CHAPTER FIVE: Metaphysics

Have you ever stopped to consider why the universe exists at all? What explains it? What caused it to come into being? Is it comprised of one essential kind of thing, or is it a combination of multiple substances? Is the universe entirely physical in nature, or is it comprised entirely of thought and ideas, of non-physical reality? Or is it somehow both of these? Is change a basic fact of the universe, or is change an illusion? What is time? Is it real? What is space?

And what are you? Are you a non-physical mind in a physical body? Or are you made entirely of physical particles and energy? Are your thoughts to be understood as mental processes, or are they simply “brain events”? If we are entirely physical beings, can we have any freedom whatsoever? In physical systems, every event is caused by a prior event. Can there be genuine freedom if every brain event you have is inevitable? Yet if there is no freedom, how can we be held accountable for what our “brains make us do”?

These are all questions for the field of Metaphysics. Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that explores questions about what is real, about the nature of existence. Aristotle called it the “first philosophy,” the term itself comes from the Greek ta meta ta physika, i.e., ‘the things that come after Aristotle’s book on Physics’.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

The word ‘metaphysics’ is notoriously hard to define. Twentieth-century coinages like ‘meta-language’ and ‘meta philosophy’ encourage the impression that metaphysics is a study that somehow “goes beyond” physics, a study devoted to matters that transcend the mundane concerns of Newton and Einstein, and Heisenberg. This impression is mistaken. The word ‘metaphysics’ is derived from a collective title of the fourteen books by Aristotle that we currently think of as making up Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Aristotle himself did not know the word. (He had four names for the branch of philosophy that is the subject matter of Metaphysics: ‘first philosophy’, ‘first science’, ‘wisdom’, and ‘theology’.) At least one hundred years after Aristotle’s death, an editor of his works (in all probability, Andronicus of Rhodes) titled those fourteen books “Ta meta ta physika”— “after the physicals” or “the ones after the physical ones”—the “physical ones” being the books contained in what we now call Aristotle’s Physics. The title was probably meant to warn students of Aristotle’s philosophy that they should attempt metaphysics only after they had mastered “the physical ones”, the books about nature or the natural world—that is to say, about change, for change is the defining feature of the natural world.

This is the probable meaning of the title because Metaphysics is about things that do not change. In one place, Aristotle identifies the subject matter of first philosophy as “being as such”, and, in another as “first causes”. It is a nice—and vexing—question what the connection between these two definitions is. Perhaps this is the answer: The unchanging first causes have nothing but being in common with the mutable things they cause. Like us and the objects of our experience—they are, and there the resemblance ceases.  (van Inwagen & Sullivan, SEP, “Metaphysics,” Section 1)

At any rate, metaphysics is typically understood as the branch of philosophy that explores questions about what is real and what exists. Metaphysics asks questions about the fundamental nature of reality, about what reality “is” at its most basic level, and about the nature of time, space, and causality. As noted above, it asks whether reality is entirely physical in its makeup, entirely non-physical, or some combination of the two. So too, one of the most persistent metaphysical questions is whether God exists. That question ties so closely into other issues in philosophical theology, however, that it will be discussed in our chapter on the philosophy of religion. But as we will see below, there is much to consider in metaphysics, even apart from questions about the divine.

Leonardo DiCaprio & The Nature of Reality: Crash Course Philosophy #4

Or watch the video here


Works Cited

CrashCourse. Leonardo DiCaprio & The Nature of Reality: Crash Course Philosophy #4. YouTube, YouTube, 29 Fed. 2016, Accessed 12 Apr. 2022.


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PPSC PHI 1011: The Philosopher's Quest by Daniel G. Shaw, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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