Why should anyone bother about metaphysical questions? Spending time discussing them may seem speculative and inconsequential. However, while all metaphysical reasoning is speculative, it is far from inconsequential. Taking up a metaphysical stance is both unavoidable and has profound consequences for human life. To take the case of God, there are practical consequences for believers, atheists, agnostics and even those who are indifferent to the whole question of God’s existence. Practical metaphysics brings to our awareness both the nature of metaphysical thinking and the consequences that accompany and flow from it.
The first principle of practical metaphysics is that metaphysical propositions are never conclusively proved. The second is that human beings are obliged to believe at least some metaphysical propositions. The third is that belief in some unavoidable metaphysical propositions bring practical consequences. Metaphysical beliefs come with a price tag, and we do well to be aware of this in adopting one metaphysical stance or another.
A perfect example is the case of God. Does God exist? Can we prove or otherwise know that God exists? Can we know God’s nature? Is God a Supreme Being or Beyond Being? These are weighty questions, and they have been answered at length many times. Different proofs or disproofs have been been offered. Various approaches have arisen in history, been swept away by new arguments, only to resurface later in other forms. For example, Aristotle’s Argument from Design to the operation of an Unmoved Mover has morphed many times over the centuries, with Creationism and Intelligent Design as its latest versions. The ontological argument for God’s existence has also resurfaced since it was laid out by St. Anselm in the 11th Century, particularly by Descartes and Leibniz.
Old metaphysical theories are never totally defeated. Their defenders simply die out. Once people forget that a metaphysical theory has been exploded by argument, it creeps back again, for it is always possible to hold any metaphysical theory, no matter how absurd it may seem to some. For example, I might persist in the belief that I exist in the Matrix, despite the fact that I have no empirical evidence for it, nor does any empirical experience make the hypothesis self-contradictory.
The case of God is perhaps the most urgent issue in practical metaphysics, for the simple reason that religious beliefs have the widest ranging practical implications. Such beliefs involve many aspects of life, including emotional responses and moral judgments. The stance of ‘Righteousness”, for example, is a metaphysical stance for it is founded on the Rock of the Lord. Living up to Divine Commandments is an exercise in practical metaphysics. The same can be said of Kierkegaard’s formula of faith in God: resting transparently in the power that supports you. This idea of resting in God is a powerful one. Life is difficult, troubles mount, and the end is pathetic, if not tragic. It gets to be too much for an individual to bear. What a relief to give up one’s troubles to God.
There is a kind of psychic economy here. I give up my burdens to God, and God buoys me up. This is a widely reported experience. There are many things that are out of an individual’s control. Misfortune is always a possibility, no matter how well you manage what is within your power. It is a real comfort to think that there is a benign power loving and caring for each of us. You may be cut off from the love of family and friends, because they die, while you continue to live a bit longer, but you cannot be cut off from the love of a Divine Father who cares for you as of a child. God plays the role of provider and sustainer, and this metaphysical belief attracts many people. It does so, I would contend, precisely because of the practical benefits that the belief in things unseen brings to the imagination of the confessed believer.
William James adopts this sort of approach in his “Varieties of Religious Experience.” He is not so much interested in logically proving God’s existence as in looking at how human beings describe their religious experiences. He distinguishes between ‘healthy souls’ and ‘sick souls’. So far I have been talking about the practical consequences of religious belief for the ‘healthy’ soul. The healthy soul concentrates on God’s goodness, love, forgiveness and care for us. We have faith that all things will be well in the end. The ‘sick’ soul concentrates more on human sinfulness, particularly its own. Here is Jonathan Edwards’ terrible God who holds us like spiders over the gaping pit of Hell. A perfect example of a sick soul is Stylites, the ascetic spiritual gymnast, who lived atop a pillar in the desert for twenty years to do penance for sins of the flesh. The practical consequences for the body are clear. The ascetic shows disdain for the body and welcomes its destruction in the name of a higher reality. Similarly, those for whom heaven and hell loom large in a post-terrestrial existence, will see life, not as a passing dream, but as a drama that is played out for eternal stakes in the life of each individual.
These are the sort of practical consequences that arise from having beliefs about God. Practical metaphysics helps us to explore them. For example, there are also practical consequences in believing that there is no God, that the existence of God is always in doubt, or that the whole question of God’s existence is nothing to us one way or the other. All these positions have their costs and their benefits. With the last three, one must forgo Divine comfort, a supernatural afterlife, and the belief that everything will come right in the end. On the positive side, non-believers are not troubled by thoughts of hell, the last judgment, or being observed by heavenly scribes. From this perspective, life is a dream, and nothing lasts forever. Living one’s life in either of these ways is, or can be revealed to be, a choice or stance in life that has no other foundation than the metaphysical commitments of the individual.