March 2010 archive

Definition(s) of metaphysics

These come from a quick Google of “define: metaphysics”. I find them all slightly perplexing (except for the last one – I must get that album…).

The common thread appears to be the ‘study of the first principles of reality’. But, in attempting such a study, one falls in to the trap of justifying those particular first principles – particularly if, as the history of metaphysics has shown, there are many possible systems of first principles that might fit with the world as we see it, and we have no way of telling them apart. We don’t even have any way of guaranteeing there are first principles.

In light of this, I’d like to offer a new definition of metaphysics for your consideration:

  • Metaphysics – given what we believe to be true, what else must also be true.

This definition also points towards first principles – but not only first principles, because it also demands the exploration of consequences and implications rather than focussing on assumptions, axioms and presuppositions.

But, crucially, it doesn’t demand that one start with first principles and try to build one’s way to the world as we believe it to be. Instead, it takes a more pragmatic approach and starts with the world as we believe it to be, and works its way back from there.

So if, for example, we believe one moment follows another, then what else must be true? Some possibilities are time, events, memory, belief, perception, concepts, abstraction etc. Say you take time – the question continues: if time exists, what else must also exist? Perhaps a beginning to time? Or infinity? Or time might be bundled up in one moment and it’s only our perception that sees one moment follow another.

Also on a pragmatic note, this definition of metaphysics remains fundamentally contingent – if our beliefs about the world change, then so too can our metaphysics. In fact, the metaphysics can rebound and influence the way we see the world, thus further changing the metaphysics. There are no (necessary) right answers, no indubitable first principles – to assume there are is to assume an answer to some deep metaphysical questions that, arguably, we have no grounds in answering before we begin.

So we have a fundamentally pragmatic empirical metaphysics. It seeks to explore, explain and reveal, but it doesn’t presume the answers before it seeks them out.