Why I took a course on Metaphysics
Metaphysics is an interesting and a vast category of Philosophy. The reason being is that it includes all the abstract ideas and phenomena in the world that it is hard for humans to understand or reflect on. It covers concepts such as existence and being, divinity and God, reality and perception, space and time, cause and effect, free will and determinism. It provides an excellent groundwork for other Philosophical subjects such as Epistemology, Philosophy of Mind and Philosophy of Religion. Every section throughout the course made each part of Metaphysics clearer in my mind. We will reflect on each one in this essay.
Firstly, the course focused on the nature of knowledge, reality and change. What makes the world perceivable by us? What is the correct view of reality? How do we know what we perceive is correct? How do we have any knowledge in the first place? These are some basic questions to reflect on when considering the nature of reality and the knowledge about it. At first these questions look similar because we are trying to understand our reality using the knowledge we have. However, the course made it clear that when we are referring to the ‘view’ of the world or ‘reality’ then we are asking metaphysical questions. On the other hand, when we are referring to the ways we ‘know’ about the world or the ‘knowledge’ we have then we are asking epistemological questions which are not part of this course.
The subject of ‘change’ was intriguing after going deeper in our discussions with the rest of the class. I always thought of change as a process that is always happening, no matter what. As the pre-Socratic philosopher, Heraclitus said: ‘It is impossible to step in the same river twice’. Our bodies change and we grow old, we experience new things and create new memories, the natural world blossoms and decomposes all the time etc. The Ancient Chinese book, Yijing or I Ching (Book of Changes), refers to the philosophy of change. The commentators reflected on different matters using the book because it helped them understand changes in politics, cosmology, divination and human nature. Moreover though, in the discussions we started contemplating if change has to be perceivable by the human mind or not. We perceive the world and how it’s changing through our senses but the world changes constantly without us perceiving it. When we sleep or die the rest of the world continues to move on. It does not need us to change and that’s how we came to be. The universe was present and already changing; way before we existed.
Existence and ontological matters was the next section. We talked about the existence of human beings, the soul, God and abstract ideas. In general terms, human bodies and items are considered as materials while souls are considered immaterial. God and imaginary creatures on the other hand are hard to pinpoint. St. Anselm of Canterbury argued that God exists because He is omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscience, morally good and because of Him everything else exists. Other philosophers though argued against using various arguments and one way is by using causality which we will talk further later on. The counter-argument says that God does not exist because He is considered a perfect being therefore change does not affect Him but everything is created by a cause and an effect. Mathematics was a debatable subject because some people believe that mathematics was created by humans while others think it was present in the physical world all along and we found them. Another insightful segment was about fictional entities. We referred to Sherlock Holmes who everyone has a similar image in mind but not exactly the same. We concluded that the original ‘idea’ of Sherlock Holmes, created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is the main one but each of us experienced an instantiation of this idea depending on the media used. The most fascinating aspect of existence that made me rethink how we consider the existence of an abstract idea is when we have something to compare it with. For example if bad actions did not exist then good ones would not exist either.
‘One over many’ is one of the oldest questions in metaphysics that philosophers are still arguing about nowadays. Plato, using Parmenides’ dialogue created the ‘Theory of Forms’. He said that every item in the world has a perfect Form and these physical things are partaking in Forms. These ideal Forms are not visible by humans and they’re out of this world. Because of them we can distinguish what is a book, table, chair etc. even if they have different properties. That is why we also call them ‘universals’. Aristotle though, argued against this perspective using ‘particulars’. He believed that universals are not Forms out of this world; instead they’re instantiated in physical items, particulars. For example the colour blue is instantiated in my jacket but also in the table in front of me. Each particular is linked with a universal or property within space-time. Therefore, when items have a few similar properties then they can be distinguished as belonging in the same category of items. This is called resemblance or qualitative identity. The Theory of Forms always looked convincing to me because we can experience similar properties in items but the problem was that we cannot actually experience the pure Forms, so it was hard to accept it completely. However, Aristotle was talking about experiences from our senses within space-time, thus it was easier to grasp and accept his side in the end.
Perception of reality was the next phase. Is reality mind-dependent or mind-independent? Locke created the concept of ‘primary and secondary qualities’. He said that objects have the ‘primary qualities’ which shape them and do not need us to perceive them in order to exist such as solidity, size, shape, motion and number. Moreover, the objects create the ‘secondary qualities’ in our minds by perceiving them such as colour, taste, smell, sound and texture. Locke was a realist because he believed that the primary qualities were the same in the objects as in our perceptions of the objects, therefore mind-independent. This concept was straight forward and easy to accept. However, Berkeley’s ideas were also intriguing. Berkeley was an Idealist and argued that objects exist in our minds. He said that since secondary qualities are perceived by our minds and they’re inseparable from the primary qualities of objects then the physicality of the objects is also mind-dependent. A compelling argument which most people disagree with but it really makes you wonder.
The most exciting sections were the ones on ‘Free Will’, ‘Determinism’ and ‘Causality’. ‘Hard Determinists’ believe that every action is predetermined by the natural laws of nature and our genes. That covers determinism but also causality because causality is stating that a cause creates an effect which then creates another cause. ‘Libertarianists’ believe that they have full control of their actions, therefore they have free will. ‘Compatibilists’ believe that free will and determinism are compatible. I was always a Compatibilist because we can’t control the weather or the natural laws which is determinism but on the other hand we have the choice of speaking or taking an action, hence free will. Both sides provided thought-provoking arguments, especially hard determinists. Their claims on our choices being manipulated by the natural laws or other people’s actions made me question my thoughts. Even though I believe that we are being influenced by others, however we can still choose consciously the paths we want to take. Otherwise, if we don’t have any free will of our actions then we don’t have any moral responsibility for them either.
Last but not least, was the mind-blowing ‘Space-Time’ subject. How do we understand and experience space-time? Each person perceives them in different ways due to their background, culture and education. I grew up in the Western world thus I always understood space as where objects existed in and time as present, past and future. However, other cultures because of their language they look at time differently. Chinese people think of the past as ‘up’ and the future as ‘down’. Hopi people don’t even have words for time and they cannot comprehend past or future. Then, I learned from the course that some modern physicists consider time as the fourth dimension of our world and others argue that space is not real or independent of the objects, instead space is the relation of the co-occurring physical objects which explains where each object is in relation to another. Furthermore, J. J. C. Smart expanded on the fourth dimension concept by adding that there is no past, present and future. There’re all illusions of the human mind which is something that mystics agree on. This specific subject is confusing, so I need to reflect on it further.
Metaphysics was a stimulating course which made us all engage and reconsider many of our views about the world. In the end, it gave us more perspectives on looking at various ideas or how to think about them and that is the purpose of Philosophy. After studying it you are constantly questioning your views, beliefs and ideas because when you accept that your thoughts are objectively true the quest for knowledge is lost.
Have you taken such a course before or are you considering to take one now? What were you favourite subjects from the article? What were your thoughts on each of them?