What exactly is metaphysics?

A reader writes:

If you had the time, I wanted to request a topic on philosophy as it relates to apologetics.  I’m hoping you could answer: “What exactly is metaphysics?A lot of debate I’ve seen online, and in reading apologists work (especially Craig) you find a lot of talk aboutmetaphysics, what’s “metaphysically absurd”,  “metaphysically counter-intuitive”, “metaphysically necessary”, or “has a metaphysical reality”.  I sort of understand what it is, but I’m really not clear exactly, other than having the impression that modern philosophers generally avoid it.

From what I can tell, it seems to be a tool apologist philosophers love since they can dress their religion up inmetaphysical terms to try and give their claims some legitimacy.   I figure since you obviously know quite a bit on philosophy, it’s something you could illuminate for those of us who only have a basic understanding of philosophy.

Answering the first part of the question requires doing some history of philosophy. Aristotle wrote some books we now know as the Physics, and he also wrote some books we now know as the Metaphysics, literally “after the physics.” This probably wasn’t Aristotle’s title for the books. The idea seems to have been that if you’re studying Aristotle, you should study the Metaphysics after you study the Physics, though I’ve also heard this is just the order the books were shelved in.

So for a l0ng time the word “metaphysics,” when it referred to a subject matter, referred to the subject(s) discussed in Aristotle’s Metaphysics. But the word has since drifted away from this meaning, to the point that now, nobody has any idea what it means. Well, that’s an exaggeration, but only by a little bit. Even leading metaphysicians admit they don’t have a good definition of “metaphysics.” The best definition I can give is “a bunch of questions about reality that don’t go anywhere else.”

As for the specific phrases mentioned above, “metaphysically necessary” is the only one where I know of a clear meaning for it off the top of my head. The idea is this: some things are impossible because they violate the laws of physics. But there’s an important sense in which the laws of physics could have been different, or they could even in fact turn out not to be the whole story, so we need a broader sense of “possibility” to cover that.

But then (so the standard story goes) there are things that aren’t even possible in that broader sense. For example, there’s no possibility that the laws of logic could have been different in the sense that the laws of physics could have been different. That thought led to philosophers talking about things being “logically impossible” if they involve a contradiction, and “logically possible” otherwise.

And then some people think an idea can be as impossible as impossible can be without involving a logical contradiction, and they call that kind of impossibility “metaphysical impossibility.” Things that aren’t impossible in that sense, then, are “metaphysically possible.” And things that couldn’t possibly have been otherwise, in that sense, are “metaphysically necessary.”

Now there’s some debatable claims about the nature of possibility in the rationale for those definitions, so you don’t have to accept them, but that at least tells you what the heck philosophers are thinking. As for the other phrases, I had to write back to ask for a link to the context they had appeared in. The reader wrote back with some stuff William Lane Craig has written, which wasn’t particularly enlightening. I’ll do my best here, though.

My guess is that “has a metaphysical reality” means something like “has a reality beyond time and space.” The other two, “metaphysically counter-intuitive” and “metaphysically absurd,” sound to me just like fancy-pants ways of saying “counter-intuitive” and “absurd.” In fact, I can’t find any instances of the phrase “metaphysically counter-intuitive” being used by anybody except William Lane Craig. (Though to be fair, many philosophers consider being counter-intuitive to be a serious blow against a philosophical idea.)

Notes on Robert Fogel’s Without Consent or Contract
The dangers of generalization: an apology
Slavery abolition and animal rights: the biggest problem
Why I’ve decided to start deleting jerky comments more often
  • Brian

    Craig justifies his insistence that everything that begins has a cause as being underwritten by ‘metaphysical intuition’ which unpacked means that Craig can’t imagine it being any other way, therefore he intuits that that’s part of the fabric of existence. Sort of an argument from incredulity.

    I think the subject matter of metaphysics is what questions about reality science and evidence can’t answer. For an example, if realism, idealism, or whatever -ism you fancy can all account for the evidence and theories of the sciences (I don’t know if they can, but for the sake of argument), then nothing science says and no possible evidence can falsify them. Metaphysics then, might offer arguments about which -ism is the best explanation of reality, and what reality is…..

  • machintelligence

    (Though to be fair, many philosophers consider being counter-intuitive to be a serious blow against a philosophical idea.)

    I am only a dabbler in philosophy, but aren’t a lot of relativistic and quantum mechanical concepts counter intuitive, even though they are true?

    But there’s an important sense in which the laws of physics could have been different, or they could even in fact turn out not to be the whole story, so we need a broader sense of “possibility” to cover that.

    So since traveling faster than light is physically impossible, speculation on what would happen if one could (such as going backward in time), would be in the realm of metaphysics.

    My guess is that “has a metaphysical reality” means something like “has a reality beyond time and space.”

    So this is why the supernatural (which has no physical reality) is always referred to as metaphysical.
    Thanks for the clarification. this has always been a fuzzy area for me.

    • Zme


      There is no theory that prevents matter traveling faster than light…hence tachyon conjectures. The difficulty is accelerating/decelerating through the speed of light.

  • Francisco Bacopa

    My first experience with serious metaphysics was from my HS chemistry teacher. She was third in line to go on the space shuttle Challenger which exploded.

    She would take of tons of points off if you went over significant digits on homework and pretty much destroy your work if you made that mistake on a lab report. She was not just being a stickler about form, this was a deep metaphysical position. For her, there was no deep reality beyond our ability to measure and observe. She’s the only logical positivist I have ever known. Damn good teacher.

    As for the rest of metaphysics, I kinda have to side with Aristotle who mostly just reduced metaphysics to logic, I think serious metaphysics has been pretty much dead except for “realism about this” type discussions. The only time I ever encounter it is in my study of modal logic where metaphysical possibility is a somewhat less permissive variation of the wildly permissive logical possibility. If you are a fan of Lewis, you can even assign numbers to these metaphysical possibilities.

  • http://www.ranum.com Marcus Ranum

    My guess is that “has a metaphysical reality” means something like “has a reality beyond time and space.”

    I thought it meant “Imaginary, but we’re going to talk about it, anyway.”

  • mnb0

    I always thought that any statement that is not an opinion (ie in the form of a question can be answered with true or not true) and cannot be empirically tested belonged to metaphysics.
    Examples are Ockham’s razor, Popper’s falsifiability and of course the god-question.
    Some believers rejoice the argument that materialism fails because its very foundation cannot be connected to the material reality, ie cannot be empirically tested. With the definition above the answer is simple: materialism sees metaphysics as a set (in the mathematical meaning of the word) of untestable statements and wants to minimalize the amount of elements of that set.
    And for science gods are completely unnecessary.

    • mnb0

      We probably should separate ethics and esthetics.

  • jhendrix

    Thanks for the post on this. It seems that metaphysics is really just a branch of philosophy where untestable questions go to be debated without any real resolution.

    No wonder apologists love it.

  • http://www.russellturpin.com/ rturpin

    It’s easy to imagine the “laws of logic” being different, because logicians all the time are creating logics where they are different. There are logics that have the rule of excluded middle, and ones that don’t. Relevance logics relax rules around contradiction. Aristotle may have seen logic as something “out there.” But I suspect most logicians today see logic as telling the consequences of formal systems, i.e., as saying something about the language(s) we use.

  • Rob

    Can someone give me an example of something that is logically possible but metaphysically impossible? Thanks.

    • Annatar

      An example I was once given was the phrase “Water is H20.” There isn’t any explicit contradiction in the idea that water ISN’T H20, but given the particular universe we live in and understand, water IS H20. So, it’s logically possible for water to not be H20, but it’s metaphysically impossible for water to be anything other than H20.

      I’m not entirely sure if that makes sense, but that’s the explanation I was given.

      • Rob

        Thanks, but that seems an example of something that is physically impossible. And certainly metaphysically possible and physically possible are not an identical set.

    • eric

      I think you might be misinterpreting what Chris said. Here’s another way of saying what Chris said (at least IMO):

      There’s the sets of physically possible (PP) and impossible (PI) things.

      There’s also the sets of logically possible (LP) and impossible (LI) things. All PPs must also be LPs.* PIs may be LPs or LIs, depending on the specific case. In some sense this makes “logically possible” a more fundamental claim than “physically possible,” because all PPs nest inside the larger set of LPs; the PPs are a subset of the LPs.

      Analogously, there are the sets of metaphyscially possible (MP) and impossible (MI) things. Also analogously, all LPs must be MPs (which means all PPs must be MPs too); LIs may be MPs or MIs. In the same sense as before, you can think of “metaphysically possible” as a more fundamental claim than either “logically possible” or “physically possible” because PPs are a subset of the LPs, which are in turn a subset of the MPs.


      *rturpin brings up a good point, which is that logicians and mathematicians make up logical rules all the time, as part of their research, for problem solving, or even just for fun. There may be cases where some physically possible or physically true fact violates one of these rules. So the astrisked claim should probably come with a caveat that when most philosophers are talking about ‘logically possible,’ they’re typically talking about the logical rules they really believe apply to the world, like non-contradiction. They are not typically talking about other logical rules generated out of fancy.

  • anteprepro

    (Though to be fair, many philosophers consider being counter-intuitive to be a serious blow against a philosophical idea.)

    Wow. Just wow.