Midgley and metaphysics

I pulled down Science and Salvation last night and it fell open at a discussion of the truth of large metaphysical assertions which is a useful way of following on from the comments to my earlier piece. It’s quite a long quote, but worth it

[I also know that the styling of the comments section is importantly broken. I am too busy to fix it today]

To deny that God and the soul existed seemed only the logical next move after denying doctrines such as the Trinity or transubstantiation or the efficacy of prayers for the dead. And all these denials appeared, in an important way, like denying that there were unicorns or that witches could kill by cursing. They all seemed to concern matters of fact, determinable by evidence.

By this method only two alternatives are considered. There is, or there is not, a unicorn in the garden. If there is not, then there is nothing there at all. The rhinoceros or antelope that may be there is of no interest, no matter for surprise or wonder. Nor are the flowers, the trees or the soil. It is not guessed that they might now need to be looked at differently. If a unicornless world proves to be one drained of significance, then it is concluded that the significance, as much as the unicorns, always was a mistake.

Without significance, however, people cannot live. To see life as having a meaning is not just to add an indulgence, a colour or a taste, to its raw data. It is to find any shape in it at all, any connexion among its elements. This is not a luxury; it is the condition which makes thinking possible. The question is not whether we are pro- or anti-God. It is: how do we now map the connexions in the world if they are not to be described by talk of God? What sort of world do we now have? Connexion itself is not a superstition that we can get rid of. It is work that must be done one way or another. To refuse that work will not stop it being done. It will only leave it to the uncontrolled play of the imagination.

Failure to see this complexity is not a new fault, invented by the modern world. It is a batch of ancient faults taken over unnoticed from the Christian tradition, or, more exactly, from its entanglement in political feuds, which committed it to constant polarization about simple dogmas. In the seventeenth-century wars of religion, as in earlier disputes, enormous issues of doctrine were repeatedly treated as factual questions with a single right answer, reachable through controversy.

Once political sides had been taken, it became extremely hard to suggest that the truth is so vast that both these doctrines may be only attempts to grasp at a part of it. Instead, nations confidently drilled their peoples to accept one of two solutions, while dissenters, just as confidently, died proclaiming the other. With the same sort of confidence, atheists now pronounced their own final solution. As a matter of simple fact, they explained, there was no God, and – equally as a matter of fact – the physical world was (by sheer good luck) orderly, constructed just as it needed to be for scientific enquiry every bit as well as if God had done it.

Vast propositions like these, however, are not very like everyday matters of fact. Are they matters of fact at all? What does it mean to call them so? What is the alternative? Current usage thinks only of ‘value-judgments’ which is far too narrow. Very general statements about the way the universe works, such as that it is ordered, or is – as Monod claims – totally contingent, or that it is, or is not, an illusion, or that it is in the hand of God, or that all events in it are causally determined, or that it is only a social construction, are not judgments of value. Least of all are they unaccountable judgments of value, of the vague kind which people often seem now to mean by that term. They certainly do not just say ‘boo’ or ‘hurray’.

What they have in common with ordinary, modest factual statements is that they are intended to be true or false – to describe some actual state of affairs, not to be fiction. Where they differ is in that it is much less obvious how we can know them. We cannot compare them directly with any actual thing or things; they are far too wide. We cannot test them, as we do reports about unicorns, by the ordinary rules of evidence, relating such reports to a batch of neighbouring facts. There are simply too many facts involved.

What I would add to this is only that it is an interesting question, to which there might be answers, why metaphysics and politics become from time to time entangled. Rowan Williams said the other day that the relationship between religion and conflict was not that religion generates conflict, but that conflict generates religion, and I think this is true, and subtle. It is precisely the empirical unarguability of religion that makes religious or metaphysical positions so politically useful — if what you want is a fight to the death without compromise. So they will always be reinvented and rediscovered. That is why it is so important that we understand the possibilities of reconciling sacrednesses, or at least making them compatible with one another. However, that’s drifting off into another point, and I feel in general that any argument which concludes that interfaith relations are a good thing must have something radically wrong with it. How can anything so boring and pious save the world?

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3 Responses to Midgley and metaphysics

  1. Mrs Tilton says:

    If nothing else, it is rhetorical kung fu of the first water to propose that Dawkins et cie. have failed to dechristianise themselves sufficiently.

    Though I recognise your tongue might have been ever so slightly in cheek as you typed those last two sentences, let us take them, for purposes of this comment, at face value. In that light, they are very close to the assertion that oecumenists are simply people who don’t take their purported religions very seriously; that religious toleration is a mere tactical pose, to be adopted temporarily when is oneself a local powerless minority or, for whatever other reasons, cannot at present force the others to conform or die. (In other words, very close to most of traditional western Christianity.) If the options are that or vulgar Dawkinsism, I’m afraid I’ll have to swallow hard and throw in my lot with the Simonyi Professor for Priest-Strangling.

  2. Mrs Tilton says:

    Had my comment formatted properly, there’d have been a paragraph break after the first sentence.

  3. acb says:

    (I will reformat the earlier comment.)

    Taken in context, the rhetorical jiu-jitsu makes perfect sense. She takes Descartes’ Christianity seriously, you see. But short of quoting the whole chapter, I felt I had to jump into the argument somewhere, and that was the place. It long predates Dawkins and his ilk.

    As to the other, my tongue was in cheek about the interfaith stuff. It’s just that there is nothing — nothing in the whole world — to compare with the pious tedium of the interfaith circuit. If there is a hell, it will contain frequent compulsory lectures on the world religions from Hans Küng. Perhaps this is because the kind of people who are happy talking about ecumenism are not the kind of people who need to do it. As the immortal Irish Times headline had it “Catholics and Protestants unite against Ecumenism”

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