Questions without answers is their calling

Metaphysical Society is only state of being its members agree on


March 16, 2003|By Ron Grossman | Ron Grossman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - The arguing began the instant professor May Sim finished charting "man's journey from being uneducated to being educated," as she summed up the philosophical position she had staked out.

Someone asked if she really thought the human soul could come to know Truth? Wouldn't it blink at the last moment, like an eye blinded by the sun's radiance? Someone else sputtered that Plato, Sim's intellectual hero, was just plain wrong about the erotic dimension of learning.

One participant half playfully accused another of being a "neo-atomist" - that is, of regarding reality as being composed of tiny bits of soul-less matter.

And so it went, speaker after speaker. For the two days of their annual meeting last weekend, members of the Metaphysical Society of America peppered each other with arguments proffered and syllogisms parried. In the end, they could only agree to disagree - and to meet to do so again next year.

They had gathered at Penn State fully aware that the issues they would tackle haven't been resolved since the ancient Greeks first posed them 2,500 years ago. You could sense their delight in suspecting that 2,500 years hence their successors will still be wrestling with them.

"We attempt to articulate," noted Vincent Colapietro, in his presidential address, "that which might turn out to be unsayable."

It was spring break at many of the participants' own universities. Students had taken off for southern beaches. Of all of America's academics, only about three dozen had chosen to come to this largely deserted campus to wonder aloud about such enduring puzzles as the nature of Being.

Yet the thinness of their own ranks didn't surprise them, said James Felt, the Metaphysical Society's secretary. He noted that the one thing metaphysicians know this for sure is that other people haven't the faintest idea what they do or why.

He carries a copy of the Yellow Pages listing under "Metaphysics": "See: Astrologers, Churches - Non Denominational, Psychic Consulting and Healing Services, Yoga Instruction."

Metaphysicians are even a source of bewilderment to other philosophers.

In a celebrated essay, "The Hedgehog and the Fox," Oxford don Isaiah Berlin once divided thinkers into two camps: those content to know many little facts, and those who yearn for one, overarching truth. On American campuses, this is the season of the fox, it being unfashionable in most disciplines, philosophy included, to ask the big questions. Metaphysicians are the hedgehogs of an ivory tower overrun with foxes.

Jorge L. Nobo, a professor at Washburn University in Topeka, Kan., observed that the metaphysical compulsion often sets in early and rarely is curable. He recalled a long-ago argument with a teen-age friend over free will vs. determinism. Years later, half-dozing through a college philosophy course, it dawned on him that he and his friend had been debating fundamental metaphysics.

"The intensity of discovery that an issue like that can be tackled, it's overwhelming," Nobo said.

Once upon a time, students were encouraged to bring that childhood sense of wonder with them to campus. In the Middle Ages, when the university was born, metaphysics was the centerpiece of higher education. Schools were run by the church, and Christianity backstopped its belief system with a metaphysical theology.

In more recent times, science replaced religion as the powerhouse discipline. Anything that couldn't be measured and quantified was pushed into a corner.

The subject of this year's Metaphysical Society's meeting was "Soul."

"Soul is anathema in contemporary philosophy departments," observed David Weissman, a professor at the City College of New York. Fittingly, he is the author of a new book, Lost Souls.

For many philosophers, he said, soul smacks too much of the supernatural.

"Metaphysics takes over where science leaves off, by saying, `OK, so how can we know that the answers we're given are good ones?' " Weissman said. "That's why our colleagues find us boring."

Not that the general public necessarily shares that view, observed Harley Chapman of William Rainey Harper College in Palatine, Ill. Soul may be taboo in the ivory tower, but not in publishing houses.

"In one recent year alone," he reported, "600 books were published with `soul' in the title."

The reason is easy to see, he added. Philosophers and psychologists may wish to do away with messy and immeasurable categories, but ordinary folks live with them every day.

We all are tormented by fears and haunted by demons. We can be moved to tears by an encounter with beauty. Some of us can't help wondering if there's more to life than meets the eye. We yearn to escape the prison of our ego. Such things can't be reduced to neat curves on graph paper, which causes scientists to throw up their hands in despair.

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