Knowing When to Quit — Deal-Breakers

Humans have had an interest in metaphysics for millennia. When did it all start? That’s hard to know but things like red ochre and personal items were even found in Neanderthal graves. That makes one wonder why. Then, of course, there is the long history of metaphysical thinking from early animism to what we have today.

Metaphysics reaches beyond what is straightforwardly apparent. That requires speculations. The human psyche needs to find some broad orientation for living. There are essential questions that beg for answers. What is the meaning of life? How should I live? What happens when I die? What is the good? And so on.

If metaphysical systems help people orient their lives, inform how they should think about things, and live, the question is “which one?” Lord knows there is no shortage of these systems. There are even new ones coming on the scene all the time. Not only are there religious systems but also non-religious systems. More-or-less systematic attempts date back at least three or four thousand years. If internet activity in forums and online media outlets like YouTube is an indication, there is considerable interest in metaphysical explorations.

For most people, these explorations aren’t just for fun. They are existentially (what matters to us) important. So, choosing one to orient one’s life around is also important. How does that choosing process come about? For most people, the choice was initially already made by their upbringing or the culture they found themselves in. However, for some, there comes a point when their current metaphysical system (religious or non-religious) isn’t working for them any more. So, they may start looking for something else. The search is on. With so much metaphysical thought out there that can be a daunting task. However, I think it can be facilitated by understanding what essentials would have to be present in a system such that it is a viable option. We all have intuitions about what is important to us. Those intuitions may not be that explicit but they can be. They can be thought of as essential criteria that must be met.  

Understanding the essential criteria can help short-circuit a fruitless extended evaluation. If something in the system doesn’t meet a criterion, that can be a deal-breaker. It is no longer viable. Some systems are complex. So this may require scanning ahead to look for problem areas. Addressing existential issues is difficult and often put off for much later in a system (if at all). If they aren’t addresses at all, that should be a red flag. By looking for deal-breakers that can avoid a lot of wasted time. It can help one know when to quit on that particular approach. From there, the search can move on.

Now, some proposed metaphysical systems are just in the fledgling stage but might be promising. This makes things a bit more complicated. One way to evaluate an incomplete new system (or any one that doesn’t explicitly address existential concerns) is to look at the early fundamentals and project where they can lead. A good place to start is ontology — how things fundamentally are. Is there a monism or dualism? Is it simple or complex? Is there fundamental intentionality or non-intentionality involved in how reality is constituted? And so on. Initial fundamentals constrain what can follow and determine whether or not it is even possible for certain criteria to be met. It takes some experience with various systems but using this method may greatly facilitate an evaluation.

While so far I’ve talked about a personal evaluation of metaphysical systems, this applies equally to those who are trying to develop one. As an example, recently I’ve seen a lot in forums and online media about the problem of consciousness (subjective experience) with many proposals being offered. Inevitably, they either propose a metaphysical system or expand on one. For developers, knowing when to quit on a certain line of thinking and try something else can avoid wasted time and crucial (perhaps terminal) problems down the road.

So, as an example, here’s the list of criteria I have used to evaluate metaphysical systems and develop my own. Obviously, answers to these criteria need to be unpacked so I’ll put in links where I do so. Your criteria may be different but if you have a sense of them, perhaps you can quickly know when to quit on a particular approach.

Essential Criteria

Systematic Criteria:

  • Logically sound (following the rules of logic)
  • Coherent (makes sense, nothing obscure)
  • Consistent (no self-contradictions)
  • Rigorous (details matter)
  • Complete (doesn’t leave out anything pertinent)
  • Elegant (no ill-conceived contrivances, only as complex as needed)

World Affirmation or World Rejection?

Metaphysics is about questions and answers. Why is there something? Why is the world the way it is?  What is the meaning of life? And so on. Some questions about reality may find straightforward answers. We can make observations and postulate reasonable explanations. However, some questions are underdetermined by observation. There can be different answers from the same observations. In that case, to formulate answers requires inferences and speculations. So, we get metaphysical systems, both religious and non-religious. These systems can vary widely. Why?

To answer that question requires a deep dive into where metaphysical systems come from and why they take the shapes they do. Obviously, that is a complex question but in this post, I want to focus on a particular feature of metaphysical systems — a value assessment of the world. That value assessment can also be complicated but it can be broadly characterized as world-affirmation or world-rejection.

Metaphysical systems don’t just pop into existence from nowhere. They emerge from worldviews. When a deep question is asked about reality, the answers are greatly influenced by the worldviews held by individuals and cultures of the time.  At any particular time in history, a certain sentiment may emerge about the state of the world. When times are hard, perhaps with lots of violence and wars going on, the assessment of the world will tend to be negative. When times are good, it may be more positive. This also applies to metaphysical thinkers and their psychological makeup.  Also, sometimes an event can create a psychological crisis that changes a worldview. Legend has it that Siddartha Gautama (the Buddha), who was raised in a privileged environment, when exposed to the real world with its troubles had his worldview dramatically changed. This spurred him on to develop what we now know as Buddhism. Other seminal religious thinkers have their own motivating histories. The worldviews of most may not be so dramatic. It can be just an inculcation from the family, group, or culture. Still, they shape how we think about the world and our place in it. When certain metaphysical questions are asked, the answers tend to flow from that worldview.

Metaphysical systems, while not totally linear, do build on foundational principles that set the tone for what can follow. A key factor in how those foundations are formulated is a world value assessment.  Shortly, I’ll talk about how certain assessments (world affirmation/rejection) have had a profound effect on religious systems worldwide.

Renowned sociologist of religion, Robert Bellay researched and wrote extensively on how religious sentiment evolved over the millennia. Here I’ll focus on what he says concerning a world value assessment within religion. Bellah talks about phases in religious evolution:

“There are 5 major phases in the world-wide evolution of religion. Acceptance of “this world” is emphasized in the first and last phases. Rejection of “this world” is highest in the middle phase, Historic Religion. Rejection of “this world” is a function primarily of religious dualism. Dualism reaches its peak during the historic phase when the “great, universal, ethical religions” emerged—Christianity, post-tribal Judaism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Islam.” 

The phase of historic religion is particularly important because it is out of this phase the major world religions came into being and remain dominant worldwide.

Implications
When a particular world assessment is chosen, that has far-reaching consequences for the theology or religious philosophy.  Questions beg for solutions.  If the question is “why is the world so screwed up?” and the answer comes out of a world-rejection worldview then the answers will almost be inevitable. With a fundamentally flawed world, the obvious answers could be twofold — get out or get something new and better. This leads to two terms used in theology but also apply to religious philosophy — soteriology and eschatology. Soteriology is about salvation schemes.  If the world (or us) is so fundamentally flawed, it needs to be saved. So, we get salvations schemes. Those vary among the major traditions and even within them.  In mainstream Christianity, the world is flawed because of human sin. This leads to a judicial type of soteriology. The scales of justice must be balanced. They are balanced with the atoning death and resurrection of the Son of God.  That balances the scales but what about this flawed world. Enter eschatology. Eschatology is about the end times when this eon comes to an end and a new one begins. Presumably, this new eon won’t be flawed like this one. What this new eon is like varies. There could be a new heaven and earth or just some heavenly (unflawed) existence.

Obviously, this mainstream approach has major theological problems. Did God screw up in creating this world? Isn’t the artisan responsible for the artifact? This presents a picture of God as an incompetent creator where a fix has to be applied. So, does God do a better job creating the new heaven and Earth? There are many other problems with this world-rejecting sentiment but that’s not what this post is about.

In the East, this world-rejection also shows up in Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Daoism, and Confucianism. What we get also has various salvation schemes and eschatologies. These vary greatly among these religious philosophies but a common thread in Buddhism and Hinduism is “the liberation from or ending of samsara, the repeating cycle of birth, life, and death.” The eschatology may be more of a personal escape or transformation.

The Issue
Theologies and religious philosophies are built on fundamental tenets. They are fundamental for a reason. Fundaments are needed as a basis upon which further explications can ensue. They shape and restrict the system according to the questions asked and answers given. Since they are fundamental, any attempt to change the sentiment is highly problematic. But what if a fundamental worldview is no longer compelling? Again Robert Bellah. The first phase he calls “Primitive Religions” and the last phase (our current one), “Modern Religion”.

“Acceptance of “this world” is emphasized in the first and last phases.”

Studies show that the fastest-growing group regarding religion is the “nones” — no religious affiliation. There are many reasons for this decline but according to studies one of the major ones is that the tenets of a religion are no longer compelling or believable. In other words, they don’t seem to fit in with the current worldview.

Now, broadly speaking, I don’t view this disaffiliation as problematic. I myself became unaffiliated some 25 years ago. However, disaffiliation can have its personal downside. It can lead to a sense of loss and being spiritually adrift.  That was my case for a while. Still, disaffiliation can be a motivating force for reassessment. It can lead to spiritual or religious growth.

Now, theologians have recognized this issue for a long time. They, themselves may have experienced a sea-change in their own thinking. So, they responded. I don’t know much about other religious traditions but within liberal Christianity, there have been many attempts to reframe Christian theology to address the changing worldviews. Whether or not some may be effective is an open question. If those changes enhance people’s lives and aren’t harmful, in my view, all the better.

I believe this questioning of ancient sentiment is a positive. Life is about growth and change. A world-rejecting worldview can have significant downsides. It can lead to a complacency toward the serious problems the world faces.  If soteriology and eschatology are in the offing, why bother with concerns about the future? If escape or a new creation are the goals, that is a cop-out instead of a sober affirmation of life as it is.

If there is an affirmation of the world just as it is, that changes things dramatically. There is a call to action. I believe one of the goals for this Divine Life is the eternal creation of love, courage, beauty, and meaning. There is no perfection to be attained, only the constant effort to create the good and beautiful. Doesn’t that offer a profound meaningfulness for life? Isn’t that enough?