Metaphysics

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1. WHAT IS METAPHYSICS?

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Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that examines the fundamental nature of reality, including the relationship between mind and matter, between substance and attribute, and between potentiality and actuality. The word “metaphysics” comes from two Greek words that, together, literally mean “after or behind or among [the study of] the natural”. It has been suggested that the term might have been coined by a first century CE editor who assembled various small selections of Aristotle’s works into the treatise we now know by the name Metaphysics (ta meta ta phusika, ‘after the Physics ’, another of Aristotle’s works).

Metaphysics studies questions related to what it is for something to exist and what types of existence there are. Metaphysics seeks to answer, in an abstract and fully general manner, the questions:

  1. What is there?
  2. What is it like?

Topics of metaphysical investigation include existence, objects and their properties, space and time, cause and effect, and possibility.

Metaphysical study is conducted using deduction from that which is known a priori. Like foundational mathematics (which is sometimes considered a special case of metaphysics applied to the existence of number), it tries to give a coherent account of the structure of the world, capable of explaining our everyday and scientific perception of the world, and being free from contradictions. In mathematics, there are many different ways to define numbers; similarly in metaphysics there are many different ways to define objects, properties, concepts, and other entities which are claimed to make up the world. While metaphysics may, as a special case, study the entities postulated by fundamental science such as atoms and superstrings, its core topic is the set of categories such as object, property and causality which those scientific theories assume. For example: claiming that “electrons have charge” is a scientific theory; while exploring what it means for electrons to be (or at least, to be perceived as) “objects”, charge to be a “property”, and for both to exist in a topological entity called “space” is the task of metaphysics.

There are two broad stances about what is “the world” studied by metaphysics. The strong, classical view assumes that the objects studied by metaphysics exist independently of any observer, so that the subject is the most fundamental of all sciences. The weak, modern view assumes that the objects studied by metaphysics exist inside the mind of an observer, so the subject becomes a form of introspection and conceptual analysis. Some philosophers, notably Kant, discuss both of these “worlds” and what can be inferred about each one. Some philosophers, such as the logical positivists, and many scientists, reject the strong view of metaphysics as meaningless and unverifiable. Others reply that this criticism also applies to any type of knowledge, including hard science, which claims to describe anything other than the contents of human perception, and thus that the world of perception is the objective world in some sense. Metaphysics itself usually assumes that some stance has been taken on these questions and that it may proceed independently of the choice—the question of which stance to take belongs instead to another branch of philosophy, epistemology.

Ontology is the philosophical study of the nature of being, becoming, existence or reality, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations. Traditionally listed as the core of metaphysics, ontology often deals with questions concerning what entities exist or may be said to exist and how such entities may be grouped, related within a hierarchy, and subdivided according to similarities and differences.

Identity is a fundamental metaphysical issue. Metaphysicians investigating identity are tasked with the question of what, exactly, it means for something to be identical to itself, or — more controversially — to something else. Issues of identity arise in the context of time: what does it mean for something to be itself across two moments in time? How do we account for this? Another question of identity arises when we ask what our criteria ought to be for determining identity? And how does the reality of identity interface with linguistic expressions?

The metaphysical positions one takes on identity have far-reaching implications on issues such as the Mind–body problem, personal identity, ethics, and law.

The ancient Greeks took extreme positions on the nature of change. Parmenides denied change altogether, while Heraclitus argued that change was ubiquitous: “[Y]ou cannot step into the same river twice.”

Identity, sometimes called Numerical Identity, is the relation that a “thing” bears to itself, and which no “thing” bears to anything other than itself (cf. sameness).

A modern philosopher who made a lasting impact on the philosophy of identity was Leibniz, whose Law of the Indiscernibility of Identicals is still in wide use today. It states that if some object x is identical to some object y, then any property that x has, y will have as well.

Put formally, it states

∀ x ∀ y ( x = y → ∀ P ( P ( x ) ↔ P ( y ) ) ) {\displaystyle \forall x\;\forall y\;(x=y\rightarrow \forall P\;(P(x)\leftrightarrow P(y)))}

However, it seems, too, that objects can change over time. If one were to look at a tree one day, and the tree later lost a leaf, it would seem that one could still be looking at that same tree. Two rival theories to account for the relationship between change and identity are perdurantism, which treats the tree as a series of tree-stages, and endurantism, which maintains that the organism—the same tree—is present at every stage in its history.

Objects appear to us in space and time, while abstract entities such as classes, properties, and relations do not. What then is meant by space and time such that it can serve this function as a ground for objects? Are space and time entities themselves, of some form, or must they exist prior to other entities? How exactly can they be defined? For example, if time is defined as a “rate of change” then must there always be something changing in order for time to exist?

Classical philosophy recognized a number of causes, including teleological future causes. In special relativity and quantum field theory the notions of space, time and causality become tangled together, with temporal orders of causations becoming dependent on who is observing them. The laws of physics are symmetrical in time, so could equally well be used to describe time as running backwards. Why then do we perceive it as flowing in one direction, the arrow of time, and as containing causation flowing in the same direction?

Causality is linked by most philosophers to the concept of counterfactuals. To say that A caused B means that if A had not happened then B would not have happened.

Causality is usually required as a foundation for philosophy of science, if science aims to understand causes and effects and make predictions about them.

Metaphysicians investigate questions about the ways the world could have been. David Lewis, in On the Plurality of Worlds, endorsed a view called Concrete Modal realism, according to which facts about how things could have been are made true by other concrete worlds, just as in ours, in which things are different. Other philosophers, such as Gottfried Leibniz, have dealt with the idea of possible worlds as well. The idea of necessity is that any necessary fact is true across all possible worlds. A possible fact is true in some possible world, even if not in the actual world. For example, it is possible that cats could have had two tails, or that any particular apple could have not existed. By contrast, certain propositions seem necessarily true, such as analytic propositions, e.g., “All bachelors are unmarried.” The particular example of analytic truth being necessary is not universally held among philosophers. A less controversial view might be that self-identity is necessary, as it seems fundamentally incoherent to claim that for any x, it is not identical to itself; this is known as the law of identity, a putative “first principle”. Aristotle describes the principle of non-contradiction, “It is impossible that the same quality should both belong and not belong to the same thing … This is the most certain of all principles … Wherefore they who demonstrate refer to this as an ultimate opinion. For it is by nature the source of all the other axioms.”

What is “central” and “peripheral” to metaphysics has varied over time and schools; however contemporary analytic philosophy as taught in USA and UK universities generally regards the above as “central” and the following as “applications” or “peripheral” topics; or in some cases as distinct subjects which have grown out of and depend upon metaphysics:

Metaphysical cosmology is the branch of metaphysics that deals with the world as the totality of all phenomena in space and time. Historically, it formed a major part of the subject alongside Ontology, though its role is more peripheral in contemporary philosophy. It has had a broad scope, and in many cases was founded in religion. The ancient Greeks drew no distinction between this use and their model for the cosmos. However, in modern times it addresses questions about the Universe which are beyond the scope of the physical sciences. It is distinguished from religious cosmology in that it approaches these questions using philosophical methods (e.g. dialectics).

Cosmogony deals specifically with the origin of the universe. Modern metaphysical cosmology and cosmogony try to address questions such as:

  • What is the origin of the Universe? What is its first cause? Is its existence necessary? (see monism, pantheism, emanationism and creationism)
  • What are the ultimate material components of the Universe? (see mechanism, dynamism, hylomorphism, atomism)
  • What is the ultimate reason for the existence of the Universe? Does the cosmos have a purpose?

Accounting for the existence of mind in a world otherwise composed of matter is a metaphysical problem which is so large and important as to have become a specialized subject of study in its own right, philosophy of mind.

Substance dualism is a classical theory in which mind and body are essentially different, with the mind having some of the attributes traditionally assigned to the soul, and which creates an immediate conceptual puzzle about how the two interact. Idealism postulates that material objects do not exist unless perceived and only as perceptions. Panpsychism and panexperientialism, are property dualist theories in which everything has or is a mind rather than everything exists in a mind. Neutral monism postulates that existence consists of a single substance that in itself is neither mental nor physical, but is capable of mental and physical aspects or attributes – thus it implies a dual-aspect theory. For the last century, the dominant theories have been science-inspired including materialistic monism, Type identity theory, token identity theory, functionalism, reductive physicalism, nonreductive physicalism, eliminative materialism, anomalous monism, property dualism, epiphenomenalism and emergence.

Determinism is the philosophical proposition that every event, including human cognition, decision and action, is causally determined by an unbroken chain of prior occurrences. It holds that nothing happens that has not already been determined. The principal consequence of the deterministic claim is that it poses a challenge to the existence of free will.

The problem of free will is the problem of whether rational agents exercise control over their own actions and decisions. Addressing this problem requires understanding the relation between freedom and causation, and determining whether the laws of nature are causally deterministic. Some philosophers, known as Incompatibilists, view determinism and free will as mutually exclusive. If they believe in determinism, they will therefore believe free will to be an illusion, a position known as Hard Determinism. Proponents range from Baruch Spinoza to Ted Honderich. Henri Bergson defended free will in his dissertation Time and Free Will from 1889.

Others, labeled Compatibilists (or “Soft Determinists”), believe that the two ideas can be reconciled coherently. Adherents of this view include Thomas Hobbes and many modern philosophers such as John Martin Fischer.

Incompatibilists who accept free will but reject determinism are called Libertarians, a term not to be confused with the political sense. Robert Kane and Alvin Plantinga are modern defenders of this theory.

The earliest type of classification of social construction traces back to Plato in his dialogue Phaedrus where he claims that the biological classification system seems to “carve nature at the joints”. In contrast, later philosophers such as Michel Foucault and Jorge Luis Borges have challenged the capacity of natural and social classification. In his essay The Analytical Language of John Wilkins, Borges makes us imagine a certain encyclopedia where the animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the emperor; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are trained;… and so forth, in order to bring forward the ambiguity of natural and social kinds. According to metaphysics author Alyssa Ney: “the reason all this is interesting is that there seems to be a metaphysical difference between the Borgesian system and Platos”. The difference is not obvious but one classification attempts to carve entities up according to objective distinction while the other does not. According to Quine this notion is closely related to the notion of similarity.[10]

There are different ways to set up the notion of number in metaphysics theories. Platonist theories postulate number as a fundamental category itself. Others consider it to be a property of an entity called a “group” comprising other entities; or to be a relation held between several groups of entities, such as “the number four is the set of all sets of four things”. Many of the debates around universals are applied to the study of number, and are of particular importance due to its status as a foundation for the philosophy of mathematics and for mathematics itself.

Although metaphysics as a philosophical enterprise is highly hypothetical, it also has practical application in most other branches of philosophy, science, and now also information technology. Such areas generally assume some basic ontology (such as a system of objects, properties, classes, and space time) as well as other metaphysical stances on topics such as causality and agency, then build their own particular theories upon these.

In science, for example, some theories are based on the ontological assumption of objects with properties (such as electrons having charge) while others may reject objects completely (such as quantum field theories, where spread-out “electronness” becomes a property of space time rather than an object).

“Social” branches of philosophy such as philosophy of morality, aesthetics and philosophy of religion (which in turn give rise to practical subjects such as ethics, politics, law, and art) all require metaphysical foundations, which may be considered as branches or applications of metaphysics. For example, they may postulate the existence of basic entities such as value, beauty, and God. Then they use these postulates to make their own arguments about consequences resulting from them. When philosophers in these subjects make their foundations they are doing applied metaphysics, and may draw upon its core topics and methods to guide them, including ontology and other core and peripheral topics. As in science, the foundations chosen will in turn depend on the underlying ontology used, so philosophers in these subjects may have to dig right down to the ontological layer of metaphysics to find what is possible for their theories. For example, a contradiction obtained in a theory of God or Beauty might be due to an assumption that it is an object rather than some other kind of ontological entity.

2. WHAT IS THE ESSENTIAL DIALECTIC OF METAPHYSICS?

The Essential Dialectic of Metaphysics is:

{Logic-Mathematics ⇆ Mathematics-Logic ⇅ Logic-Logic} ↻ Mathematics-Mathematics

3. WHAT IS THE INTERMEDIARY DIALECTIC OF METAPHYSICS?

The Intermediary Dialectic of Metaphysics is:

{Mathematics ⇆ Logic ⇅ Ontotheology} ↻ Reality

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4. WHAT IS THE COMPLETE DIALECTIC OF METAPHYSICS?

The Complete Dialectic of Metaphysics is:

{Metaphysics ⇆ Cosmology ⇅ Sociology} ↻ Psychology

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