Definition, Divisions, and Problems of Metaphysics


Definition, Divisions, and Problems of Metaphysics

We shall examine this topic by looking at the definition and divisions of Metaphysics as well as some problems in Metaphysics, such as the problem of universals and particulars, the problem of the existence of God, the problem of evil and the mind-body problem.

Philosophers generally disagree about the nature of metaphysics but this does not mean that the concept itself is completely elusive.

Aristotle and the medieval philosophers have given different opinions about what metaphysics is all about. They have opined that it is the attempt to identify the first causes, in particular, God or the Unmoved Mover and also, they conceive of it as the very general science of being qua being.

The term ‘metaphysics’ derives from the Greek word meta-physika, meaning the work after physics, that is to say, the works after those that concern natural things.

Apparently, Andronicus of Rhodes who edited Aristotle’s work gave this name to one of the books in the collection of the writings of Aristotle, a book that is a broad research into the more general categories of being.

It seemed that Andronicus named this book the ‘metaphysics’ just because he made it the next volume after the physics. However, the subsequent mistranslation of the Greek prefix meta, which means ‘transcending’ or ‘beyond’ promoted the misconception that metaphysics is the study of the supernatural.

Basically, metaphysics is what Aristotle described as the ‘first philosophy’ or ‘first science’, a comprehensive inquiry into the ultimate nature of reality. As such, metaphysics consist of a systematic study of the more general categories of being, and of the more general ways of relating entities.

By the end of this article, you would be able to define Metaphysics, explain the divisions of metaphysics and List and respond to some of the problems of metaphysics.


Definition of Metaphysics

Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy that deals with fundamental questions about the nature of reality. The etymological definition of metaphysics holds that the term metaphysics is derived from the Greek words meta-physika, meaning after physics or transcending the physical.

Among philosophers, from Descartes onwards, the term metaphysical has come to have the distinct sense of having to do with what lies beyond what is visibly available to the senses.

In its simplest form, metaphysics represents a science that seeks ultimate knowledge of reality which broadly comprises ontology and cosmology.

Metaphysics as is generally understood, therefore furnishes us with knowledge of reality transcending the world of science, common sense or the phenomenal world.


Divisions of Metaphysics

1. Ontology: Metaphysics, as have been roughly analyzed, can be described as the science and study of the first cause or ultimate cause and of the first and most universal principle of reality.

Metaphysics includes ontology, the science of being, concerned with the general categorization of what exists and of what could exist. It is the study of what kinds of things exist and what entities there are in the universe.

Ontology is the study of ‘being’, as it has been understood from the time of Parmenides, Plato, Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas up to the present. Ontology being a division of metaphysics, can be regarded as a speculative philosophy which investigates the nature of human existence, causality, the notion of God and a number of other subject matter which call for introspection and analysis.

Metaphysics which is the most general of all disciplines aims to identify the nature and structure of all that there is, and central to this project is the delineation of the categories of being.

Ontology does not just examine the essential classes of being and how they identify with each other, it is concerned about we come to know whether classifications of being are basic and talks about what sense the things in those classes might be said to exist.

It is the investigation into being in so much as it is being, that is ‘being qua being’, or into beings to the extent that they exist.

The word ‘is’ has two different uses in English, differentiated in ontology. It can mean existence as in ‘there is an elephant in the room’. It can also signify the possession of a property by an object as in ‘the elephant is grey’ i.e. the elephant has grayness.

A few rationalists likewise incorporate sub-classing as a third form of ‘is-ness’ or being, as in ‘the elephant is a mammal’. Ontology gives a record of which words allude to entities, which do not, why, and what class’s result.

2. Cosmology: Cosmogony deals specifically with the origin of the universe while cosmology is the study of the universe as well as the material structure and laws governing the universe conceived as an ordered set.

Cosmology is a division of metaphysics that deals with the world as the totality of all phenomena in space and time. It aims to study the world and to explain it in its totality, a venture which appears unattainable owing to the fact that it is impossible to have experience of all phenomena in their entirety.

Historically, it has been shown to have a broad scope which in many cases was traceable to religion. However, in modern times, it addresses questions about the Universe which are beyond the scope of the physical sciences. It is distinguished from religious cosmology in that it approaches these questions using philosophical methods such as dialectics.

Cosmology tries to address questions such as; what is the origin of the Universe? What is its first cause? Is its existence necessary? What are the ultimate material components of the Universe? What is the ultimate reason for the existence of the Universe? Does the cosmos have a purpose?

Cosmology is the science of reality as an orderly whole, concerned with the general characterization of reality as an ordered, law governed system. As such, ontological and cosmological concerns intertwine. Cosmology seeks to understand the origin and meaning of the universe by thought alone.

Also read: Definition of Logic, Laws of Thought, Argument, Types of Arguments and Divisions of Logic

Problems of Metaphysics

1. Problem of Universals and Particulars: This problem originates from a famous passage in Porphyry’s ‘Introduction to Aristotle’s Categories: Isagoge’. The treatise which was translated by Boethius appears at the beginning of the above mentioned work and it raised the following problem: are genera and species real, or are they empty inventions of the intellect?

MacLeod and Rubenstein describe Universals as a class of mind-independent entities, usually contrasted with individuals or particulars, postulated to ground and explain relations of qualitative identity and resemblance among individuals. They stated that individuals are similar in virtue of sharing universals. For example, ‘an apple and a ruby are both red and their common redness results from sharing a universal’.

They believe that if they are both red at the same time, then the universal, red, must be in two places at once. They therefore concluded that this makes universals quite different from individuals; and it makes them controversial.

The problem of universals alludes to the issue of whether properties exist, and assuming this is the case, what are they like? Properties are characteristics or relations that at least two elements share for all intents and purpose. 

The different sorts of properties, for example, qualities and relations, are alluded to as universals. For instance, one can envision three cup holders on a table, that share for all intents and purpose the nature of being round or epitomizing circularity or two girls that share practically speaking, being the female offspring’s of Frank.

There are numerous such properties, for example, being human, red, male or female, fluid, enormous or little, taller than, father of, and so on.

While Philosophers concur that people discuss and think about properties, they differ on whether these universals exist in all actuality or just in the mind. It is commonly said that all humans are one with regard to their humanity.

So defenders of realism conclude that there must be humanity outside of the mind, which exists in the same way in all singular men. Aquinas is of the view that even if a particular individual, Socrates as an example, is a human being and that another individual, Plato as an example, is a human being, it is not necessary that both have numerically the same humanity any more than it is necessary for two white things to have numerically the same whiteness.

On the contrary, it is only necessary that the one resemble the other in having an individual humanity just as the other does. It is for this reason that the mind, when it considers an individual humanity, not as belonging to this or that individual, but as such forms a concept that is common to them all.

The world seems to contain many individual things, both physical such as tables, books and cars, and abstract such as love, beauty and number. The former objects are called particulars. Particulars are said to have attributes such as size, shape, colour and location, and two particulars may have some such attributes in common.

The nature of these attributes and whether they have any real existence, and if so of what kind, is a long-standing metaphysical problem in philosophy. Metaphysicians concerned with questions about universals or particulars are interested in the nature of objects and their properties, and the relationship between the two.

Some like Plato, argue that properties are abstract objects, existing outside of space and time, to which particular objects bear special relations. Others maintain that particulars are a bundle or collection of properties.

2. The Problem of the Existence of God: If God is conceived as the Supreme Being, Being Itself, the source and Creator of all beings, and then the question of his existence is of great importance.

It is indeed paradoxical that there would be a need to prove the existence of this Being of all beings, yet that is precisely the situation philosophers and theologians find themselves in, since God cannot be perceived by human senses.

The overall theistic explanation is that God transcends finite forms of being and thus cannot be reached directly by finite human minds, although indirect rational proofs may be possible. The opposite position concludes that God cannot be perceived because he simply does not exist.

This leads to the essential question of the meaning of ‘existence’ as it applies to God. Anselm’s argument for the existence of God is ontological in nature. He believes that the notion of God can be couched in the idea of ‘something than which nothing greater can be conceived’ because to be greater connotes better perfection.

For this reason, ‘something than which nothing more perfect can be conceived’ has to be more perfect. Also, for the reason that humans have this knowledge, Anselm concludes that, ‘something than which nothing greater can be conceived, at least exists in our minds as an object of thought. One may want to ask at this point if this Being also exist in reality?

Anselm argues in the affirmative saying that if nothing than which nothing greater can be conceived does not exist in reality, then, we would not be able to conceive it.

Leibniz’s argument for God’s existence is also ontological in nature. Considering the perfect harmony that exists among substances which do not communicate with each other, for him is a pointer to the fact that a supremely intelligent being must be the cause of the harmony.

According to Leibniz, “whatever follows from the idea or definition of anything can be predicated of that thing. Since the most perfect being includes all perfection, among which is existence, existence follows from the idea of God…therefore existence can be predicated of God.”

3. The Problem of Evil: The existence of evil and suffering in our world seems to pose a serious challenge to belief in the existence of a perfect God. If God were all-knowing, it seems that God would know about all of the horrible things that happen in our world. If God were all powerful, God would be able to do something about all of the evil and suffering.

Furthermore, if God were morally perfect, then surely God would want to do something about it. And yet we find that our world is filled with countless instances of evil and suffering. These facts about evil and suffering seem to conflict with the orthodox theist claim that there exists a perfectly good God. The challenged posed by this apparent conflict has come to be known as the problem of evil.

The meaning of evil extends to all that is bad, harmful or vile. Something is evil if it is likely to cause harm or cause trouble. As such, evil covers something that is not good as it relates particularly to actions, events, thoughts, disposition, and utterances.

Evil is that which obstructs the efforts of man to achieve a good and worthwhile existence. With regards to the character of evil, the Manichean view holds that evil is an autonomous power and a reality existing alongside the good.

On the other hand, the Augustinian view is that evil is a privation of the good or perfection. In this sense, evil is present when some qualities that a thing should have are lacking in that thing.

Thus, evil arises because certain things that are created intrinsically good have become corrupted.

The harmony in the world led Leibniz to opine that God created the best of all possible worlds. He argued that “necessary truths, including modal truths such as; that unicorns are possible, must exist somewhere… [He] located these truths as acts of thought or ideas in the mind of an omniscient, necessarily existent God who contemplates them.”

In his ‘Monadology’, Leibniz held that in the ideas of God, there is infinity of possible worlds, and as only one can exist, there must be a sufficient reason which made God to choose one rather than the other. And this reason can be no other than perfection or fitness, derived from the different degrees of perfection which these worlds contain, each possible world having a claim to exist according to the measure of perfection which it enfolds.

And this is the cause of the existence of that best, which the wisdom of God discerns, which his goodness chooses, and his power effects.

Nevertheless, if this world which is God’s own creation and choice is the best of all possible worlds, then our idea of good and evil becomes questionable. With the evidences of evils and catastrophes in the world, it is difficult for anyone to say that this is the best of all possible worlds that a Being, most benevolent can offer.

Indeed, for Leibniz, to say that this world is the best of all possible worlds is a confirmation that we do not have a proper idea of good and evil. Evil he said is “a necessary and unavoidable consequence of God’s having chosen to create the best of all possible worlds. However bad we might think things are in our world, they would be worse in any other.”

So, Leibniz is saying that we cannot understand the necessity of what we consider evil if we only look at a particular individual act of evil. This is because some things that appear evil to us sometimes ultimately turn out to be good and that the omniscient God who has made it so has sufficient reasons for making them so.

4. The Mind-Body Problem: The mind-body dualism is a metaphysical problem originating from the view that mental phenomena are, in some respects, non-physical, or that the mind and body are different entities that are separable.

Thus, it focuses on a set of views about the relationship between mind and matter, and between subject and object. One of the variants of dualism is substance dualism. Substance dualism also known as Cartesian dualism is a type of dualism most famously defended by Rene Descartes, which states that there are two kinds of reality; the mental and the physical which corresponds to the mind and the body respectively.

Substance dualism affirms an ontological distinction between properties of the mind and the body, and that consciousness is ontologically irreducible to neurobiology and physics. This philosophy states that the mind can exist outside of the body and that it can think, will, opine, reflect and ponder functions which the body cannot perform.

As a philosophical position, substance dualism is compatible with most theologies which claim that immoral souls occupy an independent realm of existence distinct from that of the physical world.

It disagrees with the view that matter or the living human bodies can be appropriately organized in a way that would yield mental properties.

The mind-body problem originating from this dualism revolves around the possibility and place of interaction between the mind and body. That minds and bodies interact causally is not easily disputable since our decision to act leads us to move our body in a particular way.

The activities in the body result in conscious sensory experiences. When we are hungry and need to get some food from the kitchen, the moment we conceive of the idea of moving to the kitchen in our minds, our body responds in movement.

When we have satisfied our hunger, our minds respond as we become happy. However, it is hard to see how such interaction could occur if minds are non-material substances and bodies are material and extended.

Descartes is of the opinion that the mind and the body do interact and that man is essentially a thinking being who possesses a body and that this is the reason we feel pain when we hurt our body. He believes that the mind influences the body and the body also influences the mind, but encountered a problem trying to show where this interaction takes place.

Also read: Definition, Divisions, Theories and Problems of Epistemology

Conclusion on Definition, Divisions, and Problems of Metaphysics

Metaphysics is concerned with explaining the way things ‘are’ in the world. It is concerned primarily with ‘being as being’ that is with anything in so far as it exists.

However, metaphysics is not concerned with examining the physical properties of things that exist, but is, instead, the study of the underlying principles that give rise to the unified natural world. As such, the problem of evil is a metaphysical one because it deals with the object ‘evil’ as opposed to ‘good’ which is a metaphysical subject, whereas the statement that ‘all things are composed of atoms, which are in turn composed of electrons, protons, and neutrons’ is definitely not metaphysics, but the concern of the physical sciences.

We have defined metaphysics after Aristotle’s description of it as the ‘first philosophy’ or ‘first science’, a comprehensive inquiry into the ultimate nature of reality. As such, metaphysics was said to consist of a systematic study of the more general categories of being, and of the more general ways of relating entities.

The two divisions of metaphysics as considered were ‘Ontology’, regarded as a speculative philosophy which investigates the nature of human existence, causality, the notion of God and a number of other subject-matter which call for introspection and analysis, as well as ‘cosmology’ which deals with the world as the totality of all phenomena in space and time.

Some of the problems of metaphysics considered are the Problem of Universals and Particulars, the Problem of the Existence of God, The Problem of Evil and the Mind Body Problem.

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