Chris Matthews on Metaphysics

In my old age I have developed some new vices, the two worst being my bad habit of playing solitaire on my computer and my even worse habit of watching and listening to talking heads on cable TV, like Chris Matthews. Matthews is not the worst of them, and sometimes he’s pretty good. When watching him it helps me that I have a good friend who can’t sit still long enough to allow anybody to finish a sentence. Having been interrupted by my friend a million times over the years, I’ve grown used to this kind of thing; hence I can stand it (just barely) when the hyperactive Matthews interrupts all his guests.
Though Matthews is sometimes pretty good, he recently said one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard. Despite being a Jesuit-educated Catholic (an alumnus of the College of Holy Cross), Matthews is pro-choice on abortion. Not long ago he was discussing the televised forum in which Rick Warren, pastor of the Saddleback Church and author of The Purpose Driven Life, held back-to-back interviews with Barack Obama and John McCain. Not surprisingly, Warren, an Evangelical, asked the two presidential candidates for their views as to when human life begins. Without hesitation McCain said it begins at the moment of conception. Obama gave what his fans call a more “nuanced” answer: He said the question was “above my pay grade.”
Matthews holds that Warren had no business asking such a question of a political candidate, and neither does anybody else, for the question of when human life begins is a “metaphysical” question; and metaphysical questions, according to Matthews, are out of bounds when it comes to American politics. “If a politician, thou shalt not engage in metaphysical judgment; and if a voter, thou shalt not ask metaphysical questions of candidates.” What an interesting and curious rule! I wonder who made it up? Matthews himself, I’d guess. For if the rule is valid, then it makes it easier for Chris to reconcile the apparent contradiction between his Catholicism and his pro-choice-ism.
Matthews didn’t offer a definition of metaphysics, but he probably means what most people mean by metaphysics, namely, propositions that refer to realities — or imagined realities — that are not susceptible to empirical (or sense-evidence) proof. Thus belief in God is a metaphysical belief; and so is belief in the immortality of the soul; and so, for that matter, is belief in the very existence of a soul — at least if soul is understood (as, for example, Plato understood it) to be a non-material entity whose existence is not dependent on the body. Matthews, then, would tell us that it is out of bounds for an American to demand that a political candidate answer the question of whether he believes in God or in the existence or the immortality of the soul.
From other things I’ve heard Matthews say on TV, I would guess that he’d justify his ban on metaphysical questions by citing the provision in the Constitution according to which there shall be “no religious test” for public office. The expression “religious test” had a very clear meaning for the Founding Fathers. Beginning in the 17th century there were “religious tests” in England — legal standards that effectively excluded Catholics, Jews, and Protestant Nonconformists from Parliament, from civil and military office, and from Oxford and Cambridge.
That’s why Alexander Pope had to earn his living from poetry; as a Catholic he was ineligible for one of the government sinecures that many 18th-century writers were given. That’s why Catholics and Nonconformists, though they could serve as privates in the English army and navy, could not become commissioned officers. And that’s why the brainy sons of Baptists, Presbyterians, Quakers, and Congregationalists had to attend “dissenting academies.” They were not allowed into Oxford or Cambridge. When the Founding Fathers banned religious tests, it was this kind of thing they had in mind. They were not saying, as Chris seems to imagine, that voters must be barred from asking candidates about their views on God and the soul.
Besides, a religious test is one thing; a metaphysical test would be something else. Matthews, I believe, is a great fan of Thomas Jefferson. I wonder when Chris last read the Declaration of Independence, where Jefferson inserted four (count them, four) references to that most metaphysical of metaphysical entities, God.
But it’s not just propositions about God and the soul that are metaphysical. If Matthews believes, as no doubt he does, that his wife, his children, and his friends really and truly exist, and are not merely figments of his hallucinatory imagination, then these are metaphysical beliefs; for there is no way, based on sense evidence alone, that we can prove that the persons and things surrounding us exist outside our minds. And if Matthews believes, as he almost certainly does, that there is an unwritten and not-man-made moral law (the kind of thing that was probably called “natural law” when Chris was at the Cross), then this too is a metaphysical belief.
The fact of the matter is that we human beings, for better or worse, are metaphysical animals — not just in the sense that we have God-created souls, but also in the sense that it is impossible for us to think about the world or to act in it without making metaphysical assumptions.
However, it is true that in the last century or so there have been some people, including some well-known philosophers (such as Auguste Comte, the Vienna Circle, and some British professors) who tried to persuade us that we can and should think and act in a perfectly non-metaphysical way. The pro-abortion movement, I submit, is in some measure a byproduct of this anti-metaphysical campaign. If unborn babies have no metaphysical dimension, then how can it be wrong to kill them? Besides, if there is no metaphysical realm of being, then rightness and wrongness are just matters of opinion or choice (choice — a word pro-abortionists find absolutely delicious) — aren’t they?


  • David R. Carlin Jr.

    David R. Carlin Jr. is a politician and sociologist who served as a Democratic majority leader of the Rhode Island Senate. His books include “Can a Catholic Be a Democrat?: How the Party I Loved Became the Enemy of My Religion” and “The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.” Carlin is a current professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island at Newport.

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