From April until September 2006, I wrote a series of philosophy posts here on Only a Game which explored issues in metaphysics. Since I half-jokingly refer to this blog as a non-fiction role-playing game, this period is known as “the Metaphysics Campaign.” What follows is a digest of these posts along with some discussion of the key themes. Since this material deals with inflammatory subjects such as religion, politics and science, please approach it with an open mind.
What is meant by metaphysics are those
things which cannot be tested, but may still be discussed and explored. We can
imagine metaphysics as a region delineated by Popper’s Milestone, which
figuratively stands at the edge of the domain of the testable. Metaphysics are
intimately connected with religion, as every religion has some kind of
metaphysical position associated with it – regardless of whether those
metaphysics concern God, the soul, ultimate causes or assertions of absolute
Truth. However, it is less widely accepted that scientists (even those who do
not identify a religion) have a system of metaphysics which affects their
perspective in some way. Indeed, everyone has some system of metaphysics
informing their world view.
(The entire Metaphysics Campaign was built
upon a foundation of philosophy of language, based upon the work of Ludwig
Wittgenstein. Although not strictly metaphysics, I find it invaluable to
approach the subject armed with an understanding of Wittgenstein’s concept of a
language game, and consequently appreciating the extent to which language
defines our realities).
My purposes in undertaking this endeavour
were various. I was prompted by the absence of clear thinking on the topic of
religion on the internet, and in particular by a current of scientistic atheism
that seemed to pervade the kinds of blog I was reading, and which I felt was
exacerbating the problem it was hoping to solve. Both issues arguably stem from
the low importance our modern culture places upon philosophy, so I set myself
the dual task to popularise this vital field while simultaneously furthering my
own philosophical investigations. Philosophy, it should be understood, is not
concerned with finding ultimate answers so much as it is concerned with exploring
ultimate questions – its very name means ‘love of wisdom’, and we should not
confuse wisdom with truth.
One of the key problems our modern cultures face is the paralysation of representative democracies as a result of the inability of the electorate to form consensus views. In the absence of a clear ‘will of the people’, politics becomes a game of media manipulation as individuals and parties jockey for the slight shifts in support required to secure positions of power. But when the people agree on something, it is easy (albeit slow) to make it happen. The tricky part is reaching a popular accord.
It is my contention that a tremendous
amount of political power and social influence is being squandered on a
religious cold war between chiefly-Christian theists on the one hand, and
chiefly-scientistic atheists on the other. Although this problem affects much
of the Western world, it is centred upon the United States, perhaps in part
because the metaphysics of certain Christian factions from this country are some
three centuries old, thus increasing misunderstandings (and hence tensions)
between ‘modernist’ atheists and ‘traditional’ theists. An early post
discussing this concept dates back to September 2005, and shows the roots of
the metaphysics campaign.
Another of the roots of the campaign was when I posted an old article of mine examining aspects of evolution outside of conventional Darwinism, and was instantly dismissed – without discussion – either because in one sentence I used the word ‘faith’, or because I was arguing against the dominant paradigm in evolution. Now the article in question is both verbose and clumsy (not to mention tediously overlong), but it contains some salient discussion points – still, someone felt it was necessary to pronounce it “bunk, stuff and nonsense” citing only alleged errors in the minutiae as justification, and entirely ignoring its content. I presume this happened because I was erroneously identified as a Creationist, but whatever the reason, it is not in the best interests of science to demonise opposing viewpoints on metaphysical grounds.
It is necessary to be absolutely clear
here. The Christians do not form a single collective, and neither do the
atheists, so when referencing these factions we are being necessarily general,
and consequently imprecise. There are considerable differences of opinions
among Christians on all manner of issues, and an equal range of different
opinions among the atheists. In fact, beyond the key metaphysical tenet of
these two positions – belief and disbelief in God respectably – it is almost
impossible to make a meaningful generalisation about the people concerned.
One of the key battlegrounds in this
metaphysical cold war is over the teaching of evolution in schools. A minority
faction of Christians, the Young Earth Creationists, want to strike the teaching
of natural selection from schools entirely, something that would be entirely
unthinkable in almost any country but the United States. I argued (alas,
somewhat obliquely) that this position is fundamentally inconsistent with most Christian
belief systems – but in doing so I courted severe criticisms from the atheist
camp for suggesting that it was not necessary for an individual to believe in
evolution. Part of this confusion resulted from my suggestion that, given the
extremely incomplete state of the science in this area, it was actually reasonable
for someone holding the metaphysics of a Young Earth Creationist to not believe
in evolution. This is categorically not the same as arguing that evolution
should not be taught in schools – I am merely affording people their right to
freedom of belief, a right guaranteed by law in the
A separate, but related, political issue is
that of the teaching of Intelligent Design in schools. This is of concern to
many more Christians than just the Young Earth Creationists, and should not be
confused with the previous point despite the apparent similarity. While some of
the people advocating Intelligent Design are doing so as a fallback position
from banning the teaching of evolution, some support this view because they
believe that the teaching of evolution in schools has taken upon an atheistic
bias, thus violating the supposed exclusion of religion from school curricula
by supporting a specific metaphysical position. I suspect there is a viable case
here, and actually favour the inclusion of Intelligent Design in the
On the other side of the coin, the problem
becomes immediately more difficult. Christians recognise they are coming from a
religious, and hence metaphysical, position, but many atheists do not recognise
that their beliefs are metaphysical in nature. A few even labour under the
misapprehension that atheism is scientifically mandated – a gross
misunderstanding of the domain of science, as one cannot devise experiments to
test what is inherently untestable. Furthermore, attempts to suggest to certain
atheists that their metaphysical beliefs constitute at the very least a partial
religion can result in severe cognitive dissonance, thus preventing this
information from being taken on board. Although in effect a minority group in
the United States, the atheists nonetheless wield considerable influence in
science and the media - hearing first hand reports of a widespread prejudice
against Christians working in science jobs in the US gives me an extremely
uneasy feeling, as does allegations of people being excluded from newspapers and magazines as a result of whispering campaigns condemning individuals as
To attempt to approach this issue tangentially, I initially tried to lay a firm foundation by outlining the benefits that skeptics provide for a society, along with a brief warning about not allowing this (or any other) belief system to become fanatically entrenched. Later, we approached the subject in a more direct fashion, firstly looking at whether Marxism can be considered a religion, before proceeding to look at atheist religions in general. In many ways, the discussion of atheist religions – while strictly a piece on religion, and not philosophy, per se – was a culmination of the metaphysics campaign, in that by this point we had not only explored the issue of atheism as a metaphysical (and hence religious) position, but also wider issues in science relating to metaphysics.
Near the end of the metaphysics campaign, we
returned to the topics that inspired it. I advanced the view that if we wish to
exclude Intelligent Design from science, we also inherit an obligation to purge
science of all manner of metaphysical artefacts, including quantum
interpretations, speculative cosmological models and teleological games. But it
is difficult for many scientists, lacking any training in philosophy, to
appreciate the distinction between science and metaphysics, and this in turn is
one of the factors driving scientism – the ideology that scientific knowledge
is the only kind of knowledge of any value. This confusion undermines trust in
science: whenever a scientist asserts their own metaphysics as scientific
truth, they perform a disservice to the scientific community and often
simultaneously advance a fanatical (atheistic) religious position, as staunchly
partisan as the fanatical (theistic) religious positions they seek to oppose.
I do not expect that my meagre offerings have the power to put an end to the religious cold war, but if they can in any small way contribute to increasing understanding or reducing tensions between the theists and the atheists, I believe they are worthwhile. I suggest to any Christian with the patience to read me that fighting over metaphysics is in strict contravention of the teachings of Jesus which they purport to follow – love they neighbour extends to everyone regardless of their beliefs, as the parable of the Good Samaritan clearly demonstrates. I simultaneously hope to convince the open minded atheists that if they genuinely desire a world in which religious intolerance can be abolished, atheistic bigotry must also be eliminated. Either way, one should get one’s own house in order before pointing fingers elsewhere.
For centuries, our planet has been beset with conflicts between people with differing metaphysics. At one point, Christians of different factions went fought over whether God the father and God the son had the same nature or a similar nature, a metaphysical conflict no-one today would consider worth fighting over. Today, neo-Darwinists fight a metaphysical battle with almost every opposing view of the evolutionary process, although thankfully not yet with weaponry. Although most wars attributed to religious causes have strictly secular roots, there is no doubt that mankind did fight bitterly over metaphysics in the last millennium - although in the time before this, there was substantial tolerance and exchange between different religious traditions, as typified by Zoroastrianism. Sadly, we have forgotten this part of history, and as George Santayana noted, those that do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
If we are to make the next millennium a
time when humanity will refuse to fight over metaphysics, it must begin by
changing ourselves, not by blaming others. The answer to religious intolerance
cannot be atheistic intolerance – to advocate otherwise is to propose a new
metaphysical war, but now instead of fighting over the nature of God, we will
be arguing over whether we are allowed to believe in God – which is what is
implied when one accuses all theists of irrationality – or whether we are
allowed to disbelieve in evolution. These are not battles worth fighting.
We should all be free to believe or disbelieve in God or evolution – from a
theistic perspective this is the God-given right of free will, but even without
invoking God we gain this right through our mutual agreement to freedom of religion,
and hence to freedom of belief. Only when we come to truly respect the
diversity of our planet’s beliefs will we be ready for peace.
My thanks to all the players of the Metaphysics Campaign: Ajedireligion, Anon10001, beepbeepitsme, Chico, Chill, Colin Bennett, Darius K, DavidD, gconner, GregT, Gyan, Joseph Capp, Matthew Cromer, Mikko, Mory, rhrempe, Tide, William Fechter Phd, and latecomer Theo, and my especial thanks to all the “regulars”: Peter Crowther, Craig, Malky, Jack Monahan, Neil, Patrick, RodeoClown, Suyi, translucy, and zenBen. It wouldn’t have been the same without you!
The opening image is Excalibur by Curtis Verdun, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.