central questions of metaphysics

wikipedia: This section needs additional citations for verification. Please help improve this article by adding citations to reliable sources. Unsourced material may be challenged and removed. (February 2011)


Most positions that can be taken with regards to any of the following questions are endorsed by one or another notable philosopher.

It is often difficult to frame the questions in a non-controversial manner.

Being, existence and reality

The nature of Being is a perennial topic in metaphysics.

For instance, Parmenides taught that reality was a single unchanging Being.

The 20th century philosopher Heidegger thought previous philosophers have lost sight of the question of Being (qua Being) in favour of the questions of beings (existing things), so that a return to the Parmenidean approach was needed.

An ontological catalogue is an attempt to list the fundamental constituents of reality.

The question of whether or not existence is a predicate has been discussed since the Early Modern period, not least in relation to the ontological argument for the existence of God.

Existence, that something is, has been contrasted with essence, the question of what something is.

Reflections on the nature of the connection and distinction between existence and essence dates back to Aristotle‘s Metaphysics, and it found one of its later most influential interpretations in the ontology of the eleventh century metaphysician Avicenna (Ibn Sina).[9]

Since existence without essence seems blank, it is associated with nothingness by philosophers such as Hegel.


Empirical and conceptual objects

Objects and their properties

The world seems to contain many individual things, both physical, like apples, and abstract such as love and the number 3; the former objects are called particulars.

Particulars are said to have attributes, e.g. size, shape, color, location and two particulars may have some such attributes in common.

Such attributes, are also termed Universals or Properties; the nature of these, and whether they have any real existence and if so of what kind, is a long-standing issue, realism and nominalism representing opposing views.

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, e.g. Plato, argue that properties are abstract objects, existing outside of space and time, to which particular objects bear special relations.

David Armstrong holds that universals exist in time and space but only at their instantiation and their discovery is a function of science.

Others maintain that particulars are a bundle or collection of properties (specifically, a bundle of properties they have).

Biological literature contains abundant references to taxa (singular “taxon”), groups like the mammals or the poppies.

Some authors claim (or at least presuppose) that taxa are real entities, that to say that an animal is included in Mammalia (the scientific name for the mammal group) is to say that it bears a certain relation to Mammalia, an abstract object.[10]

Advocates of phylogenetic nomenclature, a more nominalistic view, oppose this reading; in their opinion, calling an animal a mammal is a shorthand way of saying that it is descended from the last common ancestor of, say, humans and platypuses.[11]


Cosmology and cosmogony

Metaphysical Cosmology is the branch of metaphysics that deals with the world as the totality of all phenomena in space and time.

Historically, it has had quite a broad scope, and in many cases was founded in religion.

The ancient Greeks did not draw a distinction between this use and their model for the cosmos.

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 (e.g. dialectics).

Cosmogony deals specifically with the origin of the universe.

Modern metaphysical cosmology and cosmogony try to address questions such as:


Determinism and free will

Determinism is the philosophical proposition that every event, including human cognition, decision and action, is causally determined by an unbroken chain of prior occurrences.

It holds that no random, spontaneous, stochastic, intrinsically mysterious, or miraculous events occur.

The principal consequence of the deterministic claim is that it poses a challenge to the existence of free will.

The problem of free will is the problem of whether rational agents exercise control over their own actions and decisions.

Addressing this problem requires understanding the relation between freedom and causation, and determining whether the laws of nature are causally deterministic.

Some philosophers, known as Incompatibilists, view determinism and free will as mutually exclusive.

If they believe in determinism, they will therefore believe free will to be an illusion, a position known as Hard Determinism.

Proponents range from Baruch Spinoza to Ted Honderich.

Others, labeled Compatibilists (or “Soft Determinists”), believe that the two ideas can be coherently reconciled.

Adherents of this view include Thomas Hobbes and many modern philosophers such as John Martin Fischer.

Incompatibilists who accept free will but reject determinism are called Libertarians, a term not to be confused with the political sense.

Robert Kane and Alvin Plantinga are modern defenders of this theory.


Identity and change

The Greeks took some extreme positions on the nature of change: Parmenides denied that change occurs at all, while Heraclitus thought change was ubiquitous: “[Y]ou cannot step into the same river twice.”

Identity, sometimes called Numerical Identity, is the relation that a “thing” bears to itself, and which no “thing” bears to anything other than itself (cf. sameness).

According to Leibniz, if some object x is identical to some object y, then any property that x has, y will have as well.

However, it seems, too, that objects can change over time.

If one were to look at a tree one day, and the tree later lost a leaf, it would seem that one could still be looking at that same tree.

Two rival theories to account for the relationship between change and identity are Perdurantism, which treats the tree as a series of tree-stages, and Endurantism, which maintains that the tree—the same tree—is present at every stage in its history.


Mind and matter

The nature of matter was a problem in its own right in early philosophy.

Aristotle himself introduced the idea of matter in general to the Western world, adapting the term hyle, which originally meant “lumber.”

Early debates centered on identifying a single underlying principle.

Water was claimed by Thales, air by Anaximenes, Apeiron (the Boundless) by Anaximander, fire by Heraclitus.

Democritus, in conjunction with his mentor, Leucippus, conceived of an atomic theory many centuries before it was accepted by modern science.

It is worth noting, however, that the grounds necessary to ensure validity to the proposed theory’s veridical nature were not scientific, but just as philosophical as those traditions espoused by Thales and Anaximander.

The nature of the mind and its relation to the body has been seen as more of a problem as science has progressed in its mechanistic understanding of the brain and body.

Proposed solutions often have ramifications about the nature of mind as a whole.

René Descartes proposed substance dualism, a theory in which mind and body are essentially different, with the mind having some of the attributes traditionally assigned to the soul, in the seventeenth century.

This creates a conceptual puzzle about how the two interact (which has received some strange answers, such as occasionalism).

Evidence of a close relationship between brain and mind, such as the Phineas Gage case, have made this form of dualism increasingly unpopular.

Another proposal discussing the mind-body problem is idealism, in which the material is sweepingly eliminated in favor of the mental.

Idealists, such as George Berkeley, claim that material objects do not exist unless perceived and only as perceptions.

The “German idealists” such as Fichte, Hegel and Schopenhauer took Kant as their starting-point, although it is debatable how much of an idealist Kant himself was.

Idealism is also a common theme in Eastern philosophy.

Related ideas are panpsychism and panexperientialism, which say everything has a mind rather than everything exists in a mind.

Alfred North Whitehead was a twentieth-century exponent of this approach.

Idealism is a monistic theory which holds that there is a single universal substance or principle.

Neutral monism, associated in different forms with Baruch Spinoza and Bertrand Russell, seeks to be less extreme than idealism, and to avoid the problems of substance dualism.

It claims that existence consists of a single substance that in itself is neither mental nor physical, but is capable of mental and physical aspects or attributes – thus it implies a dual-aspect theory.

For the last one hundred years, the dominant metaphysics has without a doubt been materialistic monism. Type identity theory, token identity theory, functionalism, reductive physicalism, nonreductive physicalism, eliminative materialism, anomalous monism, property dualism, epiphenomenalism and emergence are just some of the candidates for a scientifically informed account of the mind.

(It should be noted that while many of these positions are dualisms, none of them are substance dualism.)

Prominent recent philosophers of mind include David Armstrong, Ned Block, David Chalmers, Patricia and Paul Churchland, Donald Davidson, Daniel Dennett, Fred Dretske, Douglas Hofstadter, Jerry Fodor, David Lewis, Thomas Nagel, Hilary Putnam, John Searle, John Smart, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Fred Alan Wolf.


Necessity and possibility

Metaphysicians investigate questions about the ways the world could have been.

David Lewis, in “On the Plurality of Worlds,” endorsed a view called Concrete Modal realism, according to which facts about how things could have been are made true by other concrete worlds, just like ours, in which things are different.

Other philosophers, such as Gottfried Leibniz, have dealt with the idea of possible worlds as well.

The idea of necessity is that any necessary fact is true across all possible worlds.

A possible fact is true in some possible world, even if not in the actual world.

For example, it is possible that cats could have had two tails, or that any particular apple could have not existed.

By contrast, certain propositions seem necessarily true, such as analytic propositions, e.g. “All bachelors are unmarried.”

The particular example of analytic truth being necessary is not universally held among philosophers.

A less controversial view might be that self-identity is necessary, as it seems fundamentally incoherent to claim that for any x, it is not identical to itself; this is known as the law of identity, a putative “first principle”.

Aristotle describes the principle of non-contradiction, “It is impossible that the same quality should both belong and not belong to the same thing … This is the most certain of all principles … Wherefore they who demonstrate refer to this as an ultimate opinion. For it is by nature the source of all the other axioms.”


Religion and spirituality

Theology is the study of a god or gods and the nature of the divine.

Whether there is a god (monotheism), many gods (polytheism) or no gods (atheism), or whether it is unknown or unknowable whether any gods exist (agnosticism; apophatic theology), and whether the Divine intervenes directly in the world (theism), or its sole function is to be the first cause of the universe (deism); these and whether a God or gods and the World are different (as in panentheism and dualism), or are identical (as in pantheism), are some of the primary metaphysical questions concerning philosophy of religion.

Within the standard Western philosophical tradition, theology reached its peak under the medieval school of thought known as scholasticism, which focused primarily on the metaphysical aspects of Christianity.

The work of the scholastics is still an integral part of modern philosophy,[12] with key figures such as Thomas Aquinas still playing an important role in the philosophy of religion.[13]


Space and time

In Book XI of the Confessions, Saint Augustine of Hippo asked the fundamental question about the nature of time.

A traditional realist position in ontology is that time and space have existence apart from the human mind.

Idealists, including Kant, claim that space and time are mental constructs used to organize perceptions, or are otherwise surreal.

Suppose that one is sitting at a table, with an apple in front of him or her; the apple exists in space and in time, but what does this statement indicate?

Could it be said, for example, that space is like an invisible three-dimensional grid in which the apple is positioned?

Suppose the apple, and all physical objects in the universe, were removed from existence entirely.

Would space as an “invisible grid” still exist?

René Descartes and Leibniz believed it would not, arguing that without physical objects, “space” would be meaningless because space is the framework upon which we understand how physical objects are related to each other.

Newton, on the other hand, argued for an absolute “container” space.

The pendulum swung back to relational space with Einstein and Ernst Mach.

While the absolute/relative debate, and the realism debate are equally applicable to time and space, time presents some special problems of its own.

The flow of time has been denied in ancient times by Parmenides and more recently by J. M. E. McTaggart in his paper The Unreality of Time.

The direction of time, also known as “time’s arrow”, is also a puzzle, although physics is now driving the debate rather than philosophy.

It appears that fundamental laws are time-reversible and the arrow of time must be an “emergent” phenomenon, perhaps explained by a statistical understanding of thermodynamic entropy.

Common-sense tells us that objects persist across time, that there is some sense in which you are the same person you were yesterday, in which the oak is the same as the acorn, in which you perhaps even can step into the same river twice.

Philosophers have developed two rival theories for how this happens, called “endurantism” and “perdurantism”.

Broadly speaking, endurantists hold that a whole object exists at each moment of its history, and the same object exists at each moment.

Perdurantists believe that objects are four-dimensional entities made up of a series of temporal parts like the frames of a movie.


via: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metaphysics

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s