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What is Metaphysics?

As stated in the About section, one of my favorite areas of study is metaphysics. Many people have as clear an understanding as to what that means as they do philosophy in general, which is to stay they don’t know what it is.

Metaphysics encompasses such a diverse set of topics that it can be difficult to define. In fact, the topics are diverse enough that one would be hard pressed to unify them by listing a series of non-trivial attributes shared by them all. The origin of the word itself gives us no insight as to its meaning. The origin of the word has nothing to do with being “above” or “beyond” the physical, even though it is occasionally understood that way. The origin of the world derives from the title of one of Aristotle’s texts, although he did not use the title himself. Rather, later scholars who read and titled his works did not know what to call the text that followed after his discourse on physics. So they called it Meta-physics or “after physics.”

While medieval philosophy considered metaphysics to be primarily the study of being (ontology), modern and contemporary metaphysics no longer shares this view. In a very broad and general sense, metaphysics can be defined as the search for or study of what is fundamentally true or, as Peter van Inwagen put it, the search for or study of “ultimate reality.” Ultimate reality here is taken to mean the reality that is behind the appearances or behind how the world appears to us as individuals or as humans. Of course, I must add one important caveat. Those philosophers who reject the appearance-reality distinction are understood, in today’s metaphysical parlance, to be proposing a metaphysical theory. Thus, to reject metaphysics or the possibility of metaphysics (as some have done) is now understood as doing metaphysics. Consequently, there are no obvious and uncontroversial definitions of metaphysics: to suggest an answer would be to partake in a metaphysical debate. With that said, here are ten examples of metaphysical topics that are still frequently discussed by philosophers. I will give brief remarks below each topic in an attempt to give a sense of what sort of questions are discussed in that area. Keep in mind that this list is not exhaustive and includes overlap.

1) Free Will and Determinism:

  • Is metaphysical determinism true: are all events (including human thought and action) the result of past events + the uncontrollable physical laws of nature?
  • Does free will exist? Even if determinism is false, that doesn’t logically entail that free will exists. An indeterminate (or random) universe does not appear to be any more accommodating to the thesis of free will than determinism. Which leads to the question…
  • What, after all, is free will? What conditions must hold for me to truly say that my particular action was free?

2) Personal Identity:

  • What makes a person (you) the same person over time? What makes it the case that you are the same person as that person you remember so long ago that went by the same name and was born to the same parents? Does it have to do with the fact that you have a body that is spatially and temporally continuous with that past person? Or perhaps it has to do with the fact that you have a mind or set of psychological traits (including memory) that is continuous with that past person?
  • Is your identity extinguished when your body dies or does it continue to exist? Is resurrection possible? Is immortality possible?

3) Realism vs. Anti-realism:

  • This debate is involved in various fields, from science to ethics to a more strictly metaphysical field. In science, the question revolves around whether or not our scientific theories can be true, especially when they involve unobservables (like electrons). An example of an anti-realist account of science is called Instrumentalism. Instrumentalism says that the value of a scientific theory lies not in whether or not it is true–i.e. corresponds to reality–but whether or not it helps us explain and predict phenomena.
  • In ethics the question is whether or not our ethical statements can be true. Some philosophers have thought that our ethical statements (“stealing is wrong” or “keeping  your promises is praiseworthy”) are nothing more than emotional grunts and groans (or “boos” and “hoorays”) that voice our approval or disapproval of a particular action. But just as grunts and groans cannot be true or false, neither can our ethical statements. For that reason this view has been called emotivism and is an anti-realist view of ethics.
  • In a more strictly metaphysical sense, the realism-anti-realism debate concerns the existence or non-existence of universals (e.g. whiteness). Paper is white and so is glue. They both share the property of being white or “whiteness.” But how do we explain this property agreement? Those who think “whiteness” (or universals) is a real entity that is distinct from the particulars that instantiate whiteness are called realists. Those who deny the existence of universals, instead claiming that properties like “whiteness” are simply convenient ways for us to talk about particulars are called nominalists (nomen is “name” in Latin) or anti-realists.

4) Essential vs. Accidental Properties:

  • The old question of Socrates: what is X (fill in the blank: justice, piety, metaphysics)? In order to define X, you must determine the essential properties of that thing while weeding out the properties that it just happens to have (the accidental or, we might say, irrelevant properties). For instance, to ask what a person is essentially is to ask what a person is after eliminating all contingent properties (like skin color, number of limbs, even the species of the person).
  • Certain philosophers are considered non-essentialists when they deny that certain concepts can be properly (essentially) defined above and beyond conventional usage.

5) Modality: the Necessary vs. the Contingent:

  • What, if anything, is necessarily true in all possible worlds? That is, what, if anything, has to be the case? For instance, is it necessarily true that you had to exist? Or is your existence only contingently true? What about the existence of minds or certain mathematical relations?
  • Does our universe necessarily exist? If not, does something else (God, multiverses) necessarily exist?

6) Truth:

  • What does it mean for something to be true? Many theories have been proposed (truth as correspondence, truth as coherence, pragmatic theories of truth)? Is there a correct theory of truth? If so, what is it (i.e. what is the essence of truth)?

7) The Mind-Body Problem:

  • How do the mental and the physical interact? How does your mind (a mental substance) tell your body (a physical substance) to move?
  • What fundamentally exists: mental phenomena (minds) or physical phenomena (matter-energy)? Or both? In other words, is one reducible to the other (monism) or are they both equally irreducible (dualism)?

8.) The Nature of Objectivity:

  • Discussions about objectivity permeate multiple disciplines, from logic to science to ethics to aesthetics.
  • Are there objective or mind-independent (logical, scientific, ethical) principles or properties? Is human logic/reason or human morality a local phenomena instantiated only in the human species or are they fundamental to how the universe actually functions? Is morality or beauty only in the eye of the beholder? Are the principles that underlie our logic, our science, our ethics, and our views on beauty contingent upon us existing or did they exist prior to our existence and will they continue to exist after we are gone?

9) Time and Space:

  • What is time? Does it exist as a fundamental property of the universe? Or is it an illusion created by our mind interacting with the universe?
  • What is space? How does it relate to time?
  • Is time travel possible?

10) Consciousness:

  • Subsumed under the Mind-Body Problem but a large enough topic in its own right.
  • What is consciousness?
  • Can we account for it in a physicalist theory (a monist theory that says all mental phenomena are reducible to physical properties) of the universe? If so, how?
  • The problem of other minds: are other humans conscious? Are non-human animals conscious? If so, what sort of evidence would count in favor of this hypothesis? If not, what sort the evidence would count against this hypothesis?
  1. Time and space (what are they?; is time travel possible?)
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