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ON METAPHYSICAL PRESUPPOSITIONS

By Obienyem Valentine
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I have always urged writers not to be totally given to politics and the folly of human being and their senseless claims but to take time to examine the deeper problems of existence, the progress of science and the emancipation of minds. Sometimes these may sound abstract, but it was such enquiries that contributed to the history of thought more than the greatest battle waged by political potentates. This was why a thinker was reported to have said in the past that he would rather discover a single demonstration in geometry than win the throne of Persia. The heroes of our times are not necessarily the greatest rulers, but those who have made their wisdom to function actively in the society.

A thorough perusal of the history of thought reveals that the field of metaphysics has remained a volcano pouring forth the hot lava of controversies, arguments, unverifiable beliefs, blind claims, half-truths, and unsettled propositions. First, let us look briefly at metaphysics before we enter into its presuppositions that are yet to be settled, but not to be settled here.

The term metaphysics literally means, “beyond physics”. It was first used by a man history tells us was Andronicus of Rhodes after Aristotle's death to refer to his writings that came after his writings on physics. With time, metaphysics came to be regarded as a branch of philosophy that attempts to understand the fundamental nature of all reality, whether visible or invisible. Simply put, the problem of being qua being. Thus, Will Durant spoke eloquently about it: “Metaphysics, which gets into so much trouble because it is not like the other forms of philosophy, an attempt to coordinate the real in the light of the ideal, is the study of the 'ultimate reality' of all things: of the real and final nature of 'matter' (ontology), of 'mind' (philosophical psychology) and of the interrelation of 'mind' and 'matter' in the processes of perception and knowledge (epistemology).”

However, the simplest explanation of metaphysics, to me, was as given by Immanuel Kant, who was awakened to philosophy by the renowned British empiricist, David Hume. Writing in his preface to the first edition of the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant remarks that when reason “finds itself compelled to have recourse to principles which transcend the region of experience,” it “falls into confusion and contradictions – the arena of these endless contests is called metaphysics.” But for those of us who are not devotees of philosophy, the non-initiates, it will be confusing to talk in terms of a priori or a posteriori, it may be easily defined as “those phenomena that are difficult to understand because they transcend our daily experiences.”

When you look at our society today, there exist many phenomena believed by many that are not physically and empirically verifiable. These include mysticism, occultism (extrasensory perception, including telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, retrocognition, and mediumship). The other time, there was the controversy about the Okija shrine that was said to kill those that wrongly swear by it. But come to think of it, how can a shrine have such powers? Have you heard about witches and wizards? You now ask yourself by what powers a human soul will leave its place and wander to other realms. Though some claim to witness such powers and do claim to explain them, the vast majority of us are still perplexed, lost in metaphysical cloud, so to speak. Yes, we are talking of a world where some people will simply chart some unintelligible abracadabra, and thunder will start falling. In our different villages, during rainy season, we witness the activities of rainmakers, who also have the powers to stop rainfall. As Christians, we may find it convenient not to believe in such powers, but if you have taken time to observe what happen about you, you are bound to discover that some men really have such powers.

From Aristotle's unmoved mover through St Anslem to St. Thomas Aquinas, it has been the yet-to-be settled question of whether God exists or not. We even leave in a world were some will tell you of their encounter with God; while others, the atheists, do not believe that He exists. Because such questions can only be rationalized, without being able to say one plus one is two, the controversy, I assure you, cannot end tomorrow. Even among some that believe, they are not quite sure, they merely follow the crowd to avoid being “ostracized”. If in all honesty, we all believe the tenets of our religions and the joy that awaits the righteous, sin would not be much in the world!

Beyond God, many other metaphysical controversies exist and are real, we cannot pretend to the contrary. Today, we have the controversies surrounding life and death, immortality, existence of Angels, freedom, etc. To everybody, because it is empirically verifiable, man dies, but the problem is what happen after death. Man, composite, as Aristotle said in his theory of hylomorphism, of body and soul, perishes as do all things that are subject to dissolution; but the soul itself, according to predominant view, is a spiritual substance and therefore clothed with immortality. To some people it is conceived as having many incarnations, inhabiting now this body, now that, in an endless pilgrimage through endless time. In the Christian faith, each soul has only one embodiment on earth and will ultimately reside in blessedness in heaven or torment in hell in a future which belongs to eternity rather than time. We will not go into details, suffice to say that such issues are still subject to controversies and each party takes a position, not always because of personal experience, but because of the group that attract its sympathy.

As to the existence of heaven or hell, not many people have the conviction to come all out and say their true opinion. To Blaise Paschal, confronted by the same uncertainty said, “We ought to work for uncertainty according to the doctrine of chance. If the chances of there being an after-life is equal to the chances of there being none – if the equiprobability reflects our equal ignorance of either alternative then,” Paschal argues, “we ought to wager in favour of immortality and act accordingly. I shall not say more.

Even as I write, some are busy somewhere teaching about predestination, that the Almighty, who shuffles our fate according to His fancy, determines our lives. Whereas others believe in free will. Some believe that stars are gods who rule in detail the destines of individuals and states; character, even thoughts, they say, are determined by the star or planet under which one had been born, and would therefore be jovial, or mercurial, or saturnine.

There are certainly individuals that have deep, but not complete insight into life. Sometimes due to these limited insight they speak a bit confusedly. But we live in a society where people delight in laying claims to the knowledge that they do not possess. If you care to listen, certain characters will even describe the things of heaven with the assurance as if they descended from the assemblage of gods. If you listen further, they may even vividly describe the geography of heaven and the centigrade to which hell's fire burns. All I want to say is that there are many things that skip our understanding, and it makes no sense to lay claim to them. Intellectual humility demands that we accept that our knowledge is an expanding mirage in the desert of ignorance.

Obienyem writes from Awka

Disclaimer: "The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of Obienyem Valentine and do not necessarily reflect those of The Nigerian Voice. The Nigerian Voice will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this article."