Metaphysics (Encyclopedia of Science and Religion)
The term metaphysics refers to the study of things that are removed from sense perception. Modern metaphysics studies the kind of things that exist and the way they exist.
In the dialogue of science and religion, metaphysics, science, and religion do not necessarily refer to separate endeavors that need relating. Religious faith, for example, can be pervasive so that nature is seen as divine creation and science as a form of worship. Neither do the terms refer to universal bodies of knowledge and belief independent of context. Metaphysics has affected the dialogue between science and religion. These effects have depended on the content of metaphysics and on whether it functioned as science or religion. Moreover, metaphysics and religion have shaped epistemology. Metaphysics has served as presupposition, sanction, motive, criterion for theory choice, criterion for the choice of kinds of explanation (regulative principle), and as part of explanations (constitutive principle). The focus in the dialogue between religion and science is on how God interacts with the world, and on the relation between knowledge of God (religious knowledge and the systematic reflection on it in theology) and knowledge of nature (views of nature, as well as the systematic development of empirical knowledge).
Ancient Greek metaphysics shaped the understanding of God's action in the world in each of the three Abrahamic religions. (Eastern Orthodoxy is an exception in this respect while Judaism can be said to have been only insignificantly influenced.) In Christianity and Islam, the possibility of dialogue between religion and science depended, among other considerations, on how the relationship between theory and observation was envisioned. For ancient Greek philosophers, reliable knowledge was knowledge of the ultimate. Different types of metaphysics had preferred ways of knowing ultimate reality. The Platonic ideas were best known by reason. For Democritus, the random movement of atoms was ultimate reality; their material combinations were best apprehended by sensation. Sensation was also the only source of knowledge of nature for the nominalists, who denied the existence of universal ideas. This reinforced the distinction between observation and reason in eleventh- and twelfth-century scholasticism. To protect divine intervention from naturalistic explanation, theologians distinguished between God's ordained power operating in regular natural phenomena and his absolute power manifested in miracles. In addition, reasoning in theology was limited to avoid conflict with divinely revealed knowledge. Thus the possibility and nature of dialogue between science and religion came to depend on how the relationship between nature and supernature was envisioned.
Metaphysics affected the dialogue between natural philosophy and religion via the content of both. While in Greek metaphysics the order of nature was autonomous and necessary, in the Abrahamic religions it depended totally upon the creator. These traditions were combined by medieval Christian theologians. They acknowledged both a relative autonomy of nature (God's ordinary power) and a divine sovereignty (God's absolute power). Yet theological responses also included the naturalism of William of Conches (c. 1080.1150). This set the stage for future discussions. One question was whether purpose in organisms reveals God's natural or supernatural action. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225274) interpreted Aristotle's natural final cause as divine providence, thereby creating a link between natural philosophy and religion. When natural philosophers took purpose as a natural cause, theologians saw the power of God diminished. In response, different forms of voluntarism developed in both Muslim and Christian theology in which creatures were denied causal power because it detracted from God's power. When theologians insisted on God's purposive action in organisms, natural philosophers indicated that God could act through natural law. Responses to these questions regulated the content of both theology and natural philosophy. If animals generate their own purposes, Aquinas considered, inanimate things could prove God's existence more convincingly. Therefore, Aquinas excluded animals from his teleological proof for the existence of God. William Harvey (1578657) believed that everything has a God-given purpose. He reasoned that venous valves were created pointing in the same direction in order to prevent reverse flow and to assure the continuous circulation of blood.
In Western Christianity, the idea of absolute divine power did not discourage the exploration of nature's regularities because it was balanced by the idea of ordained power. No such balancing act occurred in the Ashirite school of Muslim theology even though it distinguished between Allah's absolute power and the derived power of humans. This distinction was not applied to natural phenomena. The Ashirites believed Allah creates a cause especially for the occasion of a phenomenon according to a regular pattern of cause and effect. This pattern, however, could be interrupted by prayer. Therefore, knowledge of this pattern remained unreliable even though it was believed to be implanted in the believer's mind by God. Western distinctions between sensation, reason, and faith as ways of knowing became separations. Thus raising the question of their relationship.
The answer further illustrates how metaphysics has affected the dialogue via epistemology. According to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724804), scientific knowledge of phenomena arises when sensations are organized by the mind using concepts such as space, time, and cause. Beliefs about nature become scientific knowledge if they correspond to phenomena. Since beliefs about God do not result from sensations they can be accepted only on faith. This separated scientific and religious knowledge into different categories so that no dialogue was possible between them. This separation became an issue in the engagement between religion and biology. The German anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752840) used purpose as a natural secondary cause in explanations of animal development and saw God as the primary cause. For Kant, however, this meant that supernatural causes had been included in explanations of nature. That is, the religious belief that God had created things for a purpose had constituted a scientific explanation. Kant was willing to accept only the regulative use of purpose as a guide to research.
The existence of purposive behavior in organisms is described by a concept of goal or function that excludes from scientific explanation both divine and animal intent. It is used both to guide research (what is the function of venous valves?) and to explain the observations (the function of venous valves is to block reverse flow). In twentieth-century positivism, metaphysics and religion were denied the status of knowledge and meaning because their concepts were believed not to refer to sensible realities. However, Kant's separation and its positivistic interpretation failed for a variety of reasons. As a result, there is renewed interest in metaphysics, which has revealed that it often mediates between science and religion.
See also DUALISM; EPISTEMOLOGY; KANT, IMMANUEL; MATERIALISM; NATURALISM; NATURE; ONTOLOGY
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JITSE M. VAN DER MEER