What is Metaphysics?

Metaphysics is a complex topic and it is used in a variety of ways. First, metaphysics is a part of philosophy in general. It is the branch that deals with the fundamental nature of BEING and the WORLD. It asks the basic questions – What actually exists? And – What is existence like, what does it mean to exist? Metaphysics is the study that seeks to understand all of nature, all objects within it, all the properties held by such objects, all of space, time, matter, energy, cause and effect. It is the branch of philosophy that deals with possibility itself. Central to metaphysics is the subject of Ontology – the investigation of the basic categories of BEING and how they relate to each other. Another central aspect is Cosmology – the study of the whole of all phenomena and possibilities within the universe.

A second way of using the word is derived from an ancient error. Although the subjects covered by metaphysics were studied prior to the time of the philosopher Aristotle, it was Aristotle who categorized different aspects of philosophy and science. The editor of Aristotle’s work collected all the more practical, hard science ideas into a book series he called The Physics. Then he gathered the material that Aristotle himself referred to as “First Philosophy” and put them together as “Meta-Physics.” In this case “meta” just means “after” and it means the book collection that came after the collection called Physics. However, this was misread by later Latin scholars who thought it referred to concepts that went “beyond” the physical world. And commentators began to look for reasons for assuming this error. The subject was then looked at as the science of the world beyond nature – or the science of immaterial or spiritual things. This is now the sense with which the word is used in popular literature – thus, metaphysics is seen as the study of non-physical or spiritual phenomena. The term “metaphysical healing” for example refers to healing done without physical remedies.

Aristotle had divided the subject into three main categories:

Ontology – the study of Being, Existence and Reality; the definition and classification of entities or objects – physical or mental – and the nature of their properties; and the nature of change.

Natural Theology – the study of God or gods; the nature of religion and the world; existence of divinity and divine things; questions about creation and the origin of the universe – now studied as cosmology and cosmogony; and the numerous religious or spiritual issues that are often subjects of concern to people such as what is the reason for the existence of the universe, and what is the nature of humanity.

Universal Science – the study of first principles –the main ideas and elements that are the foundations of the various sciences.

We can add to this list modern concepts of determinism and free will; identity and change; mind and matter; necessity and possibility; space and time.

Although many of these subjects are also studied by physicists, theologians, ethical philosophers etc., metaphysics provides the underlying core concepts and even belief systems that lead others to ask questions particular to their respective fields of enquiry. For example, in the field of quantum mechanics the subject of sub-atomic particles raises metaphysical questions regarding their individuality, and even existence. They appear to behave differently from other particles which led to the quantum-mechanical Uncertainty Principle coming into use. Einstein and others who held a deterministic metaphysical view – there must be a cause for every perceived effect – were led to challenge the uncertainty principle and proposed alternative theories that preserved determinism. The uncertainty principle appears to be the prevailing concept today.

Metaphysics in the looser, popular sense seems concerned with proposing belief systems that extend and strengthen the spiritual identity of human beings such as Spiritual healing, divination, parapsychology, other worlds, the afterlife, non-human intelligence, the soul, spiritual evolution, human purpose, etc.  However, if any of these beliefs are expected to survive in regular life experience, they must be capable of withstanding metaphysical analysis using the methods and systems of classical philosophy.