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Pitfalls of Metaphysics and Chimera of Divine Revelation (2003)

Mohammad Gill

 

The ancient Greeks, like all the other old civilizations, believed in polytheism. Their gods were mythological, anthropomorphic, and very much similar to superhuman heroes. Although such beliefs were common, they were also abhorrent to the philosophers and rationalists. For instance, Xenophanes (560?-478? B.C) argued, "Mortals deem that gods are begotten as they are, and have clothes like theirs, and voice and form ... yes, and if oxen and horses or lions had hands, and could paint with their hands, and produce works of art as men do, horses would paint forms of gods like horses, and oxen like oxen, and make their bodies in the image of their several kinds.... The Ethiopians make their gods black and snub nosed; the Thracians say theirs have blue eyes and red hair."[13]

The upshot is that man had created God(s) in his own image. However, the primordial entities and gods that were theorized and formulated by the philosophers were also arbitrary and equally fallible. For example, consider Thales, one of the oldest Greek philosophers, who regarded water as the primal entity from which everything else emanated. "He was one of the Seven Wise Men of Greece, each of whom was specially noted for one saying; his [Thales'] according to tradition was, 'water is best.' According to Aristotle, he [Thales] thought water is the original substance, out of which all others are formed; and he maintained that the earth rests on water. Aristotle also says of him that he [Thales] said the magnet has a soul in it, because it moves the iron; further, that all things are full of gods."[14] According to Aristotle, "Anaximenes and Diogenes ... rank air before water as the chief primordial being of bodies. Hippasus of Metapontium and Heraclitus of Ephesus said it is fire; and Empedocles used all four, adding earth to those mentioned as a fourth."[1] The four elements described above are all material. Thus it will seem that matter was the fundamental entity according to these philosophers.

Commenting on this aspect, Aristotle observes, "The wood does not make the bed nor the bronze the statue, but that something else is the transforming factor."[1] Here Aristotle is alluding to mind being more fundamental than matter. Aristotle asserts, "For it is not likely that fire or earth or any other such element should be ... the factor explaining why things are or become good and beautiful.... When therefore, some one said that mind is present, as in animals, so in nature, as the crucial factor accounting for all order and arrangement, he spoke like a sound-minded man.... We know that Anaxagoras certainly maintained these views, although Hermotimus of Clazomenae has prior claim to having made this point." He also remarked, "Thus Anaxagoras introduces mind to create the world mechanically, as a god is introduced on the stage in a play."[1]

Aristotle, like Plato, believed that form was more fundamental than matter; form was more or less identical to mind. Jasper described Aristotle's theory of form and matter in these words, "The principle by which Aristotle conceived the world contrasted matter and form, but also grasped reality as their inseparable union. His point of departure is graphic illustration, such as the following: Through human art (techne) things are formed out of matter and are actualized only in this process. The artisan makes tools out of wood and metals. The sculptor carves the form of the statue out of marble. The builder erects a house out of building material. In living beings, the appropriately formed shape develops from the seed by assimilating matter in the process of nutrition. In each of these different instances, form is imprinted on matter or permeates it.... Everything that is--whether body or soul, whether lifeless or living nature or human being, whether numbers or figures or contents of thought--is a whole made up of form and matter. This form-matter relationship is the mother of all that is.... Like a lover, matter yearns for the form of actuality. The unmoved mover brings forth the world because matter urges toward Him who only is and does not become."[9]

To Pythagoreans, numbers were supreme and fundamental. According to them, all the cosmological facts could be described by numbers. If numbers are identified with mathematics, this view is not far removed from modern thinking. For instance, Galileo asserted, "Philosophy is written in this grand book, the universe, which stands continually open to our gaze. But the book cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and read the letters in which it is composed. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these, one wanders about in a dark labyrinth."[6]

Plato formulated that the world "in its entirety is one visible animal, comprehending within itself all other animals.... The four elements, fire, air, water, and earth, each of which apparently is represented by a number, are in continued proportion, i.e., fire is to air as air is to water and as water is to earth. God used all the elements in making the world, and therefore it is perfect, and not liable to old age or disease."[14] Aristotle visualized God as the First Cause; He is cause of all causes and is uncaused. All of these concepts can at best be considered as philosophical hypotheses, probably as mythical as the mythological gods of the ancient Greeks.

The ancient Jews also were polytheists. With the passage of time their beliefs in gods and concepts thereof continued to change until by the time of Moses they had become monotheists, by and large, although many continued believing in the multiplicity of gods as the first commandment implies: "Thou have none other gods but me [Yahweh]." Jewish tradition is different from the Greek in that Jews believed in the nominally 'revealed gods' compared with Greeks who were more pragmatic and had a god for every important worldly function. Jews seem to be different from Greeks also in another way: Jews had Prophets who played a mediatory role between gods and ordinary people. They also transmitted revelations of gods to their people. Ancient Jews did not philosophize like Greeks; rather they believed in revelations. (We will talk more about revelations later.)

The great diversity of philosophical concepts about the Primal Being, the First Cause, or God per se, that existed among Greek philosophers multiplied manifolds with the passage of time. Almost every subsequent philosopher of renown conceived of his own creator of the universe independently, building upon previous notions or divorcing them altogether, and had his own philosophy of the creation of the universe. This has created a great deal of confusion for many people who are not professional philosophers; they are often confused as to what to believe and what to reject. Philosophy does not have the finality of physical science. The false scientific theories get discarded and forgotten; on the other hand philosophical theories only become old and ancient but are not truly thrown out. They are preserved in the archives of philosophy and are taught in schools and colleges as a matter of course.

Rational Speculation

There are many questions ... and among those that are of the profoundest interest to our spiritual life ... which, so far [as] we can see, must remain insoluble to the human intellect unless its powers become quite a different order from what they are now. Has the universe any unity of plan or purpose, or is it a fortuitous concourse of atoms? Is consciousness a permanent part of the universe, giving hope of indefinite growth in wisdom, or is it a transitory accident on a small planet on which life must ultimately become impossible? Are good and evil of importance to the universe or only to man? Such questions are asked by philosophy, and variously answered by various philosophers. But it would seem that, whether answers be otherwise discoverable or not, the answers suggested by philosophy are none of them demonstrably true.... (Bertrand Russell in The Problems of Philosophy)[15]

Much of metaphysics is rational speculation. Though rational in nature, at its core, metaphysics is embedded in speculation. A statement that is logically consistent is considered credible if its premise and the relational statement are correct. However many a time, a premise or a relational statement may hide a flaw or defect. In such cases, the inference is incorrect. To detect a flaw in a premise, empirical information is required. Sometimes things are not the same as they appear superficially or intuitively.

Logic by itself is unable to discover any fundamental truth or law of nature. Laws of nature are discovered from the empirical information (sense-perception data). A predictive law of nature or a scientific theory is deduced inductively. Whether such a theory is true or not depends on the authenticity of the data from which it is deduced. Since the formulation of a scientific theory is inductive, the final test of its truthfulness will emerge from the empirical data to be gathered specifically for this purpose in future. According to Poincare, "Experiment is the sole source of truth. It alone can teach us something new; it alone can give us certainty."[11] But science is more than experiment alone. Again, according to Poincare, "Science is built up of facts, as a house is built of stones; but an accumulation of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house."[11] Construction of a scientific theory is a logical process that uses the experimental facts for testing the validity of the postulated theory. If the theory passes the test, the data can be discarded; they have served their purpose. A scientific theory is rational in its inherent structure. It is good for predictive and post-dictive purposes until additional data gathered in the future falsify it.

A scientific theory, in the Popperian sense, has a life of its own. For example, Newton's theory has been falsified and supplanted by theory of general relativity which may in due time be supplanted by a yet more general theory, in the future. According to Ayn Rand, "Any theory that propounds an opposition between the logical and the empirical represents a failure to grasp the nature of logic and its role in human cognition. Man's knowledge is not acquired by logic apart from experience or by experience apart from logic, but by the application of logic to experience. All truths are the product of a logical identification of the facts of experience."[12] For example, any amount of logic could not have discovered Newton's theory of gravitation or quantum mechanics.

Quantum mechanics, in particular, violated one of the most fundamental, rational facts of prevalent knowledge. It was hard to believe that energy was not a continuum as was commonly believed before Max Planck but was indeed discontinuous in the microcosmic subatomic world. The notion of quantum was against all the conventional wisdom, rational or otherwise, of the nineteenth century and the millennia before then, until Max Planck reluctantly published his quantum concept in 1900. The experimental evidence compelled Planck to formulate his quantum equation empirically, which was later deduced in a logical and theoretical manner.

Speaking of quantum, Max Planck observed, "Either the action was a fictitious quantity in which case all the deductions from the radiation theory were illusory and were nothing more than mathematical juggling. Or the radiation theory is founded on actual physical ideas, and then the quantum of action must play a fundamental role in physics, and proclaim itself as something quite new and hitherto unheard of, forcing us to recast our physical ideas, which since the foundation of the infinitesimal calculus by Leibniz and Newton, were built on the assumption of continuity of all causal relations. Experience has decided for the second alternative."[10]

Matter and Metaphysics

From the proposition: "The Principle of the world is Water" we are not able to deduce any proposition asserting any perceptions or feelings or experiences whatever which may be expected for the future. Therefore the proposition, "The Principle of the world is water," asserts nothing at all…Metaphysicians cannot avoid making their propositions nonverifiable, because if they made them verifiable, the decision about the truth or falsehood of their doctrines would depend on experience and therefore belong to the region of empirical science. This consequence they wish to avoid, because they pretend to teach knowledge which is of a higher level than that of empirical science ... and precisely by this procedure they deprive them of any sense. (Rudolf Carnap in Philosophy and Logical Syntax)

Our scientific knowledge is of material things. This is because we can directly "sense" matter; we can see it, touch it, smell it, and so on and so forth, and we can take measurements of its change of states. Any knowledge of nonmaterial entities is metaphysical in character and it is not certain at all. Such knowledge can be postulated but not verified, as is testified by the history of philosophy and human thought.

The dichotomy of mind and matter has been the object of philosophical discussion for ages. Many philosophers have deliberated and theorized on this subject attempting to understand the true nature of mental events and their relation to the material world. It is not unlikely that the intervening chasm separating mind from matter may be bridged in due time by reduction of mental events into material events. The epistemology of metaphysics is intricate and complex and not easy to appreciate by a person of nonphilosophical bearings. Even if it is understood by metaphysicists, there is no absolute certainty of its veracity because much of it is based on unverifiable subjective formulations.

Physical laws apply universally; uniformity hypothesis assumes that these laws have been uniformly valid and operative at all times, signifying that they did not change with time. They have been operative in the universal space-time. On the other hand, history shows that metaphysics is not immutable like physical laws. Rumi's metaphysics, mysticism, and his mystical experiences were substantially different from those of St. Augustine, for instance. Even within the same religion, the metaphysics varies from one thinker to another and is therefore individualistic in character.

The concept of God varies from religion to religion--and almost from person to person. When one speaks of God, the only thing that one can readily comprehend is that a superhuman entity is being described. Hume criticized the otherworldly aspect of metaphysics rather severely and said, "When we run over libraries, persuaded of their principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume, of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: For it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion."[8]

Inspired by the British empiricism of Bacon and Locke, the movement of logical positivism came into being around 1920. The logical positivists gathered together and formed a group that came to be called the 'Vienna Circle.' Logical positivism was indeed the British empiricism in continental dress, as observed by one cynic (or a realist).

According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, "The Logical Positivist School differs from earlier empiricists and positivists (David Hume, Ernst Mach) in holding that the ultimate basis of knowledge rests upon public experimental verification rather than upon personal experience. It differs from Auguste Comte and J.S. Mill in holding that metaphysical doctrines are not false but meaningless--that 'great unanswerable question' about substance, causality, freedom, and God are about language, not about nature, and is based upon a general account of meaning and meaninglessness."[4] To illustrate the relevance of the preceding criticism consider the following example. Deliberating on God, Boehme described, "The Nothing is God and God has made all things out of the Nothing and is the self-same Nothing. But this Nothing is a strange Nothing. It is not Nothing altogether. What then? God Himself is the 'seeing and feeling of the Nothing ... and is called a Nothing (even though it is God Himself) for the reason that it is incomprehensible and ineffable."[9] Is this description not worth committing to the flames? If God is truly incomprehensible and ineffable, why bother to describe Him; every, and any description of Him is doomed to be meaningless.

Now contrast the above description to the following given by Epicurus (341?-270 BCE), the hedonist, "There are atoms and the void. Nothing can come from nothing, things would have perished already. But the universe exists, whereas every thing in it comes to be and passes away, is formed out of the atoms, and dissolves again into the atoms, which alone are immortal. The universe has always been the way it is now and always will be that way…There is no beginning and no end."[9] At the minimum, the whole description lacks objectivity. What is the compelling reason for one to believe one view (Boeheme) and not the other (Epicurus)? In fact, both views can readily be ignored without real loss of any vital piece of knowledge.

Carnap, who was a member of the Vienna Circle, rejected metaphysics on epistemological grounds. He said, "This [antimetaphysical] thesis asserts that metaphysical propositions--like lyrical verses--have only the expressive function, but no representative function. Metaphysical propositions are neither true nor false, because they assert nothing, they contain neither knowledge nor error, they lie completely outside the field of knowledge."[3]

Anthropomorphism, Epiphanies, and Revelations

we assume that the three patriarchs of Israel--Abraham, his son Isaac and his grandson Jacob--were monotheists, that they believed in only one God. This does not seem to have been the case. Indeed, it is probably more accurate to call these early Hebrew pagans who shared many of the religious beliefs of other neighbors in Canaan. They would certainly have believed in the existence of such deities as Marduk, Baal, and Anat. They may not all have worshipped the same deity; it is possible that the God of Abraham, the "Fear" or "Kinsman" of Isaac and the "Mighty One" of Jacob were three separate Gods. (Karen Armstrong in A History of God)[2]

The concept of God has gone through an evolutionary process and has changed from time to time. The ancient Jews did not philosophize regarding their God(s) like the ancient Greeks. They believed in the prophets who, more often than not, were the Chieftains of their tribes or other persons in prominent positions. God used to communicate through these prophets and provided help and guidance to the people as the need arose for such actions. Faith in God(s) was implicit, automatic, and usually unquestioned. The people were usually polytheists. When Moses brought the Ten Commandments to his people and admonished them not to have faith in any other God excepting Yahweh, they promised that they would comply but soon after they started to worship their old God, the calf (Quran, Ch.2: 51), also, of whom they had made a golden statue. This hypocrisy of Jews was so flagrant that one whole Surah (Chapter) is devoted to it in the Holy Quran. The title of the Surah is Al-Baqr, which translates to "cow." (Note: this Surah is the longest in the whole Quran. The Arabs were polytheists and idolaters before the advent of Islam. The Ka'aba, the holy temple, was enshrined with the statues of many gods and goddesses. The Arab elders tried to bargain with Prophet Muhammad that they should be allowed to continue worshipping their goddess al-Lat in exchange for their conversion to Islam. Muhammad did not acquiesce to this, although he seems to have wavered in the beginning.[7]

The prophets played the role of intermediaries who could not only intercede with God on behalf of their people for mercy and forgiveness of their misdeeds, but also transmit God's injunctions to them. The communication of the prophets with God could take place in many different ways. In the old times, it was not unusual for God to communicate with His prophets face to face. Later on, such communications took the form of dreams, or they came about through the agency of the angels.

Some face-to-face encounters, epiphanies, are described in the Holy Bible. According to Armstrong, "He [God] appears to Abraham as a friend and sometimes he even assumes human form. This type of divine apparition, known as an epiphany, was quite common in the pagan world of antiquity ... The world was full of gods, who could be perceived unexpectedly at any time, around any corner or in the person of a passing stranger."[2] On the basis of Genesis, Chapter 18 of the Holy Bible, Armstrong described a specific encounter: "God appeared to Abraham by the oak tree of Mamre, near Hebron. Abraham had looked up and noticed three strangers approaching his tent during the hottest part of the day.... He insisted that they sit down and rest while he hurried to prepare food for them. In the course of conversation, it transpired, quite naturally, that one of these men was none other than his god ... 'Yahweh.' The other two men turn out to be angels."[2]

Jacob had a more interesting meeting with his God. "At the ford of Jabbok on the West Bank, he (Jacob) met a stranger who wrestled with him all night. At the day break, like most spiritual beings, his opponent said that he had to leave, but Jacob held on to him; he would not let him go until he had revealed his name.... Jacob then made this request; 'I beg you, tell me your name.' But he replied 'why do you ask me my name?' and he blessed him there. Jacob named the place Peni-El (El's face) 'Because I have seen El (God) face to face', he said' 'and I have survived.'"[2]

But as the time passed, God became more remote and distant, and the communication between Him and his prophets usually occurred through the angels. The anthropomorphism of God did not surprise the ancients, who took it for granted and normal, because this is how they perceived their God(s). Anthropomorphism reached its highest elevation in Jesus Christ who is believed to be God incarnate. He is God, but not quite God, who descended to the earth in the form of a human being. He is the Son of God, and God the Father is prior to Him.

On the other hand, Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, had a tête-à-tête with Allah when he ascended to the highest heaven during isra. The majority of the Muslims believe that the prophet's ascension to the heaven was physical and the whole journey to and fro was completed in one night. If you have faith in an Omnipotent God, nothing--howsoever unnatural or supernatural--is impossible to believe. You can believe in anything because God can do everything.

Blind faith in an Omnipotent God has sealed the minds of many people. They simply cannot think rationally about matters divine and religious. They are scared to question the possibility of God lest they offend Him and incur His wrath because His retribution is immediate and terrible.

The respective believers of Judaic, Christian, and Islamic religions consider Torah, Bible, and Quran, as the Word of God. They are considered to be eternal and immutable. Yet many of the revelations in these books are already outdated and have become obsolete. According to Chapter 71, verses 15-18, of the holy Quran:

Have you not seen how Allah created the seven heavens, one above the other, setting in them the moon as a light and the sun as a lantern? Allah has caused you to grow from the earth, and to it He will return you. Then He will bring you forth.

The concept of the universe consisting of seven heavens was in consonance with the ancient cosmological visualization. This concept was common to all three Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions. The seven heavens consisted of seven concentric spheres enveloping the orbits of the following planets: Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. The Earth was at the center and was stationary. The eighth sphere included all the fixed stars (or firmament) and the ninth and the outermost sphere was of the empyrean.[5] Yet, in spite of the "immutability" of the holy books, the above visualization was abandoned a long time ago. Remember Coppernicus, Galileo, and the Inquisition set up by the Roman Catholic Church? Earth is no longer the center of the universe nor is it stationary, and the number of planets, as of now, is nine instead of seven. So much for the seven heavens of the holy books.

The second part of the above ayaat concerns the resurrection of the dead bodies. The religious viewpoint is that the dead bodies will be resurrected on the Day of Judgment, judged according to what good or bad they did in their earthly sojourn, and rewarded (sent to Paradise) for their good deeds or punished (dispatched to Hell for eternal punishment) if their misdeeds outnumbered or outweighed their good deeds. According to Quran (Ch. 27:41): "We shall set up just scales on the Day of Resurrection."

The philosophers disagreed and argued that the resurrection of the dead bodies in their original forms is impossible. They interpreted that the nonmaterial soul will survive death and the material body will decay and transform into other forms of matter. Among the notable medieval Muslim philosophers who deliberated on this issue were al-Farabi, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), al-Ghazali (arguing for the religious belief), and Ibn Rushd (Averroes).

Al-Ghazali was so extreme in venting his views that he declared that those philosophers who do not believe in bodily resurrection of the dead are deviants and deserve to be killed. Viewed from a rational perspective, however, the concept of resurrection is at best a metaphysical concept and is unverifiable--if not inane.

Conclusion

It is argued that much of philosophy is rational speculation. Philosophical postulates and theses may be rational and logically consistent but they are not necessarily true. Metaphysics has created a great deal of confusion in human thought and the metaphysical concepts in relation to God, religion, spirituality, soul, etc., are quite arbitrary, subjective, and meaningless. They are essentially ostentatious, and philosophically so dense that they are inane. A common person without any philosophical orientation will likely become quite confused regarding such concepts and formulations.

Recently, I came across this slogan on a T-shirt: "Fear is your only God" Could it be the old God of Abraham or new God of the new millennium? Who Knows? A whole new metaphysics can however be developed around this slogan.

Religion offers little help in such matters because it demands unquestioning belief. The backbone of religion is blind faith in the holy books that are regarded as the word of God by their respective believers. Many of the divinely revealed truths embodied in these holy books are contradictory, logically inconsistent, obsolete, or just plain wrong.

Any knowledge that is trustworthy is empirical and scientific. Science deals with material problems only and has nothing to offer on metaphysical issues. However, metaphysical problems have always remained important, spiritually, for human beings. So man has either to be content with partial but reliable knowledge, or he can also use metaphysical and divine "knowledge," knowledge which is not certain, being fully aware that his metaphysical knowledge is as good or as defective as that of any other person.


Acknowledgement


Credit is due the reviewer of the paper, Theodore M. Drange, who suggested some useful revisions in the text.

References


[1] Aristotle, Metaphysics, tr. Richard Hope, The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1960, pp. 10-13.

[2] Armstrong, K., A History of God, Ballantine Books, New York, pp. 14, 15, 17.

[3] Carnap, R., "The Rejection of Metaphysics" in Philosophy and Logical syntax

[4] "Logical Positivism" in Encyclopaedia Brittanica

[5] Fakhry, M., A History of Islamic Philosophy, Columbia University Press, New York, 1983, pp. 171-73.

[6] Galilei, Galileo, "The Assayer," in Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo, tr. Stillman Drake, Anchor Books, A Division of Random House, Inc., New York, 1957, pp. 237-38

[7] Haykal, H., The Life of Muhammad, Islamic Book Trust, Kuala Lumpur, 1976, pp. 111-14.

[8] Hume, D., An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Eric Steinberg, Hackett Publishing Company, Cambridge, 1993, p. 114.

[9] Jaspers, K., The Great Philosophers, Vol. III, Harcourt Brace and Company, New York, 1981, pp. 197-99, 67-110, 117-141.

[10] Planck, M., A Survey of Physical Theory, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1993, p.109.

[11] Poincare', H., Science and Hypothesis, Dover Publications, Inc, New York, 1952, pp. 140-41.

[12] Rand, A., Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, A Meridian Book, Penguin Books, Ltd., 1967, p. 112.

[13] Russell, B. A History of Western Philosophy, Simons and Schuster, New York, 1972, p.40.

[14] Ibid., pp. 25-26, 144.

[15] Russell, B., The Problems of Philosophy, Oxford University Press, London, p. 155.

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