Section Four: Nature


Fighting Words

In the philosopher’s study, metaphysics is an abstract discipline, indeed a peaceable discipline.  As we noted in Philosophy and The Humanist Connection, Introductory Course, Section Two, it deals with the question – what’s really real – and responds to our thirst for answers to what may be called “ultimate questions.”  It stirs our inquiring spirit, and above all, the powers of our imagination.  Typically, doing metaphysical thinking is a speculative and often a contemplative activity.  Metaphysical ideas, unlike our exercise [it was just an exercise] describing the “being” of a raindrop, are matters for intellectual research and philosophic conversation.  Reason, not passion, seems to be its genre.  Guesswork, not certainty, seems to be its outcome.  But then there’s good and bad guesswork, useful and useless guesswork.

Given these comments, we couldn’t expect metaphysical ideas to be a source of intellectual warfare in which reputations, political and social loyalties, and even lives can be at stake.  But we’re in for a surprise.  As it turns out, metaphysics is a convincing example of the fact that ideas about the world and our part in it – not classroom exercises about raindrops – have consequences.  As the American philosopher, William James, put it, ideas are serious when they present us with “live options.”  And the story of metaphysics is filled with live options.  For all its abstractness, metaphysical ideas matter to lots of people.  They also matter to humanists!

It is not surprising then that when we find metaphysical ideas among humanists we find passion and debate.  And, by the way, when we find passion and debate someone’s “live options” are probably at work.  That’s particularly true when we do metaphysics.  It gets us into religious and ideological conflict, say about naturalism and supernaturalism, epistemological conflict, say about intuition and evidence, and ethical conflict, say about the world’s goodness or evil or indifference.

“Nature” is what is “really real” for humanists and working out what this means and why it is so is the work of “naturalism” as a philosophic idea.  For humanists, nature is the setting and source of our existence, our abilities and relationships, our opportunities and challenges.  It is the source of the things we find and find out.  Once we realize this, we can understand why conflict and passion can result.  We know that naturalism is not everyone’s metaphysics.  Whether we like it or not, agree or not, there are other “live options.”  Capturing this theme is the fifth statement of Manifesto I: “Humanism asserts that the nature of the universe depicted by modern science makes unacceptable any supernatural or cosmic guarantees of human values.  Obviously humanism does not deny the possibility of realities as yet undiscovered, but it does insist that the way to determine the existence and value of any and all realities is by means of intelligent inquiry and by the assessment of their relations to human needs.”

The humanist’s metaphysics, naturalism, calls attention to those many others who are not humanists and who, just like us, care deeply for their answers to the question of reality.  What this tells us is that metaphysics, philosophy’s most bookish undertaking, taps into our basic feelings and commitments.  Important as these are, they are also very dangerous.  We fall in love with our ideas and that is a good thing because it keeps us going when inquiry fails or insoluble puzzles appear.  But it is a bad thing too because our commitments and feelings can blind us, can tempt us to arrogance and dogmatism.  Other ideas fade into the background or become falsehoods or foolishness to our minds.  By extension, we come to think of those who have these ideas as fools and even villains.  We forget to distinguish between meaningful and meaningless ideas.  We forget that figuring things out is hard and continuous work, that it’s never done, and that surprises are always possible.  Finally, we forget that others may have good ideas too and that we can benefit from them.  We mistake advocacy for inquiry much as others mistake faith for truth.

Reflection:  Socrates said, “I know that I know nothing.”  What does that mean?  Think back on your experience.  Identify things about yourself and the world that you were once very sure of.  Are you still sure about them or have you changed?  What caused you to change?  What kept you from changing?

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