A Descriptive Metaphysics: An Analogy for the Science of Metaphysics

By David Fleischacker, PhD
First Draft

Metaphysics as a science seeks to build a comprehensive and generic viewpoint of the universe that is thus far known. How? It finds common features of all sciences and the common features of the objects of those sciences, and melds these features into an integral unity, a horizon of being.

I think it might be easiest to start getting a sense of metaphysics by setting up an every day analogy that will help to point to a more complete metaphysics.

Here are the points that I would like to invite reflection upon:

1. Events: including things, persons, and activities.
2. Frequencies of events: “How often does X take place?”
3. Webs of events and their frequencies.
4. Developmental stages and sequences of webs.

If we stay within our everyday lives, and come up with some examples of these points, I think we can go a long way toward developing a generic view of our worlds. This will be only a descriptive, everyday view, however the reason I chose these points is because these provide analogies for understanding Lonergan’s metaphsics.

An event is person or thing involved in some activity in our everyday worlds. In order to understand that event, we would need to begin raising some questions: What, why, how, where, when type questions. If I asked you “Who is so and so?” In answering the question, you might give me a name? Then I might be curious as to know why the person is here, or what this person does. All of these questions would be expansions of the same type of question, a question that helps me to understand the event. These types of questions can thus be called “questions for understanding.” What kind of questions do you think fit this type in your language?

Notice that in answering questions for understanding, we came to know this event (person, place, or action) through our senses. We can come to describe this event with our senses in a multitude of ways. If it is a thing, I might describe it by its color or shape or how it is to be used. If it is a person, I might describe what he or she looks like, or what the person does. If it is an action, I might describe the movements involved, or the sounds made. We can make use of any of our senses to answer this question for understanding.

Notice how much of the world is known to us in this manner. The inviting landscape that surrounds Seoul, the beautiful clothing, the sense of dignity in the people, the smell of the air, the design of the buildings, the layout of the campus, the smell of the Cherry blossoms, the excitement of students. All of this comes to us through our senses, and we can describe it in language, in art, in poetry, in business terms, and in many other ways. For all of us, this forms the greater part of how we understand the world around us.

Frequencies of events: A second type of question: How often?

I would like you to think about some of the phrases in your language that match the following ones:

“It happens every day”
“It rarely happens at all”
“It happens once in a while”
“It happens too much”
“She does this all the time”

Notice that each one of these statements is an answer to the basic question “How often?” It does not mean that we have quantitative numbers like someone in the fields of statistics would seek. But descriptively, we get a sense of the regularity of events and things in life. This is important for us to live. Think about your own life for a minute, and how you develop many daily expectations based on your past experiences that result in this sense of how often things take place. If you run a grocery store for example, and children are always dropping the jar of jam in one of the isles of the store, then you probably will make some changes in the placement of the jars, so as to reduce this type of an accident. Around your apartments or homes, many things get placed because of your sense of frequency. For example, you probably have a place to hang your coat near the entrance door rather than up in the attic or in the farthest room from the front door, simply because that is the regular (or frequent) location where you will need to put on your coat or take it off. How you setup a kitchen, or a school classroom, or a library, is closely tied to frequencies of use of different items or the frequencies of various activities. If we had no sense of “how often” things or events happen, we literally would be constantly building and setting up places, roads, farms, industries, museums in an impractical manners.

The relationship of “questions for understanding” and “questions for frequency” (“how often?”)

Notice that this second question, “How often?” really cannot be answered unless one has first answered the question for understanding. Only when we have some sense of the event (person, thing, action) can we then start paying attention to it and get a sense of its frequency or regularity. Some events may only occur once in the whole of history. They might be short lived or last for thousands of years. Others might recur over and over again each day, even each minute, like our breathing. Notice, that for me to get a sense of how often breathing takes place, I need to have formed some basic understanding of breathing first. Only subsequently, if I am paying attention to it, will I get a sense of its frequency. Let us look at another example, the frequency of people that drive on a road to the market. Notice, that the first step is that I have to understand “road” and “driving” and “people.” Then, if I am paying attention to this road and the drivers on it day in and day out, over a certain number of days and weeks, and I am also paying attention to the numbers of drivers on other roads day in and day out, then I will start to get a sense of whether this particular road is unusually busy compared to others or not. In the end, I will end up with simple conclusion, such as “This is a busy road.” It is a statement based upon many everyday observations of the roads over many days and week. I may not be counting this like a mathematician but I am forming memories.

The Web of Events and Their Frequencies

The third point that I would like to focus upon is webs of events and their frequencies. All of us have a sense of some of the webs of life. The interconnections of events (people, things, actions) in our homes, or neighborhoods, our work environments, our economic life, our political worlds are webs. A sense of a web begins to develop when we connect one event to another. In special cases, these events form into types of regular cycles, regular patterns of connections between events. When we grew up for example, in our neighborhoods, we started to get a sense of how neighbors and activities impacted each other. We began to get a sense of the interconnections of events and their frequencies. Perhaps when you rode your bicycle past the neighbor’s dog, he always barked at you, then kept on barking for another ten minutes, until one of the neighbors calms the dog down. The reason the dog barks at you is because he wants you to come and throw a stick which he loves to fetch, and you have thrown this stick for this dog many times over the years……

Think about some of these webs in your life. The point here is to get a sense of the generic meaning of “web” and cycles of events and their frequencies.

Families, economies, political orders, churches, volunteer organizes are all examples of vast webs of people and things involved in numerous activities. For example, if one increases the frequency of production in an industry, perhaps pollution increases, if pollution increases, then diseases of the lungs increase, if diseases of the lungs increase more people die. Or in another example, if people are driven by ultimate meaning and purpose, by a love that is unrestricted, and this impacts everything that is done, it increases the charitable acts that they perform day in and day out, it results in greater generosity in the simple and daily interactions with others. Such acts of charity awakens desires that fulfill and quiets desires that destroy. It results in changing the web and habits of one’s own life and in the world around.

Absence of the knowledge of a web makes us awkward in situations. We do not know what to expect from others, we do not know what they are doing or where they might be going, and what they might be expecting from us. This happens whenever we move to a new place, or start a new job, or a new family. It takes time to learn these webs, and notice how we cannot really live easily and well until we learn the web.

Developments of Webs

The last type of questions that I would like to explore in our everyday lives can be expressed as How does this web change over time? This can include when and why it came to be? Or when and why did it disappear? As with our everyday sense of family life, of business, of our neighborhoods, and our political orders, we also, especially as we grow older, gain more and more a sense of how these cycles or webs in life change. If we have paid close attention, we begin to grasp various stages of these changes as well. We might see how one stage in the growth of our grocery store or our in an auto industry led to the next. We might see how one stage in the growth of government led to the next. Though we might not have worked this out as a historian, one might have had enough experience, and paid attention to those experiences, remembering the events and their frequencies, and their formation into webs, and then changes in events and their frequencies over time, in order to get a sense of what was going forward from one web to the next, and why things changed. It leads one to an everyday sense of the stages of development of one web into another.

Web 1  Web 2  Web 3  Web 4 etc., etc., etc..

Notice how important this is as well. If we never get a sense of the stages of our lives, we probably cannot help our children through those stages. We remain bewildered by the changes, confused as to what to do next, just as if we had entered a new society for the first time, or a started a new family. Someone who is starting a business, and has no sense of how to start then grow such a “web” will most likely fail. If someone has no idea how children grow intellectually, then they will be at a loss as to how to setup a proper educational system, since such a system is a web designed to provide children with an environment to awaken the natural desire to know and learn, and exercise responsibility.

Creating a General Descriptive “View” of this Universe

Now I would like to focus us back upon the kind of general view of life that this creates. Notice that it is rather open ended. Events regard anything and anyone that can be known through our senses. The “how often” also regards anything that can be described through our senses. The web recognizes that every event and its frequency has many connections with others, and thus forms into vast web. Furthermore, then entire world that we know in these webs develops along stages. Thus, the more we know about such development, the more we can predict the most likely stages that will unfold in the future.

This view of events, frequencies of events, webs, and developments thus orients us in our worlds. If we want to learn about anything from family life to political life to religious life, we know how to start and build our views of a situation. Here are a few properties and consequences of this general view of life.

1. The world is filled with events and their frequencies, some of which form into regularly recurrent cycles. The sun regularly rises, then sets, goes around the earth only to rise again, then set again. People regularly need to eat, agricultural systems get setup, and thus on a regular basis, in a linkage of webs, food is distributed to stores, people buy the food, and prepare it.
2. The existence of one web can set the stage for the growth of more webs. Hence the creation of the steam engine set the stage for the creation of steam-boats and steam driven trains.
3. Thus, the universe as descriptively perceived is a series of webs that set stages for future webs, and it does so with greater or lesser regularities.
4. World process seems to go in various directions, though when developmental stages are present, then it goes with some degree of regularity in a certain direction of growth, though this is not guaranteed by any means. One can see a great business on the rise, and then something happens unexpectedly, and it collapses. A church can be serving many people one decade, then through failures decline in a day, and close its doors. A great family growing in character and virtue can be rendered asunder by many causes.
5. If enough time exists, then it seems likely that many possible events and their frequencies, and webs might come to be. It also seems possible that many webs will not necessarily lead to any new kinds of development either. Dead ends are possible. One might make a new kind of DVD machine, only to watch it end up in the pile of other technologies that never made it.
6. Webs that are further down the line in terms of stages will be expected to be fewer in number on the whole, because more needs to take place before these come to be. Hence, one would find more societies to possess more farms than to possess universities.
7. If something has more stages, then one will need more time or resources. Hence, for example, one will need many more years of life to develop a sense of metaphysics than a sense of arithmetic.

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