Metaphysics | Definition & Problems of Metaphysics

The term metaphysics actually comes from somewhat of an historical accident. Its origin is not perfectly clear, but the word was certainly used by Andronicus of Rhodes (the editor of Aristotle’s work). Andronicus on classifying the works of  Aristotle, stumbled on some  collections he could not classify ordinarily, and so far lack of names to give to them, he called them Ta meta to physika, i.e. “what (comes ) after (the works on) nature”.

Of all the branches of philosophy, none sounds more alarmingly abstract than metaphysics. In ordinary usage a theory or view is called “metaphysical” if it seems complicated and beyond comprehension. The term “metaphysical” is also used as synonymous with “fanciful” or “imaginary”.

What then is Metaphysics? Bradley defines metaphysics as the study of substance or reality. It is an attempt to know reality as against mere appearance or the effort to comprehend the universe as a whole, not by piecemeal engineering or fragments. To Bradley, metaphysical reality is always supersensible and cannot be known by experience.

For A.E. Taylor in his book Element of Metaphysics, Metaphysics is an enquiry into the nature and ultimate meaning of reality. He distinguishes metaphysics from other interested in the nature and meaning of reality on methods.

Metaphysics, therefore, is the branch of philosophy responsible for the study of existence. It is the foundation of a worldwide. It answers the question “what is?” It encompasses everything that exists, as well as the nature of existence itself. It says whether the world is real, or merely an illusion. It is a fundamental view of the world around us.

Metaphysical studies the nature, structure and constitution of reality. Metaphysics is regarded as philosophy in general; first principles, or the science of first principles.

Metaphysics tries to find answers to questions such as: Does the future exist? What is space? What is time? Do souls exist? What is the logical structure of the universe? Are my actions free? Are there possible worlds? Was the universe created? Is there a god or gods? Metaphysics then attempts to determine the difference between appearance and reality.

As can be seen, the questions of metaphysics centre on what goes on beyond the mundane world. Metaphysical questions arise out of, and at the same time, go beyond factual or scientific questions about the world. It starts with the questions about the world by explaining the world or the universe; it then tries to explain the causes and nature of the world.

Metaphysical reality is always supersensible and cannot be known by sense experience. The supersensible realities are God, the world and the soul.

Metaphysics has two sub-divisions, namely Ontology and Cosmology. Ontology is the science of being as such as is there life after death? Cosmology on the other hand, is interested in understanding how the universe came about, its shape, structure, content, and purpose.

Cosmology asks questions such as what is space. What is time? However, C. Wolf groups the subject matter of metaphysics into four, namely:

  • The general theory of being (ontology)
  • The theory of world (cosmology)
  • The theory of the soul; and
  • The theory of God.

Metaphysics is distinguished as general and special. General metaphysics is the science of all being as being. Special metaphysics is the science of one kind of being: as, the metaphysics of chemistry, of morals, or of politics.

According to Kant, a systematic exposition of those notions and truths, the knowledge of which is altogether independent of experience, would constitute the science of metaphysics.

In order to survey this vast and all encompassing branch of philosophy, we will first consider some of the basic metaphysical problems that have persisted throughout the ages. Then we shall examine some of the most famous metaphysical systems in the history of philosophy.

Some Metaphysical Problems

Metaphysics is an attempt to know and explain reality, and in trying to know and explain realities, several difficulties or problems arise. These problems are perennial in nature. Philosophers through the ages have all tried to offer some kind of solutions to these problems. Unfortunately, most of them end up creating more problems than solving them. The following are some of the metaphysical problems:

(a) The Problem of Permanence and Change.

The problem of permanence and change is one of the earliest in the history of philosophy. Thales, Heraclitus, Parmenides and Zeno – the Greek Philosophers which we have discussed earlier, were impressed with two basic features of the world – the occurrence of natural change, and the continuity of certain apparently permanent conditions.

However, certain difficulties appeared that suggested that the changing and the permanent features of the changing universe were incompatible. On the one hand, it was pointed out, if everything changed, there could be nothing permanent; and on the other hand, if there was a permanent element of the universe, it could not change, therefore could not be part of a system that involves change.

(b)  Freewill and Determination

The problem of freewill dates back to the philosophy of the Stoics. But why are we so concerned with being free? Because responsibility is extremely important to our society’s structure. Are we free? Do we make choice? What if we aren’t the consequences of denying freewill are catastrophic – maybe we didn’t choose to go to the university, maybe we didn’t choose what clothes to wear this morning or what topic of our assignment was. What then? Of course we don’t choose something – whether the sum will rise, whether our heart will beat (though we seem to have control over how fast) – and those things we are not responsible for.

On the one hand, Freewill holds that humans have freedom and freewill if any only if their lives contain moments of genuine choice. On the other hand, Determinism is the theory that every facet of event in the universe is determined or causes by previous facts or events; human behavior and the events of history follow strict laws of causation or necessary connection. Thus the problem of freewill deals primarily with the human elements in the universe.

In our experience of our own behavior and our own decisions, we find two opposing features. The first of these is our awareness of our own freedom, of our own ability to decide for ourselves, to deliberate about what to do in various situations, and to come to our conclusions about what to believe and what to do.

On the other hand, the second element is that we discover that in many cases what we believed at the time to be free decision had been influence by various personal and social factors, so that we did not actually decide the questions “freely’. This then is the problem of freewill and determinism- are human actions free or are that determined by some causes or events beyond man’s control?

(c) Materialism and Idealism

These theories are opposites and are usually found in competition with each other. Idealism is the view that only mind and its idea and thoughts are real, and that matter is an unfounded illusion.

Materialism on the other hand, is the view that only matter and its physical properties are real, while mind, thought and the like are simply manifestations of matter. Idealism is the complete denial of materialism.

The idealists claim that all that exists is mind-stuff. That is, experience, or simple minds themselves. The idealist tries to explain physical matter as a by-product of mind; the materialist tries to explain mind as by-product of matter. They equally sought to metaphysical scheme, and attempting to explain everything in terms of material events.

Materialism is an ontological position, that it asks the question “what is there” Materialism answer “matter, i.e. physical objects”. But what of minds, souls, spirit, and consciousness? These are questions that materialists have no compelling answers for. Thomas Hobbes is said to be one of the first modern writers to explicitly endorse the position in metaphysics known as materialism.

(d) Dualism

Dualism is the position that was posited in modern era by Rene Descartes.  It is combination of idealism and materialism. Dualism is “dual” precisely because it posits the existence of minds and bodies. That is, dualism holds that minds exist and matter or physical objects also exist. The problem now becomes one of explaining the relation between the two.

(e) Fatalism

Fatalism is born of the realization that much of what we do seems to be beyond our control. When and where we are born, whether we are male or female, our genetic makeup, and whether we live in Canada or America seem to be important in determining our destinies but also seem to be beyond our control.

More than that, these features of our lives seem to be determined by coincidence and chance. Fatalism is therefore, the belief that whatever happens is unavoidable.

Sources of Fatalism

The two main sources of fatalism are religion and logic. In particular, Christian religion hypothesizes the existence of an omnipotent and omniscience God. Of course, if God is omniscient he knows both your future and your past in totality.

Thus it seems what He knows of your future is fated for you.  Fatalism is simply entailed by God’s omniscience.

The second sources of fatalism are logic or science. It seems to be a presupposition of science and logic that there are true things and false things. In this case, we can see how there is a set of true sentences about our past.

By extension, there should be some set of sentences. Whether knowable by us or not, sentences about the future which is true. If these sets of sentences about the future are true at the present moment, then it seems they are unavoidable and the endorse fatalism.

(f) Solipsism

Solipsism is the view that the universe, as far as one can ever tell, is nothing but me, my mind, and ideas. This view develops from Berkeley’s argument that the things that we can know to exist are only those that we can experience.

This theory eliminates any other minds but my own and any other objects but my ideas, and leaves the universe nothing but the sequences of thoughts that occurs in me.

Why is Metaphysics Important?

Metaphysics is the foundation of philosophy. In fact metaphysics is regarded as the first philosophy. Without an explanation or an interpretation of the world around us, we would be helpless to deal with reality.

The degree to which our metaphysical worldview is correct is the degree to which we are able to comprehend the world, and act accordingly, becomes suspect. Any flaw in our view of reality will make it more difficult to live. Thus, metaphysics is quite important in the life of rational human being.

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