Metaphysics is a philosophical discipline that scrutinizes the basic nature of reality, looking into the relationship between mind and matter, substance and attribute, and potentiality and actuality. It explores existence and its different forms. Topics encompass objects, their properties, space and time, causality, and possibility. This study, much like foundational mathematics, aims to deliver a coherent explanation of the world's structure, mirroring our daily and scientific understanding of it.
Two broad perspectives on the world studied by metaphysics exist: the strong view asserts objects exist independently of observers, making metaphysics the most foundational science; the weak view proposes objects exist within an observer's mind, turning metaphysics into a form of introspection. The choice between these perspectives pertains to another philosophy branch, epistemology.
Ontology, a crucial element of metaphysics, investigates being, existence, and their categories and relationships. Identity is another fundamental issue, prompting questions about what it means for something to be identical to itself or, controversially, to something else, especially across time. Philosophers, such as Leibniz, made significant contributions to the philosophy of identity.
Space and time, in which objects appear to us, contrast abstract entities like classes, properties, and relations that don't. Therefore, metaphysics seeks to understand the nature of space and time. Questions around causality, both in classical philosophy and modern theories like special relativity and quantum field theory, also arise. The concept of counterfactuals is often linked with causality, suggesting that if A hadn't happened, then B wouldn't have happened.
Metaphysics investigates potential alternate realities or 'possible worlds.' For example, David Lewis proposed Concrete Modal realism, which considers alternate realities to explain facts about how things could have been. Metaphysics also questions the necessity of certain truths, suggesting a necessary fact is true across all possible worlds.
Other topics, like cosmology, cosmogony, philosophy of mind, determinism and free will, and the classification of natural and social kinds, are considered peripheral or related fields that evolved out of metaphysics. These areas cover a wide range of questions, from the origin of the universe, the nature of mind and matter, the problem of free will in a deterministic world, to the classification systems used to comprehend the world.
History of Metaphysics:
Metaphysics, originating from the Greek words μετά (metá, "after") and φυσικά (physiká, "physics"), was a term first applied to several of Aristotle's works as they were usually anthologized after the works on physics in complete editions. Metaphysical theories primarily contemplate the nature of existence and reality, including the nature of objects, properties, space, time, causality, and agency.
Metaphysical theories of numbers vary; some propose that numbers are fundamental categories themselves, while others argue that they are properties of entities or relations between entities. These debates on the universality of numbers are crucial because they establish the foundation for the philosophy of mathematics and mathematics itself.
Metaphysics also has practical applications in various fields like philosophy, science, and information technology. These areas generally depend on some basic ontology or metaphysical stances, which are then built upon to develop specific theories.
The relationship between metaphysics and science traces back to natural philosophy, which initially encompassed scientific questions. However, the advent of the scientific method transformed natural philosophy into an empirical activity, distinguishing science from philosophy. Despite this, metaphysics continues to explore questions beyond the confines of scientific theories.
Several individuals have advocated for the dismissal of metaphysics. Francis Bacon in the 16th century argued for empiricism over scholastic metaphysics, while David Hume in the 18th century asserted that all genuine knowledge involves mathematics or matters of fact, rendering metaphysics worthless. However, philosophers like Immanuel Kant and Ludwig Wittgenstein have countered such views, maintaining that there is still room for metaphysics in understanding the fundamental structures of reality.
Notably, metaphysics has had a significant influence on scientific theorizing, with philosophers like Alexandre Koyré, John Watkins, and Imre Lakatos emphasizing the role of metaphysical propositions in scientific progress.
Historically, metaphysical views have evolved from prehistoric times, through the Bronze Age, to pre-Socratic Greece. Theories varied, ranging from the existence of a spirit or concept world in perennial philosophy or Shamanism, belief systems based on mythology and gods in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, to the physical explanations of Thales of Miletus and other Greek philosophers.
Classical Chinese metaphysics originated from Zhou Dynasty concepts such as Tian (Heaven) and Yin and Yang. The Taoist school perceived the natural world as dynamic processes emerging from an immanent metaphysical principle, the Tao. The School of Naturalists viewed the Taiji, the "supreme polarity" of Ying and Yang, as the ultimate metaphysical principle. Key Taoist concepts include the relationship and nature of Being and non-Being, spontaneous generation, and correlative resonance. Buddhist philosophy in China reinterpreted Indian theories of shunyata (emptiness) and Buddha-nature into the theory of interpenetration of phenomena. Neo-Confucians like Zhang Zai developed concepts of "principle" and vital energy.
Socratic philosophy is known for its dialectic approach rather than a definite metaphysical doctrine. Plato, Socrates' student, is renowned for his theory of Forms, which argued that objects share a universal Form and includes elements of ethics, time, change, and abstract objects. Aristotle, Plato's student, had a different approach to universals, arguing that essences reside in particulars and establishing principles of potentiality and actuality.
Classical Indian metaphysics encompasses dualistic schools such as Sāṃkhya and Vedānta. Sāṃkhya is a dualistic philosophy based on the principles of consciousness and matter. It is known for its theory of guṇas (qualities, innate tendencies) and does not assert the existence of God. The Vedānta system focuses on the realization of Self-identity. The Upanishads describe the Atman, or the Self, as phenomenally unknowable but realized through self-consciousness. Various schools of thought have evolved from these teachings, including Dualistic, Quasi-dualistic, and Monistic schools. The Upanishads identify five stages leading to Self-realization, from apprehending the Self's glory to realizing that "I am the Absolute."
Buddhist metaphysics focuses on various aspects of reality, beginning with Buddha's teachings that prioritized ethical and spiritual training over metaphysical questions. The systematic study of metaphysics emerged post-Buddha with the rise of the Abhidharma traditions, which analyzed reality based on the concept of dharmas or ultimate physical and mental events. Later philosophical traditions include the Madhyamika school, advocating the theory of emptiness or the absence of any ultimate essence, and the Yogacara school, which promoted a theory called “awareness only."
Islamic metaphysics flourished during Europe’s ‘Dark Ages’, following the translation of Aristotle's works into Arabic. Scholastic philosophy (1100-1500) was grounded in the Catholic church’s teaching system, merging Christian theology with Aristotelian teachings. During this period, there were significant metaphysical disagreements, especially over the problem of universals.
Rationalism in the early modern period used deductive reasoning to understand the world's nature. Philosophers like Leibniz, Descartes, and Spinoza put forward theories related to substance and reality. The British empiricism school, including David Hume, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Reid, and John Locke, countered rationalism with a more realistic and cautious style of metaphysics based on common sense and science.
Christian Wolff proposed a general metaphysics as a precursor to the distinction of three "special metaphysics" related to the soul, world, and God. Immanuel Kant attempted a grand synthesis of scholastic philosophy, systematic metaphysics, and skeptical empiricism, moving the focus from objective reality to subjective experience. This shift was called the Copernican Revolution.
The 19th-century philosophy was heavily influenced by Kant and his successors, such as Schopenhauer, Schelling, Fichte, and Hegel. This period also witnessed the rise of Karl Marx's materialism and the advent of analytical philosophy and positivism, rejecting metaphysical questions as meaningless.
Process metaphysics, emphasizing change and persistence as key elements of daily experience, includes the works of Heraclitus, Plotinus, Duns Scotus, Leibniz, David Hume, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, Gustav Theodor Fechner, and more. The late 20th century saw a revival in metaphysical theorizing, with philosophers like David K. Lewis and David Armstrong developing theories on various topics such as universals, causation, possibility and necessity, and abstract objects. Analytical philosophy shifted from constructing all-encompassing systems to closely analyzing individual ideas, often blurring into philosophy of language and introspective psychology.