What Is Metaphysics?

Defining metaphysics

[Metaphysics] was the queen of all the sciences; and, if we take the will for the deed, she certainly deserves, so far as regards the high importance of her object-matter, this title of honour. – Immanuel Kant

Metaphysics is the finding of bad reasons for what we believe upon instinct; but to find these reasons is no less an instinct. – F. H. Bradley

Metaphysics is a dark ocean without shores or lighthouse, strewn with many a philosophic wreck – Immanuel Kant

The question of what metaphysics is can honestly be difficult to answer. For the vast majority of Western philosophy’s history, the work of metaphysics was inseparable from philosophy as an enterprise. If epistemology is philosophy’s heart, then metaphysics is what we’d consider the body. Since metaphysics is so broad, it might be easier to begin by defining what it’s not. The word contains a lot of baggage because after science split from philosophy there was contention over whether or not metaphysics was even a subject matter. Then, in the 20th century, the word was taken by new age gurus to refer to anything mind-blowing… man.

So first, the philosophical tradition of metaphysics has absolutely nothing to do with any new age mysticism. It’s not even concerned, per se, with anything beyond the physical world as its name might imply. That means The Secret, Deepak Chopra, Indigo Powers, and that connection you feel with the universe after eating a funny brownie have nothing to do with philosophical metaphysics. Since metaphysics is a tradition in which most contributors addressed specific types of problems, there is a character that metaphysics has which new age mysticism lacks. As harsh as that sounds, that’s not meant to be an insult. Regardless of your beliefs, imagine how mundane new age-y metaphysics would be if it were perfectly reducible to some formulaic enterprise. New age metaphysics and philosophical metaphysics are two different things because they don’t really address the same issues.

Second, metaphysics isn’t just the philosophy of religion or the philosophy of weird thought experiments either. Part of the reason that scientists began to shun metaphysics after natural philosophy (the precursor to scientific investigation) formally became the sciences was because it was thought that metaphysics dealt with arcane ideas like the nature of the soul. Today, too, it’s likely that metaphysical thought experiments considered strange by scientists (like the simulation hypothesis) continue to alienate them from the subject. But while these ideas are part of metaphysics, they do not define the subject as a whole because metaphysics is and always has been a very broad subject.

So, if metaphysics isn’t or never was about one particular thing, the closest we can get to actually defining it is to learn its etymology and approximate its character with examples. The word itself comes from “Metaphysica,” the title of a work by the Greek philosopher Aristotle. Philosophers long after Aristotle mistook the word for a newly coined concept, but when Aristotle used the word he literally just meant “after Physica” with Physica referring to the title of an earlier work he wrote. Of course, some misinterpretations are so profound that their consequences linger forever.

Aristotle’s Metaphysica was influential for many reasons. It’s a large and complex work that touches on so many topics, but especially novel was its treatment of epistemic concerns, causality, and object properties, topics which are definitively at the center of many metaphysical concerns today. Metaphysics is broader than the topics Aristotle covered, though, and unlike other areas of philosophy, there’s no central subject or question that metaphysics is concerned with.

Below I’ve given a short selection of some of the topics that often come up in metaphysics, but given how difficult it is to even define metaphysics, be aware that these topics may not make every philosopher’s list. Additionally, I may have excluded topics others might consider more “central” to the field.

Free will. This is one of those topics classically associated with philosophy, and for good reason – it was the pet topic of a lot of philosophers! The conversation about free will is for another day, but suffice it to say, topics like this can reveal the role that language plays in philosophy. For some contemporary scientists, the question of free will is empirical. If our consciousness emerges from our neurons and atoms, then this is a biophysics question, plain and simple. The problem is that there are different philosophical notions about how to conceive of free will, and so a lot of the language around the subject has to be untangled before we can even commit to using a tool like neuroscience or physics to answer the question. Given that we’re at odds about what free will even is, some suggest that neuroscience and physics can only address certain notions of free will but are not capable of completely encapsulating our understanding of agency.

Subjectivity. The question of subjectivity is big in philosophy given that it has been discussed in antiquity and non-Western philosophy. As with free will, there are people claiming this as a question for science, but modern metaphysicists concerned with the topic are still trying to determine where its boundaries lie. The question has lots of relevance to the “big questions” related to what it means to be human, as reflected through movies like The Matrix and every head twisting sci-fi movie/show following in its footsteps. But it also has practical implications too, as alluded to in an article about comatose patients that was briefly mentioned in an earlier post. Aside from being of interest to us as humans, this question has implications for Artificial Intelligence, and in fact, philosophical thought experiments towards the end of the 20th century, like the Chinese Room Argument, were actually designed to eke out if a machine might be able to experience subjectivity.

Time and Space. Before physics, time and space were seen as artifacts of metaphysics. While both now fall within the realm of physics, there exists a debate on the exact nature of time and space. It is here that metaphysics is taking place – before experimenting and empirical verification, our notions about how to define space and time have to be conceived. Are time and space real or do they just emerge from the mind? Does time have physical representations — like if I were to see time as a 4th dimension (something many sci-fi fans should be familiar with), would I “see” time as a “line” or some other shape? If I can imagine various possible outcomes of my life do those outcomes exist in some physical space distinct from the universe I’m in (as seemingly implied by the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics)? There are, of course, concerns about whether or not some of these questions can even be answered, which are themselves metaphysical questions about the potential limitations of science.

Ontology. Ontology is actually a subfield of metaphysics as opposed to a subject matter like the topics listed above. It’s concerned with the nature of being and existence and is reflected in questions like “what do we mean when we say something is real and that it exists?” All of the topics listed above (as well as most other topics in philosophy) have an ontological component. Ontological questions might seem weird at first glance, but oddly enough they can have implications for more practical concerns. In contemporary science, especially in physics, one issue that keeps coming up is the roles that mathematics and theory are supposed to serve. Physics is an evidence-based or an empirical field, but in recent decades potential advancements have been made using highly theoretical and mathematical models, to the frustration of some physicists. So what is the nature of math? If math is real and not just a useful constructed language, in theory, we can glean the nature of the universe with just math. Given the high level of abstraction that ontology is concerned with, you can think of it as a means of categorization which helps us distinguish between the things present in our existence and understand how they relate to one another.

Aside from these broad areas of inquiry, metaphysics can also be tailored to specific topics both within and outside of philosophy. Metaphysics is so integral to philosophy that we can even ask metaphysical questions about the other major subject areas within philosophy. For example, in ethics we could ask “Are morals mind-independent?” In other words, are morals just constructs of our minds or do moral intuitions point to something more fundamental about reality?

Outside of philosophy, topics in metaphysics can range from the mundane to the sublime – from the philosophy of baseball to the philosophy of music, someone has likely knowingly or unknowingly invoked metaphysics to dissect their favorite topics. In future blog posts, we’ll be using metaphysics to analyze topics in this way.