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Metaphysical questions

I wanted to see a Cats of Transnistria gig at Tampere, so I hopped on a train. At Tampere I had some free time before the concert. After meeting friends I went to attend a philosophical discussion event. The topic of the discussion was metaphysics and its relevance for a human being. Put in a very classical way; in our daily lives we deal with physical stuff like pens and papers, tables and houses, food and drink. But what if one day all of this starts to seem somehow empty or insufficient, and we feel bothered by questions like "is this all that there is, or is there something more beyound the material world? What will happen to by consciousness when my body dies? Is life only about eating to stay alive and then eventually you die anyway - or is there some greater meaning to be found?". These questions, in a broad sense, can be called metaphysical questions. Or, at least, many of the answers to these questions often seem to involve heavy metaphysical assumptions like "In addition to material entities like plants and animals there also are non-material entities like angels and spirits who can offer protection and guidance to make your life easier." or "A sense of meaning comes from fulfilling a creater plan, so to see meaning in human existence it helps to assume that there is a Perfect Being who planned this all and decided to create humans to serve a spesific purpose in this greater plan."

Well, metaphysical questions have been bothering the human mind probably since the dawn of consciousness. And, somehow, I guess that for almost as old is the counter-movement, an attempt to deny metaphysics, a daring assertion that metaphysical questions can't be answered, they make no sense, are unnecessary or even harmful, or should be abandoned or banned. Just like metaphysical answers, the anti-metaphysical assertions come in a wide variety of flavours. Especially in the English-speaking academic philosophy of the 20th century anti-metaphysical mood was a widely adopted fashion, for the academic philosohpy was on the quest to eliminate all nonsense, to reject all questions which can't be answered, to not to speak of such things which can't be spoken of. We have empirical evidence, and we have logic and language. Those are things we can talk about, and if we have questions or statements which can't be translated into a series of empirical claims connected with logical reasoning, then such questions and statements simply make no sense. Well, one might ask what happens to questions and statements which do not make empirical nor logical sense? The strong answer is that such questions should be abandoned, for they arise from a confused way of thinking and get dissolved once we start to think clearly using only well-defined concepts in a logical manner. But a weaker answer says that such questions don't belong to scientists or philosophers, for such questions belong to the realm of poetry or religion.

So, what should we think of all this mess? Let's try it this way; Since the times of Isaac Newton the empirical science has been very succesfull in discovering the secrets of nature. Phenomenos which once were considered magical or supernatural can now be fully explained by physics and chemistry. So if science explains everything, then will there be any room left for religion? If all of our body is composed of molecules and atoms, and all the functioning of molecules and atoms can be fully explained by the non-personal, universal and unchanging laws of nature, then is there any room left for consciousness, free will, soul or mind? If our body is nothing but a heap of matter organized in a somewhat complex way, doesn't that mean that ultimately a human body is a mere machine? Should I value myself like I value a heap of gravel - a worthless bag or raw materials? Or is there something more hidden behind the material physics? Should all the sense of wonder and mystery be wiped away by the rigorous explanations of science, so that one day we will have a well-formulated set of coherent laws of nature explaining everything? When we have empirical science developed enough, can we just just run a computer simulation with right parameters to compute all the future events which are predetermined to happen?

Well, first of all, it must be noted that this kind of assumption that "eventually empirical science will explain it all" comes with a somewhat naive assumption that the notion of "empirical evidence" is non-problematical, self-evident, clear and free of all metaphysical beliefs. But that would take us to another thread of thought; for now it is enough to start with the assumption that we have empirical science based on empirical evidence and logic. For that empirical science has ventured far and reached areas where metaphysical questions can not be avoided. Science tells us that human bodies are composed of molecules, and molecules are composed of atoms, and atoms are composed of even smaller particles, and those small particles behave in such ways which force us to ask questions like "What is causality? What is time? Is matter made of waves or energy, or some sort of vibrating strings, or are there more dimensions than the ones we experience?". (Yes, I know, quantum physics has been a fertile source of all kind of spiritual and religious ponderings, and has often been used to promote the idea that somehow the act of conscious percecption has a dramatic efect on material reality. I might return to these question in another post.) And then there are cosmological measurements and empirical evidence which demand us to ask questions like "Is the universe mostly composed of unseen forms of matter and energy, but in such a way that those unseen entities have some observable effect on the seen portion of the universe? And what is time? Is there a time when time started, or is evertyhing just a repeated series of great cycles?" And so on. All in all, seems like metaphysics is not dead and can not be banned. If you ask me, the thing simply is that all empirical evidence is always based on a set of metaphysical assumptions - and most of the time we can pretend that those metaphysical assumptions are given as they are, self-evident, written in stone and therefore outside all meaningful inquiry - but occasionally we might encounter phenomena which aren't easily explained by our previous set of metaphysical assumptions and we are forced to re-align our views. A bit like a heavier version of the paradigm shift of Thomas Kuhn.

So, if metaphysics can't be replaced nor rejected by the hard empirical sciences, then isn't that a great victory to all the religious and spiritual movements? Can we now safely go back to asking questions like "What is the greater plan behind human existence? Is there a hidden layer of existence which offers comfort when contemplating ones own mortality? In addition to angels and guardian spirits are there also unseen evil forces which intentionally aim to harm us by sending tsunamis and volcano eruptions to punish us?" I don't know if there is anything like an official answer to this question, but at least in our discussion there was a sense of agreement that this kind of questions are different from the metaphysical questions they ask in natural sciences. A Finnish cosmologist Kari Enqvist formulated this by using a metaphor that if science builds houses, then religion and spiritual traditions are like decorations and paintings on the walls - if science provides a bare empty walls, spirituality makes it feel like home. If science tells us "what there is and how it works", we need to searh elsewhere for answers to questions like "why, and what is the purpose of this all?".

Why, and what is the purpose of this all? A lot of philosophers seem to think that a need to ask this kind of questions is written in the structure of human mind, so these questions are important for living beings, even if it might be that there are no final answers to these questions. Now, I don't know for sure but for me it seems like a lot of people have reacted like "oh, if there is not a final answer then it is all just opinions, and my opinion is as good as your opinion! Instead of discussing to reach concensus we'd better just form smaller groups of like-minded tribes and demand that a superior group can force their opinions down the throat of minor groups or individuals." Well, in this post I'm not going to argue against that line of thinking. Instead, after all these general ponderings I'll dive deeply into more personal stories, to think of my own personal history to see how philosohpical questions have shaped my own life.

I grew up feeling that there are final and ultimate answers to all the moral and religious questions. And just like bad behaviour needs to be corrected, a person should be punished for having bad ideas or wrong opinions. But around the age of five I started to question that maybe my parents just happen to have the wrong answers, and slowly as my own cognitive capablities grew more mature I embarked on the quest for the ultimate truth. Thinking that the wrong ideas can be rejected and replaced by the right ideas - and that the right ideas are proven to be right if they can be shown to be the final, ultimate truth. Around the age of 15 I was bothered by the classical questions of determinism and free will. The idea that ultimately there might not be an individual free will, but our actions and decisions are determined by some previous events we didn't choose. And for me that idea did not appear as a sad and depressive idea which would rob inviduals of all their dignity. I did not see this idea as reducing persons to mere machines - for in my eyes the material world already appeared somehow magnificient and wondrous. No matter if all the dance of autumn leaves in the wind is all predetermined by the laws of physics; that dance still is beautiful and great, nothing like a boring linear repetitive mechanical action we have in mind when we think of 'a mere machine'. For me the idea of determinism came as a liberation; suddenly I felt that human categories of blame, guilt and condemnation make only a very little sense. To explain this I have to repeat that I grew up feeling that a person who does wrong things is a bad person, a person who has wrong opinions should be condemned in a sense of "that should not exists!". Carrying on with that same feeling I more or less secretly hated a lot of people of my life, feeling that they are guilty of being bad persons. But when the liberation dawned on me, my feelings started to change in a profound way. Pretty much in the way of classical Christian sense of redepmtion I started to feel that instead of condemning people for doing thins I don't like, it might be wiser to try to understand what are the reasons behind their thoughts, ideas and actions. Instead of greeting those people with cold hatred and strict condemnation I could try forgiveness. Instead of merely thinking "that person SHOULD NOT be doing that!" I could start to think "Hmm, in which ways could me or other people help that person to find other ways?"

But, in retrospection, I have to admit that my idea of "In which ways could me or other people help that person to find other ways?" was still shaped by my belief that the ultimate truth is out there to be found. And once found, that ultimate truth could and should be spread to other people - indeed, to help them to find other ways seemed to be a lot about to help other people to find the ultimate truth. For finding the ultimate truth sounds like a good way to correct wrong beliefs, to abandon bad opinions. And if our actions are often guided by our beliefs and opinions, then to improve the actions one needs to improve the opinions and beliefs, right? So on I went, on my quest for the ultimate truth. I can't remember for sure but I was probably around 17 years old when I seriously encountered the tradition of Western philosophy. And even a brief study of the history of Western philosophy left my mind burning with one big question; "can we really find anything like the ultimate truth? And if not, does it mean that everything just collapsed into the endless swamp of relativism where any opinion is as legitimate as any other opinion?". Later on I went to study philosophy at The University, focusing mostly on that kind of questions.

As I might have written in some of my earlies posts, I eventually found innear peace with the idea of agnosism. The idea that final certainty can not be reached. That The Ultimate Truth will always be more than the tiny limited capability of the human understanding. And for me that was another of those liberating revelations. That there is no more need to walk around thinking that wrong kind of spiritual beliefs should be corrected by the right answers. Instead of condemnation I started to value respect and listening. Discussion instead of preaching. Trying to get along with people with different kind of opinions, instead of seeking a fortified closed group of like-minded people. Personally, for me, agnosism fully restores the sense of wonder and mystery. For example; if my mind and body are made of matter, and science can tell us a lot about matter but ultimately the question "what is matter?" is beyond human understanding, then the conclusion is that all material existence is an unresolved mystery. I can grab a fistful of sand, look at it on my palm and say : "Awesome! No amount of human cognition is ever going to explain away the mystery of this. Material existence! A conscious experience of a physical perception! Wow, just wow!". And for me this awesomeness comes with a sense of meaning. If there is a supreme being who has a greater plan behind all this, I really don't care for I feel that I can't know such things - for me it is enough to feel that material existence if wonderful and meaningful as such, in this very moment, in itself, in all the plain mundane day-to-day simplicity of green plants inhaling carbon dioxide and exhaling ogycen and all the lazy and busy animal inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide - wow! What a network of mutual exchange, what a delicate beauty of things being the way they are!"

Well, now my academic background kicks in suggesting me to be more clear, to express my ideas in more formal way hoping to make them easier to understand. Let me picture it this way; on the other hand we have (1) paper dry philosopical theories, and then there are (2) meanings and values we experience as individual human beings living in this world. It is self-evident that the level 2 is true to any living human being - in our daily lives we are sometimes sad and sometimes happy about this and that, we make decisions and we set goals. And, traditionally, a lot of academic philosophy says nothing about the level 2, for the academic philosophy has been interested in theories for the sake of theories. But what happens if one pauses to ask if adopting a view X or Y on level (1) makes any difference on the level (2) ? If you ask me, the honest answer is that I don't know. But in my own life there have been those few moments when something on level (1) seems to make an impact on level (2), and some of those events could be described like "I feel that after adopting a philosophical view X my personal life has become more meaningul, more happy and more free." But, what exactly is the connection?

I'm well aware that views like "there probably is no free will after all" and "any attempt to reach a final and ultimate truth is bound to fall short of its goal" might appear as having a negative impact on level (2). But in my own life they have felt like liberating ideas bringing a long-lasting positive effect on the level (2) of my own personal existence. So, we must ask if personal or felt meanings of philosophical theories are purely arbitrary and coincidental, or can we find a way to reason like "because this theory X states that Y, and if you adopt theory X, you should feel like Y1 and act like Y2". As you might already guess, my answer is that maybe there isn't a strict way of saying "you should feel this way", and most likely the whole idea makes no sense. People feel the way they do, and feelings seldom are governed by logical calculations. Feelings arise from a deeper layer of human mind; cognition, logic and reason step in only later on. But, of course, reasoning ofter has a limited power of re-shaping feelings, and rationality is a powerful tool to regulate how feelings turn into actions. But if we really want to see a change in the way we feel before any reasoning takes place, then I'm afraid that logic and rationality are pretty powerless. So here we return to the purpose and the meaning of other forms of human experience. Poetry. Music. Meditation. Random little conversations with strangers. Or, instead of ready answers the very process of sitting down with other people to discuss the questions - maybe the process of discussions sometimes carries deeper meanings than the final answers. And if someone tells me they find deep personal meaning in talking with angels or in offering food as a sacrifice for local spirits of nature, then who am I to judge that? Actually I sometimes do leave food for the local spirits, even if I feel that I can't know if any spirits exists or not, but if the very act of gently talking to the spirits and giving them a gift makes me feel more connected with the mystery of existence, then why not?

Huh. Maybe it is time to go back to where we were at the level (2). Where was it? Ah, at Tampere, a philosophical discussion sparking these thoughts. I enjoyed attending the event - in addition to mere theories the discussion involved a lot of joking and laughter. After the discussion I headed to a bar, found a good seat and waited for the band to begin. Cats of Transnistria were good, as always. After their set I bought an LP and a CD, and just when I was about to get my coat some strangers asked me a question about the LP and that quickly turned into a deep and meaningful discussion. Which was nice (and the tiny voice of the rational observer in the back of my mind said: 'Look, Erkka, do you notice how effortlessly you are engaging in a meaningful discussion with these people? Do you remember how a few years ago you had a habit of writing a blog post almost every time you had a conversation with strangers, going deep into the details of how you find it difficult and how it feels to overcome the fears and other inner obstacles hindering your ability to meet other people? Obviously, something has happened, and some forms of social interaction are easier for you than they were a few years ago. Maybe write a blog post about this when you get back at home?').

After the suprise discussion with strangers I headed to see one of my friends from The University years. We had a nice discussion, I slept on their sofa and we enjoyed an unhurried breakfast with more nice, meaningful, personal discussion. ('Hey, Erkka, are you developing a habit of this? Having meaningful conversations just like that?'). After the breakfast I went to see another old friend, and there was more nice, meaningful, personal discussion about being a human being living this life. I took a train back to my village, and arrived at home at 6pm. I took care of the necessary householding stuff and realized that I feel extremely tired and sleepy. 'Sure, it might be that it is easier to enjoy some social situations, but I'm still a classical introvert - after all those enjoyable social situations I need time alone to recharge. About 24 hours of social life, and I feel an inresistible urge to sleep, to rest, to be quietly alone.' So I crawled to bed and fell asleep before 8 pm.

Cats of Transnistria
Cats of Transnistria
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Many different roads have led me back to a similar place, theologically/philosophically, that you have described here. I try to avoid dualistic thinking, such as 'right/wrong', as you seem to. However, there are virtues that I find personally 'valuable' (despite the the fact that applying 'value' is being somewhat judgmental, I suppose), such as honesty, acceptance, equanimity, and especially gratitude. I am grateful for your post today, and for all of your thoughts in general. Be well :)

I find your comment great and inspiring, thanks!

I've been thinking how to reply, and it feels like the question of "if we abandon right/wrong dualism, then how can we still prefer honesty over deception? Isn't that just another way of saying that we think honesty is right and deception is wrong?" is well worth a blog post or two =) So, instead of trying to formulate a short and sharp reply, I will let these thoughts simmer for a while, hoping to write a proper reply in another blog post. Not in the sense of "here comes mr. Lehmus educating other people, replying them to tell them what to think and what kind of opinions to have", but in a more humble way of "Maybe the internet can serve as a modern camp-fire, where individuals gather together to share their experiences and thoughts".

I'll give my own dogmatic answer to the problem of metaphysics (I'm influenced here by less dogmatic professor Amie Thomasson). Philosophy in general and metaphysics especially proceeds in three stages: (1) Conceptual analysis allows us to find out about functions and meanings of our words and concepts, and then (2) Conceptual engineering allows us to redesign our words and concepts to fulfil their functions better, after which (3) Conceptual ethics consists in discussion about which purposes and functions we should want to have anyway.After discussing conceptual ethics we can go back to engineering part, or maybe we can either invent a wholly new concept, or discard an old one.


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