Monday 23 April 2018

Metaphysics: Does It Control Us?

Posted by Tom Johnson *

The Starry Night, by Vincent van Gogh, 1889

‘We are all our own metaphysicians.’ wrote the philosophers Godfrey Vesey and Paul Foulkes. We all have our first philosophies. These are the world views which we live by, even when we have not deliberately or carefully worked them out.

Tom Johnson was, at the time that he penned the notes below, a Western graduate and an intern in Africa. He wrote these notes for a supervisor, immediately following a period of burnout. The significance of the notes is that they reveal a close relationship between his burnout and his religious-metaphysical outlook (in his words, his ‘view of God’ and his ‘ideology’). While the notes may suggest an introverted intern, in fact he held a very public position. He finally received a positive report of his internship:
What were the signs that I was headed for a crisis? I break down my experience into five categories, which is my mental, emotional, and physical health, my patterns of activity, and what I shall call ‘spirituality’.

• Mental: I was ‘unhappy’. More than that, I was just going through the motions of day to day work, looking forward to when I would be finished in Africa, and hoping that things did not get any worse before I left. I was anxious that someone might call me out on my weakness or lack of fervour, or that I would ‘get into trouble’ for not being the type of person I should be. I felt guilty for being here, and not taking better advantage of the situation, not being more disciplined in coming to understand this culture and context better.

• Emotional: I have come to understand my stress as being manifested in different yet related emotions: among them fear, guilt, shame, depression. That is, it was these emotions which dominated my state of mind. Strangely, I am unable to recognise that I have felt this way until I manage to find my way out, and can only look back in retrospect: ‘Yes, I was feeling that way.’ It always seems to come down to a critical moment of intense anxiety. Then something changes, and I feel much better.

• Health: I had been feeling drained of energy, as though, for months, I had a head cold. Occasionally I would wake up with congested sinuses or a sore throat only to have it fade during the day. Most significantly, I was suffering headaches very often. For two consecutive months, I suffered a headache almost daily. Because of this, I was unable to exercise, as too much physical strain just worsened things, and so my health suffered. Inevitably, this made my tasks more cumbersome, too.

• Patterns of activity: I began to isolate myself from friends, started shutting myself in almost completely. I found social interaction to be very difficult. It takes a great deal of energy to go out to a situation where I will be forced to ‘fake it’ and make pleasant conversation. If I did go into social situations, I was submissive and acquiescent, always agreeable, often doubting myself. In keeping with this, I completed my assignments with the minimal lack of effort or thought.

• Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the spiritual aspect of things. Prior to burnout, I seemed to take a more authoritarian view of God. That is, I viewed God as the divine task master who told me what to do. Of course, I always fall short of this ‘god's’ expectations, and this only adds to the shame and guilt. I generally feel embarrassed about what I believe at all. I am reluctant to speak of my faith, and become anxious where others are talking about what they believe, or are confronting me on what I believe.

I began to loathe my faith, and wished that there was no God, simply so I could be free from all the fear, guilt, and shame.  I wondered whether this was all related to faith, or whether it was just part of growing to understand who I am and what I believe. I have come to accept that a major cause of my stress is when I am going through significant life changes, or changes of ideology. At this point I find it extremely difficult to commit to one set of beliefs over another, and it seems I am very easily swayed.

This leaves me constantly doubting myself and seeking to take shelter in other people's ideas and ways of being. What I crave is the ability to commit to one belief system, and the confidence to stand by those beliefs without being tempted to jump ship and view it from another perspective again.  

Thus Tom's notes end with a religious-metaphysical reflection, which significantly receives the greatest space, in fact appears to suffuse all earlier sections of his notes. In spite of Tom not being dogmatic about his faith in God, and distancing himself from this ‘god’ (uncapitalised), even wishing that his god did not exist, he is clearly deeply motivated by his faith.  This in itself is interesting. Our religious-metaphysical world view need not be settled in order to dominate us.

Apart from his religious beliefs, a ‘major cause’ of Tom's stress is ‘ideology’, or a ‘set of beliefs’ where there may not be a necessary connection with his belief in God's existence. That is, a basic belief in God does not release him from ideological or metaphysical struggles, or their consequences.

Bearing in mind that this is a single, simple case study, our ‘first philosophies’ may indeed have a profound effect on our mental, emotional, and physical health, our patterns of activity, and our ‘spirituality’. It seems that, yes, our metaphysics controls us.

* Tom Johnson is a pseudonym. His notes are used with permission.


docmartincohen said...

I like the picture!

I quite like the promised topic too - but this doesn't seem to get us very far. The article admits as much. And there is this mix of concerns… the loss of faith as well as the supposed lack of a metaphysical framework. But where is that? It's not described here - is it?

The piece is perhaps more like a look at the mental anguish of a life crisis. But I'm not sure that really belongs here.

ps. (Can Thomas say any more about the author? What sort of person are we talking about?)

Tessa den Uyl said...

Maybe the interrogative is on: what is ‘common ground’. The belonging or not belonging that Martin mentions seems to enfold similar interrogatives. ( I wonder if that makes it a metaphysical question?) Tom’s notes point to how, in a limited set of ideas, make those ideas creative for a concept about reality.
Tom does not unfold an idea about what might underlie possible fallacies but the first phrase of the article: ‘ we are all our own metaphysicians’ alludes that we should pick up this notion and within that view read the notes to discover that not just Tom, but we all have ‘a problem’ with interaction. Thus the process becomes important and possibly a ‘ common ground’ will fracture. The article seems to invite us to face this conception first above all. (?)

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Admittedly this is 'philosophy lite'. What made an impression on me about Tom's notes is how much our world-view has to do with our mental, emotional, and so on well-being. I think that we too easily to put such things down to fairly immediate factors, while our metaphysics in fact is the major, dominating factor.

This reminds me of some words by Dostoevsky: "As a result of their limitation they take immediate and secondary causes for primary ones, and in that way persuade themselves more quickly and easily than other people do that they have found an infallible basis for their activity, and their minds are at ease and that, you know, is the most important thing."

Keith said...

Crises can be fertile ground for self-discovery; but unabating crises can be crippling. As the pseudonymous Tom seemingly found out. Hence perhaps why his plight might be more one of psychology than of metaphysics. Reality is that the perception of crises — here, Tom’s perception — counts as much as do the particulars of crises. But however one may crave to land gently on answers that prove persuasive and whose at least larger outlines can be sustained through life, it often doesn’t happen. As demonstrated by Tom’s account of his grappling with his own life’s stressors, arguably equally mystifying is individuals' irresistible need for meaning (even exceptionalism) — to answer the question, what’s the point? The elusiveness of (convincing!) answers surfaces from Tom’s words: “I find it extremely difficult to commit to one set of beliefs over another . . . [which] leaves me constantly doubting myself.” I wonder how many times over the millennia that those despairing words have been uttered. Sometimes the go-to solution is faith in a god and creed, to allow others to answer the question; though Tom concedes he feels exasperatingly spiritually let down, too. For some — but the minority, I suspect — just ‘to be’ suffices. How unburdening that might be, absent a quest for transcendence or specialness or otherliness. To some significant degree those are of course matters of metaphysics, but, to echo what I said at the beginning, they can be — and in Tom’s case, seem far more strikingly to be — matters of psychology.

Tessa den Uyl said...

How can the metaphysics not be psychological? When we enter thought, we are in thought...

Tessa den Uyl said...

Thoughts like: does (my) life make sense. ( metaphysics and psychology seem interconnected).

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Abnormal psychology studies dysfunctional patterns of thought, emotion, and behaviour. My view is that all motivations, and therefore all behaviours, have their origin in the way that we arrange our world in our minds. That is metaphysics. While there is no doubt that we are physically predisposed towards certain behaviours -- for instance, through genetic factors, illness, weariness, medication, or the pressures of the moment -- there can be no behaviour at all without that arrangement of the world in our minds. Which makes psychology a sub-set of metaphysics. Besides, if metaphysics were to exclude something, would it still be metaphysics?

Keith said...

One concern I have in trying to differentiate psychology and metaphysics, and to sort out how they might overlap or perhaps even be symbiotic, is what the term ‘metaphysics’ means anymore. Following myriad philosophers’ regurgitation of the term over the many centuries since Aristotle — plus the stunning advances of other specialized fields since ancient Greece in acquiring human knowledge and understanding — truth be told I’m uncertain of where the term ‘metaphysics’ properly fits in today. I’ve seen innumerable takes on it, none of which strike me as convincing. I’m therefore a little allergic to the term; instead, my personal tendency is always to defer to the term ‘philosophy’ instead of ‘metaphysics’ — which although may be more vanilla and argued against, seems more versatile, suitable, sustainable, accommodating, and timeless.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

The word 'metaphysic(s)' is much abused, and has various definitions in the dictionary. I think, though, that there is a sense of it which is spontaneously accepted. A writer of 50+ philosophy books commented on my own draft metaphysic, 'Every section ... makes a point that is then linked to almost every other, so that -- working through the book -- the whole emerges as a distinct metaphysic.' A metaphysic(s), then, is an integration of all major aspects of philosophy. Whether that is still possible today is, I think, largely doubted. Lyotard famously wrote that there is an 'incredulity toward metanarratives' -- less famously, that this is rooted in 'the crisis of metaphysical philosophy'.

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