Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy investigating principles of reality transcending those of any particular science. Cosmology and ontology are traditional branches of metaphysics. It is concerned with explaining the ultimate nature of being and the world. "Metaphysician" is, counterintuitively, the name of someone that studies metaphysics, not metaphysicist.
The word derives from the Greek words μετά (metá) (meaning "beyond" or "after") and φυσικά (physiká) (meaning "physical"), "physical" referring to those works on matter by Aristotle in antiquity. The prefix meta- ("beyond") was attached to the chapters in Aristotle's work that physically followed after the chapters on "physics", in posthumously edited collections. Aristotle called some of the subjects treated there "first philosophy."
A central branch of metaphysics is ontology, the investigation into what types of things there are in the world and what relations these things bear to one another. The metaphysician also attempts to clarify the notions by which people understand the world, including existence, objecthood, property, space, time, causality, and possibility.
Before the development of modern science, scientific questions were addressed as a part of metaphysics known as "natural philosophy"; the term "science" itself meant "knowledge". The scientific method, however, made natural philosophy an empirical and experimental activity unlike the rest of philosophy, and by the end of the eighteenth century, it had begun to be called "science" in order to distinguish it from philosophy. Thereafter, metaphysics became the philosophical enquiry of a non-empirical character into the nature of existence. Thus the original situation of metaphysics being integral with (Aristotelian) physics and science, has, in the West, become reversed so that scientists generally consider metaphysics antithetical to the empirical sciences.
History of metaphysics
One of the first metaphysicians is Parmenides of Elea. He held that the multiplicity of existing things, their changing forms and motion, are but an appearance of a single eternal reality (“Being”), thus giving rise to the Parmenidean principle that “all is one.” From this concept of Being, he went on to say that all claims of change or of non-Being are illogical. Because he introduced the method of basing claims about appearances on a logical concept of Being, he is considered one of the founders of metaphysics.
Metaphysics is called the "first philosophy" by Aristotle. The editor of his works, Andronicus of Rhodes, is thought to have placed the books on first philosophy right after another work, Physics, and called them τὰ μετὰ τὰ φυσικὰ βιβλία (ta meta ta physika biblia) or, "the books that come after the [books on] physics." This was misread by Latin scholiasts who thought it meant "the science of what is beyond the physical." However, once the name was given, the commentators sought to find intrinsic reasons for its appropriateness. For instance, it was understood to mean "the science of the world beyond nature", that is, the science of the immaterial. Again, it was understood to refer to the chronological or pedagogical order among our philosophical studies, so that the "metaphysical sciences would mean, those which we study after having mastered the sciences which deal with the physical world" (St. Thomas, "In Lib, Boeth. de Trin.", V, 1). In the widespread, though erroneous, use of the term in current popular literature, there is a remnant of the notion that metaphysical means ultraphysical: thus, "metaphysical healing" means healing by means of remedies which are not physical. In the English language, the word comes by way of the Medieval Latin metaphysica, the neuter plural of Medieval Greek metaphysika.|title=Online Etymology Dictionary While its Greek and Latin origins are clear, various dictionaries trace its first appearance in English to the mid-sixteenth century, although in some cases as early as 1387.|title=Unabridged Dictionary
Aristotle's Metaphysics was divided into three parts, in addition to some smaller sections related to a philosophical lexicon and some reprinted extracts from the Physics, which are now regarded as the proper branches of traditional Western metaphysics:
- The study of Being and existence; includes the definition and classification of entities, physical or mental, the nature of their properties, and the nature of change.
- Natural Theology
- The study of God; involves many topics, including among others the nature of religion and the world, existence of the divine, questions about Creation, and the numerous religious or spiritual issues that concern humankind in general.
- Universal science
- The study of irst principles, which Aristotle believed to be the foundation of all other inquiries. An example of such a principle is the law of noncontradiction and the status it holds in non-paraconsistent logics.
Universal science or first philosophy treats of "being qua being" - that is, what is basic to all science before one adds the particular details of any one science. Essentially "being qua being" may be translated as "being insofar as being goes", or as, "being in terms of being". This includes topics such as causality, substance, species and elements, as well as the notions of relation, interaction, and finitude.
Metaphysics as a discipline was a central part of academic inquiry and scholarly education even before the age of Aristotle, who considered it "the Queen of Sciences". Its issues were considered no less important than the other main formal subjects of physical science, medicine, mathematics, poetics and music. Since the beginning of modern philosophy during the seventeenth century, problems that were not originally considered within the bounds of metaphysics have been added to its purview, while other problems considered metaphysical for centuries are now typically relegated to their own separate regions in philosophy, such as philosophy of religion, philosophy of mind, philosophy of perception, philosophy of language, and philosophy of science.
Central questions of metaphysics
Most positions that can be taken with regards to any of the following questions are endorsed by one or another notable philosopher. It is often difficult to frame the questions in a non-controversial manner.
Abstract objects and mathematics
Some philosophers endorse views according to which there are abstract objects such as numbers, or Universals. Universals are properties that can be instantiated by multiple objects, such as redness or squareness.) Abstract objects are generally regarded as being outside of space and time, and/or as being causally inert. Mathematical objects and fictional entities and worlds are often given as examples of abstract objects. The view that there really are no abstract objects is called nominalism. Realism about such objects is exemplified by Platonism. Other positions include moderate realism, as espoused by Aristotle, and conceptualism.
The philosophy of mathematics overlaps with metaphysics because some positions are realistic in the sense that they hold that mathematical objects really exist, whether transcendentally, physically, or mentally. Platonic realism holds that mathematical entities are a transcendent realm of non-physical objects. The simplest form of mathematical empiricism claims that mathematical objects are just ordinary physical objects, i.e. that squares and the like physically exist. Plato rejected this view, among other reasons, because geometrical figures in mathematics have a perfection that no physical instantiation can capture. Modern mathematicians have developed many strange and complex mathematical structures with no counterparts in observable reality, further undermining this view. The third main form of realism holds that mathematical entities exist in the mind. However, given a materialistic conception of the mind, it does not have the capacity to literally contain the many infinities of objects in mathematics. Intuitionism, inspired by Kant, sticks with the idea that "there are no non-experienced mathematical truths". This involves rejecting as intuitionistically unacceptable anything that cannot be held in the mind or explicitly constructed. Intuitionists reject the law of the excluded middle and are suspicious of infinity, particularly of transfinite numbers.
Other positions such as formalism and fictionalism that do not attribute any existence to mathematical entities are anti-realist.
Cosmology and cosmogony
Cosmology is the branch of metaphysics that deals with the world as the totality of all phenomena in space and time. Historically, it has had quite a broad scope, and in many cases was founded in religion. The ancient Greeks did not draw a distinction between this use and their model for the cosmos. However, in modern use it addresses questions about the Universe which are beyond the scope of physical science. It is distinguished from religious cosmology in that it approaches these questions using philosophical methods (e.g. dialectics). Cosmogony deals specifically with the origin of the universe.
Modern metaphysical cosmology and cosmogony try to address questions such as:
- What is the origin of the Universe? What is its first cause? Is its existence necessary? (see monism, pantheism, emanationism and creationism)
- What are the ultimate material components of the Universe? (see mechanism, dynamism, hylomorphism, atomism)
- What is the ultimate reason for the existence of the Universe? Does the cosmos have a purpose? (see teleology)
Determinism and free will
Determinism is the philosophical proposition that every event, including human cognition, decision and action, is causally determined by an unbroken chain of prior occurrences. It holds that no random, spontaneous, mysterious, or miraculous events occur. The principal consequence of the deterministic claim is that it poses a challenge to the existence of free will.
The problem of free will is the problem of whether rational agents exercise control over their own actions and decisions. Addressing this problem requires understanding the relation between freedom and causation, and determining whether the laws of nature are causally deterministic. Some philosophers, known as Incompatibilists, view determinism and free will as mutually exclusive. If they believe in determinism, they will therefore believe free will to be an illusion, a position known as Hard Determinism. Proponents range from Baruch Spinoza to Ted Honderich.
Others, labeled Compatibilists (or "Soft Determinists"), believe that the two ideas can be coherently reconciled. Adherents of this view include Thomas Hobbes and many modern philosophers.
It is a popular misconception that determinism necessarily entails that humanity or individual humans have no influence on the future and its events ( a position known as Fatalism). Determinists, however, believe that the level to which human beings have influence over their future is itself dependent on present and past.
Identity and change
The Greeks took some extreme positions on the nature of change: Parmenides denied that change occurs at all, while Heraclitus thought change was ubiquitous: "[Y]ou cannot step into the same river twice".
Identity, sometimes called Numerical Identity, is the relation that a "thing" bears to itself, and which no "thing" bears to anything other than itself (cf. sameness). According to Leibniz, if some object x is identical to some object y, then any property that x has, y will have as well. However, it seems, too, that objects can change over time. If one were to look at a tree one day, and the tree later lost a leaf, it would seem that one could still be looking at that same tree. Two rival theories to account for the relationship between change and identity are Perdurantism, which treats the tree as a series of tree-stages, and Endurantism which maintains that the tree -- the same tree -- is present at every stage in its history.
Mind and matter
The nature of matter was a problem in its own right in early philosophy. Aristotle himself introduced the idea of matter in general to the Western world, adapting the term hyle which originally meant "lumber". Early debates centered on identifying a single underlying principle. Water was claimed by Thales, Air by Anaximenes, Apeiron (the Boundless) by Anaximander, Fire by Heraclitus. Democritus, in conjunction with his mentor, Leucippus, conceived of an atomic theory many centuries before it was accepted by modern science. It is worth noting, however, that the grounds necessary to ensure validity to the proposed theory's veridical nature were not scientific, but just as philosophical as those traditions espoused by Thales and Anaximander.
The nature of the mind and its relation to the body has been seen as more of a problem as science has progressed in its mechanistic understanding of the brain and body. Proposed solutions often have ramifications about the nature of mind as a whole. René Descartes proposed substance dualism, a theory in which mind and body are essentially quite different, with the mind having some of the attributes traditionally assigned to the soul, in the seventeenth century. This creates a conceptual puzzle about how the two interact (which has received some strange answers, such as occasionalism). Evidence of a close relationship between brain and mind, such as the Phineas Gage case, have made this form of dualism increasingly unpopular.
Another proposal discussing the mind-body problem is idealism, in which the material is sweepingly eliminated in favor of the mental. Idealists, such as George Berkeley, claim that material objects do not exist unless perceived and only as perceptions. The "German idealists" such as Fichte, Hegel and Schopenhauer took Kant as their starting-point, although it is debatable how much of an idealist Kant himself was. Idealism is also a common theme in Eastern philosophy. Related ideas are panpsychism and panexperientialism which say everything has a mind rather than everything exists in a mind. Alfred North Whitehead was a twentieth-century exponent of this approach.
Idealism is a monistic theory, in which there is a single universal substance or principles. Neutral monism, associated in different forms with Baruch Spinoza and Bertrand Russell is a theory which seeks to be less extreme than idealism, and to avoid the problems of substance dualism. It claims that existence consists of a single substance, which in itself is neither mental nor physical, but is capable of mental and physical aspects or attributes - thus it implies a dual-aspect theory.
For the last one hundred years, the dominant metaphysics has without a doubt been materialism. Type identity theory, token identity theory, functionalism, reductive physicalism, nonreductive physicalism, eliminative materialism, anomalous monism, property dualism, epiphenomenalism and emergence are just some of the candidates for a scientifically-informed account of the mind. (It should be noted that while many of these positions are dualisms, none of them are substance dualism.)
Necessity and possibility
Metaphysicians investigate questions about the ways the world could have been. David Lewis, in "On the Plurality of Worlds," endorsed a view called Concrete Modal realism, according to which facts about how things could have been are made true by other concrete worlds, just like ours, in which things are different. Other philosophers, such as Gottfried Leibniz, have dealt with the idea of possible worlds as well. The idea of necessity is that any necessary fact is true across all possible worlds; that is, we could not imagine it to be otherwise. A possible fact is true in some possible world, even if not in the actual world. For example, it is possible that cats could have had two tails, or that any particular apple could have not existed. By contrast, certain propositions seem necessarily true, such as analytic propositions, e.g. "All bachelors are unmarried." The particular example of analytic truth being necessary is not universally held among philosophers. A less controversial view might be that self-identity is necessary, as it seems fundamentally incoherent to claim that for any x, it is not identical to itself; this is known as the law of identity, a putative "first principle". Aristotle describes the principle of non-contradiction, "It is impossible that the same quality should both belong and not belong to the same thing . . . This is the most certain of all principles . . . Wherefore they who demonstrate refer to this as an ultimate opinion. For it is by nature the source of all the other axioms."
Objects and their properties
The world seems to contain many individual things, both physical, like apples, and abstract such as love and the number 3; the former objects are called particulars. Particulars are said to have attributes, e.g. size, shape, color, location and two particulars may have some such attributes in common. Such attributes, are also termed Universals or Properties; the nature of these, and whether they have any real existence and if so of what kind, is a long-standing issue, realism and nominalism representing opposing views.
Metaphysicians concerned with questions about universals or particulars are interested in the nature of objects and their properties, and the relationship between the two. Some, e.g. Plato, argue that properties are abstract objects, existing outside of space and time, to which particular objects bear special relations. David Armstrong holds that universals exist in time and space but only at their instantiation and their discovery is a function of science. Others maintain that what particulars are is a bundle or collection of properties (specifically, a bundle of properties they have).
Religion and spirituality
Theology is the study of God and the Nature of the Divine. Whether there is a God (monotheism), many gods (polytheism) or no gods (atheism), or whether it is impossible to know if any gods exist (agnosticism), and whether the Divine intervenes directly in the world (theism), or its sole function is to be the first cause of the universe (deism); these and whether God and the World are different, as in (panentheism and dualism), or are identical as in pantheism), are some of the primary metaphysical questions concerning philosophy of religion.
Within the standard Western philosophical tradition, theology reached its peak under the medieval school of thought known as scholasticism, which focused primarily on the metaphysical aspects of Christianity. While the work of the scholastics has been largely eclipsed in the wake of modern philosophy, key figures such as Thomas Aquinas still play an important role in the philosophy of religion.
Space and time
In the Middle Ages, Augustine asked the fundamental question about the nature of time. A traditional realist position in ontology is that time and space have existence apart from the human mind. Idealists, including Kant claim that space and time are mental constructs used to organise perceptions, or are otherwise unreal.
Suppose that one is sitting at a table, with an apple in front of him or her; the apple exists in space and in time, but what does this statement indicate? Could it be said, for example, that space is like an invisible three-dimensional grid in which the apple is positioned? Suppose the apple, and all physical objects in the universe, were removed from existence entirely. Would space as an "invisible grid" still exist? René Descartes and Leibniz believed it would not, arguing that without physical objects, "space" would be meaningless because space is the framework upon which we understand how physical objects are related to each other. Newton, on the other hand, argued for an absolute "container" space. The pendulum swung back to relational space with Einstein and Ernst Mach.
While the absolute/relative debate, and the realism debate are equally applicable to time and space, time presents some special problems of its own. The flow of time has been denied in ancient times by Parmenides and more recently by J. M. E. McTaggart in his paper The Unreality of Time.
The direction of time, also known as "time's arrow", is also a puzzle, although physics is now driving the debate rather than philosophy. It appears that fundamental laws are time-reversible and the arrow of time must be an "emergent" phenomenon, perhaps explained by a statistical understanding of thermodynamic entropy.
Common-sense tells us that objects persist across time, that there is some sense in which you are the same person you were yesterday, in which the oak is the same as the acorn, in which you perhaps even can step into the same river twice. Philosophers have developed two rival theories for how this happens, called "endurantism" and "perdurantism". Broadly speaking, endurantists hold that a whole object exists at each moment of its history, and the same object exists at each moment. Perdurantists believe that objects are four-dimensional entities made up of a series of temporal parts like the frames of a movie.
Metaphysics has been attacked, at different times in history, as being futile and overly vague (or even meaningless), or of no use entirely. This section lists but a few of these objections.
- If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion. |An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding}}
- "though we cannot know these objects as things in themselves, we must yet be in a position at least to think them as things in themselves; otherwise we should be landed in the absurd conclusion that there can be appearance without anything that appears.|Critique of Pure Reason pp. Bxxvi-xxvii}}
A.J. Ayer in "Language, Truth and Logic" using the verifiability theory of meaning conluded that metaphysical propositions were neither true nor false but strictly meaningless, as were religious views.
Karl Popper argued that metaphysical statements are not meaningless statements, but rather not fallible, testable or provable statements i.e. neither empirical observations nor logical arguments could prove metaphysical statements to be true or false. Hence, a metaphysical statement usually implies an idea about the world or about the universe, which may seem reasonable but is ultimately not empirically testable. C.S. Lewis argues in his work, The Abolition of Man, that you cannot reach the a first principle by way of concluding. First Principles are premises. Further, any attempt to use reason to find a first principle would be futile. The first principles are prior to reason, and something can only be reasonable insomuch as it corresponds with reality, or, the first principles. "If nothing is self evident, nothing can be proved." Similarly, if nothing is obligatory for its own sake, nothing is obligatory at all." Lewis explains the unexplainable:
"you cannot go on explaining away forever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on seeing through things forever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to see through first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To see through all things is the same as not to see."
The philosophy of Yin and Yang may also be a useful analogy. For light to exist, darkness must also exist (to some degree). Without the existence of both in some proportion, neither one may exist. The very meaning of light implies the existence of darkness and vice versa. You cannot have a left without a right, or a good with no evil. They are opposites of the same pole, so existence of one is essentially "hardwired" into the existence of the other, through definition. But just as there are direct opposites, there are varying degrees between opposites. For example Hot, warm, lukewarm, cold, icy cold, etc. Additionally, our individual, personalized, perceptions of these concepts vary virtually infinitely from person to person. What is hot to me, may not be hot to you. Truth is not absolute in nature, in fact it's actually very dynamic in nature across a 4-dimensional universe. It really is all relative.
Disciplines, topics and problems
- Buddhist philosophy
- Vienna Circle
- Logical positivism
- Theory of everything
- The London Philosophy Study Guide offers many suggestions on what to read, depending on the student's familiarity with the subject: Logic & Metaphysics
- Butchvarov, Panayot (1979). Being Qua Being: A Theory of Identity, Existence and Predication. Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press.
- Harris, E. E. (1965). The Foundations of Metaphysics in Science. London: George Allen and Unwin.
- Harris, E. E. (2000). The Restitution of Metaphysics. New York: Humanity Books.
- Kant, I (1781). Critique of Pure Reason.
- Gale, Richard M. (2002). The Blackwell Guide to Metaphysics. Oxford: Blackwell.
- Lowe, E. J. (2002). A Survey of Metaphysics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Loux, M. J. (2006). Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction (3rd ed.). London: Routledge.
- Kim, J. and Ernest Sosa Ed. (1999). Metaphysics: An Anthology. Blackwell Philosophy Anthologies.
- Kim, J. and Ernest Sosa, Ed. (2000). A Companion to Metaphysics. Malden Massachusetts, Blackwell, Publishers.
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. "Metaphysics" (by Peter van Inwagen).
- Aristotle's Metaphysics trans. by W. D. Ross
- Aristotle's Metaphysics trans. by Hugh Tredennick (HTML at Perseus)
- Aristotle's Metaphysics at Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Hume's Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding: Mirrored at eBooks@Adelaide
- E-text (The Norman Kemp Smith translation of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason)
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, entry under OBJECT, by Henry Laycock
- Ways of Seeing - A common sense exploration of modern metaphysics