What is a metaphysical man?

Just for fun, let’s make things as needlessly controversial as we can:

The theory of evolution cannot explain metaphysical living things, which can only arise by the intention of mind.

The claim is either obvious or vacuous and demands that we flesh out the first adjective: what is a metaphysical thing? Is it an abstract thing? A sort of idealization or ghost of the reality or “brute facts” in front of us? Is it a mystical or mysterious account of things invoking occult powers and gnostic incantations?

It might be any of these things, but it needn’t be. Explaining Athanasius’s cosmology below provides one very down-to-earth way of understanding metaphysical things. Athanasius’s claim is that we cannot explain anything as a whole having distinct parts considered precisely as a whole having distinct parts, without tracing its origin to mind as opposed to chance. That this is not the only way of considering things goes without saying: we can consider them as collections of traits, as members of a population, as phenotypes related to genotypes, as having masses we can measure on a scale, as being picturesque. etc. ad infinitum. In fact, we might consider one and the same reality in all these different ways. This is not a matter of dividing up things – a genotype or a mass is might well be a whole, but to consider something as a mass is not to consider it as a whole, and it is the way of considering things that divides up the sciences. You might consider the number of chromosomes in a human being (46) as an even number, but this does not make the study of chromosomes (biology) is the study of even numbers (mathematics). Likewise, you might consider an animal or living thing as a whole, but when you do this is not the study of animals (one of the natural sciences) but the study of wholes as wholes.  I say this is a metaphysical account. Why?

Aristotle’s simplest account is that every science leaves certain things out: physics does not study the Pythagorean theorem (even if it uses it); mathematics does not deal with the genes (even if it is relevant to their study), etc. But there is a certain group of things that are common to all things, and whole and part are perfect examples. Both triangles and turnip plants are wholes, both the hypotenuse and the foot are parts. It is this class of things that are not peculiar to some distinct science that Aristotle first defines as metaphysical. This is what is first meant by “the science of being as being”, i.e. it is the study of what is common as opposed to what is proper to any particular science. If you want to make a proper study of wholes, you can’t reach for any particular science that considers a part of being. But these common ideas are emphatically not “more abstract” or “less concrete” or “more like ideas”. John Smith is a real, concrete whole just as much as he is a real, concrete animal. The study of being as being is not the study of some vast, universal thing any more than biology is the study of some vast universal animal.

In considering wholes as wholes in relation to their separate parts, Athanasius gives a proof that all things in the cosmos arise by purpose and design as opposed to chance. This is not the only mode of consideration of things, and it leaves open the possibility of infinite sciences that find no evidence of design or purpose.

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8 Comments

  1. johnd012033 said,

    August 25, 2012 at 2:36 am

    I suspect that the conundrum would be resolved if one assumes
    that they mean that not everything has a cause because those things that do not have causes are thought to be caused by “random chance operating over a very long time”. Being caused by random chance is like not having a real cause, because the form of the result is not present in that “random chance” that is doing the causation. If “chance” would make the statue by some kind of fortuitous coming together of its components, then the form would not have existed ever in the very randomness that is being said to be bringing the components together.
    I think this, in my humble opinion, is what atheistic evolutionists think created a world of diverse life forms, without ever having possessed the perfection (form) that the randomness is supposed to have created.

    This comment above was intended for “Bricks & Ghosts” of about Aug. 15. But it could apply here. Randomness causing things to happen, occur, be created, or create themselves is a common theme in modernism since Darwin and Hegel.. In one way, if randomness is thought to have created life, it is like saying that we resale don;t know what created it. It is like saying something comes from nothing.
    But in another way, if nature keeps trying things for all eternity, then nature is bound to discover something that “works”.

    Here is the De Anima by ARISTOTLE in both the original Greek and in the 1882 Edwin Wallace translation uploaded for easy download:

    ARISTOTLE- De-Anima (GREEK and 1882 version -59836817)-.pdf.zip
    (12.29MB)

    http://www.filefactory.com/file/235lzpasveyn/

    Download now!

  2. Eli said,

    August 27, 2012 at 3:49 pm

    “there is a certain group of things that are common to all things, and whole and part are perfect examples.”

    What are the parts of 1? What are the parts of blue? What are the parts of pain?

    • August 27, 2012 at 4:38 pm

      The context of that paragraph makes it clear that the “all” is meant collectively over all the particular sceinces, i.e. one finds things that are wholes and parts in all the particular sciences.

      • Eli said,

        August 27, 2012 at 5:15 pm

        Er, but then isn’t this part a bit overhasty?

        “In considering wholes as wholes in relation to their separate parts, Athanasius gives a proof that all things in the cosmos arise by purpose and design as opposed to chance.”

        Unless blue or 1 or pain isn’t a thing in the cosmos, but of course at least one of those definitely is. At best, by this new claim, one could prove that all part/whole things arise by purpose; the further claim that *all* things arise purposefully would require some new premises.

        In fact, I think that this defense of yours generally makes a hash out of what you were trying to say. For another example: you (appear very much to) name mathematics as one of “the particular sciences,” but 1 is an object studied in mathematics (just like triangles and hypotenuses). Similarly, if this is your new defense then you can no longer say that you’re doing “the science of being as being” (i.e., “the study of what is common”) because there are some ways of being that don’t involve parts and so parts are not in fact common.

        And, on top of that, if you really mean this defense then your writing skills could use some major work. To say that “one finds things that are wholes and parts in all the particular sciences” is to say:

        for all X|if X is a particular science, there exists some Y such that (1) Y can be described as a whole that is made up of parts and (2) Y is studied in X

        But to say that “there is a certain group of things that are common to all things, and whole and part are perfect examples” is to say:

        for all X|X can be described as a whole that is made up of parts

        Obviously those are radically different assertions. Perhaps you meant to say that there are some things that are common to all *sciences*, and whole and part are perfect examples? But then this becomes an epistemological argument and not an ontological (let alone metaphysical!) one, because sciences are not somehow built into the fabric of the universe but are just tools for knowing that we’ve invented.

      • August 27, 2012 at 9:34 pm

        Unless blue or 1 or pain isn’t a thing in the cosmos

        If you say “thing” simply, you are referring to substances, not qualities or quantities, and physical substances are wholes with parts. But if you only wanted to concede Athanasius’s point about things that were wholes and/or parts, that would be fine – we could hash out the details from there. If the hang-up is about what to do with qualities and quantities it ought to be pretty easy to make them dependent on things or substances which have parts forming wholes.

        The second half of your critique is overly elaborate: there’s nothing very subtle in saying that there are distinct sciences that deal with things that have parts (the parts of an equilateral triangle, the parts of the respiratory system) or which are whole (a whole tree, whole set). Since “part” and “whole” are common to these particular sciences, neither of them properly deals with parts or wholes. You could prove this by induction too, I suppose: biologists deal with tigers (which are whole things) but there’s no biological account of what it is to be whole, or to have a part. A biologist neither has nor needs such an account.

        But then this becomes an epistemological argument and not an ontological (let alone metaphysical!) one, because sciences are not somehow built into the fabric of the universe but are just tools for knowing that we’ve invented.

        Wholes and parts are real features of the universe, metaphysics is not; and it is proper to the latter to study the former. Where’s the problem?

      • Eli said,

        August 27, 2012 at 9:57 pm

        “If you say “thing” simply, you are referring to substances, not qualities or quantities, and physical substances are wholes with parts.”

        Then what’s a triangle? This was your example, mind you: you said that a triangle was a “thing.” So why is 1 not a “thing” in the same way? Or, just take triangles: you think triangles are things, and hypotenuses (sides) as well. So presumably you think that triangles are made of sides, which are made of points, which are made of…? What, exactly?

        (Also, you’re simply wrong – when I say “thing,” I don’t mean substance. But it doesn’t matter, because you’re also wrong even if that had been what I meant.)

        “there’s no biological account of what it is to be whole, or to have a part. A biologist neither has nor needs such an account.”

        Sorry, this is wrong. Even if you mean that biologists don’t need a biological account of what it is to be a whole (and not the far stronger claim that biologists don’t need any account of what it is to be a whole), you’re mistaken to think that concepts like whole and part don’t vary from context to context. What makes my foot a part of my body is not the exact same kind of thing as what makes a side a part of a triangle, me a part of the population of the USA, pain a part of my experience, and so on.

        “Wholes and parts are real features of the universe, metaphysics is not; and it is proper to the latter to study the former. Where’s the problem?”

        Er, in precisely what I said: “sciences” are not somehow built into the fabric of the universe, metaphysics included. In other words, your claim that wholes-and-parts must be a metaphysical issue because it doesn’t fit in elsewhere is utterly ad hoc. Without further evidence, it might equally well be categorized under the philosophy of language, logic, epistemology, the philosophy of mind, or any number of other “sciences.” You can’t just assume that it’s metaphysics.

      • August 27, 2012 at 10:53 pm

        We’ll have to agree to disagree on the first point about “thing simply speaking”. Your point about triangles is a legitimate critique so far as I would deny they are ontologically substances. But again, I think if we could start from substantiality we could find a way to relate quantities and qualities to it. As long as you aren’t arguing that pain or blue as qualities or habits are ontologiclly independent of substantial wholes, we ought to be able to figure out how to get “blue” or “pain” into the mix here.

        Your second point is that concepts like whole and part vary with context. I agree with that. The concept or logos of whole and part is not always exactly the same. Perhaps you might say it was partially the same and partially different? This would bring up analogy, a question metaphysics has raised in different ways since the beginning. If your claim is that there is simply no such thing at all as mereology then we’ll have to agree to disagree about that too, though I would think it’s a pity that anyone would deny, say, the mereology of participation that Joseph Lagrand works out from the axiom “the whole is greater than the part” in his L’univers et l’homme. I think it’s an axiom in politics and in medicine too, and I still think Athanasius’s argument is a very insightful view of wholes made of mixed parts. But you don’t want to hear any of this, I suppose.

        Your last point is interesting, sc. that it is ad hoc to assume that things common to many sciences are metaphysical. I’d agree it’s a definition, perhaps even stipulated (ad hoc if you like, but this seems a bit strong) but it’s the definition that Aristotle gave, and since he’s the first one to formulate metaphysics as a science that counts for something. I don’t have any problem calling the last sciences you mention “metaphysical” or even metaphysics if you insist on stipulating that it is proper to them to deal with common things. For my own part, I certainly see philosophy of mind as a part of metaphysics, and I’ve claimed above that mereology is a part of it. But there’s no point arguing about stipulations of this sort – we can make many of them, and even conflicting one for different purposes.

        You can take the last word on this if you want it. I think we’ve said enough for folks to know where we stand.

  3. Eli said,

    August 28, 2012 at 7:15 am

    In that case, I’ll just end by saying that I think your history is somewhat confused – see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metaphysics#Etymology and then keep reading. The key distinction is that none of the things that I mentioned falls under any of the three branches of what we now call metaphysics; I guess if you want to redefine the term to have a broader meaning then that’d work, but…I dunno why you’d do that, especially since you referred to it earlier as “the study of being as being,” which is fairly obviously not something that happens in epistemology etc.


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