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. 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.

  • nobody

    Removing the metaphysical realm from our conscience is another way to explain secular relatavism.

    Pope Benedict XVI said, this relativism has caused a profound crisis in society, so that “the fundamental essentials are at stake: human dignity, human life, the institution of the family and the equity of the social order–in other words the fundamental rights of man.” The crisis can only be overcome, he said, by restoring an appreciation for the natural moral law “in conformity with right reason– which is participation in the eternal Reason of God.”

  • R.C.

    A good argument.

    But it seems to me that a better one might be to point out that no government policy is ever enacted without relying on metaphysical assumptions of some kind.

    The problem “no metaphysics in candidates” is similar to the problem “thou shalt not legislate morality.” In both cases, it is an attempt to exclude from public discourse certain specific views about metaphysics or morality by asserting that any opposing view on the same topics is “not really metaphysical or moral at all.”

    No one has ever passed a law without thereby legislating morality or implying metaphysical assumptions. Even a decision to put a stop-sign up at an intersection makes moral judgments about the relative priority-levels of using taxpayers’ money (and, indeed, of taxing them in the first place), and of slightly impeding their freedom, versus the risk to innocent life: All topics fraught with moral and metaphysical considerations.

    (One cannot even get away from the topic by saying, “Oh, it’s nothing moral; it’s merely more practical to keep ourselves alive, in order to keep society functioning.” Oh really? By what moral standard do we judge that we should do what’s “practical?” Why should we “keep society functioning?” The word should is the dead giveaway that morality has once again intruded; that we are assigning greater value to human beings than to rocks and twigs; that we are in the grip of metaphysics even when we deny that we are.)

    Obama will be in a position where, especially when making judicial nominations, his decisions will be informed by metaphysics and morality at every turn…even when he would say they play no role. (This self-induced ignorance of the higher things, this willfully adopted “dog-like mind,” is epidemic in Obama’s party.)

    So there is no escape. A candidate operates from metaphysical beliefs expressed through morals even for something as simple as deciding his campaign itinerary. An elected official certainly does so in order to set his legislative agenda.

    These topics are on the table because they are the table.

  • Robert Mosby

    There is a deep level of unsophitication afoot in the unproductive maze of minds like Matthers. Surely Chris and his brothers in confusion believe that people have rights. But note that even a God-deprived notion of rights must require some attempt at metaphysical justification. Such an attempt would be incoherent but that very incoherence would likely give satisfaction to liberals seeking to banish religion, faith and metaphysics from the public square.

  • Deal W. Hudson

    David, as you know, the great irony of Matthew’s position, is that his Catholic education was supposed to give him confidence in natural law reasoning, which relies upon metaphysics for its foundation. Your point about the Declaration says it all. Matthews denies the very realities that undergird the American experiment. The failure of Catholic education is seen everywhere, especially in the media where the Catholic pro-aborts seem to abound.

  • R.S.Newark

    The comment by “good argument” benignly overlooks the more real fact that metaphysics – of some sort – sacred or profane always will exist, thus legislating “immorality” is equally easily possible and in this age; common…see Zoe Romanowsky’s carefully consentrated Solzhenitsyn item posted 10/08.

  • R.S.Newark

    It isn’t “The failure of catholic education…” it’s the failure of the students and the reasoned acceptance of that education that’s the problem….people like Matthews, who is a boor therefore lacks character and is very weak. He more than likely recieved a failing grade in those courses most important at the Cross.

  • meg

    Matthews is no dummy, and he knows very well that abortion is wrong. But he also knows he wouldn’t have a job if he was publicly pro-life, so he hides behind this intellectual sounding nonsense to justify his pro-choice position, to himself and anyone else who cares to listen. He has been seduced, like many others in his porfession – he as made the worst kind of compromise, all for his own TV show. Sad. He could be a great voice for the truth. I wonder if he was cowering when the Bishops went after Pleosi!

  • meg

    Oops, that’s Pelosi (see above).

  • Bender

    Warren, an Evangelical, asked the two presidential candidates for their views as to when human life begins.

    Warren did NOT ask when human life begins — he asked “At what point does a baby get human rights?”

    The difference is crucial, especially since Obama was even unwilling to say that a newborn baby has rights, or a one-year-old baby has rights.

  • William

    Something you don’t know, Chris Matthews? Your @$^& from a hole in the ground!

    Whenever I happen to tune into Chris Matthews, a flood of “turkey” sounding expletives enters my brain and I hurriedly switch channels. That clown is hopeless; he managed to matriculate beyond potty chair but he’s yet to transcend Saturday Night Live.

  • R.C.

    to R.S.Newark:

    You’re quite right. It doesn’t affect the substance of what I said (which I think is what you meant by calling it a “benign” oversight) but metaphysical assumptions and moral judgment reflected in legislation can be either good and true, or bad/evil.

    My own point was that the attempt to deny the existence of moral or metaphysical dimensions to governance fails inevitably: They are required dimensions to all serious human activities, and they certainly can’t be avoided in government.

    Since you raise the point of bad, false metaphysics (under the guise of having no metaphysical assumptions at all) and laws which legislate immorality (under the guise of having no moral implications at all), allow me to extend that point further:

    When we deliberately blind ourselves to the metaphysical underpinnings of our thoughts and activities, we thereby allow error to creep in unexamined. For this reason, those thoughts and activities about which we say, “Let’s not indulge in any metaphysics here…” are perhaps the ones most likely to be based on bad/false metaphysical assumptions.

    Likewise, we’re most likely to wind up making immoral laws when we defend those laws with the claim that we “can’t legislate morality.” For when we openly recognize the moral dimension of a law, we can debate about it on a moral level and edit that law until it violates a minimum of our moral intuitions. When we claim there is no moral dimension to a law at all, we allow its actual moral dimension to go unexamined, leaving an opportunity for legislated immorality.

    to Bender:

    Warren did NOT ask when human life begins — he asked “At what point does a baby get human rights?”

    Interesting that you mention that quote. It strikes me as a rather undefined question, because its exact meaning can vary as the definitions of “baby” and “get” vary.

    Which is interesting, because it allows you to find out about someone’s assumptions by how they answer the question (unless they duck the question, a la Obama).

    But if a person says, “A baby has human rights any time after conception” then you know they use the term “baby” for a human being in utero, rather than the term “embryo” or “zygote” or “fetus.” Or, if they start referring to human (not divine) law on the topic of “getting” human rights, then you know they regard rights to be given by the government, rather than given by God and merely protected (we hope) by government.

    I don’t know if that was carelessness or cleverness on Warren’s part to leave the meaning of the question somewhat “open.” But it was interesting, regardless.

  • Steve Skojec

    Maybe I’m on my own here, but I always just assumed that Chris Matthews died about 10 years ago, and they stuffed his corpse with animatronics and fiber optics so MSNBC could channel their editorial opinions through him via advanced text-to-speech interface.

    The way his mouth opens and closes, it’s more like a wet gash in his doughy face. It frightens children. And they still haven’t figured out the volume control for him – he seems to be permanently set on “sonic blast”.

    I always wish that they’d leave the camera on after his show is over so we could see him slump over in his chair as the lights go down and they turned off the juice, and the cleaning people came in with 3-in-1 oil to prepare him for the next day’s work.

    Is it just me?

  • R.C.

    Steve, if I’d been taking a drink when I read your post, you’d now owe me a keyboard.

    But I thank you. I needed that bit of levity.

  • OU

    As a practicing Catholic/Christian, I find those who opposes abortion for metaphysical reason but do not oppose killing by others means such as war and capital punishment for the same reason to be inconsistent. To me such people are consciously or unconsciously driven more by their political affiliation/philosophy than the moral principle of