Culleny: Our metaphysical crisis

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle called metaphysics the “first philosophy.” Metaphysics — literally, what comes after physics — is the branch of philosophy that addresses the constitution of reality and is something most of us are engaged in, whether we know it or not.

You are a practical metaphysician if you’ve ever wondered and tried to answer questions about the reality of appearances, about distinctions between mental and physical categories, where the world came from and why or (the big one in 21st-century American politics) the existence of God. Of course, this doesn’t cover all possible metaphysical queries, but you get the gist.

In important ways we might say that the U.S. is in the midst not only of an economic and political crisis, but also a metaphysical one. Questions of fundamental reality affect political issues and policy in ways they have not for some time.

For instance, questions about life and when it begins; whether the earth is gift from God or just property and ownable, and if so, who should own it; where the authority to govern comes from, man or God; whether certain books are divine; what divinity is; what’s sacred and what profane; right down to how many capitalists can dance on the edge of a moral razor.

These are all questions that “go beyond physics” and have stumped some of the most brilliant minds since before Aristotle and which are stumping ours — to the point of national clog and decline. They are also questions that crafty and glib con artists use to mislead, manipulate and mire minds not so crafty or glib, or minds maybe as astute as Aristotle’s but simply so caught in the accidental circumstances of their lives — in immediate issues of survival — they have little time to deal with sorting out whether Ted Cruz is the slipperiest God-endorsed shark to come swimming up the bay or if Barack Obama is a secret Allah-worshipping Muslim.

Metaphysics in America is the playground of the false and faithful as well as of the free.

The nation and the globe face a set of circumstances unlike any we have faced before, the most far-reaching in terms of consequence being global warming. The vast majority of environmental scientists agree this is so, yet here in the U.S., science is often trumped by ancient metaphysics. American policy and action are determined more and more not on the basis of science, but on the basis of a worldview established 3,500 years ago.

Sadly and dangerously science is often presented as if it were less reliable than Genesis in explaining our origins and what makes the world tick. Yet the very people who show contempt for science when it comes to climate change would probably not place their injured children’s lives in the hands of a priest or minister rather than that of scientists we call doctors.

What this “beyond-physics” (or beyond-science) worldview has produced is a type of American politician who spouts personally invented metaphysical statements as if he/she were writing Bible verses. Take Joe Barton, for instance. Barton, R-Texas, said recently, “Wind is a finite resource and harnessing it would slow the winds down, which would cause the temperature to go up.”

Written 3,500 years ago Barton’s statement might sound something like this: “Lo, the wind bloweth until it smacketh thee; therefore, it shall not bloweth over the one who follows haply in thy steps, nor anyone else down the line because the Lord diminisheth the wind after it hitteth thee. The Lord rendereth it impotent then, regardless of the continued demands of low pressure areas and His laws of physics.” —The Book of Barton 2:23.

Barton’s ignorance of their global effect is profound. When it comes to how winds happen, the conditions of their movement, how they are affected by temperature and the earth’s rotation upon them, Barton’s limited understanding and statement may well have placed him in 3,000 BC, but depressingly, he happens to be the chairman of the House-Senate Energy Conference Committee.

And then there’s Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who recently told New York magazine that he believes in the devil.

“Of course! Yeah, he’s a real person,” the justice said. “In the Gospels, the Devil is doing all sorts of things. He’s making pigs run off cliffs, he’s possessing people and whatnot. And that doesn’t happen very much anymore.”

There are effects to this kind of thinking analogous to the development of a typhoon: a Satan-believing wind is just 50 miles-per hour or so away from becoming the wild gale of a witch hunter.

I don’t know about you, but having a Satan-believer on the Supreme Court citing the devil during a line of questioning by about whether any conceivable prayer could simultaneously be acceptable to Christians, Jews, Muslims and Hindus, is not comforting to me.

“What about devil worshippers?” Scalia asked.

Oh, and what about facts? What about reason? What about science?

Culleny lives in Shelburne Falls, works in construction, is a singer/songwriter, and has done commentary for National Public Radio. His email address is

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