Metaphysical Thought Notes

The recent babblings of Neil deGrasse Tyson have made one thing clear: when it comes to philosophy and metaphysics, there is exactly one choice: do metaphysics and philosophy. That, however, opens up to exactly two choices: one can either do philosophy and metaphysics well, or poorly, and if you do it poorly…well, philosophy always buries its undertakers, but not before embarrassing them first.

Well, regardless of whether one does metaphysics well or poorly, what’s the goal of it all? Here’s where things start to get confusing, because at this point, most people assign metaphysics a role as quasi-empirical science, trying to answer certain questions (it’s usually the ‘big questions’) and develop theories and conclusions. Now, being the good Wittgensteinian that I am, I think that trying to develop philosophical theories is a profound kind of confusion known as the conceptual confusion.

By trying to develop philosophical theories that can be defended, philosophy commits the error of trying to play the metaphysical game by the rules of the natural sciences – conclusions must be found, and either falsified or not. This is the conceptual confusion: to impose the rules of the game of natural science onto an entirely different game. No doubt some good can and has come of it – if one imposed the rules of Risk onto Monopoly, one could probably, given enough time, figure out a way to play and so to make some kind of ‘progress’ in the game, or at least enjoy the game.

Now, this doesn’t take away from the deep inter-connectedness of science and metaphysics. The two exist together in an intimate tie – without a grammar of metaphysics, there is no grasp on reality, and without science, there is nothing to form a grammar about. But as metaphysics has as its subject matter the most general of subjects, its methods must also be the most general – since metaphysics aims at grasping the most universal, its method must transcend the particular, and since conclusions of any significance have to be formulated by way of particulars, its must also transcend the formulation of specific metaphysical theories.

I admit that I don’t follow my own rules here all of the time – I haven’t quite worked out the mechanics of what I’m saying above.

Calvin, Bonhoeffer and Knowledge of God

Calvin takes as a basic axiom that the knowledge of ourselves and our knowledge of God is the most important aspect of knowing in general – of religious epistemology. They are tied together in an intimate way, Calvin says – from our knowledge of ourselves, we’ll come to a knowledge of God. However, no one can come to a true knowledge of themselves without a true knowledge of God. The two are tied together intimately.

Calvin treats knowledge of God first, and descends to the self later on – from the knowledge of ourselves, we can deduce only that we’re in a world of misery, and that we desire to rest in something greater. Our natural knowledge of God is suppressed or ignored, despite there being a kind of imprint of the divine on the heart and mind (this is an axiom for Reformed epistemology). The basic point, however, is that the knowledge of the self is tied together with knowledge of God – in Calvin’s case, our self-knowledge is knowledge of our need for God. For a brief exposition, see:

What happens, according to Bonhoeffer, is that when we begin to think and reflect upon ourselves, all our knowledge becomes self-knowledge, and takes part in the disunion of the knowledge of good and evil:

‘Man knows good and evil, but because he is not the origin, because he acquires this knowledge only at the price of estrangement from the origin, the good and evil he knows are not the good and evil of God but good and evil against God.’ (‘Ethics’, p. 23)

Knowledge of good and evil is the cause of all the disunion in man’s life – and the cause of death in man’s life. The problem isn’t that we know good and evil, and try to do the good, but fail, and see that we need God – the problem is that we know good and evil, apart from God, against God. In Bonhoeffer’s terminology, we become a god against God:

‘…man, knowing of good and evil, has finally torn himself loose from life, that is to say from the eternal life which proceeds from the choice of God…Man knows good and evil, against God, against his origin, godlessly and of his own choice, understanding himself according to his own contrary possibilites; and he is cut off from the unifying, reconciling life in God, and is delivered over to death. The secret which man has stolen from God is bringing about man’s downfall.’ (‘Ethics’, p. 23-24)

Bonhoeffer, contra Calvin, says that the knowledge of the self isn’t tied to knowledge of God – knowledge of the self is born out of disunion with God. This is an inversion of what’s a fairly key point in a lot of philosophy and theology – the knowledge of the self.


Note on Barth’s Failure

I’ve noticed a common refrain in those who oppose Barth – it usually falls under one of two categories (which are actually fairly close to each other):

1. Barth capitulated completely to modernity.

2. Barth was a prisoner of modernity and limited modern thinking.

I’ve worked with (2) before, and I’ll quote myself briefly:

‘Barth was a prisoner of his early limited 20th century modern Western thinking…at worst, he had a somewhat unorthodox view of the gospel as a result of of philosophical European upbringing.’

‘This irritates me greatly. There is a vast difference between being a prisoner of X, and thinking that X is a legitimate thing with which and against which one can work. Barth did the latter – he was a modern, who realized that the church couldn’t simply go back to before the modern era had begun, and couldn’t continue to say the same things in the same way as it always had.’ (

Now, regarding Barth’s rejection of classical theism under orders from Modernity (according to the most recent version of this story) – this is just wrong. A great deal of Barth’s thought as right in line with classical theism (as an aside, ‘classical theism’ is a bit of a fuzzy term – it tends to mean ‘Thomism’ nowadays but generally is seen as the main consensus of Christian thought from Chalcedon forward). A lot of the classical categories are modified by Barth (impassibility, for example) and some are rejected more strongly.

What’s at issue here is exactly why Barth rejected what he did. The recent article at FT asserts that it was modernity that caused Barth to reject the classical tradition (which, as I’ve claimed, he didn’t reject out of hand). What led Barth to reject/modify what he did wasn’t the voice of modernity – though modern categories did, in fact, inform his thinking (just as our own culturual categories inform our thinking). Barth did what he did because of profoundly theological convictions. There’s been a lot said on this topic the last couple of days so I won’t rehash it – but Barth’s conclusions are informed by theological concerns, not by a capitulation to modernism. To misunderstand this is to misunderstand Barth completely.

Here’s a roundup of some of the responses:

Controversy Roundup

What a crazy week! And by crazy, I mean, no one outside of a few bloggers noticed any of these happenings.

First off, Neil deGrasse Tyson got promoted to the rank of ‘ideologically driven, ignorant hack and a tool’, with some lovely remarks about philosophy (I’m unable to use hyperlinks for some reason, so I gotta go with old-fashioned links:

The responses haven’t been harsh enough. My own feelings should be rather clear on this particular topic.


First Things incurred the wrath of at least a quarter-dozen Barth readers with this piece:

While FT isn’t an academic journal, it is a pretty subpar article. The conclusion is merely asserted, not demonstrated, and that’s just bad form.


My personal favourite for this week: Tim Challies, Reformed blogger extraordinaire, has been doing a series on ‘false teachers’ on his blog: Pope Francis, Marcus Borg, Benny Hinn, Schliermacher and many others all earn the distinction of ‘false teacher’.  But this week, his article on Therese of Avila seemed to have some plagiarism going on:

Here’s Challies’ article: (the initial note of his plagiarizing is the first comment)

and here’s the post by one of the commentators who called him on his liberal use of Wikipedia:

Challies has, as of my last view of his blog, closed down comments on that particular article. Expect to see St. Peter, Mr. Rogers, Obi-Wan-Kenobi, Barney, Cesar Milan and your highschool geography teacher on his list of false teachers.

Karl Barth’s Failure

Read about it here:

‘Modern philosophy assumes the falsity of classical theism. It begins by discarding, not disproving, the family of arguments that provide the metaphysical grammar of Christian orthodoxy. Barth followed suit—and the results were fatal.

Barth yielded to modernity’s most pernicious idea, which took aim not at belief in the supernatural but at our rational capacity for knowledge of it. In denying what Jesuit philosopher Bernard Lonergan called the “native infinity” of human understanding, Barth capitulated where he most needed to take a stand. He seemingly did not understand that restricting reason was modern philosophy’s great act of presumption, not humility. Nor did he understand that rejecting the secularity of reason was Christian philosophy’s great act of piety, not hubris. And his bargain with Kant—turning the limits of reason into an opening for revelation—could only corrode the foundations of Christian faith.

By rejecting the speculative power of the intellect, Barth was drawn into making two mistakes. First, he turned his back on the metaphysics of classical theology, rendering almost unintelligible the conceptual idiom of the doctors and creeds of the Church. Barth did not hide this, and he worked hard to square his dogmatics with Christian tradition, replacing appeals to nature and causality with appeals to history and narrative, but the result was that he could not properly and consistently distinguish God’s nature from his actions in the history of salvation.

Barth’s second and deeper mistake was to sever the mind’s speculative relation to God. He dissolved the classical synthesis of faith and reason, collapsing all theological understanding into an exercise of faith. Unable to appeal to truth besides Jesus Christ, Barth was powerless to explain how truth could be known and communicated without supernatural assistance. He was even pressed to invoke divine revelation as proof of the existence of the external world, a sign something had gone very wrong.

His basic error is evident in his rejection of natural theology, which holds that careful observation of contingent beings can disclose the necessary being of God. This argument comes in several permutations, most of which are sketched by Thomas Aquinas, but its success in demonstrating God’s existence was arguably a secondary concern. The primary purpose of traditional natural theology was to show the indissoluble connection between the human intellect and a transcendent God who is Being itself.

Barth’s charge that some natural theologies compromised divine transcendence was true enough, but his indictment was indiscriminate. He did not appreciate that classical natural theology aimed at clarifying the proper reach and function of natural reason: that we can know with certainty that God exists but cannot understand his divine essence in itself. This teaches us both the nobility of reason (knowing that God is) and its radical insufficiency (not knowing what God is).

He simply could not allow that a genuinely philosophical understanding of God is demanded by the intellect’s desire to know. He wanted to sharpen his dispute with classical theism so as to make it entirely about the revealed nature of God. But this could not succeed, if only because what one holds about God is informed by a host of philosophical commitments. For its part, classical theism maintained that Christian belief both presupposes and propels philosophical inquiry. It acknowledged, even celebrated, that Christian belief is committed to philosophical positions concerning the intelligibility of the natural world, the power of the human intellect to understand that world, and our capacity to communicate truth. (Hence the First Vatican Council’s condemnation of those who denied that God can be known with certitude by the natural light of human reason.)’

Note on Dumb Stuff

Neil deGrasse Tyson, otherwise known as Black Science Man, predictably says dumb stuff about philosophy. The confusions are so thick it’s actually painful. Go here: (my hyperlinks aren’t working for some odd reason) to see what he says and a halfway decent response to his babbling. I say halfway because, as seems to be par for the course, the relation between science and metaphysics isn’t really recognized. Apparently, the only way people can conceive of philosophy is if its a kind of quasi-empirical science. That this is the kind of crap that’s being promoted, popularized and swallowed is mildly irritating.

For those interested, here’s a few assorted posts on the nature of the relationship between science and metaphysics:

Here’s general philosophy of science (the posts linked above are in this category as well):

Notes on Abraham Joshua Heschel I

Abraham Joshua Heschel basically takes the ineffable, and our experience of the ineffable, as an axiom in his philosophy of religion. The experience of the ineffable is something not too far from Polyani’s tacit knowledge – it is experience that we cannot codify or put into words but remains no less real for that fact.

Another key axiom for Heschel is ‘wonder’. This actually plays a key role in his epistemology:

‘Standing eye to eye with being as being, we realize that we are able to look at the world with two faculties – with reason and with wonder. Through the first we try to explain or adapt to world to our concepts, through the second we seek to adapt our minds to the world.’ (‘Man is Not Alone’, p. 11)

So wonder is a kind of epistemic reaction to the reality of being, if that makes sense. What the classical tradition called the ‘active intellect’ is Heschel’s ‘reason’ – how we organize, categorize, conceptualize and formalize the world:

‘Wonder is a state of mind in which we do not look at reality through the latticework of our memorized knowledge; in which nothing is taken for granted.’ (p. 12)

Wonder can then be defined here as the immediate, tacit apprehension of being as such – the sheer there-ness of the world. Not this or that particular reality, at least in this case:

‘Radical amazement has a wider scope than any other act of man. While any act of perception or cognition has as its object a selected segment of reality, radical amazement refers to all of reality; not only to what we see, but also to the very act of seeing as well as to our own selves, to the selves that see and are amazed to see.’ (p. 13)

Heschel defines radical amazement as what happens when we are struck with wonder – radical amazement is what follows immediately after wonder. It’s the wordless pre-conception, precognition state of mind that lies beneath all inquiry of any kind.

An interesting aspect of Heschel’s epistemology is the tacit component. Heschel rejects out of hand the notion that there is nothing in the intellect that was not first in the senses – he does the same for a priori reasoning as well. This he calls ‘insight’:

‘Just as the mind is able to form conceptions supported by sense perception, it can derive insights from the dimension of the ineffable. Insights are the roots of art, philosophy and religion, and must be acknowledged as common and fundamental facts of mental life.’ (p. 17)

The insight is a primordial datum, so to speak – it’s what our mind apprehends in its state of wonder when it comes into contact with being as being – which is beyond the realm of logical codification. This is where Heschel comes very close to Polyani – this aspect of the mental life is fundamental for both of them. That there are things we can know but only grasp tacitly, wordlessly is an axiom for both. Insights are beyond logic and beyond expression and beyond sensory perception – an insight is, perhaps, what being tells us when we apprehend it.