Introduction to Philosophy/What is Metaphysics

The branch of philosophy called metaphysics concerns itself with the nature of reality itself. It is in this branch that the fundamental questions of our existence and our universe reside. For example, is our perception of time real, or is it merely an illusion? Are there fundamental properties that all things that exist must have? What does it mean for something to exist? Does an abstract thing, such as a number, or the Mandelbrot set, fundamentally exist in the same way our universe does? What are properties, anyway? What is a person, or "the self", really? Do we have "free will"?

These difficult questions, which in and of themselves already build on assumptions, are often brushed against within contemporary physics. Importantly, however, they are not quite the same. The behavior of time, for example, can be described by using Einstein's theories of relativity, entropy, and so forth. However, these physical theories merely describe the behavior of observed phenomena, and can be proven or disproven by comparing them to these observations. Metaphysics goes beyond what we can observe or infer from observations, and asks questions about the fundamental nature of reality and the potential implications this would have.

This gives it a bit of a risk to be rather vague. After all, with no way to test any of the answers, how can we know if something is true or not? The only way we can is to use rigorous logic. For a select few questions, this will allow us to rule out certain worldviews, such as when this results in a paradox. But unfortunately, most of the time, metaphysics will yield us no concrete answers. Instead, we must apply what we have done so far: start with a few core assertions, and explore the implications of these. If it results in a contradiction, then we can reject the set of assertions. However, if not, that is not proof of their truthfulness either. In this way, we can create many possible, self-consistent and competing worldviews, and assign a value of confidence to each. For example, it may be the case that you, the reader, are just a brain in a vat and stuck inside a simulation. Although potentially perfectly self-consistent, using the things we learned from epistemology, it may be better to only give this a small likelihood of being true, even if we cannot fully rule it out.

It is not inconceivable that questions that are now firmly within metaphysics will enter physics later down the line. The theory that all matter is composed of tiny particles called atoms was considered metaphysics at one time. When people began to invent instruments capable of detecting such tiny things, atomic theory moved out of metaphysics into physics. So metaphysics is always "at the frontier", and some of it may become physics in the future.

The definition of metaphysics


Although we have given a hint at what metaphysics is, it is hard to define concretely. The term itself can be interpreted as meaning "beyond physics", but it's tricky to get more precise without inviting controversy. Early use of the term simply referred to the topics covered by the work placed after (hence meta) the Physics section in the traditional edit of Aristotle's works by the Greek Peripatetic philosopher Andronicus Of Rhodes. Perhaps it is better, then, to look at what metaphysics is not. Newton's theories about gravity, Einstein's theories of relativity, and most of the work on quantum mechanics are clearly not metaphysics. These theories make specific predictions about observable phenomena, and can be disproven when shown not to match these observations.

Religion is also not metaphysics. Religion is based on a set of convictions that may well make predictions about the world, or explain why certain phenomena occur, but they do so by authoritatively asserting a single worldview regardless of its logical integrity. Metaphysics, as a branch of philosophy, is bound by using logic and reason to approach each question, speculatively and critically examining different options side-by-side. This raises another interesting problem for metaphysics: it may often tread on sacred ground and come into conflict with religion. Socrates was one casualty of this tendency.

These considerations give us some boundaries, and we can define metaphysics more readily inside those boundaries.

Metaphysics is concerned with explaining the way things "are" in the physical world. It is concerned primarily with 'being as being', i.e. with anything in so far as it has act of existence. However, metaphysics is not concerned with examining the physical properties of things that exist, but is, instead, the study of the underlying principles that give rise to the unified natural world. As such, the statement that "evil does not exist" is metaphysical because it is a statement that deals with the object 'evil' as opposed to 'good' which is a metaphysical subject, whereas the statement that "all things are composed of atoms, which are in turn composed of electrons, protons, and neutrons" is definitely not metaphysics, utmost a concern of physical sciences.

Dinstinguishing metaphysical questions from physical questions


Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy, and part of the answer to the question "What is Metaphysics" requires us to define the difference between science and philosophy. 'Science' is taken here as empirical sciences or non-empirical sciences. In physical science, it's important for new explanations to make predictions that can be tested by experiments. But this is not a requirement of philosophy, specifically that of metaphysics. Instead, we reduce any philosophical statement to its ultimate concept or propositions. The ultimate concept of metaphysics is being while that of propositions is the principle of contradiction. In the case of the above statement that all things are made up of smaller things and so on to infinity, this explanation is clearly untestable because we'll never have an instrument capable of detecting anything that is infinitely small. But then, metaphysically, one can be sure that it is impossible to have an infinite regression of materiality but must arrive at the ultimate or smallest particle of matter. But then, the philosopher can further ask: What is the ultimate composition of matter?" this time the answer cannot be anymore 'the smallest particle of matter' since the smallest particle of matter is matter also. Thus, Thales' question: 'What is the ultimate stuff?' is a metaphysical question, and not an empirical one. His question separated physical science from philosophy. Aristotle offered an answer: his hylomorphic doctrine which states that any material reality is ultimately composed of prime matter (not the matter as we know it) and substantial form.

Metaphysics is not religion because religion involves act of faith, faith guiding reason. In case of metaphysics, it limits its certitude on reason alone. In summary, here is one answer to the question "What is Metaphysics?":

Metaphysics is not the branch of philosophy that explains physical phenomena using reason and logic in a way that falls outside the bounds of either religion or science, rather it is a philosophical science which deals with transcendental concepts such as being, one, true and good which in its simplest form is 'being as such'. What really makes Metaphysics hard to define is its object: being. Being cannot be defined properly, but only descriptively.

Reference and further readings

  •   metaphysics at Wikipedia. ማጣቀሻ እና ተጨማሪ ንባቦች