The Disuniting and Reuniting of Ultimate Questions

John Haldane FAITH Magazine November – December 2010

John Haldane, Professor of Philosophy at the University of St Andrews, calls for the reestablishment of the dynamic of science leading to metaphysics, this in turn leading to the personal realm. His two most recent books are Practical Philosophy (2009) and Reasonable Faith (2010).

Among the earliest writings that continue to be thought of as metaphysical are a series of broken texts and quoted passages now known as 'the Pre-Socratic fragments'. That description comes from the title of a work by the German scholar Hermann Diels {Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker) who gathered together a large number of pieces attributed to thinkers prior to the period of Socrates, mostly from the 6th century BC.

Looking at these passages it is clear that the authors were investigating fundamental questions about the nature of reality, and seeking for ultimate principles that would explain its existence and nature. So, for example, Thales of Miletus is reputed to have said that "it is necessary that there should be some nature, either one or more than one, out of which arise the features of things"; and several of the Pre-Socratics speak of principles that explain the order and patterns of movement in the universe.

As well as being claimed as the first philosophers, however, the 'Pre-Socratics' are also cited as being the first scientists. After all they were interested in the ultimate constituents of things and in the manner of their combination, and in the ancient world they were actually referred to as 'physiologoi' which can be translated as 'natural scientists'.

What is less often observed, however, is that these thinkers can equally well be represented as natural theologians. For while they were interested in nature they thought of it in the broadest possible terms, as encompassing all that there might be, invisible and invisible; and they wanted to know what sustained it and moved it towards certain intelligible ends. In speaking of the ultimate explanation they began to talk of 'Logos', an account or explanation.

Although logos can be translated as 'theory' that is anachronistic if by theory we mean a set of ideas in the mind of enquirers, or a set of statements written down. The Logos for which they sought was something that explained the cosmos both in the way that an account might, but also in the way that a cause would do. Indeed, for these thinkers the Logos was something real, perhaps transcendent of the cosmos, but if so then also immanent within it, making it to be what it is and drawing reality to itself as an end or telos.

With this before us we can better understand the purpose of the prologue to John's gospel, in which he writes: 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God', and appreciate the extraordinariness of its claim. The author was intending to address Greek-speaking Jews and educated Gentiles who would recognise the term 'Logos' as belonging to metaphysics-cum-science-cum-natural theology. Instead of identifying the account either with a theory or even with a metaphysical or cosmological principle, however, he identifies it with a deity, and not just a 'god' but with God, an ultimate, intrinsically personal creator, sustainer and provider of the universe.

That was then; but metaphysics, science and theology seem to have long drifted apart. The first, can appear the model of pure a priori thought, disengaged from the world of experience; the second, a massive collection of detailed descriptions and theories about the enormous variety of material phenomena, but with no intelligible unity; and the third an obscure and generally unrigorous rhapsody of affirmations and aspirations, at one end couched in the languages of politics and sentimentality, and at the other in the terms of a cosmic poetry unregulated by science or philosophy.

Not only is this disassociation apparent but it seems to leave theology particularly exposed; for while the metaphysician may be criticised for paying insufficient attention to empirical enquiry, and the natural scientist too little to abstract argument about ultimate principles, at least both appear to be directed towards describing the structure of things: metaphysical and natural, respectively. This seems to exhaust the possible totality of reality, and so if there is anything for theology to do, it can only be to provide a poetic accompaniment comprised of pleasing imagery but not revealing any objective truth.

This is a now a fairly common view but it rests on a deep misunderstanding about the nature of enquiry and explanation. A clearer and better view shows the necessity but also the limits of each discipline, and an order of priority among them that elevates theology. To begin with, we need to distinguish between three different kinds of answer to the question 'why?'

First, 'why?' may be addressed to the occurrence of an event where the appropriate answer takes the form of an explanation citing observed or presumed prior events and patterns of occurrence. Pressed repeatedly this brings us to a description of the fundamental elements of the material universe and the laws governing their interactions.

Second, 'why?' may be addressed to the ultimates of any theory and answered by showing that in some sense these things are necessary. For example, while it may not be necessary that objects have the character they do in this universe, it may be argued that it is necessary that in any universe that could exist there would have to be objects and events of some sort or another. This is a metaphysical explanation.

Third, however, 'why?' may be addressed to whatever might occur or be the case and then be answered not in terms of events, or elements, or laws, or necessities, but in terms of ends or purposes. This is a personal explanation.

The reintegration of science, metaphysics and theology lies in the direction of showing that observation gives rise to questions that science answers, but that these themselves raise questions that call for metaphysical responses, and that these in turn point to a different kind of explanation which, though ultimate, is also personal.

Theology does not do the work of metaphysics let alone that of science, but it does provide the most transcendent answer which is also a statement of purpose. The ultimate Logos is that of which John spoke to the natural scientists and metaphysicians of the ancient world and of which his prologue continues to speak to us today: the Word of God by which all things were made and in whom was life, which was the light of men.

Faith Magazine

November - December 2010