The Practical Need for Metaphysics

by John B. Cobb, Jr.

John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is

This document was prepared for a presentation on February 9, 2010 at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California. Used by permission of the author.


Dr. Cobb examines the damage done by holding to established metaphysics in the natural sciences and theology, and also the danger of dismissing metaphysical inquiry altogether. He then proposes a process metaphysics as a way forward in those two fields.

In introductions of process thought, we usually tread lightly on the topic of metaphysics. I considered avoiding the word in entitling what I want to say today. I feared that many would assume they could not understand what I would say or that, if they did, it would be of no interest.

But I decided that avoiding this unpopular word is not wise. It leaves the impression that metaphysical questions are obscure and that we can get along well without asking them. In my judgment they are not really all that obscure, and the consequences of not attending to them in the past two centuries has had seriously damaging and dangerous consequences.

The origins of metaphysics are in very simple questions. In all civilizations one is likely to find some listing of the elements of which the physical world is composed. For example fire, water, air, wood, and stone may be listed, with the supposition that other things can be seen as mixtures of these. Simply classifying things in such ways is not yet metaphysics. But suppose one asks which of these is primary or whether they are all expressions of some underlying reality. The pre-Socratics asked this kind of question. Their work is the precursor of metaphysics. These questions become truly metaphysical only when reflection about the world has advanced. Only then can one distinguish scientific inquiry from the deeper question of the nature of what science studies.

I am not speaking today primarily about the positive contributions made by metaphysics. Instead, I am going to talk first about the damage done by holding to established metaphysics in the natural sciences and in theology and then the damage done by dismissing metaphysical inquiry. I’ll conclude, as you will expect, by proposing process metaphysics as a way forward in those two fields.


I begin with science because that is where "meta-physics" began. After Aristotle had sketched the best science available in his day, he wanted to go further. What implications did that science have for the nature of the physical world with which it dealt? His intention was to develop the meta-physics only after the physics. If science had always followed this pattern the role of metaphysics would have been far more positive. Unfortunately, once a metaphysics is formulated, it is likely to take on a life of its own and to force science and theology to adjust to ideas that may not fit what is known in actual experience. This is why metaphysics has done damage.

The natural sciences are in fact tightly bound up with a particular metaphysics, namely, the one developed by Rene Descartes. This is true in two ways, (1) the self-definition and standard claims of science as a whole, and (2) the beliefs about nature that shape its inquiries.


Western science arose in a context dominated philosophically primarily by Aristotle and secondarily by Plato. In another place we could discuss the positive role both played in this regard. Today I will speak only of the negative. Although serious scientific work was done in terms of Aristotle’s metaphysics, especially in biology, the ready appeal to final causes in explaining physical phenomena blocked needed inquiry into efficient causes. This led to the emergence of modern philosophy with Rene Descartes. That Descartes’ metaphysics provided a crucial context for the further development of science is unquestionable, but I am here focusing on the negative role it played and continues to play today.

Science aims to be empirical in that it deals with the world as it is given to human sense experience. Sometimes this is called the "objective" world. Science seeks in the objective world the causes of all the events that transpire in it. This is the "nature" it studies, and it understands this nature to be self-enclosed. That is, it rejects the idea that the objective events that constitute nature could require explanations that lead outside of this objective world. This excludes the possibility that God is the cause of any natural event. It also excludes the possibility that one must appeal to subjective experience in order to explain what happens objectively.

Prior to Darwin’s work, scientists assumed that alongside the natural world they studied there was also a human one. This is the famous Cartesian dualism. Human experience is just as real and important, for Descartes and his followers, as any bit of matter. What transpires in this human sphere is to be explained by different categories than what happens in nature. Each is sufficient to itself. Mental events have no causal effect on physical ones, and material events have to causal effect on mental ones.

In my view, this was a very bad metaphysics. It was in fact strictly incredible. Given that metaphysics, my decision to type a word must be understood to have no effect on my actually typing it. And a physical wound caused by an accident has no bearing on my subjective feeling of pain. I assume that no one really believes this, but this dualism became immensely important in intellectual and cultural life.

When evolutionary theory brought human beings into nature, this kind of dualism faded. But this only made the situation worse. A common sense approach would have been to say that now that we understood that human thought and feeling are part of nature, we should no longer suppose that nature consists only of material objects in relative motion. This view has been proposed from time to time. But among scientists in general there has been no change in the understanding of nature as a result of including themselves within it. It is still the world as objectively given to human observers.

Science now assumes that human beings, like everything else, are to be fully explained without any reference to their subjective experience. Our decisions are supposed to have no causal role in the world. If the reality of subjective experience is acknowledged at all, it is held to be fully caused by physical events and to have no reciprocal causal influence on them. Strictly speaking, human beings are automata.

The only reason for holding this view is metaphysical. This is so, even though most scientists will profess to have no interest in metaphysics and to consider it scientifically irrelevant. Indeed, this metaphysics continues to shape the program of science precisely because the intended rejection of metaphysics prevents any questioning or examination of the denial that human decisions can have a role in what happens in the world.

I am quite sure that no one really believes this metaphysics, and the actions of scientists themselves certainly show that they do not. But it remains the systematic implication of what most scientists believe about the nature of science. They believe it deals comprehensively with nature, and they believe that the nature with which it deals is objective. This excludes the subjective from nature and from playing any role in nature. Thus a metaphysics that no one can believe shapes the self-understanding of science.

You may suppose that if no one believes it, its public dominance makes no difference. But that is not true. One of the few things that the culture still reveres is "science." We devote enormous resources to its advancement. This "advancement" includes the fuller and fuller demonstration that we are automata, that is, that our subjective experience and activity play no role in determining what happens in the world. Those who develop the counter evidence, showing that the subjective and objective worlds interact, have to do their research on their own time and don’t get to teach about it, at least as a part of "science."

To take just one example, the only theory of evolution that is allowed is the one that excludes the role of purpose from the behavior of animals, including human beings, and, just to make sure, also excludes animal actions from having any role in evolution. The only reason I know to support this theory is that it fits with the metaphysics that has played so large a role in science.


Science has been formulated in terms of a metaphysics of matter in motion. Its data are chiefly patches of color in various relations. But the explanation of these data lies in the motions of a "material substances" that are inaccessible to sense experience. In the seventeenth century, philosophers were comfortable with positing that underlying the sensory qualities that cause us to speak of stones and chairs there are "material substances" in which these sensory objects inhere and to which we rightly attribute them. But the philosophical analysis of Berkeley and Hume in the eighteenth century showed that neither the idea of "matter" nor the idea of "substance" made sense.

Early in the nineteenth century, Immanuel Kant came to the rescue. He agreed with Hume that human beings had no basis for saying anything at all about what the real world is like. He asserted that the only world we can describe is the one that the human mind creates. Remarkably, he affirmed that this was just the world described by seventeenth-century metaphysics. By the time he wrote, scientists were paying little attention to philosophers anyway, but if they did care to do so, they could find justification in Kant for continuing their program, unchanged.

Through the nineteenth century physicists believed that atoms were, as the name implies, tiny pellets of matter not susceptible of further analysis or division. They were related to one another only externally. That means that the only way one affected another was by its motion. These relations were depicted as being like those of billiard balls. The task of science was to explain everything in terms of the motions of these atoms. The result was mechanistic determinism. Some physicists thought their task was almost completed when the break-up of the atom created consternation and chaos.

This break-up would not have been a threat to the metaphysics that shaped scientific research and discourse if the entities into which what had been previously identified as indivisible were found to be constituted of tinier bits of matter obeying the basic laws of motion. Then the world could still be understood to be constituted exhaustively by matter in motion. But we all know now that this was not the case. At its base, the world does not consist of matter in motion. Also the exclusion of the observer from any causal role in the nature that is observed, a principle so central to the self-understanding of science, could not be applied. The metaphysics so tightly related to science was wrong.

There were intense discussions in the early part of the twentieth century about this new situation. One response was to develop a new meta-physics in Aristotle’s sense. That is, given the scientific evidence, what answers can we now give to the question: Of what does the world consist? In my view, the failure of the scientific and philosophical communities to pursue this question is one of the tragedies of intellectual history.

A second response was to make the smallest possible changes and restrict their application to the subatomic world. This has been the practical response of the scientific community. There were two familiar concepts with which they had organized the world of matter in motion: wave and particle. They found that in some respects the mathematics they had developed for wave phenomena fit the new evidence while in other respects the mathematics of particles was applicable. They could not say whether the subatomic entities were waves or particles, and since a wave cannot be a particle or a particle a wave, they recognized they had no idea of the actual nature of what they studied. So they introduced the notion of paradox. That meant that science, which had heretofore prided itself in conceptual precision would simply acquiesce in incoherence. And it meant that it would continue to use the old metaphysics without paradox elsewhere. Also it would hold to the basic understanding of science that I explained earlier – a self-contained system that excluded any role for subjectivity or God.

Since the inherited metaphysics was discredited, and the effort to re-think metaphysics was abandoned, the culture generally began to pride itself in outgrowing any interest in metaphysics. That means we do not try to find out what really exists or occurs and to care whether one’s thought in one area is consistent with one’s thought in other areas. Science now simply develops hypotheses about the readings on meters when certain actions are taken. If predictions are successful, we should not ask what we are talking about. That different fields of study operate with different assumptions is perfectly acceptable. If one seeks comprehensive or integrated understanding, one shows that one is out of step with advanced thought.

I’m sure you understand that I consider this a serious step backward. But if you have been socialized into the modern world, you will ask, what is wrong with this? Twentieth century science added enormously to our store of information and our ability to control nature. If it could do this best by abandoning the quest for realism and coherence, was that not the right move?

In my view, on the other hand, the abandonment of both reality and reason is a very serious matter. It opens the door to irrationalism and nihilism in all dimensions of our thought. It blocks the way to real advance in understanding either the world or ourselves. It trivializes philosophy.

Most important, at a time in human history when there is urgent need for wisdom to guide us through a crisis of unparalleled proportions, it removes any interest in wisdom from the intelligentsia in general and the modern university in particular.


I will discuss this topic also in two ways. Traditional theology was clearly metaphysical, and I will briefly consider the negative aspects of the metaphysics in question. Then I will consider the fate of theology and the church when metaphysics is abandoned.


Jewish thought of God, including that of Jesus and Paul, was metaphysical in the sense that Jews unquestioningly affirmed God as a reality with causal efficacy in the world. On the other hand, Israel did not develop philosophy and, accordingly did not articulate the implicit metaphysics. However, Jewish thinkers recognized the relevance of philosophy to their affirmations. Philo was a great Jewish thinker, a contemporary of Jesus, who made use of Greek philosophy to explain Jewish thinking. Christian thinkers followed in his path. Thus Greek metaphysics played a large role in shaping Christian thought.

To have failed to form this alliance would have left Christian thought about God naively anthropomorphic. But the categories adopted from Greek metaphysics were in sharp tension with biblical thought, so that the alliance led to major losses as well as gains.

Much of process theology has focused on some of these losses. I will now deal with just two of them. The Greeks prized invulnerability. For example, if we are subject to being affected by what others say or think about us, we are at the mercy of their responses to us. We cannot be happy. Happiness requires that we have our well being in ourselves in ways that others cannot disturb. Of course, no human being can be entirely invulnerable, but when we imagine perfection, it will include this character. God’s blessedness cannot depend on anything that happens in the world. God, therefore, is conceived as a self-contained substance. For Aristotle, for example, God contemplates only God. To attend to anything else would make God vulnerable.

This is profoundly different from biblical thinking about God. In the Bible God cares greatly about what happens in the world. Especially from the New Testament perspective, God’s central characteristic is love. A major aspect of love is compassion, feeling with. God rejoices with us in our joy and suffers with us in our misery. We are called to love one another in this way. Of course, we can never do this fully, but Jews and Christians affirmed that these characteristics, imperfect as they were in us, were perfect in God.

Christian philosophical theologians were greatly influenced by Greek metaphysicians in their formulations about God. They affirmed that God was "impassible," not subject to suffering. They could not deny that God is love, since this was so central in scripture. So they were forced to reinterpret love in a way that omitted compassion altogether.

The Bible may be described as a long account of the many ways in which God and humanity interacted. To the Greek philosophers this seemed anthropomorphic and demeaning of God. This is partly because it meant that God was not invulnerable, but the problem was broader. It made God very much a temporal being. The Greeks thought that perfection must transcend time altogether; so the Christian philosophical theologians declared that God was immutable and eternal. Their biblical commitments would not allow them to deny God’s role in history, but the pressure of Greek metaphysics worked against this. Augustine solved the problem for himself and many subsequent theologians by denying the ultimate reality of time as human beings experience it. For God all events happen at once, so that there is a single eternal divine act. Obviously, nothing of this sort was envisioned by the biblical authors.

With the renewed emphasis on the Bible in the Reformation and the rise of modern philosophy, the hold of Greek thought diminished. It was possible to think again without qualification of temporally sequential acts of God. Nevertheless, many of the attributes of God derived from the Greeks retained their hold. The idea that what happened in the world affected God was rarely articulated, although much worship and practical piety assumed it.

One reason was that the idea of substance retained its hold on the Western mind and may have even become more rigid. A substance is something that exists on its own and relates to other things only externally. Other substances were thought to derive their being from God, but God is the perfect substance that derives nothing from others. Obviously, there is no such notion of substance in the Bible.

From time to time, there were protests against the role of Greek metaphysics in shaping Christian thought. Some of them were really directed against critical thinking as such, but for the most part, they were directed against the Greek assumptions that shaped philosophy in ways that were in sharp tension with the Bible. Luther is a great example. Pascal also distinguished the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob from the God of the philosophers. To this day many of the protests against metaphysics are directed against aspects of distinctively Greek metaphysics, with little awareness of other possibilities. They seek to free the thinking of Christians from the straightjacket of Greek metaphysics.


Until the work of Kant, it was assumed that there was a metaphysical dimension in any doctrine of God. God was thought to be the creator of the world. Whether this was creation out of nothing, or order out of chaos, God was explanatory of the existence of the world we know, and that world was understood to be fully real. The metaphysical affirmations involved might be made as "common sense," or simply on the basis of revelation, or on the authority of the church, but they remained metaphysical. Atheism was the denial of this metaphysical reality.

Beginning with Kant, the situation has changed. God is often not located beyond the physics, but in other contexts. In Kant God appears as meta-ethical rather than meta-physical in Aristotle’s sense. God’s reality is posited rather than simply affirmed, and it is removed from the realm of theory and located in that of practical thought. Still, reality is posited of God as clearly as it is posited of the physical world. In that sense, God is still metaphysical.

Of course, metaphysical treatments of God reemerged in Hegel and Schleiermacher and their followers. Those who appealed to religious experience as the context for speaking of God for the most part believed that this experience was testimony to a holy reality.

But since then there have been more radical rejections of metaphysics in theology. The linguistic turn shifts the discussion from God as a reality to the word "God" and the way it functions. Some have insisted that the meaning of the word can only be found in its relation to other words. Others may allow that it is related also to human acts. But the traditional assumption that the word has reference to something that is real apart from language is now often rejected. This is a full rejection of metaphysics.

Kant opened the door to radically nonmetaphysical ways of thinking of God through his emphasis on the creative activity of the human mind. The phrase, "the social construction of reality" is not his, but it grows out of his work. He thought that the human mind created a common world at all times and places. But Hegel emphasized that it creates changing worlds. In some of these there is a place for God, in others not. Thus God is real in the same way that other parts of the socially constructed world are real. But we cannot meaningfully ask about a reality that transcends and is prior to all social construction. Whereas earlier everyone assumed that God is the creator of human beings, many now suppose that human beings are the creators of "God."

Much of this reflection has been for the sake of undergirding Christian thought and worship. Nevertheless, it has in fact profoundly weakened that segment of the Christian community, chiefly to be found in liberal Protestantism, that has followed it. Worship and trust require the belief that there is in reality something worthy of worship, something one can trust. Something humans create does not qualify.


I said that I consider the failure of scientists, theologians, and philosophers to pursue the quest for a new metaphysics in the early twentieth century to be a great tragedy. I also consider it fortunate that not everyone abandoned the quest. William James and Henri Bergson were two who dared to explore new ways of thinking about the world. Many physicists engaged in fresh thinking about the implications of new findings for the understanding of the world. Even when the consensus came to be as I described it above, some scientists continued their reflections. Teilhard de Chardin, a paleontologist, is probably the best known. David Bohm is an example in physics; Ilya Prigogine, in chemistry; C. H. Waddington, in biology; Roger Sperry, in physiological psychology; Donald Griffin, in zoology. These remain recognized figures in their several fields, even if their break with the dominant scientific conventions is not followed by their guilds. Feminists and ecologists also introduced new creative challenges. There are many others who could be mentioned. There are also some who have been largely excommunicated by their guilds because of the new directions they have taken. Herman Daly, in economics, and Rupert Sheldrake, in biology, are clear examples.

Now it might seem that the multiplicity of people who have continued on new lines of thought would mean that there are a great number of directions in which new metaphysical developments might occur, so that process metaphysics is simply one from which to choose. That would be true if by process metaphysics we meant simply Whitehead’s version. Nevertheless, there is a commonality in the direction that most have taken. One could argue that mostl belong to the community of process thinkers.

This is not a matter of chance. A healthy metaphysics grows out of the best science of the day. Evolution, relativity, and quantum theory are decisive forms of science in the twentieth century. There is a broad recognition, largely ignored in practice, that science as a whole should be reordered so as to take what has been learned in these new fields into account. Those who are doing so, inevitably have some emphases that were absent in the seventeenth century metaphysics that still exercises a strong hold on science as a whole.

For example, evolutionary thought cuts differently from the static vision that preceded it. We now know that even what we call physical laws evolve. The whole universe evolves. Evolution is certainly a process. Change and novelty are important features of the world. New and surprising things emerge along the way. All of this is quite different from the Cartesian vision of nature. There will be commonalities among those who take evolution seriously.

The new fields in physics in different ways emphasize relations over substances. What a thing is has to be recognized as largely a function of what other things are. The billiard ball model has little relevance to advanced physics. A meta-physics that grows out of cutting-edge findings today must be relational.

If we understand the entities that make up the world as inherently relational, we cannot consider them simply as they appear to us objectively. Constitutive relations are necessarily internal relations. Visual objects have no internality, but it is clear that the real world does. Internality means also subjectivity.

I stressed earlier that science is typically defined so as to exclude subjective experience from any explanatory role. Those I have mentioned here are restive with such demarcations and open to modifying them in various ways. A metaphysics that allows for the influence of subjective experience on objectively observable events is quite different from the seventeenth-century metaphysics that still holds sway in science. Significant variety still occurs, but the new positions belong to a single family, the one I call "process."

The next step is to choose among process philosophies. Choices can be made on various grounds. Some prefer to stay as close as possible to description of what we now know, minimizing generalization and speculation. Having rejected both Greek and modern metaphysics, they are in no hurry to formulate another one. Some are quite critical of Whitehead for having developed so complex a speculative scheme. Some are especially disturbed because Whitehead affirms the reality of God and even attributes a large role to God in what happens in the world.

But one can hardly dispute that Whitehead has engaged more fully than any other in the engagement with recent physics. He has played the largest role in the development of the philosophy of mathematics. He has the most fully elaborated metaphysics. Some of us believe that these are accomplishments of great importance, and that of all the process thinkers he has the most to offer. That does not mean that his metaphysics is the final word. But for some of us it means that Whitehead’s metaphysics is the one most worthy of serious study and engagement.

Whitehead’s detailed work can lead to overcoming the basic problems of modern science. Science may be able, once again to give a coherent account of reality. It may be able to integrate relativity and quantum theory. It may be able to avoid the absurdities in which it now ends up.

Those in the Abrahamic tradition can once again have support from science and philosophy for their conviction that what they worship is worthy of their worship, that, at the base of reality is something worthy of their trust. At the same time they may be freed from destructive features of their traditions.

Explaining this and purifying the traditions from elements introduced by earlier and more alien forms of metaphysics is the task of process theology. Much of this can be done without being explicit about its metaphysical basis. But I remain profoundly grateful to Whitehead for having made this work possible.

Finally, it is my judgment that as the world as a whole enters into a time of unparalleled dangers, the contribution of Whitehead will become more and more important. Those who would guide us through these crises must see the world in its complex interrelated unity. Whitehead, as no one else of whom I know, makes that possible.