What is Metaphysics? What Questions Does It Deal With?

What is Metaphysics? What Questions Does It Deal With?

Some Examples of Metaphysical Discussions…

Metaphysics is a term that has different implications than its current philosophical meaning. We can say that the first thing that comes to mind of many people when metaphysics is mentioned in daily life is metaphysical, supernatural, mystical, occultist, ‘goofy’ things. For this reason, when someone who is interested in philosophy says that he studies metaphysics, we see that there are two opposite reactions. Either this person is thought to be dealing with nonsense, being some kind of anti-scientific and having some ‘heroic’ beliefs; or people who take kindly to the meaning of metaphysics in daily life think that this person is ‘one of their own’.

But metaphysics in the sense of philosophy is nothing like that. We do not mean to say here that the everyday use of the term metaphysics is wrong and that its use in philosophy is correct. We are just saying that metaphysics is something different as we mean it in this article. But what we mean is not that a metaphysician cannot have supernatural beliefs or be anti-science. What we mean is that these are not essential elements of metaphysics in the philosophical sense.

But what is metaphysics in the sense of philosophy? Metaphysics is one of the three main sub-branches of philosophy. As we have seen in the previous articles in the “Tree of Philosophy” series, these three main sub-branches are ethics or moral philosophy, epistemology or epistemology and metaphysics. We will soon see that it is more difficult to define metaphysics and to draw the boundaries of metaphysics clearly than ethics and epistemology. Because while ethics and epistemology have certain areas of interest (for example, epistemology deals with knowledge and ethical morality), it is not possible to limit the interests of metaphysics to a certain concept. While defining metaphysics, expressions such as that this field is a sub-branch of philosophy that deals with the most general and most basic philosophical questions about the nature of existence are used, but it is obvious that this is quite ambiguous and does not give much information about the nature of the field. So we need clearer suggestions to define metaphysics.

Attempts to Define Metaphysics

Comparing ethics and epistemology, it can be accepted that the scope of his metaphysics is very broad. It would be helpful for us to look at you, to understand what metaphysics is, in speaking of a general overview of this subject in general. After being the subject matter of metaphysics, we are in a better position to reason about what metaphysics can best describe.

Some of the topics covered in a standard metaphysics textbook are:

Are there abstract objects such as numbers and propositions?

  • Is causality part of reality? What does it mean for one thing to cause another? Is causality something fundamental to existence? Or is it something that arose out of something more fundamental than that?
  • What is time? Is it real? Does time flow? Is there any real difference between past and future?
  • Beyond individual beings; Are there universals shared by beings, such as redness, roundness, warmth, flexibility?
  • When does a new object form when one object merges with another? Everytime? But are there also objects that contain the Eiffel Tower and my head as parts? Or should we say that there are only parts and we cannot speak of the existence of wholes?
  • What is the relationship between language and reality? Does language describe reality or does it have the role of ‘constructing’ reality in a sense? In a sense, can we talk about the existence of a language-independent reality?
  • What does it mean for something to be true? Is accuracy a property? What is correct?
  • Are modal/modal properties such as necessity and possibility part of reality? What is their nature and explanation?
  • What is free will? Under what conditions is will free or unfree? Do we have free will? If our choices are determined, can we still talk about free will?
  • Why is there something instead of nothing?
  • What does it mean to exist? What does it mean to acknowledge the existence of something?

It might be thought that, in order to define metaphysics, we should argue that there is something in common with these seemingly disparate problems with which metaphysics deals. Do all these so-called metaphysical questions have anything in common?

Some philosophers have argued that we should not try to make a systematic definition of metaphysics because we think that such a point cannot be found, and that we cannot clearly distinguish metaphysics from other fields that try to say something about reality. What needs to be done for these philosophers is to recognize that metaphysics is a collection of questions that are more or less alike and sometimes closely related, sometimes weakly. But even if there is no clear definition of metaphysics, our attempt to define it can help us better understand the nature of metaphysics.

To better understand what metaphysics is, we will address four attempts at definition:

  1. Etymological Definition,
  2. Science of First Causes Definition,
  3. Big Picture Definition,
  4. Identification Based on Examples.

Etymological Definition and Criticism

The first attempt to define metaphysics is the etymological definition. Etymology is the science that studies where words come from and their origins. Therefore, the etymological definition of the word metaphysics tries to show what the meaning of this term is based on its origin.

According to this definition, since the word metaphysics comes from the name given to a number of Aristotelian manuscripts formerly found in the Library of Alexandria, we should use the term reflectively. Aristotle also has a book called Physics. While naming certain manuscripts of Aristotle in the Library of Alexandria, the expression ‘Metaphysics’, that is, ‘after Physics’, was used to mean ‘after Aristotle’s physics’. The historical details about this nomenclature are not important to us. According to this definition, the field we call metaphysics should be the name of the field dealing with the subjects covered in Aristotle’s Metaphysics grouped writings.

Aristoteles
Aristoteles Source: Zenda Libros

This definition has two fairly obvious problems. First, it can be said that the meaning of a word does not always reflect the etymology of that word. Words undergo various meaning changes throughout history, so the etymological origins of the word may not give us information about their current meaning. Examining how the word is used now, and in a particular context, can teach us more accurately its meaning than its etymological origin.

The second problem of the etymological definition is that not only Aristotle’s Metaphysics book, but also his Physics book deals with the problems that we deal with within the scope of metaphysics today. In other words, the etymological definition does not seem to be comprehensive enough to capture the use of the term in philosophy.

Definition and Critique of the Science of First Causes

One of the definitions of metaphysics made by Aristotle was that metaphysics deals with first causes, first principles, and things that do not change. Another name for this discipline was ‘first philosophy’. Although Aristotle himself did not use the term metaphysics, it seems obvious that what he meant by the science of first causes falls within the scope of metaphysics.

Metaphysicians, for example, are concerned with what are the most fundamental things. Moreover, they are also concerned with the relationship between the most fundamental things and the non-basic things. It seems perfectly reasonable to call the most fundamental things such as ‘first cause’ and ‘first principle’.

 

First Cause
First Cause Source: Atheist Alliance

However, it is useful to be aware of the meaning of the word ‘science’ here. Science in the sense that Aristotle spoke of is different from science, which is generally understood today as the systematic acquisition of knowledge based on observation. Aristotle called every systematic attempt at knowledge acquisition science. Therefore, the concept of science in Aristotle covers more than the concept of science today.

However, this definition suffers from similar problems as the first definition. First, it is possible to doubt the existence of first causes and principles. Moreover, the fact that things do not exist is at least a philosophically defensible position. According to the current usage of the term metaphysics, if it is claimed that first causes, first principles, fundamental beings and unchanging things do not exist, metaphysical claims are made. So you don’t need to say that there are such things to do metaphysics. Anyone who says they don’t exist can also do metaphysics.

Therefore, characterizing metaphysics as the science of first causes and first principles is not sufficient to capture the present meaning of the term. Maybe we can’t call metaphysics science according to the concept of science today (we will talk about how science and metaphysics differ from each other later), we can say that metaphysics is also a science in the Aristotelian sense. Because metaphysics is a discipline that aims to obtain systematic information about the nature of existence, even if it is less based on observation.

Big Picture Definition and Criticism

A definition that can be seen in almost all standard textbooks on metaphysics states that metaphysics is the field that deals with the most fundamental questions about the nature of existence. This definition is probably the closest to common sense in metaphysics. An advantage of the definition is that it is general enough to cover almost everything that is the subject of metaphysics. But this generality is the most important flaw of the definition.

It is obvious that the definition of the Big Picture is vague. First, this definition does not help us much in distinguishing metaphysics from other fields of philosophy. Don’t other fields of philosophy, such as moral philosophy and epistemology, also deal with the nature of being? “What is knowledge? What is good and bad?” Aren’t ‘what is’ questions like questions about the nature of a part of being? Moreover, aren’t the sciences concerned with the most fundamental questions of existence? For example, aren’t physicists interested in what are the most basic building blocks that make up the universe? Aren’t the questions about the origin of the universe and the nature of matter among the most fundamental questions about existence as much as the other questions asked by metaphysics?

Orion Source: NASA APOD
Orion Source: NASA APOD

The Big Picture definition, then, seems problematic because it is too general and cannot separate metaphysics from other fields. After looking at one more way of describing metaphysics, we will argue that the ambiguity of this definition of metaphysics is actually an advantage of this definition when we talk about the relationship between science and metaphysics.

Definition and Criticism Based on Examples

We cannot fully define many of the concepts we use in our daily life. Let’s say we are trying to determine what attribute is common to every object to which the concept of “table” is applicable. It seems like we can find counterexamples to almost any definition we can make in this situation. It even seems that there may be some ‘boundary states’ where we can say that it is neither a table nor a table. Maybe we can’t give a full definition of metaphysics, but we can recognize metaphysical questions when we see them, just like on tables? In this case, we can say that some questions are closer to the questions of metaphysics, and that some questions are not metaphysical questions, although we do not have a systematic definition of metaphysics.

One of the things we can do is look at the obvious examples of metaphysical questions we have. We have listed some of the topics covered in a standard metaphysics textbook above: Are there numbers? What is accuracy? What is free will? Why is there something instead of nothing? Are there any features? What is causality? Questions like these are just some of the questions we can say are obviously metaphysical. Can’t we say that every question that is significantly similar to these questions within the scope of metaphysics falls within the scope of metaphysics, and that we cannot make judgments about some questions because they are ‘boundary situations’?

Freewill Science
Freewill Science

While this attempt at definition, based on examples, is promising, it may disappoint those seeking a deeper understanding of the nature of metaphysics. After all, it is expected that those who deal with a field can at least give a definition of that field, right?

In fact, it can be said that the definition difficulty here is in almost all areas. To give an example, even fields such as moral philosophy and epistemology may have problems ‘in the border regions’ that we cannot put into a certain category. Similarly, because there is so much specialization in science, many scientific problems have become beyond the scope of a single field.

The inability to classify clearly is sometimes inherent in the subject. Since metaphysics is perhaps more general than all other fields, it may be inevitable in a sense that it is more difficult to draw the boundaries of metaphysics compared to other fields.

While this attempt at definition, based on examples, is promising, it may disappoint those seeking a deeper understanding of the nature of metaphysics. After all, it is expected that those who deal with a field can at least give a definition of that field, right?

In fact, it can be said that the definition difficulty here is in almost all areas. To give an example, even fields such as moral philosophy and epistemology may have problems ‘in the border regions’ that we cannot put into a certain category. Similarly, because there is so much specialization in science, many scientific problems have become beyond the scope of a single field.

The inability to classify clearly is sometimes inherent in the subject. Since metaphysics is perhaps more general than all other fields, it may be inevitable in a sense that it is more difficult to draw the boundaries of metaphysics compared to other fields.

The Relationship between Science and Metaphysics

We have seen that it is not possible for us to make a clear definition of metaphysics. But how can we distinguish between science and metaphysics? Doesn’t science also deal with the most fundamental questions of existence? What do we do in this situation? Isn’t it a problem not being able to separate science from philosophy, especially metaphysics? After all, metaphysics is an unscientific activity… Isn’t it a problem for science to ‘overflow’ an unscientific activity into science? If science has anything to do with metaphysical concepts, it requires making claims that go beyond observation. But if science is purely observational, shouldn’t it?

Questions like these have led some philosophers of science to think that it is necessary to ‘purify’ science as much as possible from metaphysics. For example, even concepts such as causality were found to be ‘metaphysical’ by some philosophers of science, therefore it was suggested that science should be done without having such metaphysical assumptions, and that the only thing science should aim at is conformity to experiment/experience, not to ‘reach reality’ in a metaphysical sense. This approach is ‘constructivist empiricism’, the most famous proponent of which is the American philosopher of science Bas van Fraassen.

But most philosophers of science and metaphysicians don’t go as far as Bas van Fraassen. It is generally accepted that science deals with ‘reality’ and gives information about what exists. In this case, science and metaphysics can be seen as disciplines ‘doing the same job’ in a sense. Both disciplines try to give us information about the nature of being and existing things.

In this case, if the boundary between science and metaphysics is to be drawn, there are some problems in drawing this boundary in terms of the aims and subjects of the two disciplines. Ultimately, both the sciences and metaphysics try to present the ‘big picture’ of reality to us. Ultimately, both the sciences and metaphysics deal with reality. However, the means that these disciplines use to achieve the same goal and the ways they approach the issues are different from each other.

Source: https://evrimagaci.org/
Photo: https://images.newscientist.com/

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