• Pattern-chaser
    1.8k
    In recent discussions, it has become clear to me that I have no clear idea of what metaphysics is. So I've come here, to ask the experts.... :wink: Seriously, can we have a stab here at defining and describing metaphysics? Does it have, as I suspect, many definitions that have evolved over years, and maybe within particular disciplines?

    I think the everyday use of "metaphysical" is something like this:
    Metaphysical
    (popularly) abstract, abstruse, or unduly theoretical.
    Incorporeal; supernatural.
    — Collins English dictionary

    But I think we need something better than "stuff that's a bit weird" for our use, don't we? :wink:

    Accepting that "metaphysics" is used to describe quite a lot of philosophical thinking, the 'definition' that means most to me is one I thought I read in Pirsig's first novel. I've looked for it recently, and can't find it. Maybe I invented it? Anyway, I got the impression that if we start from all thought, ideas, and so forth, and we start to divide it, in order to reduce the pieces to bite-size. We might divide Everything into (say) Subject and Object. Then we would proceed to make further cuts. This process of deciding how to subdivide Everything is metaphysics.

    But I'm sure you've got better ideas than this. What are they? What definition(s) of metaphysics do you find the most useful and meaningful?
  • Echarmion
    646
    To wit, metaphysics attempts to answer the question "physics - what is it?".
  • NOS4A2
    621


    The etymology of “metaphysics” has a very long history. But the subject matter of Aristotle’s work bearing the name still suffices as it’s definition. The study of being qua being, or first philosophy.
  • Mww
    994
    What metaphysics is, is directly related to whom one is reading; there isn’t a cut-and-dried definition for it, because it changes over time. According to some Continental Enlightenment philosophy, metaphysics is the logic-oriented criticism of reason.

    If one were to reduce the basic idea of metaphysics to a fundamental condition, and because physics is the science of human a posteriori knowledge and is grounded in experience so is self-regulating, perhaps metaphysics could be described as the study of human a priori knowledge in the form of rational principles, necessarily, as a priori knowledge is influenced by imagination which has no self-regulation.
  • alcontali
    538
    Seriously, can we have a stab here at defining and describing metaphysics?Pattern-chaser

    Metaphysics are presuppositionist views about the real, physical world. I agree with the logical positivists that a priori knowledge about the real, physical world cannot be justified; unlike a priori knowledge about abstract, platonic worlds, as in mathematics. We can believe particular things about the construction logic of the real, physical world, but we cannot justify these beliefs.
  • Wittgenstein
    190

    I agree with the logical positivists that a priori knowledge about the real, physical world cannot be justified; unlike a priori knowledge about abstract, platonic worlds, as in mathematics.
    Logical positivist used the verificationism principle to regard metaphysical statements as meaningless, would you go along that belief ? Ironically, the principle fails to justify itself and the whole theory falls apart there.

    .... statement is meaningful only if it is either empirically verifiable or else tautological (i.e., such that its truth arises entirely from the meanings of its terms). Thus, the principle discards as meaningless the metaphysical statements of traditional philosophy as well as other kinds of statements—such as ethical, aesthetic, or religious principles
  • thewonder
    377
    Meta, meaning "above", and physics, meaning "matter and whathaveyou"...
    Metaphysics is seriously just a Philosophical attempt to answer "What is?" It's like the study of what there is. There's a whole field of Philosophy devoted to something else which no one can seem to explain, but that is still ultimately just what Metaphysics is. The ancient Greeks wanted to know what there was. Were there forms and modes? Was there just atoms and the void? That, by my estimation, is what Metaphysics was, and is still, I would argue, ultimately what Metaphysics is. It's sort of absurd now for Philosophy to answer Metaphysical questions when there are scientists. If someone thinks that Metaphysics is really something else, then I don't see why they shouldn't get into it and discover whatever it is that they will or can from that. I'm not terribly interested in Metaphysics because I just think that that's what it is. It can be fun to engage in Metaphysics, and I suppose that that does have a place in Philosophy, but it is kind of absurd anymore.

    Edit: Like, the term either means something like "to see the physical world from the Archimedian Point" or to "transcend the physical world". It's a whole lot of theories proceeding from there. I honestly can't quite say what Metaphysics is either, and I honestly suspect for this to have something to do with pretense in Philosophy. I do think that that just is what Metaphysics is, though.

    Like, it's just how Aristotle navigated that there was Philosophy and that you were supposed to believe in the gods. In a way, it's just Philosophy, but what I think that Metaphysics ultimately does is to just simply ask, "What is?"
  • khaled
    1k
    The best definition I could come up with is answering the question "what exists" using the most abstract categories possible
  • Bill Hobba
    28
    I like the answer that says its just an attempt to clarify what is. 30 years of reading books on physics, especially QM, but GR etc as well, and philosophical writings on it by people like Wittgenstein (conventionalism), Poincare (conventionalism as well), Turing (applications were paramount. But had a magnificent debate with Wittgenstein about one of the most fundamental of things - math - https://www.britishwittgensteinsociety.org/wp-content/uploads/documents/lectures/Turing-and-Wittgenstein-on-Logic-and-Mathematics.pdf . Its ironic that before being a philosopher Wittgenstein used applied math all the time as an aeronautical researcher), Weinberg (realist - science is progressing towards something), Kuhn - well I am sure you get my drift - I still have no firm idea. I think its one of those things you need to read and form your own view - if you can - like I said I can't. I recently found a little known discussion between Dirac and Heisenberg that helped me quite a lot:
    http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.485.9188&rep=rep1&type=pdf

    I side with Dirac in that what is, is never really known, we just continually advance theories about it. Weinberg thinks we are advancing towards something, I think he is right, but bowed if I can justify it.

    To me it's maddening we cant even pin it down well.

    Thanks
    Bill
  • Wittgenstein
    190

    The debate wittgenstein had with turing was really interesting since both of them were at cambridge teaching foundation of mathematics. The content turing was teaching was drastically different from wittgenstein, so he attended many lectures of wittgenstein. The debate on contradiction reflects the differences of the approach towards understanding maths of Wittgenstein and Turing.Wittgenstein contended that we can allow contradictions in maths as long as we do not use it as a result but turing gave the example of a bridge that would collapse in case of contradiction. Wittgenstein would in his book ask the question on countable number and turing told him N, the cardinality of the set of natural numbers .Wittgenstein in response argued that a finitist wouldn't allow that and so one..
  • Andreas Greifenberger
    9
    I think the everyday use of "metaphysical" is something like this:

    Metaphysical
    (popularly) abstract, abstruse, or unduly theoretical.
    Incorporeal; supernatural. — Collins English dictionary


    But I think we need something better than "stuff that's a bit weird" for our use, don't we?
    Pattern-chaser

    Well, I believe at least one definition of metaphysics is "what goes beyond physics". Now, what goes beyond physics is not necessarily the supra-natural, but it is, I think, whatever cannot be empirically demonstrated. Thus, the question whether or not life has a meaning would be a metaphysical question.

    Wittgenstein, at least as I read his Tractatus, wanted to eliminate metaphysics from philosophy altogether, because he saw no advantage in discussing questions for which there cannot be a verifiable answer. In this, Wittgenstein was by no means isolated, and I believe that even today most philosophers agree with him on this question.
  • Terrapin Station
    12.5k
    Metaphysics:

    Traditionally, it's:

    (1) "Universal 'science'," "first philosophy" or "first principles,"--all common names for more or less core logical axioms required for things to obtain, to be coherent, etc.

    (2) "Natural theology" or basically philosophy of religion

    and

    (3) Ontology - or philosophy of existence/philosophy of "being," nominally at "higher" levels of abstraction, but depending on one's views about the extent to which those abstractions are possible/to which they make sense, there can be a lot of overlap with the sciences here, only from a philosophical perspective/philosophical methodology rather than an approach via scientific methodology. Ontology answers questions such as "What is the world (everything extant) comprised of?" "What is its nature/ what is the nature of the components that comprise things?" "Is there more than one kind of component?" "What are properties?" "What is causality?" "What is motion?" "What are relations?" "What is time (& space/spacetime)?" etc. etc.

    ==================================================

    It's not uncommon now for folks to think of metaphysics as more or less synonymous with (3)--ontology--only, especially if one rejects religion more or less. (1) is often thought to be best suited for logic "proper."

    There's a lot of confusion due to the etymology (or rather misunderstandings of the etymology) of the name, "metaphysics." It's often taken to refer to something "beyond" physics, in the sense of transcending physics, more or less in a mystical sense. The fact that part of metaphysics is traditionally natural theology doesn't help this misunderstanding. Really, the name stems from "after" physics, and it was meant literally, in the sense of an editor who was anthologizing the work of Aristotle putting the then-unnamed book (which was dubbed "metaphysics" for the collection) after the book known as "physics." In other words, it was simply "here's the book named 'physics'" and then "here's the book after the book named 'physics.'" The content of Aristotle's book (dubbed "metaphysics") was the initial starting point for the subject matter of metaphysics.
  • Janus
    8.2k
    Just as metaethics is the study of what metaphysical, epistemological, phenomenological and semantic assumptions and commitments are entailed by ethical judgements, I would say metaphysics is the study of what ontological, epistemological, phenomenological and semantic assumptions and commitments ground the understandings and judgements of physics.

    It's nuthin' to do with woo...for those kinds of feelings there's mystical writing and poetry.
  • Pattern-chaser
    1.8k
    Well, I believe at least one definition of metaphysics is "what goes beyond physics". Now, what goes beyond physics is not necessarily the supra-natural, but it is, I think, whatever cannot be empirically demonstrated.Andreas Greifenberger

    This rings true - and useful - to me. But is this all that metaphysics covers, or is there more as well? I'm not sure. Anyone? :chin:
  • Pattern-chaser
    1.8k
    After quite a few replies - thank you all who bothered - is it fair of me to conclude that we don't really have a simple and clear definition for metaphysics?

    Are there any common points in our various definitions?
  • Terrapin Station
    12.5k
    "Metaphysics" in the "what goes beyond physics" sorta supernatural/mysticism sense gained a lot of traction in the latter half of the 19th century through the early part of the 20th century, with the rise of the spiritualism movement, the theosophy movement, awakened interest in the occult, gnosticism, various esoteric movements, eventually new age, etc. Those movements often co-opted the term "metaphysics" for their own purposes. All of this stuff was popular enough that I believe it had a significant impact on philosophers of that era "rejecting metaphysics" (as the logical positivists famously did, for example). It's not that those folks were not familiar with the standard philosophical sense of "metaphysics," but the spiritualist/etc. movements were popular at the time, and combined with the facts that philosophical metaphysics traditionally covered natural theology, as well as the desire to "scientize" philosophy, there was a desire to just trash metaphysics in general and cover the important (ontological) stuff as "philosophical science" instead, with "first principles" being relegated to logic/mathematics.
  • sime
    402
    In my view, a metaphysical assertion is meta-cognitive speech-act whose intention is to influence perception, behavior and values, via a wholesale change of view. A Metaphysical debate is the result of differing views or values being simultaneously incompatible, typically with one party being unable to grasp the sense or value of the other party's viewpoint.

    I see metaphysical assertions as value-apt, but not truth-apt in a representational sense. After all, to a certain extent what is at stake is the method of representation, which in turn is decided according to what it is considered to be worth representing.
  • Terrapin Station
    12.5k
    In my view, a metaphysical assertion is meta-cognitive speech-act whose intention is to influence perception, behavior and values, via a wholesale change of view.sime

    :smirk:
  • Gnomon
    47
    What definition(s) of metaphysics do you find the most useful and meaningful?Pattern-chaser

    The Greek word "physics" simply referred to Nature, Aristotle's book by that name was essentially an encyclopedia of then current knowledge about the natural (physical, material) world. But in his second volume, he discussed ideas pertaining primarily to human nature, such as our tendency to wonder about abstractions like "being, existence" and "knowledge". Such psychological (intellectual, noetic) concerns have emerged in the natural world in only one species of animals. They have nothing to do with normal physical and evolutionary interests, such as food & sex. So, Aristotle discussed them in a separate book, that later came to be numerically labeled "Metaphysics" (Volume 2 of Physics). But due to the subject matter of the text, that word eventually came to be applied to mysteries in general, with the connotation of "super-natural".

    Personally, I think of Metaphysics as an integral, but emergent, aspect of Nature, So, here is an excerpt from my blog glossary definition of Meta-Physics :

    a> Physics is the science of material Things & Forces. Things are Objects (nouns)

    b> Metaphysics is the science of immaterial Non-Things such as Ideas, Concepts, Processes, & Universals. Non-things are Agents (subjects), Actions (verbs), or Categories (adverbs, adjectives).

    http://blog-glossary.enformationism.info/page14.html
  • Relativist
    829
    To add to the confusion, consider what (if any) difference there is between ontology and metaphysics. Both pertain to what exists.
  • hachit
    203
    ontology is a subset of metaphysics.
    In other words ontology is metaphysics but is one part of it.
  • PoeticUniverse
    622
    To add to the confusion, consider what (if any) difference there is between ontology and metaphysics. Both pertain to what exists.Relativist

    Yes, so there is but ontology; so long metaphysics; all is physical.
  • PoeticUniverse
    622
    It's bullshitdarthbarracuda

    In the new dictionary-thesaurus:

    Bullshit: transcendence, intangible, immaterial, spirit, 'God', supernatural, beyond-physics, etc.
  • Janus
    8.2k
    What is? Bullshit or dullshit?
  • alcontali
    538
    Logical positivist used the verificationism principle to regard metaphysical statements as meaningless, would you go along that belief ?Wittgenstein

    No, I don't. I just share the same conclusion, but for different reasons.

    I think that presuppositionism about the real, physical world is ineffective, because the real-world principles are often testable, and should actually be testable. So, if something is testable, why don't they just test it? In that sense, I believe that real-world knowledge should rather be falsificationist. Karl Popper did a great job in pointing that out in "Science as falsification". Permitting real-world presuppositionism will invariably lead to non-knowledge, snake-oil scams. So, that is a big no, no.

    Reasoning from first principles only makes sense in the context of abstract, Platonic worlds, simply, because we can actually know their first principles, i.e. their construction logic. For example, the axiomatic method certainly does an excellent job in mathematics; but it also does an excellent job in morality, where axiomatic derivation from basic rules is also the method of choice.

    Reasoning from first principles in the context of the real, physical world looks like a serious epistemic mismatch to me. That is why I reject the practice of metaphysics.
  • Janus
    8.2k
    Reasoning from first principles in the context of the real, physical world looks like a serious epistemic mismatch to me. That is why I reject the practice of metaphysics.alcontali

    Such speculation is not, or at least should not be, aimed at gaining knowledge, but rather at exercising the poetic imagination.
  • Shamshir
    741
    Metaphysics is To Be Continued.
    So it is just physics.
  • Metaphysician Undercover
    6k
    Reasoning from first principles in the context of the real, physical world looks like a serious epistemic mismatch to me. That is why I reject the practice of metaphysics.alcontali

    But metaphysics is reasoning toward first principles, not reasoning from first principles.

    For example, the axiomatic method certainly does an excellent job in mathematics; but it also does an excellent job in morality, where axiomatic derivation from basic rules is also the method of choice.alcontali

    Here is evidence of your mistake. Morality, in the sense of being moral, acting morally, may be described as a matter of behaving within the confines of some rules of ethics. But to study morality, as a field of study within philosophy, is a process by which we seek to determine those rules. The same is the case with metaphysics, many people, including physicists and other scientists, will reason from first principles in their endeavours, just like many people behave morally, but the metaphysician reasons toward determining first principles.
  • alcontali
    538
    But metaphysics is reasoning toward first principles, not reasoning from first principles.Metaphysician Undercover

    That is even worse.

    If you reason toward first principles, you will look for the principles underlying these first principles, and again, ad nauseam. It obviously leads to infinite regress. That is why this particular direction is forbidden in axiomatic systems. It only works by picking an unjustified starting point and reason away from them, i.e. exactly in the opposite direction. The goal is then to justify conclusions from that starting point, without falling into the trap of trying to justify the starting point itself.

    That is why the axiomatic starting point in mathematics, the axioms, are fundamentally arbitrary, while in morality the starting point, the categorical imperatives, are necessarily "revealed".

    But to study morality, as a field of study within philosophy, is a process by which we seek to determine those rules.Metaphysician Undercover

    Justifying the starting-point rules is an exercise in infinite regress and futility. Can you give even one example of where an approach like that has worked?

    but the metaphysician reasons toward determining first principles.Metaphysician Undercover

    The metaphysicist is wasting his time, simply because the direction of reasoning is necessarily incorrect. What the epistemologist does, however, makes much more sense.

    Instead of looking at the real, physical world, he looks at the abstract, Platonic world of knowledge and tries to discern if particular patterns emerge. The scientist does that with the real, physical world, while the epistemologist does that with the abstract world of knowledge. An epistemic pattern then demarcates an epistemic domain. A good example is how Karl Popper successfully managed to demarcate the epistemic domain of scientific knowledge by requiring science to be generated by falsificationist activity.

    Epistemology really works, while metaphysics is nonsense. We know that for a fact, because after 2500 years of metaphysics, it has never produced anything else but nonsense.
  • Metaphysician Undercover
    6k
    If you reason toward first principles, you will look for the principles underlying these first principles, and again, ad nauseam. It obviously leads to infinite regress.alcontali

    That's contradiction, "first" means first, the possibility of infinite regress is therefore excluded.

    That is why this particular direction is forbidden in axiomatic systems.alcontali

    Metaphysics does not operate on an axiomatic system, as I explained above, so whatever it is that is forbidden in axiomatic systems is irrelevant to metaphysics.

    The metaphysicist is wasting his time, simply because the direction of reasoning is necessarily incorrect.alcontali

    Unless you can justify this claim, it's nothing more than an opinion of an uneducated person.

    Justifying the starting-point rules is an exercise in infinite regress and futility. Can you give even one example of where an approach like that has worked?alcontali

    I gave you the example, moral ethics.

    Epistemology really works, while metaphysics is nonsense. We know that for a fact, because after 2500 years of metaphysics, it has never produced anything else but nonsense.alcontali

    I see, morality is nonsense to you.
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