“We are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming.” – Ephesians 4:14.
Of all the branches in philosophy, no other term is probably as well known but more misunderstood than metaphysics. The term “epistemology” is usually unheard of, the term “ethics”, while a household term is rarely studied in depth. Metaphysics is certainly a term that carries a lot of mixed understanding.
Tarot cards, crystal balls, a spooky experience with a fortune teller, or some preachers out there on TV. All of these, and more, are examples of the mystical, but certainly not of the metaphysical. It certainly is true that the term has taken on some contemporary baggage, after all its roots date back to the early writings of Aristotle and enough time has accumulated for new meaning to be assigned to the term and when one speaks of metaphysics images of old ladies conjuring up spirits and using tea leaves to tell our future are often invoked. No doubt, David Hume’s famous quote regarding metaphysics has not helped any false notions of this field:
“If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”
And, why shouldn’t we accept Hume’s criticism of metaphysics as being true, after all, physicists deal with the material stuff of physical reality, and those who deal with metaphysics get the leftovers that fall off the physicists plate, the stuff inexplicable in terms of quantity, self-evident truths, or laws of nature? Certainly, one could point to the self stultifying nature of the Hume quote, which is often the thesis of logical positivists like Ayer, Hawking and Krauss, or one could attempt to divorce the term “metaphysics” from its contemporary meaning and put it back to its intended place. It seems more productive to provide a more meaningful understanding of the terms, rather than to merely show inadequacies in other paradigms.
The term originally comes from a bunch of Aristotle’s writings, which he never named, but were named by ancient editors as “meta-physics”, which means “after the Physics”, this was title of one of his books dealing with his views on physics. Nailing down a watertight definition of metaphysics is not entirely easy, but that is kind of what philosophy is all about, philosophy is a very self referential discipline which stands apart from dogmatic assumptions and takes its own presuppositions into question. While epistemology, a branch of philosophy, deals with “How can we know?”, and ethics deals with what is good, in terms of human behaviour, metaphysics deals with asking, “What is real?”! One could answer this question in many ways, many of which are inadequate in dealing with other realities. One may take on the empiricism of David Hume, and Locke, and other contemporary positivists, and say that only the material world is real, but this view does not tackle other realities which will be discussed here.
One task of metaphysics is dealing with what is necessary and distinguishing it from what is sufficient. What are the components of something which are necessary, things it could not be what it is said to be and could not be without; what are the things a thing is said to have that are sufficient, that are good enough? For instance, for one to be a bachelor, what conditions must be met in order to fulfill a certain set of criteria in order to qualify as being a bachelor? This brings to light another important task on doing metaphysics, the task of developing a conceptual analysis. What is one doing when formulating a conceptual analysis? They are asking “What parts can we take away from a subject, or a substance, and it no longer fills that role?” In order to be a bachelor, does one have to be a man? Certainly there are many men who are married, so we need to keep looking for other criteria which need to be met. Eventually once all the criteria have been exhausted, we will be able to synthesize, out of the subject, a feature essential to being a bachelor, which is being an unmarried male. Many philosophers seem to to like using a car to illustrate this notion because there are many parts of a car, many of which can be added or removed, such as after market products, and the car does not cease to be a car, but one could have all the aggregate parts of the car spread out and not connected and one could not point to any single part of the car and say, “There, that is a car!” It seems that in order to be a car a critical mass or parts need to be put together in order for it to fulfill the function of a car and this is what is known as being an ’emergent property.’ One could call a swarm an emergent property, for instance with bees there is not a swarm with one, two, or a hundred bees, so what is the critical number for there to be considered a swarm? If several bees, considered a swarm, fall one number short of this, does it cease to be a swarm?
Another task of metaphysics asks ‘who are we’? While the biologist and the chemist can answer this in terms of our parts, which make us up, the metaphysicist will answer this using different categories. It seems insufficient to answer this question in terms of mere physical parts, because all physical objects have physical parts. What differentiates between being a human and being non-human? Rocks have substance, cartesian points in space, but persons exhibit features which rocks do not seem to have, such as thoughts and beliefs. While some deny that we are anything more than material objects, such as Gilbert Ryle who wrote against substance dualism, calling it the “dogma of the ghost in the machine”, and raised the mind-body problem and which asked how can there be an immortal/simple part of a person when there is no mechanism capable of linking the two together, while some asserted it was the perennial gland in Kant’s day. The dualist can simply say we do not know, rather than dogmatically asserting unknowns. However, the dualist can respond that monism raises more difficulty than it resolves, because it does not deal with epistemological issues, such as our ability to know truth and utilize moral and logical propositions. Material objects do not have states of intentionality as do other sorts of material objects which are capable of interacting with the world. These moral and logical categories simply do not apply to other types of physical objects or even animals which do not seem aware of them, or exhibit complex behaviour.
Other questions the metaphysicist might ask are,
1. Is morality real, and used by moral agents, or is it a product of the individual?
2. Is logic a real, mind independent truth, or is it a description of how we have evolved to think?
3. What are the metaphysical presuppositions of other disciplines, such as the sciences? Are ethics a component of scientific research?
Scripture tells us there are unseen realities which are eternal, in 2 Corinthians 4:18, and metaphysics certainly buttresses the Biblical notion of there being mind independent truths which are not created by, but are used by our minds. While the secularist can certainly benefit from metaphysics as a tool for defining truth, and inquiring into the nature of reality, the Christian theist should be just as concerned with metaphysics, given metaphysical ideas have impact on both our Biblical worldview as much as developing our own worldview.
William Hasker has written an excellent book on metaphysics, as his contribution to the “Contours of Christian Philosophy” series, and there are many excellent books by secularists as well, dealing with metaphysical ideas from their own perspective. We would all do well do read them all and understand each other’s views, so as to give fair representation in the debate. Bertrand Russell’s “The Problems of Philosophy” is also an excellent and fair treatment of the subject.