What is metaphysics and why is it important?
When most people hear the word metaphysics they think of mystical things like ghosts, auras, and supernatural beings. It’s a logical way to interpret the meaning of the word. Meta means beyond and physics means physical stuff. We naturally think of immaterial things. But this is almost the opposite of what the branch of philosophy known as metaphysics actually is.
The word metaphysics came from a collection of Aristotle’s writings named “Ta meta ta phusika” — “the ones after the physical ones”. These writings were assembled at least 100 years after Aristotle’s death and the title was probably meant to convey the order in which Aristotle’s works should be studied. The suggestion was that students should first be familiar with Aristotle’s “Physics” and only then should they study these additional works.
Aristotle didn’t call any of those works metaphysics, he referred to their subject matter as first philosophy, first science, wisdom, or theology. He defined the content as the study of “being as such” (being qua being) and the study of “the first causes of things”.
Metaphysics has moved on since Aristotle. Some of the topics it studies now, Aristotle would have called physics. The topics in metaphysics have become so diverse it is notoriously difficult to give a definition of the discipline. Does this mean metaphysics is the word we use to describe all the philosophical problems that don’t fit into other categories? Or can we say something more about what metaphysical problems have in common?
What makes a question metaphysical?
We can start by saying metaphysics is concerned with “the nature of reality”. This only helps us a little, because so is physics, biology and sociology. But unlike those other disciplines, metaphysics can be characterized by the generality of its approach. It’s concerned with the nature of reality in its most fundamental and general features.
Instead of talking about how one particular thing causes another, it talks of the nature of causation itself. Instead of talking about atoms, or dogs, or chairs, metaphysics talks about the broad categories of particulars and universals. Instead of describing laws of nature, it asks what it means to be a law of nature. Instead of talking about thunderstorms or wars, it talks of events.
This generality means the concepts it studies are abstract and it’s this feature many people find confronting and difficult to understand. The subject matter seems mystical, esoteric and disconnected from the practical world of our senses. This is why some people accuse metaphysics of being naval gazing in ivory towers. Some people even question if metaphysics studies anything at all.
But these claims about the useless nature of metaphysics never succeed, they often turn out to be metaphysical claims themselves. While many are serious criticisms, some misunderstand what philosophy does. Once you understand what metaphysics is, you’ll also understand there is no way to avoid the discipline. All attempts to get rid of it are eventually assimilated within it.
Probably the easiest way to understand what metaphysics does is to give an outline of the topics it studies.
What problems does metaphysics study?
Metaphysics studies topics like causation, time, what exists (ontology), personal identity, the laws of nature, free will, the mind-body problem, the possibilities for existence (modal logic), what a thing is (constitution) and how do we know when it persists (identity).
If that is still too abstract we can understand more by the sort of questions it asks: What is the nature of reality? How does the world exist, and what is its origin? Does the world exist outside the mind? How can the immaterial mind affect the physical body and vice versa? What is the objective nature of things that exist? Is there a God, or many gods, or no god at all? Do we have free will?
If metaphysics was to be renamed to more accurately describe what it does, it would probably be called first philosophy, or foundational philosophy. Rather than something esoteric and beyond what we know of the world, metaphysics is the most foundational of intellectual activities. It tries to understand the very ground we stand on, the basis of reality.
This necessarily involves abstract concepts because the questions it asks come closest to the very structure of our thought. And just as mysticism attempts to experience the source and foundation of reality by direct experience, metaphysics makes the same kind of attempt. But instead of experience, it attempts to understand the most foundational truths about reality with the intellect.