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What is Metaphysics?-History, Theories, and Key Questions

October 11, 2023
written by Qamar Zaman

Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy that studies the fundamental nature of reality. The word “metaphysics” literally means “beyond the physical”. Metaphysicians attempt to answer two basic questions: What is ultimately real, and what is its nature?

What is Metaphysics?

Metaphysics is an open-ended philosophical journey to comprehend the deepest structure of reality. Over thousands of years, metaphysicians have advanced our understanding, while admitting the limits of human knowledge. Metaphysics provides conceptual tools to imagine new possibilities and seek ever-deeper wisdom.

Metaphysics examples continue to evolve through the lens of contemporary science and philosophy. Areas like phenomenology, existentialism, and process philosophy offer new metaphysical paradigms. Debates around the metaphysics of free will, time, and causation remain active.

Historical Origins

Ancient Greece

Metaphysics has its roots in ancient Greek philosophy. Aristotle coined the term “metaphysics” to describe works he placed after his treatise on physics. Aristotle explored subjects such as being, substance, and causality and asked what types of entities exist in the universe.

Medieval Metaphysics

In the Medieval era, philosophers such as Avicenna and Averroes built upon Aristotle’s metaphysics within an Islamic context. Thomas Aquinas reconciled Aristotle’s metaphysics with Christian theology. Metaphysics was integral to Medieval philosophy’s focus on understanding God, humanity’s place in creation, and the nature of the soul.

Metaphysical Theories

There are 3 basic metaphysical theories.

image showing the metaphysical theories


Dualism claims that reality consists of two fundamental substances – physical and non-physical. The most common version is mind-body dualism which states that the mind is a non-physical substance distinct from the brain.


Monism argues reality is unified and can be explained by a single substance. Physicalist monism asserts that only matter exists. Idealist monism claims that all of reality is comprised of minds, ideas, or perceptions.


Idealism argues that the only things that exist are mental entities; material objects are either reducible to mental objects or do not exist fundamentally. Subjective idealism and objective idealism are two major forms.

Metaphysics and Science

Here are some key ways metaphysics intersects with science:

Philosophical Foundations of Science

  • Metaphysical assumptions about causality, natural laws, space, and time underlie the scientific method. Science rests on philosophical groundings.

Paradigm Shifts

  • Revolutionary theories like quantum physics and relativity require new metaphysical interpretations of the nature of reality.

Conceptual Implications

  • Scientific theories raise metaphysical questions about determinism, locality, subjectivity, and more. Findings prompt philosophical rethinking.

Boundaries of Science

  • Debates around supernatural or pseudoscientific claims invoke metaphysical delineations on what constitutes science.

Theories of Everything

  • Unified theories in physics suggest metaphysical hypotheses about whether reality has an ultimate underlying substrate.

Mind and Body

  • The relationship between consciousness and neuroscience remains a metaphysical puzzle with scientific dimensions.

Origins of the Universe

  • Cosmology leads to metaphysical theorizing about first causes, multiverses, and the anthropic principle.

Nature of Existence

  • Why does anything exist at all? This metaphysical question acquires scientific perspectives from physics and cosmology.


  • Metaphysical views affect the kinds of knowledge science seeks and how phenomena are interpreted.

Overall, metaphysics and science enlighten one another in the shared quest to understand reality. Their interplay moves knowledge forward.

Metaphysics in Everyday Life

Here are some examples of how metaphysical concepts relate to everyday life:

  • Our views on free will vs determinism affect how we assign moral responsibility and make choices. If we see actions as inevitable, we may take less personal responsibility.
  • Assumptions about the nature of time shape how we approach time management, make plans, and prioritize short vs long-term goals.
  • Beliefs about personal identity influence how we view ourselves, our development, and relate to others over time.
  • Positions on mind-body dualism color how we think about consciousness, mental health, and our general outlook on life.
  • Notions of possible worlds have implications for assessing regrets, alternative options, and potential realities.
  • Universalist ethics suggest moral duties to all humanity, while relativism limits duties to cultural norms.
  • Ideas about the purpose and origin of life guide our search for meaning and values.
  • Doubting the reality of the external world, as in Cartesian skepticism, makes us question perception and knowledge.
  • The possibility of free will and arguments for its existence leads us to feel more empowered and responsible.
  • Beliefs about whether math is invented or discovered change how we regard mathematical truths.

In essence, metaphysical perspectives provide context for making sense of our everyday experiences and choices. Examining core assumptions about reality can offer new insights on life.

Challenges and Criticisms

Here are some key challenges and criticisms facing metaphysics:

Lack of Empirical Basis

  • Metaphysics is largely conceptual and a priori rather than based on empirical observation like science. This makes it speculative.

Subjective Speculation

  • Different metaphysical theories conflict and there is no agreed criteria for judging them. Metaphysics appears to be subjective.


  • Logical positivists argued metaphysical statements are cognitively meaningless since they cannot be verified.


  • Metaphysical speculation that makes empirical claims without evidence is sometimes seen as pseudoscience.

Disconnection from Science

  • Modern science ignores metaphysics and focuses only on empirical questions, rendering metaphysics irrelevant.

Built on Faulty Logic

  • Critics claim metaphysics relies on reasoning errors like circular arguments, false dichotomies, and untestable assumptions.

Linguistic Confusions

  • Analytic philosophy attributes metaphysical problems to a misunderstanding of language and logic.

Cognitive Biases

  • Metaphysical theories may reflect inborn cognitive biases in human psychology rather than objective truth.

Progress Problem

  • After millennia there has been little consensus or progress on metaphysical problems, unlike in science.

Better Approaches

  • Pragmatism and positive psychology argue we should focus on practical effects rather than metaphysical truth.

Critics see metaphysics as an outdated approach full of inherent flaws. But metaphysicians argue these criticisms are overstated and metaphysics still offers valuable perspectives. The debates continue.

Key Questions in Metaphysics?

Here are 10 key questions in metaphysics.

1. What is ultimately real?

  • Materialism – Only physical matter is real
  • Idealism – Only minds and ideas are real
  • Dualism – Both material and immaterial realms exist

2. Does free will exist?

  • Determinism – No, everything is causally determined
  • Libertarianism – Yes, we have genuine free will
  • Compatibilism – Free will is compatible with determinism

3. What is the nature of time?

  • A-theory – Time is dynamic and changing
  • B-theory – Time is a static block where all moments exist equally

4. How are mind and body connected?

  • Physicalism – The mind is identical to brain states
  • Dualism – Mind and body are distinct substances
  • Epiphenomenalism – The mind is a byproduct of physical states

5. Do numbers and other abstracta exist?

  • Platonism – Yes, they are real non-physical objects
  • Nominalism – No, they are useful human constructs

6. Is there a God?

  • Theism – Yes, God exists as the cause of the universe
  • Atheism – No, there is no evidence for God

7. Do objects have essential natures?

  • Essentialism – Yes, objects have set identities.
  • Anti-essentialism – No, identity depends on context.

8. Does each person have a persistent self?

  • Ego theory – Yes, the self is a real continuous entity.
  • Bundle theory – No, the self is a construct of experiences.

9. Do universal moral truths exist?

  • Moral realism – Yes, objective moral facts exist.
  • Moral relativism – No, morals depend on social context.

10. What constitutes consciousness?

  • Functionalism – Consciousness arises from information processing.
  • Qualia theory – Consciousness consists of subjective experiences.