Metaphysics has much to offer the study of the natural world

The branch of philosophy known as metaphysics overlaps with modern science and the two can push the boundaries of knowledge together

“ALL men by nature desire to know.” So begins the first book of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, written about two and a half thousand years ago and still one of the most influential works of Western philosophy.

Human nature has not changed: the desire to know still moves us, even if Aristotle’s understanding of physics has been swept away by gravitation, field theory, relativity and quantum mechanics. Ditto his ideas about how the human body works. But many of the questions in Metaphysics still await answers.

Those questions begin with the word “metaphysics” itself. The opening line of its entry in the renowned Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy admits: “It is not easy to say what metaphysics is”, before going on to explain that the term was coined not by Aristotle but by a posthumous editor, who used it to warn students against rushing into their master’s later works.

Fourteen volumes were labelled “Ta meta ta phusika“, meaning “the ones after the physical ones”. The implicit instruction was to first read and master Aristotle’s Physics, about the natural world, before venturing into bigger, deeper questions.

Today, metaphysics focuses on abstract concepts such as time, space and existence. Seem familiar? That’s because they sound a lot like the grander ambitions of science, particularly of those branches that seek a “theory of everything”.

“What can science tell us about the deepest questions ever asked by human beings?“

Indeed, metaphysics and science have a good deal in common; deciding where one ends and the other begins is not easy. Philosopher Karen Bennett at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, compares the relationship to that between the winter sports luge and skeleton – very alike in many respects, with similar goals and methods, but not exactly the same.

That speaks volumes for the power and reach of modern science. Questions once seen as being “meta” – or beyond – mere physics are now creeping into its purview. For example, there is probably a material answer to philosophical questions about the nature of reality.

Nor is it just about physics. Other sciences are edging into philosophical territory too. Neuroscience, for example, may one day be able to tell us whether our sense of self is just a trick of the mind, while evolutionary biology helps us to understand what we mean by good and evil. Both give new insights into what it is to experience the universe.

It is in that spirit that we have approached this special issue (see “Metaphysics special: Philosophy’s biggest questions unravelled“). What can science tell us about the deepest questions humans have ever asked? How can philosophy inform science and help us to understand what it really means?

We’re not saying science has superseded metaphysics, or solved philosophy’s problems. There is still much fundamental science to be done, and a great deal of metaphysics too. But the intersection between the two is fascinating territory, with both fields constantly pushing the boundaries of what we know and what we can know.

Aristotle’s editor suggested that we should turn to metaphysics only after nailing down the fundamental attributes of the cosmos. Our experience today suggests we can make progress even if we have only some of the answers. So why not give it a go? Or to put it another way, we decided to bring our skeleton to a luge race to see how far we can get. Enjoy the ride.