Readers of my blog, students of mine from past classes, and anyone within earshot of my expressed verbiage will confirm my ‘obsession’ with the notion of metaphysics.
It is a term that has been misunderstood, misrepresented and the source of much confusion. Hoping to shed more light than darkness, I will attempt to explain my fascination with the concept.
The word is derived from the body of writing of the Greek philosopher and early scientist Aristotle which was ‘discovered’ or compiled by a later scholar, Andronicus of Rhodes. These series of writings, which Aristotle referred to as his ‘First Philosophy’ were uncovered ‘after the works on the physical world [physica]’ and therefore became known as the metaphysica.
The subject matter was discussed and debated long before Aristotle because it attempts to face the most challenging, baffling, confusing yet primary questions that confront the human mind: what is the nature of reality, is there a God, is there a purpose for existence?
The need to make sense of the world around is reflected in the Book of Genesis itself. Adam and Eve risked everything including immortality in order to taste of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Although portrayed by some traditionalists as the origin of original sin and man’s fall, later Kabbalists understood this event to represent the dawn of human consciousness, an event that God knew would occur.
Considerable confusion exists because metaphysics has a popular connotation of the study of the occult, paranormal, spiritual and other New Age topics. This notion is disturbing to formal academic philosophers.
As I see it–philosophy, science and religion each seek to explain existence and in this most basic sense all three are metaphysical approaches to knowledge-but each with strikingly different methods and approaches.
Philosophy [which claims metaphysics as its discipline] attempts to view reality through the workings of thought, reason and the rules of logic.
Religion addresses the great questions of existence by appealing to divine revelation through the pronouncements of spiritual writings and enlightened prophets who claim communication with the divine.
Science, on the other hand, claims that empirical information, experimentation, peer review elevate it to the highest and most valid form of knowledge about the universe.
I would claim that much of humanities artistic endeavors [art, music, literature] often expresses metaphysical intent as well.
A fascinating aspect of the debate on metaphysics involves the relationship between philosophy and science. As science grew in stature as a source of truth about the universe, philosophers themselves began to question the validity of metaphysics as worthy of study.
Philosophers such as David Hume, Immanuel Kant in the 18th and 19th century, Bertrand Russell, A.J Ayers in the 20th century declared metaphysics to be clearly inferior to science as a source of knowledge.
‘Science tells you what you know, philosophy [metaphysics] what your don’t know’ was expressed by Russell. Intuition, subjective personal experiences, spiritual and paranormal encounters were rejected by philosophers as useless and invalid.
Ironically, with the introduction of relativity and quantum theory into 20th century science, there emerged a paradoxical but fascinating body of metaphysical writing by some of the world’s most prestigious physicists. Men such as Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrodinger, Sir Arthur Eddington, Sir James Jeans, John Wheeler and others were led by their discoveries from science began to write about their profound awe at the true nature of reality. Their writings became extremely metaphysical in their subject matter and even verged on the mystical.
Psychologist Lawrence LeShan and later philosopher Ken Wilber collected many of these comments and demonstrated how closely they resembled the thoughts of mystics from a variety of religious traditions.
Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of nature–a spirit vastly superior to that of man. This statement by Einstein certainly did not reflect all scientists at the time or in the present. Many refrain from making such statements. Others affirm a strictly atheistic interpretation of reality. My point is this–even THAT position is ultimately metaphysical.
Any summation, conclusion, or comment on the ultimate nature of things is metaphysics regardless of its source and content. Our species is clearly compelled to make sense of the world around us as well as the mind within us. This effort can be the source of great comfort as well as confusion and grief.