A Ruist (Confucian) Perspective on Metaphysics as a Science

Can the study of metaphysics be classified currently or ever qualify in the future as a scientific endeavor? If yes, what criteria or methods would need to be in place and practiced to make them scientific? If no, what is it about "science" that prevents metaphysics from qualifying?

In a recently published article from the peer-reviewed academic journal, Socio-Historical Examination of Religion and Ministry (SHERM), professor of philosophy and religion at Washington College, Dr. Bin Song takes a Confucian perspective to the subject, arguing that metaphysics and theology can, in fact, be pursued as a scientific endeavor. He remarks that if we broaden our understanding of how perceived realities furnish feedback in order to refine preestablished human discourses, Ruist (Confucian) metaphysics and theology especially can be recognized as being historically pursued as a science by its own right. Eventually, the distinction of Western and Ruist traditions of metaphysics and theology, as well as the imperfections in each of them, speaks to the need of mutual learning for constructing a more robust metaphysical worldview in the twenty-first century.

How to Incorporate non-Western Metaphysics and Theologies into Global Conversation

Dr. Song first asks whether there is even a "metaphysics" in Ruism, comparable to its Western counterparts. Here, Metaphysics is translated into Chinese as 形而上學, literally “a learning about things beyond shape,” and this translation derives from a verse in the Appended Texts of the Classic of Change (易經 繫辭), a quintessential Ruist text on metaphysics. “What lies beyond shape is called the Dao, and what lies within shape is called the utensil-like things” (形而上者謂之道,形而下者謂之器). The underlying idea of this verse is that concrete things have a shape and can, therefore, be studied like a utensil since each of them, with its concrete characteristics, serves a specific relationship to the human world. However, if this kind of study is also seen as a kind of art or technology that is constrained to a specific domain of worldly phenomena, then there is another sort of learning that delves into how things in general originate, evolve, change, and, thereby, dynamically and harmoniously fit together. In a Ruist term, a learning delving into these more generic features of things in the world takes “Dao,” or the Way, as its objective. Its major task is to investigate layers upon layers of “principle” (理, li) in order to understand how things in varying worldly domains dynamically and harmoniously interrelate. For instance, from the most to less generic, terms used to characterize these principles are yin/yang vital-energies, four seasons, five phases (metal, wood, water, fire and earth), eight trigrams (each of which represents one pattern of evolving harmonies in the world, such as Qian [creativity], Kun [receptivity], and Kan [Risk]), and sixty-four hexagrams, etc. In a word, notwithstanding being embedded in a different linguistic and cultural system, Ruism has a metaphysical system which delves into the most generic features of things in the world and, hence, defines the boundary conditions of a Ruist worldview. In this sense, Ruist metaphysics can be compared to its Western counterparts, which are influenced by Aristotle.

Moreover, according to Song, theism does not register prominently in the Ruist intellectual history of metaphysics. Dao, albeit a constant signifier of ultimate reality, is not typically conceived of by Ruist thinkers as a creator deity, standing behind the cosmic scene and dictating its unfolding. Because of this, a more appropriate term to describe the mode of philosophical theology in Ruism may be “dao-logy,” rather than “theo-logy.” However, we also need to remember that even for Aristotle, his idea of God is very different from the one prominent in ancient Greek folklore and mythology. In the history of Christian philosophical theology, we also frequently encountered thinkers who modified the theistic idea of God into a de-anthropomorphized abstract force, such as Aquinas’s “pure act to be,” Tillich’s “ground of being,” and other mystical conceptions of God. Therefore, if modified to include a non-theistic mode, “theology” is surely suitable to describe that dimension of Ruist metaphysics which investigates the ultimate cause of the world and its intricate relationship to concrete worldly phenomena.

This being the case, can metaphysics and theology, while including the Ruist case as a family member, still be pursued as a scientific endeavor? Science, per the above analysis, is a symbolic construction by human intelligence about reality, and the construction is vulnerable to further critique and revision among a scientific community due to the continuous feedback furnished by perceived realities. For understanding Ruist metaphysics and theology as a science, it would not be difficult for us to acknowledge that the concern of Ruist metaphysics and theology, as indicated by our brief discussion of them above, are indeed a symbolic construction by human intelligence about realities vulnerable to further critique. According to the work of Joseph Needham on the history of science in ancient China, Whitehead on process thought, and other scholars of similar theoretical tendencies, we are also confident to aver that Ruist metaphysics can inspire modern scientists to come up with more robust conceptual tools to capture the biological, organic, and process aspects of worldly phenomena so as to contribute to the positive sciences. Nevertheless, to appreciate that Ruist metaphysics and theology were historically pursued as a scientific endeavor in their own right, we need to broaden our understanding regarding the sources that Ruist thinkers debated and refined in their metaphysical and theological discourses. In other words, how realities are perceived and, accordingly, what kind of feedback realities can furnish to refine a theorist’s symbolic construction needs to be clarified (in the case of Ruism) in order for us to appreciate that the long historical Ruist pursuit of metaphysics and theology can also be seen as scientific.

You can read Dr. Song's entire article for free as part of the Global Center for Religious Research's commitment to continued exploration into the social-scientific study of religious history.


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