Muddled Metaphysics

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In preparation for a series of posts on Thomas Aquinas and his Five Ways of knowing God, we thought it would be helpful to write something explaining what metaphysics is.  Though this post may seem somewhat dry and abstract, it is a critical first step toward the understanding of much more interesting subjects to come.  We encourage the reader to take a deep breath, watch this ridiculously awesome video of Darth Vader playing the bagpipes while riding a unicycle, and then dive in!

What is Metaphysics?

As with most of philosophy, many contemporary laypeople (and professionals of other fields) are confused about what metaphysics actually is. It is not uncommon to hear someone define metaphysics along the lines of "the study of those things which are unprovable, unrealistic or generally abstract in nature." This sort of "definition" seems to have been crafted for the explicit purpose of dismissing those things which cannot be empirically verified. Though admittedly hard to define, the term metaphysics actually means something more along the lines of "the study of the fundamental nature of reality," and is concerned with questions such as "What things actually exist?" and "What are those things like?" How one answers these questions will largely affect the way one thinks about virtually everything.

Where did the term "Metaphysics" come from?

The term "Metaphysics" comes from an ancient commentator of Aristotle's work. Two large collections of text written by Aristotle were posthumously given the titles Physika and Ta Meta Ta Physika which translate to "Physics" and "After the Physics," respectively. In its original use, the word "physics" likely meant to stand for those things which are subject to change, since change, according to Aristotle, was a defining feature of the natural world. The second body of text covered those things which are not subject to change and are therefore not natural. Because of the contemporary definition of the word "physics," it might be tempting to assume the distinction is between those things which are subject to current scientific methodology-- that is, anything which is mathematically quantifiable, subject to repeatable controlled experiments, etc-- and those things which are not. On the contrary, Aristotle included many subjects in Physics which do not agree with this distinction (the soul and the intrinsic goal-directedness of matter, to name a few). In a classical sense, then, metaphysics is more correctly understood as the study of those things which are unchanging: the nature of "existence" itself (what does it mean to say that something exists?), and first causes (from what cause(s) do all other causes derive?).

How is Metaphysics used in Contemporary Philosophy?

In recent centuries, the use of this term has become considerably more broad. Up through the Medieval period and the prominence of scholastic philosophy, the term metaphysics had been used in the classic sense, as defined above. Since the enlightenment, however, so many subjects have been included in metaphysics, that the term has been effectively redefined. Consider the following philosophical questions:
  • Is the mind distinct from the brain, or are they the same thing?
  • Do I have free will or are my actions determined?
  • Is a certain fact necessary, or could it possibly have been otherwise?
These are all common questions in contemporary metaphysics, but it is difficult to see how they would fit into Aristotle's categories.  In a general sense, metaphysics has come to be the study of the "what" (what exists? what is it like?), contrasted to the "how" of epistemology (how do you know?).

General Ontology

Those questions which fall under the classic definition of metaphysics have come to be known as General Ontology. General Ontology is the study of "being as such." Some example of questions that would be asked in General Ontology are:
  • What is existence?
  • Is existence a property?
  • What does it mean to say something exists?
A possible answer to these would be along the lines of "something can be said to exist at time 't' if it has at least one property at time 't'."  Another example of a concept which ontology deals with is the dichotomy between universals and particulars, which has led to a classic problem in the study of philosophy.  Concisely stated, the Problem of Universals is the question of whether or not universal properties exists and are shared among  multiple objects.  This discussion alone has filled thousands of pages of text since the dawn of western philosophy, so for the purpose of brevity, I will refrain from going any further until another time.

Special Metaphysics

The remaining subjects within the field of metaphysics have come to be known as Special Metaphysics. While General Ontology deals with existence qua1 existence, Special Metaphysics deals with the status of existence of certain things (that is, whether or not they exist and what their existence is like).  Common positions with regard to subjects of special metaphysics include realism and anti-realism.   Realism is the belief that a specific subject is real, or has existence, while anti-realism denies this.  One branch of metaphysics which this is often applied to is Philosophy of Mind:

Realist: A realist with respect to the mind holds to the belief that the mind is a real thing with existence (meaning it has at least one property, according to the above definition) of its own.

Anti-realist: An anti-realist with respect to the mind holds to the belief that the mind is not a real thing with existence of its own.  This could take one of two forms:
  • A reductionist believes that the mind is really "nothing but" the physical processes of the brain.
  • An eliminativist believes those things which generally characterize a mind (consciousness, qualia2, etc) do not exist in the way people normally conceive of them.
These positions apply to a wide variety of subjects including, but not limited to, free will, consciousness, sensory qualities, the entire physical world, etc.  Special metaphysics attempts to answer those questions (Is X real? If so, what are properties of X? If not, why do some perceive X as real?).  One can see now, why these subjects are so important-- they get at the fundamental nature of reality in a way that will ultimately shape one's entire worldview.

Readers of this blog can expect many posts in the future which will fall under the domain of metaphysics, so it is good to have a general idea of what metaphysics actually is.  My upcoming series on the Five Ways will focus much energy on showing that the reason many contemporary atheists dismiss Aquinas' arguments is because they do not understand his underlying metaphysics.

1. The Latin word "qua" (pronounced "quay") is often used in philosophy and translates to "as being." For example, if I said "I don't disagree with science qua science, I just disagree with the way it is often touted as the only real method for obtaining knowledge," what I mean is "I don't disagree with the scientific method, as such, I just disagree with some tangential issues with science."

2.  The term "qualia" is used in Philosophy of Mind to denote a property of sensory quality as it is perceived by a person.  Examples would be "redness," "bitterness," or "softness."
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