Metaphysics is a difficult branch of Philosophy, but is rather easy to define: It is the study of the most fundamental concepts and beliefs about them. Examples of metaphysical concepts are Being, Existence, Purpose, Universals, Property, Relation, Causality, Space, Time, Event, and many others. They are fundamental, because all other concepts and beliefs rest on them. All Knowledge and Value is based upon the definitions of these concepts.
Metaphysical OriginsOf course, it would be easy to think that Metaphysics has changed since it first received its name by Aristotle's editors centuries ago, except it really has not. The Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote a number of books, which together were called the Physics. In an early edition, the works of Aristotle were organized in such a way that there was another set of books that were placed right after the Physics. These books seemed to concern a basic, fundamental area of philosophical inquiry, and at the time, did not have a name. So early Aristotle scholars called those books "ta meta ta physika," which means "the (books that come) after the (books about) physics." This origin is not so very different from usage today, when Metaphysics is concerned with concepts like Being and Time, which are critical to an understanding of Physics, the Universe, and our place in it.
Over the centuries, problems not originally considered "metaphysical" were added to Metaphysics, but more noticeably, several problems, for centuries considered metaphysical, have now been "spun off" into their own subdisciplines within Philosophy. So, Philosophy of Religion, Philosophy of Mind, Philosophy of Perception, Philosophy of Language, and Philosophy of Science, and others, take up rather fundamental questions which otherwise would have been a direct part of Metaphysics, say during the Medieval Philosophy period. What might be called the core metaphysical problems, however, have always been considered a part of Metaphysics - and have never been considered not metaphysical (to speak like Aristotle). They are listed above: Problems like Being, Existence, and Time.
Traditions and New FindingsTraditionally, Metaphysics is divided into the areas of Ontology, Theology, and Science (then called "Universal Science"), and anyone working in these fields today is by definition "doing Metaphysics". Astronomy is a particularly obvious example of a whole, rich field of study which was spun off from traditional Metaphysics. Additionally, there is a whole philosophical Lexicon, a collection of terms, which we still use today that were developed long ago, and that Lexicon dominates the Western style of Philosophy. Consider the basic branches of Metaphysics:
- Ontology defines "Being" and "Existence"
- Teleology studies the Purpose of Being and Existence
- Science collects Laws underlying Being and Existence
- Theology considers the existence of Supreme Being(s)
It is easy to see that the Aristotelian framework of Metaphysics is one which continues to this day. It could be said that many of the traditionally ontological topics are among those now studied independently, such as within Epistemology; that the teleological topics have been taken up by Science; that traditional Theology has separated off from Philosophy and Metaphysics as Religion and the Philosophy of Religion; and that the Philosophy of Science now takes up questions first asked under Universal Science, Teleology and Ontology. The fact remains, that Metaphysics, or "First Philosophy" (as Descartes put it) still to this day is a study of concepts which are the very basis of all Science, as well as all Art and Industry, all Knowledge and Logic - all things in general.
If fewer Philosophers are actually "doing Metaphysics" these days, it is mainly because answers to its fundamental ideas - ideas like the nature Matter, Being, Space, Causality, Substance, Species, and Elements - have already been presumed or are uncontroversial. The nature of Matter is one counter-example in these times, and it is telling that some newer, decidedly fanciful and popularized theories about Matter (such as String Theory), do not benefit from the foundation laid down in Metaphysics. New theories of Metaphysics are not only possible, but presumed, and they will necessarily grabble with the findings of new discoveries, and promising theories, such as Loop Quantum Gravity, Spin Networks, and even Quantum Mechanics itself.
A good example of a change to Metaphysics would be the classic Law of Non-Contradiction: "A thing cannot both be and not be at the same time, and in the same respect." In othe words, a particular apple cannot both exist and not exist at the same time, or it cannot be all red and all green at the same time. Principles like this may need to be rethought, to accomodate the seemingly paradoxical findings at the Quantum level, and although few Philosophers in our day would admit to it (because the term "metaphysics" may seem quaint), they are doing exactly that.
A Basic ExampleLet us back up and say that it is sometimes understandably difficult to be clear on what the issues even are, in Metaphysics. So, imagine now that we are in a room, and in the middle of the room there is a table, and in the middle of the table there is a big, fresh, juicy, red apple (if you prefer green apples, then imagine one). We can ask many metaphysical questions about this apple, without even getting into the current crises brough about by Quantum Science.
The apple is an excellent example of an observable Object. We can pick it up, toss it up and catch it, roll it across the table, and of course, eat it. Apples occupy Space and Time and have a variety of fundamental Properties, such as Mass, Composition, Colour (Wavelengths), and so on. Is this physical object just a bundle of its properties? Or, is it a Substance which has those properties? Congratulations, you have just done a bit of Metaphysics, and inquired as to how the Problem of Substance and Objecthood applies to the observable object before you.
We can go further. We said the apple has properties, like being red or green, being big, being juicy. How are properties different from objects? Notice, we say that things like apples have properties like redness or greenness. But apples and their colours are different things, or entities, entirely, right? One can pick up and touch an apple, but cannot pick up and touch redness itself, except perhaps in the sense that you can pick up and touch red things. So how can we best think about what properties are? We've just considered the "Problem of Universals''.
Here is another question about what physical objects are: when in general can we say that physical objects come into being and when they cease to exist? Surely the apple can change in many ways without ceasing to exist. It could get brown and rotten, but it would still be that apple, wouldn't it? But, if someone ate it, it would not just have changed; it would no longer exist - its Existence would be transformed into some other Existence, such as enzymes and chemicals within one's body. So there are already some deep, metaphysical questions to be answered about the notions of Identity and Change which play right into our larger world-view on all things.
The apple exists in Space (it sits on a table in a room) and in Time (it was not on the table a week ago and it will not be on the table a week from now). But what does this mean? Can we say, for example, that Space is like an invisible three-dimensional grid in which the apple is located? Suppose the apple, and every other physical object in the Universe were to be entirely removed from existence: then would space, that "invisible grid," still exist? Some people say no - they say that without physical objects, space would not exist, because space is merely the framework in which we understand how physical objects are related to each other. Of course, there are many other metaphysical questions to ask about Space and Time.
Continuing on, we know the apple is a "thing". If someone is in the room, and that someone has a Mind, we are surely going to admit that their mind, or really their Brain, is a different thing from the apple. Still, Mind is Immaterial, but the apple is a Material Object. Moreover, it sounds a little strange to say that person's Mind is located in any particular place; maybe we could say it is somewhere in the room, but the apple is definitely located in a particular place, namely on the middle of the table. It seems clear that Minds are fundamentally different from physical bodies. But if so, how can something mental, like a decision to eat, cause a physical event to occur, like biting into the apple? How are the mind and body causally interconnected if they are two totally different sorts of things? We've just reflected on the "Mind-Body Problem", something nowadays discussed in the Philosophy of Mind.
- Philosophy of Language
- Philosophy of Mind
- Philosophy of Perception
- Philosophy of Religion
- Philosophy of Science
Some content adapted from the Wikinfo article "Metaphysics" under the GNU Free Documentation License.
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