Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy that is comprised of two main components or two sciences: Cosmology and Ontology. Cosmology is the study of the origin and nature of the universe. Ontology studies the nature of being as being and existence.
Metaphysics is defined as the science of first principles as well as the science of Being as being and the science of immaterial being. Metaphysics is also a science of abstract and universal conceptions.
Metaphysics has its philosophical roots in antiquity and weaves its way down through the ages starting with the Hindus, the Greeks, and Early Christianity, Medieval and Modern philosophers. Metaphysics as a philosophy and as a science continues to this day to plague the minds of the greatest thinkers in their speculative or empirical efforts of inquiry into the nature of reality.
Perhaps one of the most famous public debates about the nature of reality was between Albert Einstein and Neils Bohr back in the mid 1920's. The emergence of quantum mechanics threw them both for a loop as they struggled to make sense of the affects the quantum world was having on physics which literally meant having to re-write physics in a new non-Newtonian classical micro language.
Without getting too technical, the debate rested between Bohr's belief (The Copenhagen interpretation - no deep reality) that quantum entities possess no dynamic attributes of their own but that the attributes belonged to the entire measurement situation - quon and M device (measurement).
Einstein on the other hand insisted that there was, in fact, a deeper reality that he described as extra "elements of reality" which he also described as "spooky communication at a distance." The famous debate led physicists to prove or disprove the existence of an invisible non-local reality - Bell's Theorem. Today we have the genius of such physicists as Roger Penrose and Stephen Hawking.
Metaphysics as a philosophy and as a science has been rejected, dissected and reinvented time and time again throughout its history. The basis of its unstableness is that its method of inquiry into the nature of reality is intuitive by nature but as a science it demands empirical evidence.
The history of metaphysics is staggering to say the least so I have made every attempt to present the information in as manageable a format as possible. Thus, I have separated the history of metaphysics in two parts identified as Western Metaphysics and eventually followed by Eastern Metaphysics.
I invite you now to take a journey through the history of metaphysics which begins here with the history of Western Metaphysics (a discourse on Eastern Metaphysics is pending). Enjoy the ride!
Western Metaphysics ~
The history of western metaphysics has its philosophical roots in pre-Socratic Greek antiquity beginning with Anaximander of Miletus (c.610-c.545 BC) who is credited with being the first metaphysician on record. Other records of account consider Thales of Miletus (c. 624–c. 546 BC) as the first metaphysician because he is said to be the first to question the nature of reality without referring to mythology. Aristotle considered Thales to be the "Father of Science" because he was regarded as the first philosopher in the Greek tradition.
There is a long list of Greek philosophers to numerous to mention here who followed in the footsteps of Thales and Anaximander in their efforts to unravel the secrets of the nature of reality and existence. They include such names as Anaximenes (c.585-cc528 BC), Pythagoras, the famous mathematician (c.570-c.490 BC), Heraclitus, Parmenides, Empedocles, Anaxagoras, Democritus (who along with Leucippus proposed that matter was made up of tiny, indivisible particles they called "atom" or in Greek "a-tomos"), and then onto what became known as the classical period of Greek philosophy. Please note that the term non-physical is not literal as both men were philosophers but that Nietzsche was considered non-philosophical because he was perceived as being “inconsistent and speculative, producing something other than "real" philosophy.”
This period of history occurred during the years 430 to 320 BC and began with Socrates followed by Plato who was Socrates most prized student and then Aristotle who was Plato's most prized student. Aristotle considered metaphysics to be the queen of the sciences because it was not barred by limitations or restrictions as were all the other sciences which were limited to the examination of particular regions of things, i.e. physics and math. Aristotle was given to the belief that everything in existence had a starting point and common principles, therefore, he termed metaphysics as the "first philosophy" which all other philosophical, theological and scientific thought and inquiry whether speculative or empirical was built upon in response to man's innate desire to "know" the nature of reality and what is Being or being as being.
Throughout the course of history metaphysics has been examined and re-examined, dissected, rejected and even reinvented by various schools of theology and philosophy. Its first rejection began with the Sophists leader, Protagoras, in the 5th century. The Sophists became known as the world’s first skeptics because they took on the belief that the material world was the real world and that philosophy should be used as a means of survival in the real (material) world, thereby, discarding the speculative essence of metaphysical inquiry into the immaterial world. For the most part we live by this same standard today, we experience our individual and collective realities in what we perceive to be the real (material) world without giving much thought to the existence of a greater reality just outside of the material world (see Why 3D? for additional information).
The path of metaphysical dissention leads right up to the 16th century where the essence of metaphysics in its inquiry of nature, Being and being, and the relationship between mind and body or mind and matter (aka dualism) becomes a revolution of modern approaches which we are the heirs of today. It is from this period that history encounters the metaphysics of a long list of philosophers, mathematicians and other great thinkers whose metaphysical philosophies are far to extensive for the purpose of this discourse.
The list includes the English statesman and philosopher, Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), the founding father of modern political philosophy and Rene Descartes (1596-1650) who was famous for his mathematical innovations of investigating nature and human affairs which earned him the title "father of modern philosophy." Descartes was the first to clearly identify the mind with consciousness and self-awareness, "I think, therefore I exist" and to distinguish this from the brain - the seat of intelligence. The term "Cartesian" was attributed to the philosophy of Descartes’ dualism of mind and matter.
Descartes’ greatest critic was the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) who advanced the virtues of the new mathematical science of nature which he pioneered through calculus. His metaphysics was that being or substance cannot exist where there is no unifying principle.
The English philosopher, historian and essayist, David Hume (1711-1776) was determined to restore metaphysics back to its true nature but what he perceived as an overhaul of the true nature of metaphysics was in fact an attempt to overhaul the whole of philosophy which was actually anti-metaphysical in terms of a priori knowledge. Hume sets in motion his anti-metaphysical aim of abandoning the a priori means of inquiry into the nature of reality by replacing it with an empirical method of inquiry that would provide scientific answers to the questions of what is the ultimate nature of reality. Hume presents his program in A Treatise of Human Nature, and in the first Enquiry. The term a priori is knowledge that is not related to an actual experience but is known by intuition or by way of reason whereas the term a posteriori is knowledge that is acquired by experience and is empirically proven and is reproducible.
The German, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is the next great metaphysical thinker in the lineup. It is said that Hume caused Kant to be awakened from his “dogmatic slumbers” and “caused the scales to fall off.” Kant was and still is regarded as the central figurehead of modern philosophy. Kant pursued the restoration of metaphysics as the "architectonic of science" but on the other hand his restored metaphysics denied the possibility of knowledge of things in themselves, or things as they may exist apart from the framework of knowledge that the human mind supplies. In other words reason cannot know "phenomena" as other than a sensory experience ordered by space, time and categories of thought. Anyone who utilizes their psychic abilities knows that phenomena is not related to sensory experience nor is it something that is ordered by space, time or any categories of thought. A phenomenon is experienced through extrasensory perception much like knowledge can be acquired by a priori, i.e. intuition.
To sort out the metaphysical tension that existed between antiquity and modern philosophy comes the German philosopher Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) and his constituents. Hegel considers his philosophy to be the completion of metaphysics that is not limited by its moment in the historical process of embracing a system of reality but that his system is the final truth about “being.” It is interesting to note that there were no other philosophers who presented an impressive system of the whole being as Hegel presented.
Hegel's system was a logical completion that would correspond to the moment in history when political and moral freedom attain stable recognition institutionally, and art, religion, and philosophy arrive at their definitive forms. Its metaphysical significance is that when all distinctions have unfolded and the Absolute finds itself fully manifest in the world, it then fulfills its essence in "absolute knowing." No "otherness" remains outside itself to be overcome through further negations, and the complete reality of freedom--mind being at home with itself--is attained.
But as has always been the nature of metaphysics, this final say so would, of course, be opposed by later philosophical thinkers in the twentieth century who would again turn the tide from innate speculative inquiry to anti-speculative and materialistic, reproducible evidence. Thankfully, the twentieth century also herald in the non-philosophical likes of Dane Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche who stood in opposition to what had become the traditional manner of argument and logical procedures in philosophy.
In or around 1900 there arose what was known as the movement of phenomenology under the guidance of the German philosopher and mathematician Edmond Husserl (1859-1938). This movement stressed the need to return to pre-scientific explanations of the phenomena of ordinary life without the reliance of empirical evidence. This combined with the devastating effects of World War I triggered yet another renewal of metaphysics.
German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) is considered to be the greatest metaphysical thinker since Hegel. Heidegger claimed that western understanding of the nature of Being has been grossly misunderstood beginning with Plato and has left its traces in every stage of Western thought. Heidegger believed all investigations of being have historically focused on particular entities and their properties, or have treated being itself as an entity, or substance with properties. Outside of his affiliation or "error" with Nazism he is best known for his book, Being and Time and is considered to be one of the most important philosophical works of the 20th century.
This philosophical journey of Western metaphysics as described above is not all inclusive as there are still many notable names worthy of mention such as Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), George Berkeley (1685-1753), “to be is to be perceived;” Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), metaphysical analysis of will; Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), one of the founders of analytical philosophy; Willard V.O. Quine (1908-2000), philosopher and logician, wrote an article in 1948 “On What There Is” published in Review of Metaphysics; David K. Lewis (1941-2001), philosopher, in metaphysics was regarded as the most important systematic thinkers of modern times and David Malet Armstrong (1926), is well known for his work in metaphysics and the philosophy of mind.
Again, please bear in mind that the metaphysical or philosophical expressions as stated above are limited for the sake of keeping this journey brief but that the philosophers, etc., metaphysical views or expressions of their views were extensive to say the least.
Can quantum and cosmos ever be combined? The Nature of Space and Time - Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose