PHIL2109 Contemporary Metaphysics
Week 2: Introduction

What is metaphysics?

  1. You might expect that metaphysics is to physics as metalogic is to logic and metaethics is to ethics - that it is about physics. It is about physics, but also about much more. So 'metaphysics' is a misleading name.
  2. Why is it called 'metaphysics'? Here is the standard explanation: it is what Aristotle was doing in a work which later came to be called 'metaphysics', and this work came to be called 'metaphysics' because it followed just after another work of his called 'physics' ('meta' is greek for this relation).
  3. A common suggestion is that the central concern of metaphysics is the fundamental structure of reality as a whole. This is much more than what concerns physics, or any other of the special sciences (biology, psychology, etc.).
  4. But this is perhaps too restrictive: metaphysics is concerned not just with the fundamental structure of reality, but also with plenty of non-fundamental stuff too (such as the nature of persons).
  5. It also doesn't say anything about the kinds of concerns that metaphysics has. They are typically different from the concerns of physics and other sciences. Metaphysics is concerned with philosophical questions.
  6. Here is perhaps a better explanation of what metaphysics is: it is the philosophy of everything. On this way of looking at it, all other areas of philosophy (philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, logic, epistemology, ethics, etc.) are special cases of metaphysics.
  7. 'Everything' here is unrestricted. It includes everything in the physical world (chairs, quarks), and also everything outside the physical world - so-called abstract entities, such as numbers and sets. It also includes metaphysics itself. So the question of what metaphysics is is itself a metaphysical question.

What counts as a metaphysical question?

  1. Consider a typical metaphysical question: Can two objects be exactly colocated (i.e. occupy exactly the same region of space at exactly the same time)? It seems that this is not the kind of question that physics or any other science can help with - no amount of further investigation of that kind (experimental or observational data) would seem to help. (Compare this with the question of whether or not electrons have any particle structure.)
  2. It seems to be the kind of question that we can answer from an armchair. Because of this, metaphysics is often said to be non-empirical (unlike physics and other sciences).
  3. This perhaps limits what counts as a metaphysical question. For example, any question about what is contingently (i.e. not necessarily) the case (e.g: What is the temperature in Darwin right now?) cannot be a metaphysical question: to find out which of many different possible worlds our world actually is we would have to make some empirical observations.
  4. If this is right, then, metaphysical questions are limited to questions about what is and is not possible (and relatedly, what is and is not necessary).

Can we know the answers to metaphysical questions?

  1. Can we know whether two objects can be exactly colocated? If so, how?
  2. One answer is that yes, we can, by investigating our concepts (e.g. our concepts OBJECT and COLOCATION), and/or by investigating what we mean by our words (e.g. our words 'object' and 'colocation').

    (Kant's view is that metaphysics is concerned with the fundamental structure of rational thought about reality, rather than reality itself. This is why it is non-empirical and can be a source of knowledge.)

  3. But the question doesn't seem to be about concepts or the meaning of words - it seems to be about objects such as tables and chairs. So how can investigating concepts or the meaning of words help to answer it?
  4. Here is a case in which it might: Let a spruke be a cat which has exactly 3 legs. Is it possible for a spruke to have 4 legs? Perhaps all metaphysical questions are like this one.
  5. But then doing metaphysics might involve some empirical work - acquiring concepts, learning the meaning of words, etc. And investigating concepts and meanings might be just like investigating atomic particles. So perhaps metaphysics is just like the sciences after all, just with a different subject matter (concepts, meanings, etc.).
  6. Some claim that we cannot know the truth of any metaphysical claim. But notice that this is itself a metaphysical claim, so if it is true then we cannot know that it is true, and so no one can be in a position to assert it (assuming that knowledge is a norm of assertion). (Note: it is not a self defeating claim. This one is: all metaphysical claims are false.)
  7. Notice also that anyone who argues takes themselves to know that their argument is valid, and so to know that it is not possible for the premises to be true and the conclusion false, and so to know something about what is not possible, and so to have some knowledge of metaphysical truths. So it is very hard for someone to consistently argue that we cannot have knowledge of metaphysical truths.
  8. Here is a challenge to the idea that we can get metaphysical knowledge: How could a creature that has evolved to survive in this world have the capacity to get non-empirical knowledge of the fundamental structure of reality?

Why study metaphysics?

  1. If metaphysics is a source of knowledge then that gives us one reason to study it - to get knowledge (assuming that we want knowledge).
  2. What if it is not a source of knowledge?

    Most of us do metaphysics at least some of the time, whether we realize it or not (I need some examples here). Even anyone who argues that metaphysics is ill-conceived, or hopeless, or that there is no such thing, is doing metaphysics. So we might as well learn to do it well.

    Even if doing metaphysics will not give is the answers to our metaphysical questions, at least it might help us to see what the possible answers are, and what can be said for and against them. Thus it might help us to develop a more informed opinion (rather than just hold beliefs dogmatically).

A starting picture of reality

  1. Everything is either a particular or a universal, every universal is either a property or a relation, and every relation is either 2-place, or 3-place, or 4-place, and so on.
  2. The difference between particulars and universals is that universals can be instantiated whereas particulars cannot. My bicycle is red: the property of being red is instantiated by my bicycle. Redness is more interesting than greenness: the relation of being more interesting than is instantiated by the properties redness and greenness. Note that universals can be instantiated by either particulars or universals.
  3. Every particular is either a subtsance or a non-substance. Substances are capable of independent existence, whereas non-substances are not.
  4. Properties are had either accidentally or essentially. I am accidentally a philosopher (it is an accidental property of me that I am a philosopher) - I might not have been a philosopher. I am essentially a person (it is an essential property of me that I am a person) - I could not have not been a person.
  5. Properties are either intrinsic or extrinsic. Being 173cm tall is an intrinsic property. Being the tallest person in this room is an extrinsic property.
  6. Properties are either categorical or dispositional. Being made of glass is a categorical property. Being fragile is a dispositional property.
  7. Everything is either concrete or abstract. Concrete things (concreta) are in space and time - they have spatiotemporal location; abstract things (abstracta) are not - they do not have spatiotemporal location.
  8. Some things are difficult to classify: space, time, events (the Sydney olympics), states (my being awake), processes (my getting older), natural kinds (water, gold).