If you want to find one of the most disagreed upon terms shrouded in a tangled history of academia, early philosophy, and the dawn of science, try researching metaphysics. Metaphysics is a complicated term that has had shifting definitions as far back as people made a name for it. What’s more, metaphysics also makes up and is made up of a vast amount of various studies including cosmology, ontology, philosophy, physics, astrobiology, paranormal studies, astrology, astrology, determinism, fate, spirituality, and the list goes on and on.
For many disciplines, metaphysics is a subset of the discipline while the discipline is also a subset of metaphysics, depending on the parameters in place. Meaning, there is an astrobiological part of metaphysics, and there is a metaphysical part of astrobiology. This is mostly due to the long, early history of metaphysics.
The term Metaphysics was first seen as a title for several of Aristotle’s works. In Aristotle’s work, he defined this concept of philosophy (later to be called metaphysics) as “being as such” and “first causes” and “that which does not change.”
Aristotle actually never used the word, but about a hundred years or so after Aristotle’s death, an editor titled the works “Ta meta ta physika” which roughly translates to “after the physical ones” (“the physical ones” being Aristotle’s earlier philosophical works now called “Aristotle’s Physics”). Later, Latin scholars misinterpreted this title as meaning “the science beyond the physical,” hence the term metaphysics that we know and love today.
For a good while, before the modern history of science, most scientific questions were assigned as a part of metaphysics known as natural philosophy. After the scientific method came into play, natural philosophy evolved into an empirical study rooted in experimentation. Eventually, natural philosophy became known as science and metaphysics became restricted to a non-empirical study of the nature of existence.
Around this same time, other subjects previously considered outside the realm of metaphysics were becoming reassigned into metaphysics, such as free will and personal identity. If not to add more confusion to the term, somewhat recent trends in popular literature have compounded the misinterpretation behind the current title of “metaphysics” that has lead to the spiritual non-physical meaning of metaphysics.
In current modern philosophy, there appears to be the broadest description of what metaphysics attempts to answer:
- What is there?
- What is it like?
What Does This All Mean?
Suffice to say, Metaphysics is a complicated word. It seems to simultaneously encompass everything and nothing. And for a term that essentially examines what exists and how to describe it, I find this extremely ironic. I also think it’s interesting to note how metaphysics was once a tool used to examine scientific questions before the scientific method came into existence. But this is probably more due to the rule of philosophy then and not particularly the role of metaphysics, wholly at least.
In terms of measuring our society’s spiritual pulse, I think the evolution of metaphysics has been a peculiar one. It is almost as if, collectively as a society, we don’t know what to do with spirituality. Or at least we don’t know where to put it.