal. The reasoning human mind cannot help but make metaphysical conceptions which are used, either consciously or unconsciously, to determine many of our values and how we live our lives. It is the foundation for all that we think we know and for all by which we act by.

You may not like metaphysics but I can virtually guarantee that you hold numerous implicit metaphysical beliefs that you may not even be aware of.

Of course, metaphysics is also the ultimate search for philosophical truth. That is usually given value in itself. To minimize the value of metaphysics to what it has "given" humanity could be to miss the point in what metaphysics is. What has art or music "given" to humanity? Do you think it can all be reduced to values in terms of entertainment or something like that? Progressive metaphysics may be the height of all human accomplishments.

"Although you make a good case for metaphysics, I was mostly responding to the idea of metaphysics being used as a basis for theology. To me, it seems a complete waste of time. Do souls exist? Is the universe rational or absurd? Is there an afterlife? Questions of this sort don't appeal to me because they are so irrelevant to life, and because science does a far better job of answering these questions. I very much share Socrates' approach, which is that actual knowledge is the highest virtue.

"I do see some limited value in the broader field of metaphysics, but still prefer a more practical approach to life. I find that metaphysics does not really correspond to reality, and would rather concern myself with more practical problems of life. For me, the field of metaphysics does not seem that it has ever given humanity any genuine knowledge of reality. I think it was probably useful once, before the advent of science, but it is no longer an effective means of figuring out life's conundrums. We probably disagree because I find metaphysics to be a lot of nonsense, incapable of being proved by sensory experience, while you find value in the thought process, but again, it's science that makes a better tool for this."

Science can only tell us about things can be known in a rational sense. It may be completely incapable of giving us a satisfying understanding of how the universe is or came to be or our place in it.

All philosophy is a discussion on what we don't know, for if we had the scientific studies to evaluate things it would all be academic. Yet we cannot dismiss philosophy just because it cannot be (or cannot yet be) analyzed scientifically because there are questions out there that demand answers. Are we free actors in the universe? Why should we be moral? How should we be moral? What is the best way to live one's life? What things in life ought we to value? Anything which you find meaningful in life can only be found meaningful through some conscious or unconscious philosophical determination.

Nobody knows, truly knows in a scientific way, the answers to any of these questions. Yet how can we live any sort of life without coming to some conclusions, even though they may be merely tentative, on these issues?

To note, having a materialistic, random, unguided universe is just as much a metaphysical construction as is theism, for example. Thus as you go into discussions on the implications of that kind of understanding, you are engaging in what a theist would call a pointless system of study because the world simply isn't like that. Wouldn't it be a complete waste of time?

Theology is a discussion on the implications of the basic ideas held by theists. You may disagree with most or all of what they say but it being a wasted effort is merely a difference in perception.


The Jewish Freak said...

Good discussion, you anticipated most of my answers. BTW, who are you having this discussion with?

Orthoprax said...


Thanks. Many times people discuss things in great detail but they never truly understand what exactly they're talking about or why.

These quotes were lifted from a recent discussion on The Frum Skeptics Group (link is on the right). I prefer not to give out the names or pseudonymes of the individuals with whom I discuss, but you are free to see for yourself the discussion in whole at the yahoo group.

Anonymous said...

You write: "Theology is a discussion on the implications of the basic ideas held by theists."

Umm, well, not really -- at least, that's not an accurate definition of theology as the field exists today within academia. I know of several current atheist theologians. And who could forget the plethora of "death of God" theologians who flourished in the mid-20th C.?

Anthony Pinn comes to mind as an interesting case study. His book By These Hands: A Documentary History of African American Humanism demonstrates that, contrary to common belief, the African American community has a long history of atheists. In other words, Pinn uses the academic discipline of theology to subvert the notion that you have to believe in God.

Pinn bases some of his work on a distinction that theologian Gordon Kaufmann made some years ago, between "first-order theology" which attempts to make ontological claims, and "third-order theology" which I think of as a sort of descriptive theology, looking at the way theology is actually lived out in the world. This could modify your definition to something like: "Theology is a discussion of the implications on the basic ideas that arise in the actual functioning of religions in the real world."

Admittedly, all the atheist theologians I know about would have to be characterized as "post-Christian," meaning it's clear they use the categories of Christian theology albeit in subversive ways. But given the existence of atheist Jewish and Buddhist groups, I suspect you could find plenty of atheist Jewish theologians, to say nothing of atheist Buddhist theologians.

My $.02 worth,
Dan Harper ((

Orthoprax said...


Well, you've given me some food for thought. Your examples of theologians are not exactly as I understood the field.

"Theology is a discussion of the implications on the basic ideas that arise in the actual functioning of religions in the real world."

Indeed, but like you said that's a "descriptive theology" and not metaphysical theology as I meant to refer. One can also study the history of theology, but that's just studying history, not studying theology as a metaphysical school of thought.