Meaning and Relevance of Metaphysics in the Contemporary Era
This philosophical article extensively discusses the meaning of metaphysics, examines its philosophical foundation, and most importantly indicates its relevance and importance in the contemporary era.
Outline for the Discourse
- Introduction to Metaphysics from Philosophy
- Introducing Metaphysics
- Etymology, Origin andMeaning of Metaphysics
- Metaphysics as a Branch of Philosophy
- Metaphysics as a Discipline
- Philosophic Foundation of Metaphysics
- Relevance of Metaphysics in the Contemporary Era/Society
Introduction to Metaphysics from Philosophy
Philosophy (as well as metaphysics), as an area of study, is lately attracting a lot of lack of patronage for the singular reason that it does not put “food on the table nor does it build bridges”. This is a manner of describing the commonplace opinion that philosophy is an abstract “speculative reasoning or exercise about cosmos or reality and thus has no direct relevance or contribution to make in practical issues of human existence”.
For such people, philosophy has nothing to do with the real world. It is seen as mere speculations that have no practical significance. Some go further to say that philosophy is a study in futility. Others are of the opinion that the study of philosophy, especially in our tertiary institutions has no significant value.
Oftentimes, people think that students of philosophy are wasting their precious time in studying philosophy. Some non-students of philosophy do not understand what philosophy students do in their philosophy classes. Some people have rejected philosophy on the assumption that it plays no important role in human life and the development of human society.
On several occasions, young students of philosophy and other non-students of philosophy have posed some questions to their lecturers demanding to know the essence of studying philosophy: What is the value of philosophy?
It is important to know that Metaphysics is one of the major branches of philosophy and when most people neglect philosophy, they end up neglecting metaphysics.
This is because most people perceive philosophy as an abstract discipline, and abstraction in philosophy has to do with metaphysics which is the part of philosophy that studies the things that are unseen or things that are beyond the physical realm. This will be further explained in the definition and clarification of Metaphysics after this introductory section.
Now, because of the abstract nature of metaphysics (philosophy), many have questioned if metaphysics is of any relevance to our contemporary time. This is the heart of this article.
Metaphysics is a course that causes headache to almost everybody who tries to deal with it; this is because metaphysics, which is a study about the things beyond the physical, ought to be reached by non-physical beings.
Yes, since it is an abstract discipline, don’t you think that only abstract entities can understand it and its characteristics fully? So when physical beings (like human beings) try to access it, we end up studying till infinity (ad infinitum).
The Etymology and Origin of Metaphysics
The word “metaphysics” derives from the Greek words (meta – which means beyond or after) and (physika which means physics). Metaphysics was first used as the title for several of Aristotle’s works because they were usually anthologized after the works on physics in complete editions.
The Prefix meta (“beyond”) indicates that these works come “after” the chapters on physics. However, Aristotle himself did not call the subject of these books “Metaphysics”. He referred to it as “first philosophy”. The editor of Aristotle’s works, Andronicus of Rhodes, is thought to have placed the books on first philosophy right after another work, Physics, and called them (ta meta ta physika biblia) or “the books that come after the (book on) physics”.
Metaphysics as a Branch of Philosophy
Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world, although the term is not easily defined. Traditionally, metaphysics attempts to answer two basic questions in the broadest possible terms: “What is there?” “What is it like?”
Keep in mind that a person who studies metaphysics would be called either a metaphysics or a metaphysical. The metaphysician attempts to clarify the fundamental notions by which people understand the world, including existence, the definition of object, property, space, time, causality, and possibility. A central branch of metaphysics is ontology, the investigation into the basic categories of being and how they relate to each other.
The word “metaphysics” comes from the Greek words that literally mean “beyond nature“. “Nature” in this sense refers to the nature of a thing, such as its cause and purpose. Metaphysics then studies questions of a thing beyond or above questions of its nature, in particular, its essence or its qualities of being. Metaphysics seeks to answer, in a “suitably abstract and fully general manner”.
Metaphysics as a Discipline
Metaphysics as a discipline was a central part of academic inquiry and scholarly education before the age of Aristotle, who considered it “the Queen of Sciences.” Its issues were considered no less important than the other main formal subjects of physical science, medicine, mathematics, poetics, and music.
Since the beginning of modern philosophy during the seventeenth century, problems that were not originally considered within the bounds of metaphysics have been added to its purview, while other problems considered metaphysical for centuries are now typically subjects of their own separate regions in philosophy, such as philosophy of religion, philosophy of mind, philosophy of perception, philosophy of language, and philosophy of science. in some cases, subjects of metaphysical scholarship have been found to be entirely physical and natural, thus making them part of science proper such as the theory of Relativity.
The Philosophic Foundation of Metaphysics
The term ‘metaphysics’ was invented by the 1st-century BCE head of Aristotle‘s Peripatetic school, Andronicus of Rhodes. Andronicus was the person who edited and arranged Aristotle’s works, giving the name Metaphysics literally “the books beyond the physics,” perhaps the books to be read after reading Aristotle’s books on nature, which he called the Physics.
The Greek for nature is physis, so metaphysical is also “beyond the natural.” Proponents of naturalism deny the existence of anything metaphysical.
Aristotle never used the term metaphysics. For Plato, Aristotle’s master, the realm of abstract ideas was more “real” than that of physical. i.e., material or concrete, objects, because ideas can be more permanent (the Being of Parmenides), whereas material objects are constantly changing (the Becoming of Heraclitus).
Where Plato made his realm of ideas the “real world,” Aristotle made the material world the source of ideas as mere abstractions from common properties found in many concrete objects. Even Neo-platonists like Porphyry also inquire about the existential status of the Platonic ideas. They ask such questions as Does Being exist? What does it mean to say “Being Is“? ‘What is the difference between Being and being’?
In recent centuries then, the metaphysical has become “beyond the material.” Metaphysics has become the study of immaterial things, like the mind, which is said to “supervene” on the material brain.
Metaphysics is a kind of idealism, in stark contrast to “eliminative” materialism. And metaphysics has failed in proportion to the phenomenal success of naturalism, the idea that the laws of nature alone can completely explain the contents of the universe.
Aristotle’s Physics describes the four “causes” or “explanations” of change and movement of objects already existing in the cosmos. Aristotle’s metaphysics can then be seen as explanations for existence itself. What exists? What is it to be? What processes can bring things into (or out of) existence? Is there a cause or explanation for the universe as a whole?
From the beginning, Aristotle’s books on “First Philosophy” considered God among the possible causes of the fundamental things in the universe.
Tracing the regress of causes back in time as an infinite chain, Aristotle postulated a first cause or he called the “uncaused cause.” Where every motion needs a prior mover to explain it, he postulated an “unmoved first mover.” These postulates became a major element of theology down to modern times.
Aristotle’s First Philosophy included theology, since first causes, new beginnings or genesis, might depend on the existence of God. And there remains a strong connection between modern metaphysicians and theologians.
Aristotle’s Metaphysics was divided into three parts which are now regarded as the proper branches of traditional Western metaphysics. They are as follows:
- Ontology: This is the study of being and existence. It includes the definition and classification of entities, physical or mental, the nature of their properties, and the nature of change. Ontology (the “science of being”) is a word, like metaphysics, that is used in many different senses. It is sometimes considered to be identical to metaphysics but on a more specific approach, Ontology is a part of metaphysics that specifies the most fundamental categories of existence, the elementary substances or structures out of which the world is made. It describes any phenomenon in the world, e.g. time, space, matter, process, cause and effect, system, etc.
- Natural Theology: This is the study of a God or gods. It involves many topics, including among others the nature of religion and the world, the existence of the divine, questions about Creation, and the numerous religious or spiritual issues that concern humankind in general.
- Universal Science: This is the study of first principles, which Aristotle believed were the foundation of all other inquiries. an example of such a principle is the law of non-contradiction and the status it holds in non-paraconsistent logic. Universal science or first philosophy treats “being qua being” – that is, being in terms of being. It studies such topics as causality, substance, species, and elements, as well as the notions of relations, interaction, and finitude.
Medieval Thoughts on Metaphysics
For medieval philosophers, metaphysics was taken as the science that is extra-sensible in nature. Albertus Magnus called it science beyond the physical. Thomas Aquinas narrowed it to the cognition of God. However, there was a clear domination of religion in the medieval era of philosophy. And thus, there was a recognition of metaphysics in relation to God. Here, reason was buried and dug up in the modern era of philosophy.
Modern Thoughts on Metaphysics
Descartes made a turn from what exists to knowledge of what exists. He changed the emphasis from a study of being to a study of the conditions of knowledge or epistemology.
In Germany, Kant’s Critiques of Reason claimed a transcendental, non-empirical realm he called noumenal, for pure, or a priori, reason beyond or behind the phenomena. Kant’s phenomenal realm is deterministic, a matter governed by Newton’s laws of motion.
Kant’s immaterial noumena are in the metaphysical non-empirical realm of the “things themselves” along with freedom, God, and immortality.
Kant identified ontology not with the things themselves but, influenced by Descartes, what we can think – and reason – about the things themselves. In either case, Kant thought metaphysical knowledge might be impossible for finite minds such as the human being.
Relevance of Metaphysics in the Contemporary Society/Era
Metaphysics is a major branch of philosophy, but its relevance cuts across many other disciplines in the contemporary society. And, this section is going to treat (in detail) the relevance of metaphysics, in relation to other disciplines, in our contemporary society/Era. However, following from the discussions above, one could easily say that metaphysics is of utmost importance in the contemporary time. The relevance of metaphysics could be discussed by considering these attributes of Metaphysics to man and to the contemporary society. Metaphysics is the foundation of philosophy.
The relevance of metaphysics in the contemporary time, therefore, includes the following below;
- Metaphysics as the Study of Being and its Essence.
- Metaphysics constitutes the root of all knowledge (Rene Descartes).
- Metaphysics aids us to study the things beyond physics.
- Metaphysics helps us to study the natural world and how it operates.
- Metaphysics removes the fear of the unknown and religious inclinations.
- Metaphysics begins when physics ends.
Metaphysics as the Study of Being and its Essence
It is obvious that both in the contemporary era and other previous eras, beings exist. And if it is the fact that beings exist, then anything that studies the beings that exist is relevant to the beings that have existed is existing, and will still exist.
Simply put, since the contemporary era constitutes the existence and essence of beings, then metaphysics is very relevant because it studies being or reality or existence as well as its essence.
It is only those who do not know (but in one way or the other use) metaphysics that will say it does not have any relevance. Although many other disciplines like Biology can study the nature of the human eye (which is a being), but metaphysics grounds them (other sciences) all. This would be clarified in the discussion of the second point which will employ Rene Descartes’ Project.
As far as the study of beings is still ongoing (and even more focused on) in the contemporary time, metaphysics will continue to be relevant in our contemporary time.
In fact, the centerpiece of metaphysical consideration is ‘being’. According to Izu Marcel O., in his book titled “Beginning Metaphysics”, he defines being as anything that is, or exists, or can be known, or that can be thought of; ANYTHING that is NOTHING.
He further explains that the definition of being cannot escape the association of ‘thing’. So as far as things exist (especially in the contemporary time), metaphysics will continue to study the existence and essence of things, and as far as metaphysics continues to study the existence and essence of things, it will continue to be relevant (even in the contemporary era).
2. Metaphysics Constitutes the Root of Knowledge
Metaphysics serves as a foundation to knowledge as a whole, by implication, metaphysics grounds the whole of knowledge.
Rene Descartes (1596-1650), represented his project as a tree. A tree, where the root is ‘METAPHYSICS’, the trunk is ‘PHYSICS’ and the branches represent the ‘SPECIFIC SCIENCES’ that includes Medicine, Morals, and Mathematics (mmm).
In the close analysis of his (Descartes) metaphysics, he disclosed that Metaphysics constitutes the root of the tree of knowledge. For him, it is in metaphysics that an absolute sure foundation can be discovered from human knowledge. Metaphysics grounds the knowledge of geometry and properties of bodies.
The physics which is located at the trunk of the tree grows directly from the root and providing support for the other specific sciences. This entails that the root provides support for the other sciences through the physics (trunk).
The sciences of medicine, mathematics, and morals growing out of the trunk through the branches represent the application of his mechanistic model to particular subject areas.
The fruits of the philosophy and of human knowledge are found on the three branches of medicine, mathematics, and morals.
Talking about its relevance and applications in our contemporary time, metaphysics is relevant because it is the thing grounding the physics and the specific sciences as illustrated in the diagram above.
Metaphysics Aids One to Know the Non-physical Entities
Metaphysics is that branch of philosophy that studies the things beyond physics. In other words, it studies the non-physical, non-material, or abstract entities.
In this sense, metaphysics is relevant in the contemporary time because it has continued to help humans to simplify the ambiguous nature of the abstract realities in the contemporary era. Metaphysics goes further to relax our mind and reduce our fear of the unknown. It creates an avenue for humans to reach the immaterial things.
On the other hand, metaphysics has played a role in the way and manner religion is understood and practiced among humans in the societies. From our knowledge of metaphysics, we see that everything that is, derives its being from the Being that is necessary.
This Being that is by necessity is called different names by different religions; God by Christianity, Allah by Islam, Buddha by Buddhism, etc. This is a simple philosophical knowledge. The implication of this understanding is that there is only one Supreme Being that is approached differently. This is what is called “The Paradox of the One and Many in Religion”.
4. Metaphysics removes the fear of the unknown and Religious Inclinations
Since the age of antiquity, religion has been presented with many unquestionable doctrines, inclinations, and practices. Even in the contemporary society, those unquestionable and some unknown doctrines, inclinations, and practices, are still in existence. And, most times, when a religious leader makes an affirmation, it is taken to unquestionable. Also, it is advised not to touch the anointed and do no harm to the prophets of God. But, most of these religious leaders have turned to leaders of religion. And, by so doing, they reconstruct and manipulate religious doctrines and practices to the very advantage of their daily lives.
Yes, God is a metaphysical being who operates in a metaphysical way. So, it takes only a leap to the metaphysical world to understand when there is a misinterpretation in the religious doctrines and teachings. Therefore, the study of metaphysics strongly helps one to be aware of the metaphysical concepts. It also removes the fear of the unknown, the unknown religious doctrines, and inclinations.
Therefore, religiously, metaphysics is relevant to contemporary society because it helps people to understand and develop their religious and spiritual life as well as society.
5. Metaphysics helps us to study the natural world and how it operates
In the contemporary era, metaphysics challenges man to develop an interest in things beyond the mundane issues thereby making man discover new areas of knowledge, realize those lifelong goals and become more responsible citizens of the society.
Again, people who study metaphysics tend to seek things that are beyond the physical world and as such, pay little or no attention to material things which are the basis of most immoral activities like robbery, prostitution, kidnapping, child trafficking, child swapping, abortion, corruption, etc. People like Nelson Mandela, Julius Nyerere, Martin Luther King Jnr., and few others are examples of those who shunned mundane things and preached uprightness.
Metaphysics begins when Physics ends
Metaphysics is the study of things beyond the physical realm. It studies things that are not seen or touched. It studies concepts that are in the world of forms (as in Plato’s ideology). Humans, in their day-to-day activities, associate themselves with the physical concepts as well as the metaphysical concepts. In most cases, where the physical concepts end, metaphysical concepts begin.
However, the study of metaphysics equips one with the necessary tool to relate with the metaphysical at the end of physical endeavor. For instance, God is a metaphysical being. At almost every moment, humans (who are atheists and deists) act and relate (physically) with their fellow human beings with the fear of God (who is metaphysical). But, in order to maintain a coherency and also relate with the two different ideas, that is, in order to relate with the metaphysical after the physical, there is every need to employ metaphysics.
The attempt of this research so far has been to justify the relevance of metaphysics in the contemporary era. However, the claim of the research is not that I have explored all the areas of relevance of metaphysics in the contemporary era.
The value of metaphysics cannot be overemphasized. The point here is that our contemporary era needs metaphysics; it is a human need. We cannot but do with it.
Any attempt to run away from metaphysics and philosophy at large will certainly portend doom for our contemporary time. Always call to mind that metaphysics helps to develop and transform the human mind and when the human mind is properly developed, it goes a long way to translate to human and societal development.
It is therefore recommended and encouraged for at least a little activity of metaphysical training to be observed for all and sundry in this contemporary time.
- O. Donald, Lecture on “Landmark Philosophy”, on Thursday 3rd, May 2018. 08:24 am.
- Izu M. Onyeocha “Beginning Metaphysics” pgs, 14, and 74.