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metaphysics

"Metaphysics is the finding of bad reasons for what we believe upon instinct; but to find these reasons is no less an instinct." --F. H. Bradley

Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy consisting of ontology and cosmology. In the 'weak' sense, metaphysics is used loosely to refer to New Age and non-empirical notions such as 'energy' (chi, prana) being balanced, harmonized, tuned, aligned, unblocked, etc. Although 'metaphysics' in the weak sense is the most common in the Skeptic's Dictionary, here we are concerned with 'metaphysics' in the strong sense.

The term 'metaphysics' is often used to entail ideas and theories as to what kinds of beings are real, the nature of those beings and of the concepts and language used to think and speak or write about those beings. For example, a theory of mind would be a metaphysical theory concerned with mental phenomena and related concepts such as perception, idea, consciousness, memory, intention, motive, reasoning, etc. 

However, typically, 'metaphysics' refers to broad theories of reality, such as materialism and dualism, and to broad issues regarding the nature of reality.

Why is there something rather than nothing? Is there free will or is every action determined by causes? Was the universe created or has it always existed? Are there spiritual beings? Is there life after death? What is the nature of the universe, of substance, causality, etc.? These are all metaphysical questions.

Most philosophers would agree that metaphysical claims are not scientific and that contradictory metaphysical positions cannot be tested empirically to determine which is false. For example, materialism and dualism are contradictory but both theories are coherent and consistent with experience, and there is no empirical event that could falsify either theory.

Modern philosophy is often said to begin with Descartes, when the focus of philosophy turned to epistemological questions, i.e., questions regarding the origins, nature, and limits of knowledge. Metaphysical speculation about kinds of realities, which at one time dominated Western philosophy, has gradually given way to careful analyses of what can reasonably be posited about reality given what we know about how we come to experience reality and how we come to generate ideas about reality.

Philosophers give various reasons for preferring one metaphysical belief to another. One thinks one's own theory is more coherent than a rival theory, or that one's own belief has more explanatory power or requires fewer assumptions. Some argue that their metaphysical beliefs fit better with what is known from other disciplines such as science, history, or psychology. Some criticize rival theories for being too farfetched: possible but implausible.

Some defend their metaphysical beliefs by appealing to the consequences of belief, e.g., it gives hope for an afterlife or meaning to existence. Others maintain that such considerations are irrelevant to the truth of the claims, and indicate the belief is based more on desire than good logical reasons.

Since coherent metaphysical beliefs cannot be refuted it is sometimes maintained that philosophers adhere to their metaphysical theories more out of personal disposition and temperament than evidence and proof.

Some consider metaphysics to represent what is highest in human nature, the drive to know and understand the nature of the universe in which we find ourselves while we move towards our inevitable end. Others consider metaphysics, specifically speculative metaphysics about non-empirical and transcendent realities, to be, more or less, bunk. Perhaps Kant was correct when he said that although we can never hope to answer our metaphysical questions, we can't help asking them anyway.

further reading

books

Gale, Richard. The Blackwell Guide to Metaphysics (Blackwell Publishers, 2002).

Jubien, Michael. Contemporary Metaphysics: An Introduction (Blackwell Publishers 1997).

Taylor, Richard. (1991). Metaphysics. Prentice-Hall.

websites

ontology and metaphysics - the Dictionary of Philosophy of Mind

metaphysics - Dictionary of Philosophical Terms and Names (Garth Kemerling)

Kant's analysis of synthetic a priori judgments

Last updated 20-Dec-2013

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