Definition(s) of metaphysics

18 03 2010

These come from a quick Google of “define: metaphysics”. I find them all slightly perplexing (except for the last one – I must get that album…).

The common thread appears to be the ‘study of the first principles of reality’. But, in attempting such a study, one falls in to the trap of justifying those particular first principles – particularly if, as the history of metaphysics has shown, there are many possible systems of first principles that might fit with the world as we see it, and we have no way of telling them apart. We don’t even have any way of guaranteeing there are first principles.

In light of this, I’d like to offer a new definition of metaphysics for your consideration:

  • Metaphysics – given what we believe to be true, what else must also be true.

This definition also points towards first principles – but not only first principles, because it also demands the exploration of consequences and implications rather than focussing on assumptions, axioms and presuppositions.

But, crucially, it doesn’t demand that one start with first principles and try to build one’s way to the world as we believe it to be. Instead, it takes a more pragmatic approach and starts with the world as we believe it to be, and works its way back from there.

So if, for example, we believe one moment follows another, then what else must be true? Some possibilities are time, events, memory, belief, perception, concepts, abstraction etc. Say you take time – the question continues: if time exists, what else must also exist? Perhaps a beginning to time? Or infinity? Or time might be bundled up in one moment and it’s only our perception that sees one moment follow another.

Also on a pragmatic note, this definition of metaphysics remains fundamentally contingent – if our beliefs about the world change, then so too can our metaphysics. In fact, the metaphysics can rebound and influence the way we see the world, thus further changing the metaphysics. There are no (necessary) right answers, no indubitable first principles – to assume there are is to assume an answer to some deep metaphysical questions that, arguably, we have no grounds in answering before we begin.

So we have a fundamentally pragmatic empirical metaphysics. It seeks to explore, explain and reveal, but it doesn’t presume the answers before it seeks them out.




11 responses

19 03 2010
James Gray

Your definition is pretty much just a coherence theory of truth. You should at least restrict it to our understanding of reality. Lots of things can be true in some non-metaphysical way. For example, 2+2=4 isn’t necessarily a metaphysical claim.

Metaphysics – given what we believe to be true about the nature of reality, what else must also be true about the nature of reality.

19 03 2010
Tim Dean

Hi James. Mine is a methodological claim, and is agnostic about truth conditions. It may be that the correspondence theory is the right one, but I’m suggesting we’re better off arriving at that conclusion starting from ‘here’ rather than starting at the bottom and trying to work our way back up. One could even be skeptical about truth and adopt my approach to metaphysics. Or conclude that we are unable to discriminate between the various theories.

19 03 2010
James Gray

I don’t think all coherence theorists reject the correspondence theory of truth. It can be used as a form of justification and/or general epistemological methodology. For example, some naturalists think that coherence is the method used by science to attain evidence. Our observation can only “confirm” a hypothesis given certain assumptions that the observation must “cohere” with.

20 03 2010
lily chung

What matters most in metaphysics is the cosmic flows.
THE TRUTH OF UPS & DOWNS,Cosmic InequalityThe first book documenting cosmic impact on personal life, illustrated with Global celebrities for proof of authenticity. Here are some examples:

Why did Richard Nixon become the US president at age 55? Could he have avoided the Watergate incident? Why did Superman, Christopher Reeve, incur a fatal fall from a horse while he excelled so much in so many sports? Would knowing the cosmic impact avert the incident?
Why did Robert Taylor make 7 movies (the highest production in one single year in his life) in 1935 (a powerful wood year) and, no movie in both 1945 and 1961 (powerful metal years)? How did metal flow destroy a mathematics professor (Tek Kaczynski)? Knowing the cosmic, could he have lived a different life?
John Jr. Kennedy had his four vital events occurred in the interval of a 12-year period: death of father, 1963; death of step-father, 1975; loss of prosecutor post, 1987; death, 1999. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis married twice in metal years and widowed twice in the wood years; Linda Evans (the head actress in “Dynasty”) broke practically all her relationships in wood years; Ingrid Bergman committed marital affairs at age 38-41. All happened for cosmic reasons.
We live under the mercy of the cosmic flows! The Truth of Ups & Downs illustrates a procedure to understand our personal cosmic flow and how to properly attune to it with the use of perpetual lunar calendars. The procedure is called the 4-pillars or Bazi, long discussed globally but never properly illustrated and documented.

20 03 2010
James Gray


That has almost nothing to do with metaphysics in the philosophical sense discussed here. We are talking about a philosophical subject that uses argumentation and evidence to find out important facts involving the nature of reality. The major questions in metaphysics include the following:

1. What does reality consist of? Is there are physical substance?
2. Is the physical substance the only substance or is consciousness another substance?
3. Does the mind come from physical reality?
4. Is the mind a separate domain from physical reality?
5. Does morality consist in our moral beliefs or attitudes?
6. Do we have free will?

20 03 2010
Tim Dean

Heh, James, when you put it like that it sounds like they are the same – except perhaps philosophical metaphysics has already considered and rejected many of the notions contained in spiritual metaphysics.

But, yes, Lily, they are very different pursuits, if only in methodology (although there are probably a still few intuitionists kicking about).

20 03 2010
James Gray

I understand that intuition is taken to be metaphysical evidence but that doesn’t necessarily justify “spiritual metaphysics” or what not. (Of course, I’m not sure what you mean by “intuition.”) For example, it is said that water is H2O “in every possible world” and the evidence is (in part) that such a position is intuitive and the opposite position is counterinuitive. This is part of the controversy and argument introduced by Putnam in his twin Earth experiment:

30 03 2010
Sabio Lantz

I liked the post, but got a bit confused in this comment section (minus Lilly). So for us uninitiated, could you boys delineate, in real simple terms, your two camps so we can best understand debate.

30 03 2010
Tim Dean

‘Tis but a squabble over metaphysical minutiae. James might be better at articulating it, but basically he’s suggesting my definition of metaphysics is similar to a particular approach to understanding truth.

One popular conception of truth says that a statement (such as ‘the sky is blue’) is true if there is some actual aspect of reality to which the statement corresponds in the appropriate way (such as if the sky actually *is* blue). Thus it’s called the ‘correspondence theory’. It ‘grounds’ truth in reality, with reality the arbiter of what’s true and what’s not.

An alternative conception says a statement is true if it is consistent with another set of statements (such as ‘there is a sky’, ‘there is a colour blue’ etc). Thus ‘coherence theory’. It’s not as ‘grounded’ as the correspondence theory, and what’s true might change as the statements change over time.

Hence my definition of metaphysics (“given what we believe to be true, what else must also be true”) sounds a lot like a definition of the coherence theory.

However, I’m not making a claim about truth. I’m trying to define what metaphysics is all about (although my motivations are similar to the motivations that inspired the coherence theory of truth).

I guess my criticism of traditional conceptions of metaphysics is like that old joke where a driver is lost in the country. He pulls over next to a local farmer and asks how to get to the town he’s trying to reach from here. The farmer frowns and says “mate, if you’re trying to get there, then I wouldn’t start from here.”

Traditional metaphysics is trying to seek the fundamental components of reality, the foundations, building blocks, and other suitable construction metaphors. It often starts by positing some building blocks (being, consciousness, causation, time, properties etc) and tries to assemble them in a way that results in something that looks like what we see around us. In fact, I suspect many metaphysicians don’t really believe spending much time looking around in the world (i.e. getting empirical) is very important to doing metaphysics.

I disagree. If we were to approach metaphysics in this traditional way, ‘we wouldn’t want to start from here’, in the middle of reality. We’d want to start from some privileged position where we could see the building blocks first hand.

But we have to start from here. We have to get empirical. We look around and we see stuff, and then we get metaphysical and wonder what things must exist (being, consciousness, causation, time, properties etc) in order to explain what’s around us. But because we’re stuck, knee deep in reality, we will often not be able to tell whether one metaphysical theory is true rather than another.

It’s kinda like theoretical physics or cosmology these days. For a long time evidence outstripped theory – we saw stuff we couldn’t understand. Then we developed new theories like quantum mechanics and the Big Bang and theory caught up. But then the evidence dried up and the theories rushed to fill the gap. Now we have inflation, dark energy, the Standard Model, the Higgs Boson, string theory, m-theory and the list goes on. Now we need the evidence (from the Large Hadron Collider, hopefully) to help us discriminate between the theories.

The bummer for metaphysics is we’ll probably always have theory outstrip the evidence. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bother with metaphysics – but my definition encourages us to put it in perspective. We look around and say things exist. We then think about what else must exist. Sometimes this process will call into question what we think exists (like phlogiston, for example) and we revise our interpretation of what we see around us. Other times we’ll posit contrasting first principles but we’ll never be able to tell which ones are right.

That’s basically our initial disagreement.

The intuitionism thing – you can ignore that. I was just having a cheap dig at the notion that intuition can somehow show us the truth. Intuition is useful, but it lacks checks and balances. It’s a great tool, but a horrible master. Intuition might be useful in understanding Putnam (which I won’t bother explaining, as it’s complicated, messy and, ultimately, won’t make you more attractive to the opposite sex), but intuition can also lead to beliefs that carry dubious baggage, such as spiritual or religious beliefs. I could go on, but I’ve probably overanswered your question without actually answering your question.

Hope that helps!

31 03 2010
James Gray

I think that a big part of the discussion is relating metaphysics to epistemology (theory of knowledge & justification). Tim Dean wants to know the best way to understand reality and justify our beliefs concerning reality.

10 10 2010
Alf P. Steinbach

Hm, I think this posting nicely illustrates the disease that has killed off almost all true philosophy, and certainly 99.9999…% of the philosophy that goes in academia: the idea that philosophy is about saying nothing or as close to nothing as possible, in profound-sounding and as ungrokkable-as-possible ways, using undefined terms, ambiguity etc. to the fullest, and placing lots of references sort of like product placements in TV shows, to show off the author’s knack for mindless rote memorization and ability to conform, as opposed to indendent thinking. Which reduces philosophy to abstract wordsmithing, like here, discussing what kinds of wordsmithing that one would like to be indicated by one particularly wooly, ambiguous label. Argh.

Anyway, I just dropped by, searching for “metaphysics”, in order to drop a link to my new WordPress blog,, where I’m posting some metaphysical thoughts.

That is, it’s metaphysics as I would like it to be. No wordsmithing. :-) Just rational thinking about the nature of Nature.

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