The Metaphysical Instinct

The metaphysical instinct has its origins in our awareness of contingency – the contingency of both ourselves and everything that is not ourselves. This instinct, this awareness, is responsible for some of the great creative minds in the natural sciences, as Stanley Jaki has argued quite powerfully. What the metaphysical instinct does most profoundly, though, is to compel us from the contingent to the necessary – this seems to be something over which we have little positive control (though we are quite capable of resisting and distorting this instinct). Reality itself, contingent as it is, points to and compels us towards the non-contingent – if we are in contact with reality in any meaningful way, then sooner or later this instinct will lead us to the necessary.

The metaphysical instinct, though it leads us to the necessary, does not lead us there necessarily. As I said above, this instinct can be resisted and distorted – a look over the history of philosophy will reveal the ideas which follow from this resistance and distortion. Positivism, rationalism, empiricism – all epistemological extremes. The metaphysical instinct compels us towards a middle ground, where our contact with empirical reality leads us far past the merely sensory.

If one grants that we are in contact with reality, a coherent, ordered universe of related things in their totality, then sooner or later, the metaphysical instinct will compel one to the necessary, the non-contingent, the Absolute, the explanation for the contingent reality with which we are in empirical contact. One can resist this instinct and the compulsion, but only at the price of sinking into mystery-mongering. To deny the metaphysical instinct and to resist the compulsion to the Absolute is to deny reality itself.

T.F. Torrance on Realism

The following quote was originally read here:

‘The contrast between realism and idealism, implied in the use of either term, evidently has its source in the distinction we make between subject and object, idea and reality, or sign and thing signified. This is a natural operation of the human mind, for it belongs to the essence of rational behavior that we can distinguish ourselves as knowing subjects from the objects of our knowledge, and can employ ideas or words to refer to or signify realities independent of them. Normally our attention in knowing, speaking, listening, or reading is not focused upon the ideas or words we use, far less upon ourselves, but upon the realities they signify or indicate beyond themselves. Hence in our regular communication with one another we use and interpret signs in the light of their objective reference. Thus the natural operation of the human mind would appear to be realist.

We use these distinctions, then, between subject and object, idea and reality, or sign and thing signified, naturally and unreflectingly, and only turn a critical eye upon them when something arises to obscure signification, such as a break in the semantic relation. Much now depends upon where the emphasis falls, upon the signifying pole or the objective pole of the semantic relation, that is, upon idea or reality, upon sign or thing signified.

…we shall use the term [realism], not in an attenuated dialectical sense merely in contrast to idealism, nominalism, or conventionalism, but to describe the orientation in thought that obtains in semantics, science, or theology on the basis of a nondualist or unitary relation between the empirical and theoretical ingredients in the structure of the real world and in our knowledge of it. This is an epistemic orientation of the two-way relation between the subject and object poles of thought and speech, in which ontological primacy and control are naturally accorded to reality over all our conceiving and speaking of it. It is worth noting that it was a realist orientation of this kind which Greek patristic theology, especially from the third to the sixth century, struggled hard to acquire and which it built into the foundations of classical theology. [Ditto for relativity theory in 20th century science.] (Thomas F. Torrance, Reality and Evangelical Theology, pp. 58-60.)

Christ and Reality

If reality is grounded in Christ, and being in Christ is by definition being in community, does that mean reality is intrinsically relational? This would make sense to me. If this is true, then, does that mean that real being is only possible in community? If both language and actual being demand community, them perhaps true human existence can only be had in community.

Christ, Bonhoeffer and Reality

I’ve been thinking on some of the consequences of Bonhoeffers thought on Christ and reality – briefly speaking, Christ is the center of all reality for Bonhoeffer, and true human existence only comes through participation in reality, which means that true human existence comes only through participating in Christ. This is the foundation of all his thought – but what are some of the consequences of such thought? What does it mean for those who don’t participate in Christ?

Bonhoeffer doesn’t spend tons of time on the afterlife (at least in what I’ve read) – and I’ve not yet read the parts of his works that do deal with the afterlife. But, based on my understanding of his works (and I may be wrong in this) I see only two options: universalism, or a kind of annhilationism. However, I don’t see universalism as a big theme in Bonhoeffer, so I’ll look at the more negative option.

If true human existence is defined by participating in reality (Christ) then the refusal to participate in it would mean a complete erasing of human identity and existence. This is a theme that C.S. Lewis spent some time on – that hell, rather than being a fiery pit, is a total loss of all identity. Non-existence, but perhaps still in a way, having to live. This would tie in with Bonhoeffers thought on existence – apart from God, we have to live as a command which we are unable to fulfill. It seems that the logical conclusion would simply be continual lingering under His command to live. I’m somewhat reminded of the Nazgul (characters from J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythology who simply continue to exist, but without really living), honestly.

More on Language and Reality

‘If you take the biblical image of God ‘speaking a universe into existence’ (with all the fuzziness, imprecision, and questions that raises!), then the universe is fundamentally semantic in character. This simply means that the constituents are related to one another as semantic units in a semantic web. The classic part/whole problem, in this model, becomes the text/context problem of hermeneutics–because of the category of an ultimate reference point for predication–and in this personal context of a ‘speakers meaning’ (deconstructionism aside for the moment) allows for an “expert witness” perhaps.

What this means for the discovery process, is at least two-fold. First, that each element of the universe (i.e. semantic unit) provides some information in forming the understanding of the context (like a hologram in which each point contains the picture as a whole, and like the process in which we ‘correct’ phonemes based upon expected sentence meaning), and that second, we (as semantic units within the sentence) have a dialogical relationship to the other units. In other words, we do not ‘extract/extort’ data from our objects, nor do we passively ‘wait for the rocks to speak’; they rather ‘answer us’–if we ask the RIGHT questions…Discovery then boils down to dialogue–a framing of questions for the universe and allowing the universe to tell us to change the questions! (if need be)…

This notion of ‘semantic field or web’ has the personal element implicit in it, and as such allows the semantic units to be ‘revelatory’ of some Speaker (to the extent said Speak intends disclosure.)

It is also important to note that the relationships played by words and sentences and paragraphs within a semantic unit, can be seen as a unifying model for both particle and field theories (at some gross level). Words have specific meanings only within a context (field theories); but context is only composed of discrete semantic ‘atoms’ (particle theories). (I am NOT suggesting that we abandon the microscope in favor of the dictionary, of course, but that we be a little less presumptive and harsh in our claims of scientific knowledge–esp. at the expense of other experienced realities like consciousness).’  (

If  the Biblical idea of God speaking the universe into existence is true, then reality is in its essence linguistic, and therefore also personal and dialogic, and by that extension relational .