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Philosophy in Africa

Science and African Metaphysics: A Search for Direction

Innocent I. Asouzu

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Abstract: If one takes the African situation as a case study, one finds that serious efforts are made for the sake of scientific progress and exploration. However, the results attained are not comparable to the energy expended. Lack of progress is often attributed to faulty policy formation and execution on the part of African leaders and governments. This essay attempts to shed light on the source of this problem. The heuristic principle I follow holds that the metaphysical preconditioning of consciousness leads us to approach sensory data in particular ways and, furthermore, influences both our formulation of problems and possible solutions. I note the lapses in African metaphysics and sketch an alternate metaphysics which I hope will inaugurate a new African system of thought.

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The distinctions Between metaphysics As Body Of Beliefs and metaphysics as a Tool Of Exploration shall serve as the foundation of this essay. The essay would review and highlight some important characteristics of metaphysics as the most fundamental science and the basic tool of exploration. This claim, among others, has incidentally been the root of most harsh and destructive criticisms against metaphysics as a quest in futility. (1) These doubts and criticisms notwithstanding the understanding of metaphysics as the catalyst of scientific progress and exploration would be upheld in this essay. This is borne from the insight that scientific progress is sustained by the urge to go beyond each attainable results. To stimulate this urge, whether real, hypothetical or even imaginary would be identified in this essay as the pride of metaphysics. Yet not all quest for quantitative and qualitative scientific growth based on this urge is rewarded with the same amount of progress. If the African situation is taken ask a case study, one discovers that serious and consistent efforts are made within this area to ask questions that go beyond the possible limits of attainable results. Yet the curious energy expanded within the African context in terms of search for scientific answer to challenging problems does not always seem to have yield commensurate results as comparable to what is obtainable elsewhere. A pertinent question then is this: Why is a quest sustained by the urge towards breaking new grounds fundamentally the same, but the results in terms of tangible or recognisable results remain at variance?


Two models shall be put up for reflection - the science oriented model and the mythological model. Metaphysics has variously been defined as the science of the ultimate or super-sensible reality but enjoys a more strict definition as the science of being as being. The history of philosophy from its inception has been the history of attempts at determining what this being as being as the ultimate reality is all about. The early Greek philosopher, not strictly as mythological writers, expanded lots of energy trying to ask questions concerning the most fundamental constitution of things. The type of solutions envisaged by these early philosopher and their attitude were different from the account given to the same question by earlier Greek mythological thinkers. Characteristic of the approach of these early Greek philosophers was the fact that although they dabble into mythological matters, they were all the more very careful in identifying the ontological worth of existent realities. They took nature seriously as an important and dependable source of explanation of things. They were cautiously curious with regard to their inquire concerning the explanation of the most fundamental nature of things. They recognised the important fact that things could and do have self-explanatory values. They worked systematically on the fact that nature had hidden secrets and mysteries which could be revealed through appeal to nature itself or which nature could be made to reveal. (2) In this way nature could account for its own hidden mysteries. This is the science motivated model.

Especially within the African set-up metaphysics remained and still remains relevant yet in a manner that contrasts with the understanding of metaphysics as a tool for science motivated explanation of reality. Here metaphysics takes the form of a set or body of belief and practices in relation to the ultimate reality. This is the mythological model. In this form the dynamic constitution of nature, whose self explanatory force is fundamental for scientific growth, is replaced by belief in a dynamic force in the form of a personal god, spirit or other agencies responsible for explanation of the reality of things. This model of metaphysics concentrates primarily in grasping the nature of the being responsible for the existence of the world, it is comfortable with taking stock of the very attribute of this personal being, his relationship with man, nature etc. Relevant literature on African world views can confirm this observation and a few examples suffice to illustrate this point. For K. C. Anyanwu "Africans have their own popular metaphysics, namely, mythology". (3) Going further Anyanwu very succinctly narrates the harmonious interdependence between the self and the world: "The African has the feeling of dependence: on family, community, friends and groups. He realises that his dependence on them is incomplete or embodies some uncertainties because none of these dependent forces can satisfy all the expectations of the individual. Only through faith in God or dependence on Him can he be free of disappointment. Living in a community, the African believes that there are mysterious forces surrounding him." (4) Omeregbe highlights an important dimension of African traditional philosophy as it relates to the explanation of the ultimate nature of things: For him within African context "there are mystical or supernatural forces which defy any scientific analysis or explanation. These forces surpass and sometimes counteract physical forces. They can be manipulated by man and employed for both good and evil purposes, such as protection, prevention of calamities, cure of diseases, procreation and bringing about sickness, death, and other kinds of misfortune to people." (5) African traditional philosophy exhibits the character of lack of conscious separation of religion and myth from scientific research. Such mythological metaphysical approach could be a serious hindrance to scientific progress if it is not consciously checked and systematically reversed in attempts to give account of the ultimate foundation of reality. It contrasts basically with consistent and systematic modest in-depth inquiry concerning the mechanisms inherent in the constitution of things themselves. (6) The many attempts at articulating an African metaphysics have therefore often ended in delimiting such metaphysics to describing the African's relationship to higher beings beyond the world of experience or man's struggle to account for his existence in terms of these forces. That ultimate causality is framed within this context in mythical language and is attributive to personified natural forces erects an artificial barrier, ab initio, between what is empirically demonstrable and what is considered as humanely impenetrable areas. Where myths dominate, approach to such topics as the idea of space and time, person, mind, cause and effect could very easily be wrongly identified, hence possible progress relating to knowledge in these areas becomes questionable.


Its short-comings notwithstanding mythological African metaphysics has served very important function since it has created a very conducive atmosphere for the realisation of very important psychological and moral needs of the individual and community at large. It is a metaphysics that is instrumental to the African in tackling fundamental issues of ethics and society and as such has been instrumental to questions of cohesion, social control, law and order within African societies. The fact of the African living in harmony with his environment and the world is rooted in a metaphysics that sees this as a necessary off shoot of man's relationship with the forces that control these spheres of reality. In this sense the spirits and the concomitant and ancillary cosmic forces serve not only as instances of arbitration, punishment but instances of reward in our relationship with the world. Such forces are evoked when necessary and avoided when it is very dangerous not to. Man's relationship with them is thus borne not only out of the intellectual curiosity to know their nature, essence and mode of existence but out of man's personal relationship to these forces as sources of regulation of social and individual conflicts. That the influence of these forces was felt beyond the world of human existence shows itself in the African understanding of the influence of these forces on all conditions necessary for a meaningful life. African metaphysics has been the guarantor of the African understanding of community life as a co-operate affair since it created the precondition for understanding of social cohesion based on people's alignment and allegiance to particular metaphysical forces that give meaning collectively to their lives and actions. This conception about the community has been one of the important factors that have guaranteed the continued survival of African people in the face of untold economic and social difficulties and hardship. This type of metaphysics sustains the psyche of the individual who relegate his absolute confidence to forces whose loyalty can be guaranteed through man's religious and cultic obligations to them. On the basis of African metaphysics personal questions concerning the end of life, the things most central for meaningful existence take a peculiar form. Here individuals survive to live and take their consolation on the fragmentary answers provided by the moment because they believe that their lives are based on destiny that continuously unfolds. The need for fundamental, radical and lasting solutions takes this fragmented nature since the constitution of reality as ultimately dependent on forces beyond the control of the individual is accepted as a fact. This indeterminate approach certainly serves very important purpose and missing link of reality.

That African metaphysics has in this manner concentrated more in providing answers to the practical question of life is highly laudable but not sufficient enough. Its method has failed in giving satisfactory answers in such areas as prediction and control of diseases, hunger, natural catastrophes, climatic and cosmic changes, etc. As long as the approach to questions posed in these areas is enclosed within a casual framework explicable mostly by recourse to the activities of mythological magical forces, there would hardly be any appreciable progress towards understanding, mastering and giving satisfactory and adequate solutions to them. The same could be said of attempts at understanding and explaining human destiny which is fundamental to socio-economic welfare of the individual and community. Mythological based metaphysics sees these areas largely as something that is beyond the control of man. Group dynamics is hardly understandable and explicable on the basis of rules governing organisations and peoples, or rules derivable from interpersonal relations within a society. On the contrary, elements of mythological and non-rational nature are postulated as the principles governing actions and intentions of people in groups and societies. It is not uncommon therefore to make recourse to charms, magical and occult manipulative means as substitute for explanations based on clear cut scientific insight. In this attempt at extolling the end, magical and occult manipulative means are substituted for real scientific insight. The idea of magical manipulation of people in decision making process, for example, defies the fundamental principles of group dynamics that is won through testable and tested models and principles relating to group activities. On the basis of postulation of the idea of spiritual forces, medium, mystical empowerment through use of charms, occult practices, magical manipulations, medicine men a mythological metaphysics that dwells on resolving only practical questions could end up being utopian and technically inconsequential.

African metaphysics has hardly revolved systematically around the potentialities of the individual to give lasting solutions and answers to problems. Such answers refer not only to those areas considered purely metaphysical but also to those areas unassumingly metaphysical in constitution. These are those areas where metaphysical questions are unintentionally posed as physical questions. Here the ability of the individual to pose ultimate questions which do not necessarily evoke purely supersensible answers readily come to mind. Here we are confronted with questions relating the pure and applied sciences of atoms, of micro electronics, of digital technology, of neuro-physiology etc. Due to their micro characteristic and constitution and their often non empirical out-look these areas of knowledge share much in common with metaphysical ideas of super-sensibility. Within the ambient of African metaphysical thinking these areas would readily fall within the area of the mysterious, magical, occult, and hence empirically and humanly unattainable. In this way possibilities to break new grounds are compromised because metaphysics is wrongly conceived as serving merely an incomplete supersensible function. In essence, the courage to break new grounds without appearing mythological or magical is one of the hall marks of the philosophical metaphysics.


When one persistently asks why scientific inquiry within the African context has not kept pace, quantitatively and qualitatively, with what obtains elsewhere, lot of reasons could be adduced to explain away the obvious especially as this touches sensitive issues relating to the pride of the average African. It is not within the scope of this essay to define exhaustively what is scientific progress and in what way this does not apply to the African case. However, whichever way one looks at it, the facts speak for themselves. Africa is heavily dependent for almost all her advanced needs. Moreover echoes of scientific advancement from Africa is very scanty and insignificant to be relevant. Recycling of old and new knowledge as is practised in many parts of Africa even in institutions of higher learning can hardly qualify for directional in serious moves to scientific advancement. Such recycling of knowledge can hardly add to quantitative and qualitative growth of knowledge even if it is necessary to address specific needs and issues.

One can concede to the fact that scientific inquiries are determined by needs. These needs can spurn to opening up new grounds, yet they can be addressed by the evaluation or revaluation of old ways of doing things. Scientific endeavour does not restrict itself to mere local needs, this is why the urge to discovery is the highest form of urge. This urge reflects the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake, it reflects metaphysics as the love of wisdom, the search for the new, the most fundamental basis of all things. Any metaphysics that targets primarily mere obscure restrictive realities could render itself ineffective. This could be one of the set-backs of scientific advancement in Africa since this is often determined by local needs. For there to be real scientific progress account has to be taken of needs based on the urge to explore the challenges of being. Science by its very nature spurns the mind to come up with lasting solutions to problems that confront members of the immediate communities and beyond. It is thus futuristic in the sense of mapping out hypothesis about the unknown and unexplored reality. One must concede that this orientation of science is dependent on a lot of factors like, the availability of the research climate, the availability of fund and other means, motivation and reward of hard work. Some of these and other ancillary factors have been identified as hampering serious scientific progress within the African context. These problems, where they exist, should be addressed and taken very seriously. On the other hand, to capitalise on them as the very factors that hinder progress and growth can at best be identified as by-products of a mythological founded metaphysics. Africa is renowned as a continent with lots of natural resources and man power. Lack of metaphysical insight makes it impossible to understand the fundamental issues concerning the need to solve one's problems with one's resources. As long as one believes that solutions can come per chance, from outside, through the application of a magical wand or through unco-ordinated attempt at understanding what makes a good life and in what such a good life subsists, what makes a good government, why a good government is necessary, why there is need to improve ones conditions and the need for concerted efforts to tackle such problems, African's backwardness shall persist.


One of the important constituents of our historical consciousness is its metaphysical preconditioning which is expressible in diverse ways. The metaphysical preconditioning of our consciousness disposes us to approaching the data of our remote and immediate world in peculiar ways and even influences our formulation of problems and problem solving methods and techniques. Such metaphysical preconditionings are archetypes taken for granted and are the conditions of possibility of meaningful community life. It is important to highlight that although they precondition us, they do not always offer the best methods and techniques of approaching issues. They could subjectively offer correct solutions to problems. In so far as they dogmatically dominate our consciousness their engaging us in persistently doing the "wrong" thing in good faith could be resistant to transformation or change. Metaphysical preconditioning makes a lot of difference with regard to theoretical and practical formulations of questions and is as such a very crucial factor in determining the rate of changes within a society - technologically or otherwise. A metaphysics grounded in myths and systematically or otherwise unfolded as such is very likely to raise questions and answers founded in myths. But the question is to what extent such answers are relevant to tackling, adequately issues that deserve attention. Surely not every answer regarded as adequate is in the true sense of the word so, even if it turns out to serve a missing link of reality within a given historical context. Metaphysically speaking anything that exists serves a missing link of reality. (7) In this capacity any answer that can be given within any historical context has something to contribute to determining the ultimate nature of reality. It is however one thing for a thing to serve a missing link of reality and another thing for it be identified as the very missing link of reality being sought at a given historical moment. In the case of Africa different forms of realities have been identified as serving this missing links at different historical times and places. Thus there were times when people relied on means not fully accountable rationally for the attainment of certain ends. In this way people relied on charms, the medicine man and other occult and obscure practices as means towards attaining certain ends. There were times when it was proper to address the problem of poverty through human sacrifices and other anti-social practices. These manners of approach were understandable and explainable within the historical circumstances of their usage. In a modern science oriented milieu such obscure practices would hardly qualify as means of positive knowledge or as viable means of addressing issues if the reasons underlying them are buried in inexplicable myth. What makes such methods difficult to accept is the inherent contradiction and obscurity often associated with them. This is most evident in the use of very contradictory and unethical methods to arrive at practical certain solutions. Thus their is a wide spread belief, even today, that on the basis of concoctions derived from human parts like the head and sexual organs one can quickly amass wealth instead of wasting ones time relying on methods based on tested economic principles. This phenomenon falls within the realm of the abhorrent practices still obtainable in Nigeria under the concept "ritual killing" for material upliftment. This phenomenon captures vividly the disaster a mythological oriented metaphysics can cause to a society. Not only within the African context but elsewhere one wonders to what extent such approaches are in a position to guide the inquiring mind accurately to giving lasting answers to important issues of our existence.


It could be said that the developments recorded within the last one hundred years within Africa have been so fragmented and unsystematic as to maintain a continuous growth as is visible elsewhere. This issue is not only verifiable within the area of the pure natural sciences but more so even at the level of the socio-economic and political arena. Most of the political, social and economic systems being practised within the African set-up are often mutilated and functional forms of models, obtainable elsewhere, without corresponding metaphysical insight. Visible functionality of models is no measure of realisation of the metaphysical hindsight behind what it is a model of. To adopt a system or model of something is evidence of our recognition of a problem as genuine i.e. a problem that necessitated recourse to such a model. Now, adopting and adapting the model as answer expresses one form of limitation or the other. To go beyond the model demonstrates the urge towards the dictates of our metaphysical reason to provide adequate answers. Success in this toss from model to its source and back can be achieved only if the model is subjected to thorough critical examination. In this case the mythical metaphysical reason cannot mix well with what it is a model of if it does not take time to critically know itself and its limits.

African scientific endeavours have to meet certain minimum standards to be relevant. In this sense science becomes an on going modification and refinement of scientific methods and achievements with a view to determining new and even better ways of understanding the same reality. This approach must be coupled with serious efforts and to document the results of findings. In the same way there is need for refinement of the method used to communicate results to a third party towards incremental development of knowledge. Not only science but science-based development within the socio-economic or socio-cultural framework is largely dependent on the ability of scientists and interest groups to embark on a process of self reformation and criticism which could create the necessary awareness towards the infinite nature of the metaphysical object posing itself as question. Science is geared towards improvement of the status quo as applied science and in this sense can highlight the excellent points of its achievements. This is in so far necessary as a historical need, not as an apologetic move towards self-exaltation. In this regard it is important to state that the level of development within a given system is relative to the level of commitment brought by a strong proportion of those who have the insight towards the necessary conditions on which such a system is founded. Such necessary conditions transcend the contractual bonds existing among members of the community, they are founded on compelling imperatives ingrained in the notion of these bonds themselves. Wherever such compelling imperatives are not consciously and explicitly relevant in the actions of people, the system tends to be muddled up in confusion, disorientation and stagnation. The attempt at realising the most fundamental and compelling spirit that keeps history in place is something metaphysical. In the face of much confusion within the African socio economic and scientific arena one wonders the level at which this compelling imperative is present. This imperative is basic to the spirit of all forms of progress and exploration in religion, economics, science, technology etc.

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(1) Kenneth F. Dougherty, Metaphysics, New York 1965, p. 14.

(2) William S. Sahakian, Outline-History of Philosophy, New York 1969, p.1- 4.

(3) E. A. Ruch and K. C. Anyanwu, African Philosophy. An Introduction to the main philosophical trends in contemporary Africa, Rome 1981, p. 163.

(4) ibid. 164f

(5) Joseph Omeregbe, Knowing Philosophy. A General Introduction, Lagos 1990, p. 26 - 27.

(6) Russel Keat and John Urry, Social Theory As Science, London 1975, pp. 27-40

(7) Innocent Asouzu, Progress In Metaphysics: The Phenomenon of "Missing Link" and Interdisciplinary Communication, in: Calabar Journal of Liberal Studies, Vol. 2, Nr. 2. December, 1990, pp. 82 - 91.

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