Metaphysics refers to the nature of reality. There are a lot of misunderstandings about what metaphysics is and what it stands for. Some people think metaphysics refers to new age religions. Others think metaphysics is only about God.The word metaphysics literally means beyond physics. This word coined encompassed Aristotle’s work which did not fit in with his writings on nature.
Idealism and Materialism
The study of metaphysics has become a vast enterprise where things are not always the way they seem. Often in studying metaphysics one is drawn into quandaries and paradox. Metaphysics is generally broken down into idealism and materialism; that which actually is real are either ideas or matter and not both (i.e., matter and ideas are dissimilar, discrete, entities).
There are problems with both these conceptions of reality. With idealism one’s perceptions and understanding of the world are intangible and rely on often fleeting ideas. On the other hand materialism is that which is real is material, but this falls into a quandary between matter and spirit, where matter is deterministic but the spirit is free.
Other Problems With Idealism and Materialism
Another problem, referred to as the veil of perception, is that if matter is something that one perceives, then how can one really know that matter exists as we perceive it if it exists independent of the senses, and the only way one can know it is through the senses? This is one argument for idealism. Further if one can not see the thing as it exists in itself, how can one know it exists at all? This is a natural outgrowth of the problem of the veil of perception.
Yet if all is ideas, then how can one account for the seeming permanence and stability in the world? Also, if all that one perceives are ideas, then if no one is there to perceive them, then the ideas cannot exist (e.g., if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?). According to idealism, there is no access to reality apart from what the mind provides us with.
What is Monism and Pluralism?
One common question metaphysics addresses is is reality monistic or pluralistic. Monism is the idea that everything is essentially one. An argument against monism is that how can something be one thing only, and yet be constantly changing as things appear to do in the world? A similar problem with pluralism, where there is more than one state of reality; if things are varied in nature then how can one find anything essential?
Metaphysics addresses many problems when examining the nature of reality. Much change has occurred since Aristotle’s writings beyond nature served as a place holder. Whether that which is essential is matter or ideas, or if monism or pluralism more adequately explain reality, metaphysics has been a source of much debate when examining what one means by reality, as well as what reality truly is.
Honderich, T. (Ed.) The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford University Press: Oxford 1995
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The Problem of Perception. Retrieved on July, 10, 2011 from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/perception-problem/#3.1