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What Is Metaphysics?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 23, 2024
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Metaphysics refers to subjects that are beyond the realm of the physical sciences. The word originated with a collection of writings on philosophy by the Greek scientist Aristotle. The term “metaphysics” has since been generally applied to a wide field of scholarship that ranges from general philosophy to parapsychology and astrology. This topic has been controversial, even the subject of derision, in scientific and philosophical circles throughout the centuries. Nevertheless, those aspects of existence that have no scientific explanation continue to fascinate casual thinkers and philosophers alike.

Aristotle’s book Metaphysics is considered the cornerstone of Western philosophy, a study of existence that combines theological questions with the earliest forms of rational science. The title’s translation from the Greek, “after physics” or “beyond physics,” has defined the term ever since, even though it may have simply been a reference to his earlier work, Physics. After the scientific advances of the Enlightenment, most physical sciences were defined by their ability to be proved or disproved by experimentation. Those qualities of existence that could not be tested this way but that could still be demonstrated or at least theorized were considered metaphysical.

This field of philosophy includes theological matters such as the creation of the universe and the existence of the soul. It also considers deeper philosophical questions about time, thought, and existence itself. Many of these questions cannot be definitively answered; like much philosophy, the subject involves listing the possibilities that exist and the various ways to consider them. The study of how things relate on abstract levels is also called ontology. This word is less loaded than “metaphysics,” which some people still find controversial.

This is because, in modern times, “metaphysics” has expanded to mean anything that lies outside the realm of the physical sciences. This includes a wide range of paranormal beliefs and subjects, including alternative medicine, astrology and other forms of divination, and various types of spirituality. The term has also been adopted for other non-traditional subjects, such as the metaphysical poets of 17th-century Europe. Traditional scientists and philosophers often disregard anything that cannot be quantified and tested. Famed philosopher David Hume, for example, said that works in metaphysics should be “committed to the flames.”

This division between the physical and the metaphysical is most prominent in the Western world, where philosophy was strongly influenced by Aristotle and other ancient Greeks. In Eastern philosophy, such as the traditions of India and China, such matters are not so clearly distinguished from each other. The teachings of Hinduism, Taoism, and Zen each grapple with metaphysical and scientific subjects as part of a greater whole. For this very reason, much Eastern philosophy was disregarded in Europe and America until the 20th century, when its approaches to the questions of metaphysics gained greater respect.

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