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The Criterion of Metaphysical Truth and the Senses of ‘Metaphysics’

by Schubert M. Ogden

Dr. Ogden is professor of theology and director of the Graduate Program in Religious Studies at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas. His most recent book is Faith and Freedom: Toward a Theology of Liberation (Abingdon, 1979.) Schubert M. Ogden is Professor of Theology and Director of the Graduate Program in Religion at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas.

If Charles Hartshorne is correct that "the intellect’s self-understanding . . . is the innate, a priori, or metaphysical" (CSPM 31), then, provided "intellect" is taken as it evidently is in the dictum nihil est in intellectu quod non prius fuerit in sensu, namely, as the human intellect, I do not see how all metaphysical statements can be "inconceivably falsifiable" in the strictest possible sense. For, clearly, on this account of what ‘metaphysics is, the statement "I exist" must be a metaphysical statement, along with the other statements, "The world exists" and "God exists." And, whatever may be true of the latter two statements (and certainly for classical as well as neoclassical theism the last is factually unfalsifiable sensu strictissimo), the first is evidently falsifiable, since it is true and can be true only contingently, even though it could never be even meaningful, much less true, to say of oneself, "I do not exist." In short, if metaphysics is defined as the human intellect’s self-understanding, then metaphysics comprises contingent as well as necessary truths -- although even the contingent truths it comprises are such that in one sense they cannot be coherently denied and, therefore, must be believed, if only implicitly or nonreflectively.

What, then, is the criterion of metaphysical truth? I submit that it is the criterion of unavoidable belief or necessary application through experience. Those statements are true metaphysically which I could not avoid believing to be true, at least implicitly, if I were to believe or exist at all; or, alternatively, they are the statements which would necessarily apply though any of my experiences, even my merely conceivable experiences, provided only that such an experience was sufficiently reflected on.

Now, among such statements, there are evidently some that not even a divine believer could avoid believing, if he could be said to believe at all, or which would necessarily apply even though all of his experiences, including his merely conceivable experiences, could he be said to have such. Thus the statement "God exists" would be unavoidably believed even by God, or would necessarily apply though any of his experiences; and I should think the same would be true of "The world exists," provided it is understood as asserting the existence not of an individual but of a class, some of whose members must exist, but none of whose members can exist except contingently. By contrast, since what makes the statement "I exist" true is a wholly contingent state of affairs, it is in fact falsifiable, even though I myself could never falsify it, insofar as none of the other statements that would have to be true in order for it to be true would be an unavoidable belief for God or a statement that would necessarily apply through his experiences.

Because of this difference it is possible and necessary to distinguish between metaphysics in the broad sense, for whose truth the criterion is unavoidable belief or necessary application through human experience, and metaphysics in ‘the strict sense, for whose truth the criterion is unavoidable belief or necessary application through experience as such, even divine experience.

By "metaphysics in the strict sense," one properly means metaphysica generalis, or ontology, although from the standpoint of a neoclassical theism there can be no adequate distinction between ontology, on the one hand, and theology and cosmology, as disciplines of metaphysica specialis, on the other.1 From this standpoint, ontology is also theology in the sense that its constitutive concept "reality as such" necessarily involves the distinction/correlation between the one necessarily existing individual and the many contingently existing individuals and events. Conversely, theology can only be ontology, in the sense that its constitutive concept "God" necessarily requires that the implied distinction/ correlation between God and the world be identical with that involved in "reality as such." Thus "reality as such" = "God and the world," which explains, of course, why from this standpoint ontology is also cosmology, even as cosmology is ontology.

"Metaphysics in the broad sense," on the other hand, should be taken to include, in addition to ontology, and hence also theology and cosmology, the third discipline of metaphysica specialis, psychology, or, as I prefer to call it, anthropology. As thus inclusive, metaphysics is integral existential truth.2 Conversely, integral existential truth necessarily includes metaphysics in the strict sense, as ontology and therefore theology and cosmology, even though metaphysics in the strict sense does not include anthropology, and hence is not the full truth about human existence -- not even as such.



CSPM -- Charles Hartshorne. Creative Synthesis and Philosophic Method. La Salle, Ill.: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1970.



1 Hartshorne is clearly right about this (CSPM 39), although, in thinking about the distinction, one must keep in mind what Hartshorne himself insists on elsewhere in replying to Paul Tillich’s unqualified denial that God is a being -- namely, that God’s uniqueness "must consist precisely in being both reality as such and an individual reality, insofar comparable to other individuals" (A Natural Theology for Our Time [LaSalle. Ill.: The Open Court Publishing Co., 1967], p. 35).

2 This is to resolve the question that Hartshorne leaves open -- although, as I have argued, some of his own statements imply the same resolution -- namely, whether "existentialism or phenomenology may have something neither metaphysical nor quite within the scope of science to contribute" (CSPM 296). Existentialist (or phenomenological) anthropology does contribute something metaphysical, although it is not strictly metaphysical.

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