Metaphysics 101: Basic Reality

March 18, 2009 — 1 Comment

What we are dealing with in this essay is a Christian theory of being, which is simply another way of designating one’s theory of reality, called more technically, metaphysics. This is opposed to one’s theory of knowledge which is one’s epistemology. We will be taking the stance that one’s epistemology and one’s metaphysic mutually influence and are adjusted to each other, thus forming a “network” of presuppositions (Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, 104n45). This goes back to our original assertion in the essay on Clarifying Terms, that we are not reasoning in a straight line (or linear fashion) but rather are presenting a system of truth which we are terming a “Christian philosophy of life,” or we could call it a “Christian worldview.” In my personal estimation, this is a necessary precursor to conducting any formal study of Christian theology, however, the topics dealt with are not mutually exclusive of theology and in fact we will see that to some, what we are doing is maybe more better termed “theology” than “philosophy” anyway.

It has been said (by Alfred North Whitehead at least) that the history of Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato. There is much merit in this statement as everyone after Plato had to in some way accept or reject his thoughts, or at least comment on his ideas. This will to some extent apply to us as well, as we have no choice in presenting a truly Christian philosophy other than to comment (albeit as briefly as possible) on the views we are rejecting. For my analysis at least in these matters, I am relying heavily on the work of Cornelius Van Til, who in reference to Plato, studied his writing in the original Greek and concluded that as brilliant of a thinker as he was, if he could not develop a coherent theory of knowledge, there would be few if any who could improve on his effort (Van Til’s Apologetic, 318n11).

For Plato at least, he did not start with a theory of knowledge but rather started with a theory of being or reality, from which his subsequent theory of knowledge flowed. While the above comment was applied to Plato in terms of his epistemology, it holds just as much for his metaphysic, something on which Plato was merely following his predecessors, the pre-Socratics. To them briefly we now turn.

In further confirming our assumption earlier about Western philosophy (being footnotes to Plato), we find that modern philosophy has not progressed very far from the initial ancient Greek philosophers’ assumption that all reality is at bottom one thing (Van Til’s Apologetic, 522).  In a word, this is to interpret reality monistically. Plato advanced this a little but not much, and for now we will instead deal with two pre-Socratics’ understanding of just what that “one thing” is.

To interpret reality monistically is not to assert that reality is only one thing, but is rather asserting what the “common denominator” to reality is. For Heraclitus, it was “becoming” (or change, or flux, or any other synonym you would like to construct). For Parmenides, it was “being,” (or unchanging, static, motionless, or other antonyms to change). These two fellows lived at roughly the same time, and could have had quite the robust dialogue considering how diametrically opposed their common denominator of reality was. The common denominator for us though in discussing them is to point out that that is all monism gets you, because it cannot account for the whole of reality. Both of these men could prove each other wrong up to a point, but on both cases, neither can ultimately be right because if either were ultimately right, predication ceases. By predication I mean (and remember this for later) the act of making assertions or affirmations about something. In other words, if everything is in flux, there is no way to assert anything truly, and if nothing is ever in flux, then you could never assert anything either but for altogether different reasons. We will explore this more later, but essentially what we are saying is that if either of these men were actually correct in their metaphysical stance, knowledge would not be possible. Since this does not comport (be in agreement) with reality, then this must be a wrong way to view things.

The bottom line though is a brief demonstration that an incorrect metaphysic will inevitably ruin one’s epistemology. Or with less jargon, a wrong theory of reality destroys the ability to have a coherent theory of knowledge. Without a proper metaphysic, one can never present an epistemology that is not self-contradictory and does not also destroy rationality. The fact that rationality continues to be possible, any theory of knowledge that destroys the possibility of rational thought or assertions must by default be wrong, no matter how gracefully explained and expounded upon.

That being said, we need to set off our philosophy from that of every other system of thought. Starting from the pre-Socratic philosophers onward (Parmenides/Heraclitus) we will see attempts to describe reality in the monistic fashion shown above. The ancient Greek philosophers simply started with what was around them (physics) and reasoned onward to what was beyond that (meta-physics). This unfortunately is the exact opposite of how one should rightly proceed in giving an account of reality.

Our starting point then in offering a Christian understanding of metaphysics is the Creator/creature distinction. This is the only distinction that will truly set off the Christian approach to knowledge and reality, to the extent that it is made basic to one’s thought (Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 202). This distinction comes to us quite clearly from the very first verse of the Bible:

Genesis 1:1 – “In the abeginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

a Job 38:4–7; Ps. 33:6; 136:5; Isa. 42:5; 45:18; John 1:1–3; Acts 14:15; 17:24; Col. 1:16, 17; Heb. 1:10; 11:3; Rev. 4:11 [The fun part of copy/paste from Logos is that get more than you bargain for and you not only got the verse in question but you also have all the other cross references for your researching pleasure.]

From just the creation account in Genesis we can extract 4 of the 5 essentials to a Christian metaphysic:

  • The doctrine of the self-contained God (the ontological Trinity)
  • The plan or counsel of this God pertaining to created reality
  • The fact of temporal creation as the origin of all the facts of the universe
  • The fact of God’s providential control over all created reality

The fifth essential is of course the miraculous work of the redemption of the world through Christ (all 5 are from Van Til, Defense of the Faith236). From this starting point though we see very clearly that the Bible precludes monism as an acceptable philosophical stance. There does clearly appear to be two levels of being, that of a God who is infinite, eternal and unchangeable; and that of a universe that is derivative, finite, temporal, and changeable (Van Til, Defense of the Faith, 237). This gives us our next two categories of thought for blog entries and in turn we will look at both Creator and creation.

The purpose here is not to fully explain each of the above basics of a Christian understanding of reality (I know, I know, you thought it was). But to set them forth here, and if one goes back into the outline already posted, you can probably guess where these will be explained further. For now, it will suffice to say that we are not doing anything other than extracting from the Scriptures the correct understanding of things from a philosophical vantage point and then in turn using that framework as means of working through our understanding of theology.

We are not seeking to first defend theism philosophically by appealing to reason and experience in order to afterward turn to Scripture for our knowledge and defense of Christianity (Van Til, Defense of the Faith, 29). Further, this does not mean that everything we say must have a Bible verse to support it, but rather in keeping with our initial assumption that the Bible is the Word of God and should therefore be central in our thinking, we defend the Christian philosophy of life by depending on the system of truth revealed to us in the Bible.

This hopefully is what has been done so far, and will continue to be the trend that we follow in the coming essays. Until then…

Nate

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I’m an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let’s connect!

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