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“Metaphysics” is such a cool word.
It connotes a journey into life’s most interesting and important questions: What is the nature of reality, and why is there anything here at all?
When we consider the origin of the word, however, it’s hard not to laugh. Literary editors who were trying to organize the texts of the philosopher and scientist Aristotle a few centuries after his death knew that the bulk of his writings came under the heading Ta Physika (“the things of nature”). Those would include Aristotle’s observations on birds, fish, plants, and the like.
After his nature texts came a collection of discourses on “transcendent” subjects – Aristotle’s opinions on theology, wisdom, and philosophical principles. The editors labeled these Meta ta Physika. Since the Greek word meta in this context means “after,” we may loosely translate “metaphysics” as “The Stuff that Comes after the Nature Stuff.”
Even though the term is little more than the accidental invention of a librarian, metaphysics has become the lifelong pursuit of some of the brightest people in history.
You don’t have to be one of those ultra-brilliant thinkers, however, to dabble in metaphysics. While very few people are Philosophers with a capital “p,” every person turns out to be a philosopher with a lower-case “p.” Every software designer, nurse, landscaper, schoolchild, and DoorDash driver has to wrestle with the meaning of their own existence – if only how to make it through another day.
Those who think long and hard about metaphysical matters rarely agree on every issue.
But everyone agrees on this: There are only four basic possibilities to explain Reality. They are mutually exclusive. If one of them is true (and one of them simply has to be true), then the other three are automatically rendered false.
Let’s use cars as an illustration.
If you own a car, there are only four explanations concerning its existence. First, your car is an illusion. It’s not really there. Right now you might be thinking, “My car is so unreliable it might as well not be there.” Second, your car created itself. The parts came together in a process that even Elon Musk would find incredible. Third, your car has always existed. There has never been a time in which your car, in one form or another, has not been part of the world. Fourth, something or someone else that has always been here initiated a creative process that ultimately led to the assembly of your car.
When presented like that, the choices seem pretty straightforward. The first three options make no sense.
But now we need to substitute the universe for your car. How do we explain the existence of the cosmos?
Here again are the four possibilities: (1) The universe doesn’t really exist. (2) The universe created itself. (3) The universe has always been here. (4) Something transcendent – something that is not itself a part of the universe – brought it into existence.
This is where the metaphysical rubber meets the road.
At any given moment, there are thoughtful people earnestly embracing each of the four options. Let’s give them a closer look.
The first one is a tough sell. It’s notoriously difficult to believe that the universe is an illusion. That’s because if the universe isn’t really there, then you aren’t really there, either.
A student in Philosophy 101 asked the professor, “How can I know if I actually exist?” The prof replied, “And whom shall I say is inquiring?” The simple truth is that I can’t escape the fact that if I’m asking questions, I’m thinking. And if I’m thinking, I exist. And that’s no illusion.
Next comes self-creation. This has become the “go-to” option for many contemporary scientists. This is evident in statements like, “The universe appears to have popped into existence, out of nothing, at some time in the distant past.”
With all due respect, this is absurd. It violates one of the oldest of all philosophical dictums: ex nihilo nihil fit (“out of nothing, nothing comes”). An effect cannot be its own cause. For self-creation to be true, the universe would have to exist and not exist at the same time. Self-creation, as a proposition, is analytically false. That is, it’s false by definition.
Some exceedingly smart people will reply, “You simply don’t understand. The universe emerged from quantum fluctuations. Or it’s just one of an infinite number of universes that bubbled up from the Multiverse.” Even if we grant the existence of quantum fluctuations or the Multiverse (there’s certainly no proof at this time of the latter), such realities add up to something. They are not nothing. Although it’s popular to say that the cosmos jumped into existence from Nothing at All, that statement can never be true either scientifically or philosophically.
No wonder numerous thinkers have settled on the third option: The universe has always been here.
Bertrand Russell, the celebrated 20th century British atheist, was more than content to tell his believing friends that he had no need for the God Hypothesis to explain reality. Has something always been here? Of course. For Russell, it was matter.
But let’s press things a bit. What do we mean when we say that matter is eternal?
Do we mean stars, cosmic dust, electrons, quarks? Is there some form of matter that precedes every other form? Secular materialists who advocate this third option acknowledge that there must be some kind of primitive, basic building block of all of reality – something that has the power of being in itself, something capable of leading to everything else. What is this self-existent something?
The late author R.C. Sproul, in his brief book Defending Your Faith, makes this telling statement:
“If the materialist retreats to some unknown, invisible, immeasurable, pulsating point or core within the boundaries of the universe that is self-existent and eternal, from which everything else is generated, ultimately he is saying that there is something that transcends everything else in the universe – something that transcends all those things that are dependent, derived, and contingent. Now we are just arguing over its name, over whether the name of this transcendent thing is X or Yahweh. No matter how we slice it, we are forced back to a self-existent, eternal being from whose being and from whose power all things come into existence.”
And that, of course, takes us to the fourth option: that a transcendent Creative Force or Creator who exists beyond the universe is why there is a universe in the first place.
And that brings us to the God we meet on the pages of the Old and New Testaments.
Moses, quavering in fear before the burning bush, asks, “Lord, who are you?” God answers in Exodus 3:14 that his name is Yahweh. It is a name shrouded in metaphysical mystery. Yahweh has been variously translated, “I am who I am,” or “I am who am,” or “I will be who I will be.”
God simply IS. He has the power of existence in himself.
God transcends space and time – past, present, and future.
And he’s vast enough and amazing enough to quench all of our deepest metaphysical thirsts.
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