What’s the Matter with Metaphysics?

Oh boy, big word used. So, metaphysics is nothing more than the study of reality itself, of what exists and doesn’t exists, and if the physical world is all there is or if there’s more. You know, simple stuff that doesn’t matter.

Except it does matter, more than people realize. I had the joy to sit in on a friend’s seminar over metaphysics as he guided first year university students through different metaphysical theories. It was like watching babies walk for the first time, which is to say it was frustrating and delightful, but mostly awkward. Then I wondered why the University of Birmingham (not people with funny accents in Alabama; people with funny accents in Britain) had first year students talking about modern theories on metaphysics and DIDN’T EVEN BRING UP ARISTOTLE OR PLATO!!!

But I digress.

They were discussing things such as the 4D Theory, Nihilistic Metaphysics, Particalism, and so on. They discussed each theory with the same level of excitement reserved for the Star Wars prequels. While they tackled each theory quite well – enough to excite me because they were talking about metaphysics (yes, I’m that guy) – there didn’t seem to be an understanding that this stuff mattered. That is, it mattered beyond getting a grade (or high marks; oh the British and their words). Honestly, I was in their shoes once, studied first things and also saw it as interesting, but not all that important. What does it matter that Aristotle saw the forms in things while Plato viewed forms as separate? What does it matter if someone believes that the physical world is all there is, or that we’re all merely particles composed in different shapes?

Of course, it matters somewhat when a guy comes along and says, “Yeah, but people with darker color matter, or particles arranged in a different way than our own, you know, (((particles))) (Jewish particles), are inferior and therefore deserve to be un-arranged,” these things start mattering. Of course, no National Socialist ever worded their anti-semitic ramblings that way, but it was under the surface. I mean that. Their fundamental view is that certain humans were inferior than others, meaning that there was nothing innate to humans and that our physical properties (or alleged physical properties) are what made us better than others.

If someone says that you’re nothing more than particles arranged a certain way what does it matter? But if some vegan busts into your restaurant and yells “meat is murder,” and that asshole in the back (me) sarcastically responds, “tasty murder,” who’s right in that situation (me)? After all, if we’re nothing more than particles arranged a certain way, why is it that particles arranged in the form of a human hold any more significance than particles arranged as a chicken?

Going with that idea, is the chicken breast on your plate the same as the chicken that was on the farm? Again, this seems insignificant, but the significance grows when we ask if the human in a coma is the same as the human who was awake. Does the person in a coma have the same rights as the person who isn’t in a coma? Has something changed? Why has something changed in the chicken while something hasn’t changed in the person with the coma? Or…drumroll for the controversial topic please…what about abortion? A zygote becomes an embryo, an embryo becomes a fetus, a fetus becomes an infant. Does something happen within this process that shapes the particles in a way that we can now say, “This is a human being?” If not, if this is a human being throughout, why should it matter? And if so, that at some point this becomes a human being, when does this happen and what non-arbitrary reason can we give?

The list goes on too. Metaphysics matters. It gets to the core of many of today’s disagreements that often result in people placing themselves in a glass case of emotion rather than dealing with the origins of the debate. As mentioned, abortion is an issue that ultimately boils down to metaphysics. But so does the nature of identity (what does it mean to be black, to be brown, to be male, to be female, to be queer, and so on; every single one of these answers depends on your metaphysic, and lacking one means your answers will be contradictory and arbitrary). Almost every major issue today can be brought back to metaphysics; without being able to say what one’s belief is on metaphysics (or being able to articulate it as we all have metaphysical beliefs, whether we realize it or not, whether we’re consistent with them or not). You can tell when a debate has devolved to metaphysics in the modern world, because it’s typically at that point that people take their ball and go home, mostly because they don’t have the knowledge or the desire to dive into a metaphysical discussion.

This doesn’t mean everyone needs to go out tomorrow and get Aristotle’s Metaphysics (I mean, you should, but you don’t have to). What it does mean is that we should really think through our beliefs. Why do we believe what we believe? Why does we believe it’s wrong to kill someone else? Why do we believe it’s okay or not okay to eat meat? Why do we pretend James Franco is talented? We have to push our questioning deeper into a realm that, if done correctly, will leave you with more questions than answers. That’s why metaphysics matter.


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