"Creation of Adam" (detail) by Michelangelo

“Creation of Adam” (detail) by Michelangelo

“I have taken more out of philosophy than any other class this year not only because it helps prep for university, but also gave me a lot to think about in the way I live my life. One of my favorite aspects of this course was metaphysics, as it opened my eyes to many possible answers to life’s burning questions, which in turn sparked some heated debates among my friends and I. Also, it has helped me to rethink my own personal beliefs in religion and human nature which in the past, I haven’t given enough thought to.” [Gr. 12 Philosophy Student – June 2009]

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, mentions the word metaphysics five times in his encyclical “Caritas in Veritate” (Charity in Truth). In Section 53 he writes, “A metaphysical understanding of the relations between persons is therefore of great benefit for their development.”

If I were to read this quote to my mother, an Italian immigrant with only a Gr. 5 education, she would put her hands together as if in prayer, shake them up and down and say in Italian, “Ma che cosa e questa ‘metaphysics?’” (But what is this “metaphysics?”) Those of you who have parents from the Old Country are probably smiling to yourselves because you know exactly what I’m talking about.

So I thought to myself, how would I explain the concept of metaphysics to someone who is rich in lived experience but not well versed in philosophical terminology? Being first generation Canadian-Italian I figured the best way to approach it is through food because, let’s face it, everyone understands food and Italians understand it more than most!

In my last article, I spoke of universals and that they had real objectivity (real meaning) in themselves as concepts. Therefore I can say that I know PASTA—not just fettuccini or linguini, spaghetti or spaghettini and all the ways to make and serve it—but I “KNOW” pasta itself. I can’t put my finger on it, but it is a part of me. This is what our intellect does. From all the different experiences I have with this particular pasta or that particular pasta, I grasp the “Essence” of pasta. It’s what gives truth to the Italian chef’s confident claim: “Mama Mia, do I know pasta!!”

Metaphysics, then, is the study of what the consequences are of this ability to “know” things in themselves, their unchanging nature, separate from their particular attributes like size, shape, texture, quantity, etc. In philosophese, these “consequences” are called The First Principles of Being and Knowledge.

Don’t let the language throw you off though. Every six-year-old knows this intuitively!!!  I’ll use the following dialogue to demonstrate. Those of you with children will immediately understand.

SCENE: Mother is in the kitchen making dinner. There is a covered steamer on the stove with a lid on it. The contents can’t be seen but steam is coming out from under the lid. Enter a little 6 year old girl.

Daughter: “Mommy, what’s in the pot?”
Mother: “Broccoli, dear.”
Daughter: “Broccoli? YUCK!” Why do we have to have broccoli?”
Mother: “Because, sweetheart, broccoli is good for you and will help you grow.”
Daughter: “I wish broccoli didn’t taste so awful! Why didn’t God make broccoli taste like chocolate? I’d eat lots of it if He did!!!”
Mother: “I’m sure God has His reasons, dear.”
Daughter: “Mommy, do I really have to eat broccoli?”
Mother: “Yes dear.”

This little scene is a very common, everyday occurrence, played out in kitchens all over the world: only the names of the vegetables change. When we look beyond the scene, beyond the physical, we discover several meta-physical principles that hold reality together.

Principle of Contradiction

The first principle is the Principle of Contradiction. The little girl sees the pot and knows something is in it because Mom is cooking, steam is coming out of the pot and that’s what pots are for. “Whatever exists, cannot at the same time not be anything.”[1] The pot cannot “be” and “not be” at the same time; and if it’s a pot then it can’t be a cat at the same time, either. The child doesn’t play skeptical mind games about these things: children take reality at face value.

Principal of Sufficient Reason

The second principle is the Principle of Sufficient Reason. The little girl intuitively knows that if there’s a pot then there’s a reason for that pot being there. Or as Peter Kreeft writes, “Nothing just is without a reason why it is. Everything that is has some adequate or sufficient reason why it is.” (Dr. Peter Kreeft, Fundamentals of the Faith)

This principle raises the following questions: Why does this thing exist this way? How does it come to happen this way? How does it come to happen at all? Why is it here? What does it exist for?”

Notice these questions apply to everything that exists. The little girl knows why the pot exists and has no problem with it; what she questions is why broccoli has to exist! Since everything has to have a Sufficient Reason for existing the mother can answer her question with, “Because it’s good for you.” This principle introduces the concept of causality, which we’ll treat a bit later.

Principle of Substance

The third principle is the Principle of Substance. Notice the little girl says “I wish broccoli didn’t taste so bad.” This is because the intellect automatically makes a distinction between the thing itself (broccoli) and its attributes (taste). This applies to everything that exists. I am the same person I was when I was conceived (substance) but many of my attributes have changed: I’m bigger, more educated, bald(er), older, wiser (cough!), etc.

This principle has ENORMOUS consequences when it comes to the Eucharist. This principle explains how God can change the SUBSTANCE of bread while keeping the same ATTRIBUTES (taste, texture, molecular structure, etc). We call this change Transubstantiation—the change of substance from bread to the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ. Understanding this metaphysical principle allows us to better understand our faith!

Principle of Causality

The fourth principle is the Principle of Causality. The little girl asks, “Why didn’t God make broccoli taste like chocolate?” She knows that someone had to have created broccoli the way it is. Today many would say that broccoli is just the result of evolution, but that doesn’t answer the question of why anything exists at all. The intellect, unless it is deliberately misled, will automatically work its way back to the First Cause—the Designer; the Creator.

Principle of Finality

The fifth principle is the Principle of Finality. This principle allows the mother to respond, “I’m sure God has His reasons, dear.” And it allows the little girl to accept this because every intelligent creature has a reason for doing what it does. Everything (that exists) exists for a reason; a purpose; a final end. This truth is comforting to young people: they have a purpose in life not because faith tells us so, but because it is written in the very fabric of reality. Faith makes clear what reason intuitively understands.

Principle of Practical Reason

And lastly, we have the Principle of Practical Reason or of the Moral Order. The little girl asks, “Mommy, do I really have to eat broccoli?”

The human intellect, alone among all the animals, intuitively knows that there is a proper response to reality and the nature of things. The intellect knows that “good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided.” The more we understand the principles listed above, the more we understand the moral order written into the very fabric of reality. When we eventually look at Natural Law, this will be made clearer.

Now, our little girl doesn’t consciously know or understand all these Principles that we discover when we examine metaphysics, but her intellect, her “common sense” does. This reality gives even greater insight to why Jesus said “unless you become like a little child…”

Ideas Have Consequences

Here is where we leave broccoli behind and enter into the realm of humanity. I’ve only brushed the surface of metaphysics but these First Principles form the framework for good, practical and universal philosophical reflection. We can now begin to answer the important questions in life in a way that has universal application because we’re dealing with “one” reality, a reality that has definitive underlying Principles that give order and structure to reality. In short, these Principles are the answer to the Dictatorship of Relativism because reality is recognized as objective, not just a personal or social construct.

Which brings us back to Pope Emeritus Benedict’s quote that we began with: “A metaphysical understanding of the relations between persons is therefore of great benefit for their development.”

Since human persons share a common humanity (essence or nature), then the First Principles mentioned above, when reflected and acted on, allow us to order our personal lives and society according to what is objectively true, good and just.

We could rewrite Pope Benedict’s quote as follows: “An understanding of the relations between persons, based on First Principles, is therefore of great benefit for their (persons’) development.”  If we are to develop as human beings, we need to know what should guide that development.

To conclude, I’ll leave it to Msgr. Kevane and Dr. Chervin to summarize the importance of metaphysics.

“In his first chapter of Being and Essence, Thomas Aquinas does not mention God. Yet the idea of God is at stake in these initial fundamentals. If these first concepts and first principles are correctly seen and stated, one recognizes an opening toward a higher reality. A small error in these beginnings can lead to the immense error of atheism, with its vast consequences for personal and social living. The catechetical application is apparent: one cannot explain the First Article of the Apostle’s Creed except by standing on the solid rock of these first concepts and first principles.” (p136)

For a more unique approach some seminarians from Detroit put metaphysics to a music video. This is a must see.

[youtube id = “dwqLP4VOdiA”]


[1] Chervin, Ronda, Ph.D. & Kevane, Msgr. Eugene, Ph.D; “Love of Wisdom: An Introduction to Christian Philosophy”; Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1988; p132. The principles that follow can be found in pages 130-136.

(Msgr. Kevane was THE most influential professor I ever studied under. He taught at Holy Apostles when I was there. He was a man of great holiness, intelligence and humility, very similar in approach to Fr. Hardon, S.J.  —  May Perpetual Light shine upon them both.)

Editor’s Note: This is the third article in an ongoing series, Ideas Have Consequences by Dennis Buonafede. Check back next Wednesday for the next article.

Print this entry