Finding Meaning in Metaphysics
Updated: Mar 8, 2021
If there was one concept that I struggled with during my undergraduate studies of philosophy, it was metaphysics. For whatever reason, the concept completely eluded me. I consider myself to be a reasonably intelligent person. If I don’t understand something, I take the proper steps to further my understanding: read more on the topic, research online, ask others who are more knowledgeable on the subject, etc. However, even when I asked my professors questions, I still didn’t fully grasp their explanations. The concept of metaphysics simply did not compute with my 19 year old brain.
What exactly is metaphysics? According to the dictionary, it is “the branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things, including abstract concepts such as being, knowing, substance, cause, identity, time, and space.” Basically it’a lot of things that we know exist, but we can’t see or touch. The concept of time is a great example. In terms of the hours on the clock, time is a man-made concept. Someone at some point in time decided that there would be 24 hours in a day, 365 days in a year, and that’s how we were going to roll from there on out. But even without the framework of a clock, we know time exists, even though we can’t physically touch it. We know time elapses because we age. We are born, we grow, and we eventually die. As does every living thing in nature around us. The proof of the concept of time is in the changes experienced by these living things. So while the concept itself is abstract in nature, it’s one that we fully embrace in modern society and model our daily routines around.
Time is perhaps one of the easiest examples of metaphysics to grasp, because it’s something all of us are familiar with. But what about something like “being” or “identity”? There are no concrete ways of looking at these concepts, no absolute definitions. They can mean different things to different people, and they are much harder to pinpoint and explain. Who are we, really? Not our jobs, not our physical appearances, but what is the essence of us? What makes us who we are, with our unique minds and outlooks on life? This is what I could not fathom as a college student, newly inundated in the study of philosophy. I became frustrated, even annoyed when we were tasked with approaching these subjects in class, because I simply didn’t have a good answer for why things were the way they were. As someone who constantly searched for meaning and understanding, it bothered me incessantly to not know how metaphysics worked.
In the later years of college, I was able to focus more on areas of philosophy that appealed to me specifically, and I avoided metaphysics at all costs. I threw myself into existentialism and contemporary moral issues, two topics that both fascinated me. When I was accepted to graduate school several years later, it didn’t even occur to me that I might encounter my foe, metaphysics, during my coursework. Because it was a philosophy and applied ethics program, I managed to skate by once again by only having to address it in one or two courses. Of course I ended up loathing those classes. I focused my thesis on care ethics, and adopted a perspective where I was able to gloss over metaphysics and focus on more tangible subjects.
It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I even really thought about metaphysics again. My husband and I had lost several close friends over the span of several months; one by suicide, another died randomly in his sleep, and one from pancreatic cancer. I was struggling to find meaning in their deaths, to understand why they had been taken from this earth at relatively young ages. The suicide was actually the easiest death for me to accept, largely due to my work in existentialism. But the philosophical justification didn’t ease the feelings of loss or guilt, or the immense suffering that ensued. I was caring for a husband who was grieving the loss of two of his closest friends, one who happened to be the husband of my best friend. Caring for her in the months that followed was an even bigger undertaking. Emotionally I was drained, completely tapped out. Was there meaning in anything anymore? Or was life just about survival? At that point, it was just about making it through the day.
As the wounds of loss began to heal, and the scars began to form, I realized there had to be some reason for all of this. Even if I couldn’t understand it at the time, I was determined to find some meaning in all of this. One evening, I was browsing Netflix, trying to find something that would assuage the knot in my chest that seemed to have taken up permanent residence there. I knew what it was: anxiety, fear, distress. I just wanted it to go away. The Secret flashed across the title listings. I had heard of it before, apparently it was a big hit with Oprah, of whom I was a huge fan, but I had never bothered to watch it or learn anything else about it. I put it on, hoping that when paired with a glass of cabernet, it would at the very least, lull me to sleep. Needless to say, I did not fall asleep. And the concept of metaphysics that I had been struggling for over a decade to understand fell directly into my lap.
I was raised in the Roman Catholic Church, although I do not practice the religion today. I always struggled with the concept of death, because when your heart stopped beating, I believed you were dead. The church assuring me that your soul went to heaven did nothing to make me fear death less. What was heaven anyways? When you died, you were gone. When I was picking up the shattered pieces of my life after someone had left earth, I personally wasn’t feeling happy that they had “moved on to a better place”. I was completed gutted, consumed by the loss, and anguishing in the fact that I would never get to see them or hold them or speak to them one more time.
The Secret took introduced me to the concept of universal energy: the fact that everything is energy. The following passage is what made everything click:
“Most people define themselves by this finite body, but you’re not a finite body. Even under a microscope you’re an energy field. What we know about energy is this: You go to a quantum physicist and you say, ‘What creates the world?’ And he or she will say, ‘Energy.’ Well, describe energy. ‘OK, it can never be created or destroyed, it always was, always has been, everything that ever existed always exists, it’s moving into form, through form and out of form.’ You go to a theologian and ask the question, ‘What created the Universe?’ And he or she will say, ‘God.’ OK, describe God. ‘Always was and always has been, never can be created or destroyed, all that ever was, always will be, always moving into form, through form and out of form.’ You see, it’s the same description, just different terminology.
So if you think you’re this ‘meat suit’ running around, think again. You’re a spiritual being! You’re an energy field, operating in a larger energy field.”
- James Ray, The Secret
I can get on board with energy, because I know energy exists. We can see it all around us; when a light bulb turns on, when a car drives down the street, when we use the microwave. But we can also see energy within ourselves. We expend energy as we run and play, and we replenish it by eating, drinking, and sleeping. While we humans are not battery-operated, we run on energy. And we can see this “life” energy all around us, in plants and animals, in the ocean and the sky. People give off good vibes and bad vibes; they project an energy.
If we can accept the fact that energy can never be created nor destroyed, and we can accept the fact that quantum physicists and theologians define energy and God as being essentially the same thing, then I can begin to reconcile my beliefs about “life” after death. Metaphysics can become a bridge between science and religion. I began to understand why the religious felt the way they did about an afterlife. And it also alleviated some of the fears that I had about death. If energy can neither be created nor destroyed, then the energy that is “us” doesn’t dissipate when we die. The body is merely a vessel; the energy flows elsewhere. This separation of mind/spirit/soul and body is crucial, because if we believe we are just a body then we do in fact cease to exist when our body stops functioning. Perhaps my friends who had died did not cease to exist; they were merely existing elsewhere. The energy forcefield known as their “being” was still very much alive. I took solace in this fact. Although it did not provide meaning for their deaths, it helped me obtain closure that the essence of them was still in tact somewhere; that everything that they had been wasn’t lost at the moment they took their final breaths.
What’s frustrating about metaphysics is the fact that it isn’t concrete. It’s constantly shifting, morphing, and takes on different constitutions depending on who is espousing it. Perhaps that’s the beauty of it though; we can discover and create our own meanings through metaphysics. For me, that journey of discovery has been life-changing.