Metaphysics and Worldbuilding

Previously, I discussed how I plan to write the gap between East and West in my latest series, Saga of the Swordbreaker. One of the topics I touched upon was the difference in metaphysical paradigms between China and the West. Let’s go into greater detail in metaphysics and worldbuilding.

This post isn’t about religion and worldbuilding. A religion is a set of beliefs, behaviors, rituals, morals, worldviews, organizations, sacred texts and places. Metaphysics has a more nebulous meaning. It is composed of the words ‘meta’ and ‘physics’, implying that it is concerned with concepts beyond the realm of ordinary physics—that is, the material, mundane world.

Metaphysics is about first principles. The nature of consciousness. The relationship of mind and matter. The truth about existence. Whether humans have free will or are bound by causality, and to what degree.

Most stories don’t need a coherent set of metaphysics. It is sufficient to describe religious practices to the extent that they influence the characters. But a cultivation story is different. Cultivation is purification. Therefore, it touches deeply on the nature of the soul, on consciousness, on the interworking of the cosmos and how it influences living things.

Most ‘cultivation’ stories won’t do that. They are Western power and/or harem fantasies, sometimes with an Eastern aesthetic. But that’s not cultivation. Cultivation is not about cultivating power or satisfying base desires. It is about sweeping your heart clean of red dust and seeing the truth of reality. It touches deeply on matters of metaphysics.

When working on the metaphysics of a story, think deeply about the implications for the characters, the setting, and the story. You need to answer the key metaphysical questions. You may have a story in which God created the world. That’s the starting point to answer questions like this:

  • Where do souls come from?
  • What is the relationship of man to nature and higher realms?
  • What happens after death?
  • How much influence do higher and lower beings have on the world?

With a theocentric setting like this, the metaphysics of the story should place God and similar beings front and centre. But suppose instead you want a naturalistic philosophy, founded on observations of the micro and the macro, similar to Daoism. What does that mean for worldbuilding?

For starters, if the world has anything other than one sun and one moon, you cannot have Daoism.

The ancient Daoist sages studied natural phenomena and extrapolated their findings to all things. The Dao De Jing is not just a religious text, but also a manual of metaphysics. Through careful study of the text, you can understand all things. But this hinges on everything following the principles laid out in the Dao De Jing.

The Dao De Jing states, “The Daobirths one. One births two. Two births three. Three births the ten thousand things.”

This statement applies to all natural phenomena: father, mother, child, nation; heaven, man, earth, creation; sun, moon, earth, and all material things. In Daoism specifically, the Taiji contains yin and yang, and the interplay of yin and yang gives rise to all things. The day-night cycle on Earth governs everything from weather to tides to agriculture, and at the macro level the orbit of the Earth around the sun dictates the seasons. While the celestial bodies are always in motion, and are therefore always changing, the natural cycles of day and night and the seasons does not change. The exact days and times a change in time or season may differ, but the cycle itself will perpetuate according to identifiable laws, and therefore the cycle is predictable.

What happens if a planet has multiple moons and/or suns?

You won’t have yin and yang. The characters contain the word for ‘moon’ and ‘sun’ respectively—to be precise, one moon and one sun. Simply having two or more moons and suns will change the way a logographic language like Chinese will be written on that world.

Going deeper, it will be extremely difficult to form a coherent observation-based metaphysics system that aims to reconcile change and stability like Daoism. A planet with two moons forms a three-body system. Their interactions with each other, governed by Newton’s laws of motion and universal gravitation, creates a dynamic system with chaotic orbits. Without an understanding of high-level physics, predicting the appearance of the moons will be nigh-impossible.

You cannot confidently claim that the statement ‘one births two, two births three’ will hold true in all scenarios when you cannot reliably tell whether on a given day you will have one moon, two moons, or none. Simply having two moons upsets the first half of the statement, because you have three observable celestial objects: the sun and both moons. With this concept being a cornerstone of Daoism, Daoism as we understand it today cannot arise in such a world.

The novel The Three-Body Problem demonstrates this in vivid detail (though technically its central scientific conceit is in fact a four-body problem). Nanotechnology professor Wang Miao dives into a virtual reality game called Three Body. Characters inhabit a planet that flips randomly between Stable and Chaotic Eras. During Chaotic Eras, the climate randomly transitions between extreme heat and extreme cold, sometimes within minutes. The goal of the game is to figure out why this happens and how to predict the next Era. Wang Miao concludes that the planet has three suns—and that when the suns align, the world will be pulled into the nearest sun and be destroyed.

With such chaotic climate dynamics, a system of metaphysics based on predictable and governable change cannot possibly emerge. Instead, you would see a metaphysics system that embraces chaos, and either tries (in vain?) to predict and control it, or teaches its practitioners to ride the waves. This in turn may lead to characters who express chaos both within and without. Characters may even have a chaotic biology, such as random changing colour or exploding into puffs of smoke for no reason at all.

This may be fascinating to read, if executed well, but it will also highlight the sheer alienness of that character, and the world.

Such sweeping metaphysical systems may be rewarding if executed right. At the macro level it may have a significant influence on the story and the world. The unique characteristics of our world gave rise to its religions and metaphysics. Even changing something as seemingly trivial as the number of moons and suns would lead to a wildly different set of beliefs and metaphysics, and in turn stupendously different worldviews and character psychology.

The guiding principle for observation-based metaphysics is: As above, so below. Higher and lower realms are entwined. Events in one plane of existence influence all other planes. What can be observed in the stars or in the natural environment mirrors the underlying dynamics in the psyche and in society. This is akin to Daoism only being able to arise within a planet with one sun, one moon, and reasonably stable orbital periods.

The coming of an inauspicious star may lead to terrible fortune. In Chinese astrology, when the Bloody Knife star enters a person’s year pillar, he is at risk of shedding blood. Similarly in Western literature, we have horror stories in which the appearance of a celestial body will induce horrors and madness on the people below.

The Chinese martial art of baguazhang is based on Daoism. The eight trigrams is the foundation of the system. The eight mother palms is modeled on the eight trigrams, with each palm expressing a force of nature. In some schools, the eight trigrams are interposed on the human body, with different trigrams representing the organs and joints. By practicing the art, you gain insight into the workings of natural forces, and harmonize yourself with the Way. Here we see an inversion of the principle: As below, so above.

You don’t necessarily have to re-invent Daoism if you’re working on a story. But simply holding fast to this rule will help you create a coherent system of metaphysics for your world. Think of how your characters will live by these metaphysical principles, and reveal the principles through their actions.

This may include:

  • Auspicious and inauspicious dates and times for significant events
  • Significant birthdates and potential death dates
  • Interior design and architecture in accordance with religious / metaphysical principles
  • Calendar system based on key metaphysics concepts

For pulp-style stories, readers want to see characters take charge of their destinies. Chinese metaphysics, applied to the modern world, provides a way to do that.

Let’s go back to the example above. In the ancient teachings, the appearance of the Blood Knife star suggests that the person will ‘see blood’. This could mean encountering a serious accident or violent crime. Or it could simply be as benign as drawing blood for a blood donation. A believer in Chinese metaphysics will visit the local blood bank when he sees the Blood Knife star, essentially fulfilling the prophecy on his terms.

More hardcore believers will identify an auspicious birth date and time, then arrange for a Caesarian section on that occasion. They believe that doing this will guarantee an optimal life outcome for their offspring.

Cultivation is the very essence of metaphysics. Metaphysics deals with the nature of consciousness. Cultivation practices require conscious effort, transforming mind, body and spirit. It is a conscious, deliberate act, guided by a person’s intent—for better or for worse.

Metaphysics isn’t simply something you study. It is something you do. It is a system for making sense of the world, perceiving hidden influences, and taking action based on your findings to achieve optimal life outcomes.

A pulp-style story focuses on action. Action comes from characters. Characters are influenced by their system of metaphysics. A cultivation story, or any story that touches on such things, would do well by diving deeply into the metaphysics of the story—and how it is influenced by the world.

To see how I did it, check out Saga of the Swordbreaker here.

Metaphysics and Worldbuilding

One thought on “Metaphysics and Worldbuilding

  1. Who has a soul? Are souls all the same? Perhaps you have vegetative, sensitive, and rational souls in different being.

    In practical fantasy, it matters whether you have werewolves and other European shapeshifters where a being capable of being human was human originally, or kitsune and other Far Eastern shapeshifters where an animal really can be human.

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