Establishing Metaphysics – a short essay by Matt

Some thoughts on how metaphysics is dependent upon an analysis of physical coming-to-be in order to talk about coming-to-be in other senses 

Metaphysics is the study of being as being. Unless we establish, from what we can see and touch and smell, a realm of being beyond the physical, then metaphysics will be nothing more than the continued study of physics. “Science is knowledge through causes; wisdom is knowledge through the highest or ultimate causes.” (Ralph McInerny, Metaphysics ICU)

It would seem most fitting that by visible things the invisible things of God should be made known; for to this end was the whole world made, as is clear from the word of the Apostle (Romans 1:20): “For the invisible things of God . . . are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made.” (ST, III, 1)

The Scriptures and Aristotle agree: our highest end is to contemplate divine being.  Revelation tells us, because of grace, we can go beyond what Aristotle thought we could reach naturally, but he seemed to grasp both epistemology and the nature (the end) of man through reason alone.  But how do we go about seeking this divine knowledge?

If we are to know anything beyond what we see, taste and touch, we must first establish if we can even know things of this sort as they are.  Kant did not think this was possible, and thus metaphysics itself becomes an impossibility.  But is his position tenable?

The great fault of metaphysics, according to Kant, is that it projects into reality features of our knowing, confusing the phenomenal and the noumenal (Ralph McInerny). We can only know things as we know them, but not as they are.  This, however, seems to be begging the question, and we cannot thus project upon things, in this case the “object of thought,” something distinct from how we know them without already having done just that. The only position that takes reality as it stands does not falsely separate logic from metaphysics.  With Aristotle we find a consistency of logic, epistemology, and the world, both sensible and that which is beyond our senses.  Thus we continue.

Wisdom is knowledge of causes.  We only know causes from their effects.  All that we know, we knew first because we gathered experience with our senses, and it is these experiences, or knowledge derived from these experiences, that makes up our entire “personal intellectual history.” To know metaphysical causes, we first have to see their physical effects, because of our nature of knowing through the senses.

[Because] intellectual knowledge in some degree arises from sensible knowledge: and, because sense has singular and individual things for its object, and intellect has the universal for its object, it follows that our knowledge of the former comes before our knowledge of the latter. (ST, I, 85, a.3)

We will not reason, therefore, a priori, but a posteriori in the beginning.  A posteriori justification makes reference to experience, and this is the way spoken of by St. Thomas above. We see objects, and experience shows us such things as that “moved things are preceded by things which move them.”  Only after this, do we use that experience of the real world to proceed to causes we cannot know with our senses alone.

For Thomas, the possibility of a science between the special sciences depends on demonstrations within the philosophy of nature that conclude to the existence of something apart from matter. On the basis of such proofs, one knows that to be and to be material are not identical. Absent such proofs, Thomas says, philosophy of nature would be wisdom and the culminating science of philosophy. (Ralph McInerny, Metaphysics ICU course material)

Now our senses come to know the objects around us through movement.  It is activity, it is change, that we recognize.  Locked in a dark, body temperature room of zero gravity, we would lose much sensation and even time itself would become confused for us, although the “movement” of our intellects would still give us a sense of time and thus change. Because action follows being, it is the action of things that makes them present to our senses, and thus known to us.

“The intellect’s first act is to know being, reality, because an object is knowable only in the degree in which it is actual. Hence being, entity, reality, is the first and proper object of understanding, just as sound is the first object of hearing.”…Further, the being, the reality, which our intellect first understands, is not the being of God, nor the being of the understanding subject, but the being, the reality, which exists in the sense world, “that which is grasped immediately by the intellect in the presence of a sense object.” (Reality, Fr. LaGrange, OP, pg. 27)

Unless we take a position of universal doubt, we recognize the obvious truth of the beings of our everyday experience.  What proofs, then, we can come to from these material objects that there exists substantial being apart from them will be the first step in our study of metaphysics.  We must establish the object of the science before we can proceed within the science.

Metaphysics starts with physics as a prerequisite. Aristotle established the four causes of form, matter, efficient, and final as a result of his reconciling the truths of Parmenides with the truth of change. It is from the necessity of potency and act, the only way to justify the change that we truly experience with the law of contradiction that shows that being is not non-being, and from non-being, nothing comes.  Having established potency and act, we establish, in the sense world, their correlates of matter and form.  It is with this basis we move to our first proof – that of the intellectual soul of man.

The first proof will be in the immateriality of thinking.  When we know a thing, we extract a form, but not the matter.  We know the thing, and can know it universally, not just particularly.  We know not just this apple or that apple, but “appleness.” Universality is the mark of intellect… it is a feature of our ideas that they range over individuals and they do this because they do not include individuating characteristics. (McInerny) Aristotle wondrously remarked, “the mind is, in its way, everything.”

Now, the error of Plato was just the opposite of that of Kant.  Kant thought we projected our understanding of things onto the things themselves in order to have an Aristotelian grasp of reality, and thus “corrected” this error.  In this, he (Kant) seems to have been influenced by Ockham’s nominalism. Plato actually did project our understanding of things such as “humanity” and other universals into the realm of the real, and made them self-subsisting forms.  The Aristotelian approach avoids the extremes of these errors, and understands the universals as real, but as extracted from the matter in our intellect.  In this way, we know appleness, we even “become” appleness, but we do not become “this apple.”

Now, with a proper grasp of the process of sensation to knowledge, we see that the intellect cannot be a material being. This is because the actuality of understanding is not the actuality of any bodily organ.  To understand a universal, which is apart from the material, a material organ could not suffice.

One of the absolutely key principles of Aquinas’ thought, which he applies with precision to God, angels, and men, among others, is that “faculties, habits, and acts are proportionately specified to their formal objects.” Thus our senses each have their respective sense organ, a material act which has a material object, be it sound, touch, or sight.  But our intellect, knowing things universally, has no such material object, and is likewise not material itself.

We come to know then that, not only are these ideas immaterial, but a real immaterial substance is required to understand them.  This immaterial substance, the soul, is likewise immortal, for it does not have parts which can break down and be separated from its “parts,” and therefore, has no principle of decay or destruction.  We see from this that there are subsisting forms that exist on their own, apart from any matter.  We now have reason to investigate being as such, apart from material being.

From physics, that is, the study of moveable being, we can also come to the proof of the existence of God, the prime mover.  Aristotle does this, not in his Metaphysics, but at the end of his Physics.  Likewise, the key is the understanding of act and potency.  All of Thomas Aquinas’ proofs of God have their basis in this distinction.

Nothing in potency, insofar as it is in potency, can bring itself to act. This is the basic truth of causality.  Whatever is caused, is caused by another. This cannot continue ad infinitum (of course, this point has been often debated, but is answered eventually by the same fact of potency and act).  Therefore, a first uncaused cause must exist.  This first cause is not cause of itself, but it is the sufficient explanation for itself.  Only pure act, lacking any potency, can be the explanation for its own existence, and therefore need a cause.

This being, lacking any potency then, certainly has no principle of potentiality, and thus, is not material.  Being pure act, it has no potency and therefore no “potential” to move or change in any way.  This is the proof of the first mover, and an unmoved mover at that.

We see then that we need not reason a priori that there is a God, or think that His existence is self evident; a position that many Christians have assumed but that was explicitly rejected by St. Thomas.  We, likewise, are not in need of revelation to know the general nature of the human soul, or of the existence, immovability, or oneness of God, but can attain to these things from knowledge of the physical world around us.  St. Paul, speaking of the gentiles who were without revelation in his letter to the Romans, nearly affirms what the great mind of a thinker like Aristotle had already proved:

“What may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.  For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. (Romans 1:19-20)


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