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What Is the Relationship between Epistemology and Metaphysics?

Wanda Marie Thibodeaux
Wanda Marie Thibodeaux

The connection between epistemology and metaphysics is that epistemology justifies what otherwise would be "improvable" knowledge, moving concepts into reality. Without epistemology, nothing in metaphysical study would have any sort of authority or weight. This is critical because metaphysical beliefs or concepts cannot depend on traditional scientific methods to be proven true.

To understand the connection between epistemology and metaphysics, an individual must grasp what each subject is. Metaphysics is the study of all things not in the physical realm — physical studies are handled through true sciences. It is a philosophy that investigates why things exist. It uses concepts to explain the realities people experience.

Epistemology seeks to answer how a person can prove what he or she believes.
Epistemology seeks to answer how a person can prove what he or she believes.

Epistemology and metaphysics are similar in that both are branches of philosophy, but as a field, epistemology concentrates on knowledge, looking at what makes knowledge true or justified. Put another way, epistemology seeks to answer how a person can prove that what he believes, identifying the elements that make information part of a reality set. It also focuses on the characteristics, sources and limitations of knowledge people have.

A person cannot use traditional scientific methods to prove metaphysical beliefs. In fact, metaphysical concepts sometimes directly conflict with science. For example, an individual cannot conduct a test to see whether a god exists or whether the creative process is happening. Thus, metaphysicists must provide other evidence that what they experience is reality. They must use epistemology to explain why their concepts can be viewed as absolute, producing rationalizations for each metaphysical belief.

Understanding that metaphysicists cannot rely entirely if at all on science, epistemology is critical to the acceptance of the metaphysical. In the scientific community, the more evidence — that is, data — a person has to support a hypothesis or idea, the more people see the idea or hypothesis as justified. In the same way, when a metaphysicist produces a great deal of evidence toward his concept, the more weight the concept comes to have and the more meaningful it becomes. People come to see the metaphysical idea as highly likely to be true or as a reality and do not dismiss it as easily.

When properly connected, epistemology and metaphysics explain not only the non-scientific truths people hold, but also how those truths came into being and how they have shaped reality. They also allow individuals to place trust in things that the scientific community cannot necessarily explain. This gives an individual a broader sense of the world, how things function and what might be possible.

Discussion Comments


So, scientific methods are the only way to know the truth? Is this scientifically proven?


I would emphasize that when you say "true science" you really mean "empirical science," because I suspect that some people will assume the term "true science" is a value judgment and not a modern distinction between empirical science and the philosophical sciences. The classical view is that metaphysics and epistemology are sciences, though not methodologically empirical.

Also, I wouldn't say epistemology precedes metaphysics. It is not that one hinges on the other (and it's unclear what could be meant by that precedence). Therefore, the first paragraph is rather flaky.

Rather, metaphysics is the highest philosophical science which seeks to explain and understand ultimate reality, being qua being, what means things what they are, and so on. While metaphysics isn't physics, it would be equally wrong to say that metaphysics studies nonphysical things. It doesn't study matter per se, certainly, but it does study things which are physical.

Epistemology can reinforce our confidence in our methods, it can even prescribe methods, but in order to be able to judge these methods requires at least an intuition of reality and the intellect. Epistemology studies knowledge qua knowledge, but knowledge is of being(s) which means that while epistemology doesn't presuppose metaphysics per se, it does mean that metaphysics is a more fundamental science. Remember, these are reflexive disciplines.

Also, metaphysics and epistemology cannot inherently conflict with the empirical sciences. That is a false assertion. The sciences are silent about problems like the existence of God because their methods are impotent at answering the question. If a contradiction is found, it is an error on someone's side.


@KoiwiGal - That view of the world isn't taken as fact even among epistemologists. It was presented as one of many competing theories at my philosophy lectures.

I do recommend that anyone who is taking metaphysics study epistemology as well. Logic is another really good foundation to philosophy that will hold you in good stead if you take it before tackling metaphysics.

I went into metaphysics because the theories were so interesting, but once you get past the surface you really need a grounding in epistemology and logic to be able to understand how the arguments work.


@indigomoth - Of course, there are theories of epistemology that we can't ever really prove much of anything. That sentence, "I think, therefore, I am" is suppose to represent the only thing that anyone can really be sure of. Your senses could be manipulated, for example (if you want a good example of that, see the film "The Matrix") to the point where nothing you see, hear, feel and so forth, is real. There is no way to prove that it is real, after all.

Which leaves everything, from gravity, to the taste of cinnamon, open to doubt. Of course, if you had to discuss this every time you talked about anything else in philosophy, it would become annoying very quickly, so I think most of the time people take that doubt as a given and act as though it wasn't there.


It might be difficult to see how you can try to prove metaphysical theories if you're not experienced in philosophical discussion. I mean, for example, how can someone prove that God exists or does not exist.

Well, epistemology is the study of those methods of proof. It looks at how you could prove it, what it would need in order to be proven, what different levels of proof might be and so forth. It's actually quite fascinating and complex, although it sounds like it should be fairly simple. And I've done a class on metaphysics. Since it is full of issues like time travel and god and so forth, it really needs people to be able to prove something without concrete evidence.

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    • Epistemology seeks to answer how a person can prove what he or she believes.
      By: Kablonk Micro
      Epistemology seeks to answer how a person can prove what he or she believes.