The History of MetaphysicsMetaphysics has signified many things in the history of philosophy, but it has not strayed far from a literal reading of "beyond the physical." The term was invented by the 1st-century BCE head of Aristotle's Peripatetic school, Andronicus of Rhodes. Andronicus edited and arranged Aristotle's works, giving the name Metaphysics (τα μετα τα φυσικα βιβλια), literally "the books beyond the physics," perhaps the books to be read after reading Aristotle's books on nature, which he called the Physics. The Greek for nature is physis, so metaphysical is also "beyond the natural." Proponents of naturalism deny the existence of anything metaphysical. Aristotle never used the term metaphysics. For Plato, Aristotle's master, the realm of abstract ideas was more "real" than that of physical. i.e., material or concrete, objects, because ideas can be more permanent (the Being of Parmenides), whereas material objects are constantly changing (the Becoming of Heraclitus). Where Plato made his realm of ideas the "real world," Aristotle made the material world the source of ideas as mere abstractions from common properties found in many concrete objects. Even Neoplatonists like Porphyry also worried about the existential status of the Platonic ideas. Does Being exist? What does it mean to say "Being Is"? In recent centuries then, metaphysical has become "beyond the material." Metaphysics has become the study of immaterial things, like the mind, which is said to "supervene" on the material brain. Metaphysics is a kind of idealism, in stark contrast to "eliminative" materialism. And metaphysics has failed in proportion to the phenomenal success of naturalism, the idea that the laws of nature alone can completely explain the contents of the universe. The books of Aristotle that Andronicus considered "beyond nature" included Aristotle's "First Philosophy" — ontology (the science of being), cosmology (the fundamental processes and original causes of physical things), and theology (is a god required as "first cause?"). Aristotle's Physics describes the four "causes" or "explanations" (aitia) of change and movement of objects already existing in the universe (the ideal formal and final causes, vs. the efficient and material causes). Aristotle's metaphysics can then be seen as explanations for existence itself. What exists? What is it to be? What processes can bring things into (or out of) existence? Is there a cause or explanation for the universe as a whole? In critical philosophical discourse, metaphysics has perhaps been tarnished by its Latinate translation as "supernatural," with its strong theological implications. But from the beginning, Aristotle's books on "First Philosophy" considered God among the possible causes of the fundamental things in the universe. Tracing the regress of causes back in time as an infinite chain, Aristotle postulated a first cause or "uncaused cause." Where every motion needs a prior mover to explain it, he postulated an "unmoved first mover." These postulates became a major element of theology down to modern times. Modern metaphysics is described as the study of the fundamental structure of reality, and as such foundational not only to philosophy but for logic, mathematics, and all the sciences. Some see a need for a foundation to metaphysics itself, called metametaphysics, but this invites an infinite regress of "meta all the way down (or up)." Aristotle's First Philosophy included theology, since first causes, new beginnings or genesis, might depend on the existence of God. And there remains a strong connection between modern metaphysicians and theologians. For medieval philosophers, metaphysics was understood as the science of the supersensible. Albertus Magnus called it science beyond the physical. Thomas Aquinas narrowed it to the cognition of God. John Duns Scotus disagreed, arguing that only study of the world can yield knowledge of God. Scholastic philosophers mostly returned metaphysics to the study of being in itself, that is, ontology, which again today is the core area of metaphysical arguments. In renaissance Germany, Christian Wolff broadened metaphysics to include psychology, along with ontology, cosmology, and natural or rational theology. In renaissance England, Francis Bacon narrowed metaphysics to the Aristotelian study of formal and final causes, separating it from natural philosophy which he saw as the study of efficient and material causes. Descartes made a turn from what exists to knowledge of what exists. He changed the emphasis from a study of being to a study of the conditions of knowledge or epistemology. For empiricists in England like John Locke and David Hume, metaphysics includes the "primary" things beyond psychology and "secondary" sensory experiences. They denied that any knowledge was possible apart from experimental and mathematical reasoning. Hume thought the metaphysics of the Scholastics is sophistry and illusion.
If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.In Germany, Kant's Critiques of Reason claimed a transcendental, non-empirical realm he called noumenal, for pure, or a priori, reason beyond or behind the phenomena. Kant's phenomenal realm is deterministic, matter governed by Newton's laws of motion. Kant's immaterial noumena are in the metaphysical non-empirical realm of the "things themselves" along with freedom, God, and immortality. Kant identified ontology not with the things themselves but, influenced by Descartes, what we can think - and reason - about the things themselves. In either case, Kant thought metaphysical knowledge might be impossible for finite minds. The notion that metaphysics transcends experience and the material world led to nineteenth-century positivists like August Comte and Ernst Mach, and twentieth-century empiricists like Rudolf Carnap and Moritz Schlick, denying the possibility of metaphysical knowledge. Carnap maintained that metaphysical statements are meaningless. Comtean positivism rejected metaphysics and theology as obsolete earlier phases in the development of knowledge. Naturalism is the anti-metaphysical claim that there is nothing in the world beyond the material (including energy), that everything follows "laws of nature," and that these laws are both causal and deterministic. So "supernatural" appears to imply "immaterial" and the freedom to break the laws of nature. Information philosophy denies the supernatural. But it defends immaterial information as that which constitutes the human spirit, or soul, the "ghost in the machine." And it defends ontological chance as the generator of novel possibilities that are not determined by the "fixed past." Positivism is the claim that the only valid source of knowledge is sensory experience, reinforced by logic and mathematics. Together these provide the empirical evidence for science. Some see this as the "naturalizing" of epistemology. Mach's positivism claimed that science consists entirely of "economic summaries" of the facts (the results of experiments). He rejected theories about unobservable things like Ludwig Boltzmann's atoms, just a few years before Albert Einstein used Boltzmann's work to prove that atoms exist. The logical positivism of Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein claims that all valid knowledge is scientific knowledge, though science is often criticized for "reducing" all phenomena to physical or chemical events. The logical positivists may have identified ontology not with the things themselves but what we can say - using concepts and language - about the things themselves. Logical positivists and the logical empiricists of the Vienna Circle not only asserted that all knowledge is scientific knowledge derived from experience, i.e., from verifiable observations, they also added the logical analysis of language as the principal tool for solving philosophical problems. They divided statements into those that are reducible to simpler statements about experience and those with no empirical basis. These latter they called "metaphysics" and "meaningless." While language is too slippery and ambiguous to serve as a reliable tool for philosophical analysis, quantitative information, which underlies all language use, is such a tool. Logical positivists and empiricists mistakenly claim that physical theories can be logically deduced (or derived) from the results of experiments. A second flaw in all empiricist thinking since Locke et al. is the mistaken idea that all knowledge is derived from experience, written on the blank slate of our minds, etc. In science, this is the flawed idea that all knowledge is ultimately experimental. To paraphrase Kant and Charles Sanders Peirce, theories without experiments may be empty, but experiments without theories are blind. By contrast, the modern hypothetical-deductive method of science maintains that theories are not the logical (or inductive) consequences of experiments. As Einstein put it, after shaking off his early enthusiasm for Mach's positivistic ideas, theories are "free inventions of the human mind." Theories begin with hypotheses, mere guesses, "fictions" whose value is shown only when they can be confirmed by the results of experiments. Again and again, theories have predicted behaviors in as yet untested physical conditions that have surprised scientists, often suggesting new experiments that have extended the confirmation of theories, which again surprise us. As pure information, scientific knowledge is far beyond the results of experiments alone.
Metaphysics has been a search for the preconditions of existence, for the meaning of being, for original "first causes" (arche) and final ends (telos), especially for that which is beyond our senses - the "things themselves." In an epistemological age after Descartes, metaphysics came to include the preconditions for knowledge, especially knowledge of physical things, somehow independent of our sensible experience, and especially certain knowledge - knowledge by abstract reason alone. Although in recent years metaphysics has become something of a catch-all category for unsolved problems in philosophy and physics, ontology has remained its central concern and we will focus on the ontological status of material objects as "information structures" and the existential status of "immaterial information" about these structures and about information itself, as our basis for knowledge. Immaterial ideas are as real a part of the physical world and its causal structure as is matter, even though they are ideal and not material. Beyond synchronic ontology, diachronic cosmology has now traced back the origin and evolution of the material universe to a "Big Bang" some 13.75 billion years ago. But deep metaphysical questions remain. Did time start at the Big Bang? Was there space with nothing in it, before matter came into existence? Could there have been pure information before there was space and time? Did that information include the possibility of the universe? Are space and time only universal ideas, continuous immaterial forms, that help us organize and describe the workings of discontinuous and discrete particulate matter and energy? For more on the history of metaphysics, see the pdf of chapter 36, History of Metaphysics, in my 2016 book, Metaphysics: Problems, Paradoxes, and Puzzles Solved?