What is Metaphysics?
by Dr. Parviz Dehghani
When the collectors of Aristotle’s teachings, which were basically his students’ notes, thought of saving and organizing his works, they decided to put all his books of physics on one side and those on theology, philosophy, and spiritual matters after them. This became the beginning of the emergence of what is called ‘metaphysics.’ The word ‘meta’ in Greek means ‘after’ and as time went on it was interpreted as ‘beyond’. So ‘metaphysics’ became known as a branch of philosophy seeking to explain the nature of being and reality. (Webster’s New World Dictionary).
This term, that is, ‘metaphysics’, as we mentioned before, is ‘meta ta Physika’, which was the title Andronicus Rhodes gave to a certain collection of Aristotle’s writings. This in reality is the science of being as such or being qua being. This is different from the study of being under some particular aspect. Therefore, it should be distinguished from such sciences which are concerned with ens mobile, ens quantum, etc. Ens in Latin means abstract being; existence generally. This is being of changing things which comes from the verb ‘to be’, that is, be-ing or existing. This is like the word ‘to change’ which is changing.
The word, “science,” here is used in its classic sense of “knowledge by causes,” where “knowledge” is contrasted with “opinion” and the word ‘cause’ has the “complete importance of the Greek aitia. The “causes” that are the objects of metaphysical cognition are “first” in the natural order (first principles), as being based in no higher or more full generalizations accessible to the human intellect through its own powers.(Dagobert D. Runes, Dictionary Of Philosophy).
The symbolism of the cross can help us understand the above seemingly complicated explanation of metaphysics. The horizontal aspect of this symbol sheds light on what we deal
with everyday. There is a difference between a thing and its existence or being. For example, let us say there is a violin in front of me. I know its essence, namely, its whatness. What is it? It is a violin. Does it exist? Yes, as you can see, it is right here before us. The difference between essence and existence is very significant in understanding what we mean by metaphysics.
Things constantly change and rivers move, some very slowly and some very fast. But does their existence also change? I know there is a river in front of me. It is beautiful. It is moving. It is in a hurry. What is it? It is a river. So I know its essence or whatness. Is it perfect? Well, I believe so. You believe so? Have you seen a perfect one so you can compare it with? No, not really. Can you imagine that there is one? I believe I could. After all, there is a difference between perfection and imperfection. One wouldn’t make sense without the other. I understand that. Does it exist? Well, what kind of question is this? Can’t you see it? Yes I do. Then, why are you asking such a question? I don’t know. I wonder sometimes.
Let us say, we now know the difference between essence and existence. But things are becoming and changing at an unbelievable speed like a river. So, what is the problem? I wonder if their existence also changes. Does the existence of the river change as well? That is a very difficult question. Thank you.
To answer your question, I would like to ask whether or not we can experience existence the way we experience the thing it belongs to. Can I see it? Can I smell it? Am I able to touch it? Am I capable of hearing it? Then what is existence? If it fails the test of our five senses, then it is no-thing or nothing. Given all the qualities mentioned, then it is invisible and immaterial.
Metaphysics wants to transcend the physical realm to navigate the nature of being. Being qua being was what Aristotle had in mind, along the study of the natural world. Apparently he didn’t take the question of being as seriously as he should have. Things are important and yet we
can’t take them with us. Then what do we take with us when we pass on? Perhaps it is their beings, which are at the end nothing.
On the symbolism of cross, the horizontal part, where Jesus’ hands are, meets the vertical part where Christ’s head and feet are placed. Metaphysics ought not to be about what we use to make our bread with, which are our hands. It is about the totality and the wholeness of the body of Jesus. “…, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” (Matthew, 4:4) “… Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.” (Luke 4:4) “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) “And the word was made flesh, and dwelt among us,…” (John 1:14)
Aristotle rejected Plato’s Forms as being transcendent. The Forms of Good, generosity, humanity, beauty, are ideals, archetypes, paradigms, universals, essences. They are models of perfections. Man or human being never dies in this realm. I’ll die and others will. We’re all mortal beings. There is always a third reality, that is, the perfect Man among myself and my friend. We share our humanity in that reality. I’m good and you’re also good, thus, we both share in the perfect Form of Good, though we’re not perfect.
This world is but a reflection of the perfect realm. Forms are about totality and wholeness. One might say when St. John says in the beginning was the logos; he must have meant what Plato had in mind by Form. The Form of Good is on the highest level of existence for Plato.
Aristotle argued that Plato’s Forms are abstracted realities in our mind from the outside world. I see ten horses and then I come up with the idea of ‘horse.’ This reality called ‘horse’ is not a transcendent one. This is in my mind. We may call it a concept. It doesn’t mean there’s a perfect horse in the transcendent realm. The reality of this horse is in all those horses. That is
why a female horse gives birth to a baby horse and not a baby elephant. Our mind has an idea of what a horse is. This idea or concept corresponds to all the horses in the world.
Aristotle denied the existence of the most perfect horse that is transcendent. Plato’s Forms are mind bound. The relation between this mental horse and the horses in the world is a horizontal one. The verticality and hierarchy of Plato’s system is rejected by Aristotle.
I’m inspired by a story, which came to me through a lecture by a great scholar. This is about an American young lady who had wished to have the most unique hat in the world. She visited a French milliner or a hat maker in Paris. He made her a hat out of ribbons. She put it on and looked in the mirror only to find out that it was indeed the most beautiful hat she had ever had the privilege of wearing. How much is it? She asked: Only 100 dollars in your money. Wow! Why is it so expensive? After all it is made of whole bunch of ribbons. Mademoiselle, the ribbons are free. It is perhaps the hat that is so pricy to you. Then he took the hat and pulled one of the ribbons and the whole hat fell apart in a second.
The hat is different from the individual ribbons it is made of. A forest is not the same as the number of trees covering it. The whole is not the same as the part. Plato’s Form is that very whole. It is this wholeness which is transcendent and whose reflection is in the world.
The world and everything in it reflect those perfect Forms. Forms don’t change and corrupt. They don’t become. They’re not spacio-temporal realities. They’re immutable. Plato was a realist because these Forms are real. He was also an idealist because they’re ideals. Once they become mental entities whose only realities are in the objects of the world, they are bound to lose their transcendence.
For Aristotle, there’re four causes to everything. The milliner is called sufficient cause. The material he makes the hat from is named material cause. The whatness or essence of what he
makes, that is, the hat, is known as formal cause. For what end the hat is put together is the final cause. Once consolidated, sufficient and material make up what is called ‘matter.’ Formal and final produce form. Therefore, matter and form are created. Here form and matter need each other. The idea of the hat first is in the mind of the hat maker. It needs the matter in order to become actualized. The matter also needs the form; otherwise it will remain as only ribbons. The hat and the ribbons need one another till the hat is complete. The hat is only an idea which has not reached its actuality. The ribbons are the potentiality here. The father, namely, the form needs the matter, or mother to create a baby called the hat. An acorn is potentially an oak tree, not actuality. Form guides the way while matter keeps growing till it becomes the tree, which is its actuality. Aristotle form here is not Plato’s Form. Simply because it needs matter in order to reach its actuality.
Man doesn’t live by bread alone. If Plato stands by the logos of the Good and the vertical aspect of the cross, Aristotle prefers to hang in the horizontal aspect of the cross by locating Plato’s Forms in the objects of the world.
The word or logos became flesh and came among us. St. Augustine stayed with Plato, whereas St. Thomas Aquinas chose Aristotle as his philosophical challenge. However, the question remains as to whether Aristotle didn’t tacitly acknowledge the reality of Platonic philosophy of Forms. Because when Aristotle speaks of a kind of form which is pure and doesn’t need matter to achieve its actuality, it seems as if he is talking about Plato’s highest Form, namely, the Good. This is where his theology is formed. Pure Form is perfect and it is pure actuality. It is the sun shining from the above. This pure Form is not mind dependent. But nonetheless, the question of motion remains unanswered because the formal cause needs matter to reach its actuality. The abstracted forms being in the mind are subject to opinion. The ordinary
mind is not a safe place for Plato’s Forms. They can easily change. Our concepts are subject to change. How could the forms that are in the mind correspond to the reality of the forms in the objects? And if they do, then we have nothing at rest to measure motion.
Potentiality and actuality were what Aristotle came up with. An acorn is potentially an oak tree, not actually. Once acorns are planted, thanks to squirrels, given the right condition, they grow to become oak trees. This is a movement from potentiality to actuality. But what guarantees this motion, if there is nothing at rest in the acorn? Perhaps our answer is directed towards the presence of the form. The reality of the form in the acorn is the one that makes sure this seed will grow because it is not itself moving. But this was characteristics of Plato’s Forms, namely, they’re perfect and immutable.
For Plato, the transcendent realm is the abode of Being and the world is the place of becoming. Plato has no problem explaining why there is change in the world. After all, there is no motion in Being. This is the house of the pre-Socratic philosopher, Parmenides who said: What is, is. The world of becoming belongs to another pre-Socratic thinker by the name of Heraclitus, who apparently said: We can never step into the same river twice.
Once Aristotle transferred Plato’s Forms to the world of mind, he must have known that he had opened the can of worms. I may look at a few cats and then claim to know what they are. They’re cats.
According to David Hume, the Scottish philosopher of the 18th century, our first impressions are very vivid. But as time passes, they gradually get dull. Our ideas and concepts have the same destiny. Out in the world, form and matter need each other. Aristotle’s forms in the objects cannot be perfect. Finally, Aristotle had to admit that we need the pure Form in order
to explain the becoming of the world. Once you accept this fact, then Plato’s Forms must be transcendent.
Aristotle rejected Plato’s Forms the highest among which was the Form of the Good. Having done that, he then spoke of his idea of pure Form, which is pure actuality. How can he refute the existence of transcendent Forms of Plato, on the one hand, and then argue that there is such a Reality that is pure Form on the other hand? Aristotle seems to have realized that for explaining motion, he would need to have an immutable Reality, which is always at rest. Is that why Aristotle decided to appeal to being qua being?
In a Hindu culture, like India, in which time and motion are nothing but illusion, we don’t have to worry about explaining the phenomena of change and becoming. Ironically, the Greeks were known to have believed in the fact that history and time were cyclical. After all, Plato himself was a believer of reincarnation. Pythagoras, the pre-Socratic mathematician, believed in reincarnation long before Plato. But nevertheless, he needed to have a Reality that is not subject to change and becoming in order to explain the world of motion and movement. This Reality is the Form of Being, which is the same as the Good. But what if the Ultimate Reality, for instance, Brahman in Hinduism, happened to be beyond being and non-being? This is the non-dualistic nature of Brahman in Hinduism. How can Plato describe why there is motion in the world, if this would be the case? He would have no choice but accept the fact that time and motion are but illusion. Let us not forget that this is exactly what Parmenides believed. He argued that motion and change are illusion.
It seems that Aristotle himself would also fall into the same trap, with the exception that Plato at least believed in reincarnation. There is no evidence, however, that Aristotle followed the path of his master.
Being qua being is not Plato’s Being that cannot not be, thus, it must be.
The verb’ to be’ accompanies everything. Even Plato’s Forms are, including the Form of the Good. There is a difference between a thing and its being, a thing and its existence. There are languages in which the verb’ to be’ is absent between subject and object. This, however, doesn’t mean it is not there.
Ontology is the theory of being qua being as well higher Being. According to Aristotle, it is the First Philosophy or the science of the essence of things. (Runes, p. 235). Francisco Suarez (1548-1617) is said to have come up with this term for the first time. (S.H. Nasr).
What is being? In itself is nothing, and yet it makes us think about life itself. Is it the essence or form of everything? But it is nothing. It is no-thing. Remember, we are analyzing this logically. We’re doing this with our impure mind.
Buddha encouraged his followers to purify their mind through first moral precepts and then meditation. We’re, however, approaching it intellectually.
Perhaps it is being which is at rest whereby we can explain motion. But this ocean of being, in the ultimate sense of the word, is non-dualistic. So, it is even beyond nothing because the opposite of nothing is something. The Ultimate Reality is one, not a numerical one. If it is even beyond being, then it cannot be. In other words, it doesn’t exist. Therefore, it cannot be at rest so we can explain motion. Motion then is an illusion.
When it comes to Charismas, we’re more concerned with things than their existence. Being seems to have been forgotten. It takes a German philosopher like Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) to warn us regarding the danger of forgetting being.
We ought to focus on the mystery of being. Standing on a hill facing the shore, I hear the surf. The summer breeze rushing into the land from the ocean makes the bushes move to
different directions. The constant sound of the splashing waves makes me wonder about existence and being. I stand in awe of secret and hidden message of being.
Heidegger sounded the alarm that we have even forgotten death, in the middle of the Second World War. If the term Bodhisattva meant a being onto enlightenment, man is a being onto death according to this 20th century German thinker.
This reminds us of the 1971 movie called, “Summer of 42.” It was about World War two and the death of this American woman’s husband, who was killed in the line of duty. She was lonely and missed what she and her partner had together before he left.
This is where we wonder about being and death. We would like to know why being to die? Why we are trapped in time and space? Before you know 5 to 10 years of your life have passed. This grand rapid seems to speed up as we get older. Summers lasted forever when we were children. But now it is finished before started. Memories are all we’re left with. We visit places we were in the past and we wished we could turn back time but we cannot. While we’re going through this experience, we’re at the same time missing the presence, which has just arrived from the future. I’m in this river of time. Space I occupy may be still there while I’m long gone. I see loved ones and friends who are falling all around me and one of these days my turn shall come. Death is a present possibility, so we should live authentically as Heidegger once said.
Religions use the sin and guilt methods in order to help us navigate through this maze of life. We have been drifted away longing to get back to where we once belonged. In Plato’s language, we’re to become like those Forms of excellence. Form is logos. Jesus was the word. He was the essence. “… They should seek the Lord…” “For in him we live, and move, and have our being;” “Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the
Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device.” (The Acts 17:27, 28, 29) St. Paul here is trying to help us understand that by the Ultimate Reality we live, we move, and have our existence. Even though he addressed God as ‘him’ in King James Version, he believes we should not create Him in our image. In other words, He has made us in His image; but we shouldn’t return the favor by making Him in our image. He seems to be rejecting anthropomorphism here. Being Greek himself, he sounds like Plato when it comes to the question of Godhead. New World Translation of the HOLY SCRIPTURES, translates this term as ‘the Divine Being.’ Since we are His children or offspring, we ought not form or create Him in our mind like we deal with gold, silver, and stone. This indeed is similar to idolatry, except it is done in our mind. We shouldn’t take the word ‘children’ literally. This basically means we have come from Him. My existence, my very being is from this Ultimate Reality. I live and naturally move because of this Reality.
To Aristotle, this is pure Form, unmoved Mover, and uncaused Cause. This is where Religion and philosophy blend as if they were like oil and water, which they were not to begin with. It moves everything to Itself rather than away from Itself. It draws everything to Itself. Why shouldn’t It? Perhaps because we have been scattered across the universe of existence. Since the whole creation has been a possibility within its perfection, which would otherwise not be perfect, we’re being retrieved. The sun attracts us to go back to where we once belonged. Religions come to show us the way back to the bamboo forest from which we have been drifted away. (Rumi, Persian poet) We didn’t ask to be.
A broken bamboo sounds like a flute when the wind strikes it. It is asked: why are you singing so sad? It answered: I have been located far from my home. I have been longing to get
back the bamboo forest. We all wish to return to where we once came from. However, we suffer when we’re lost in the maze of being and cannot find our way back to our home.
We’re in this world of imperfection, and relativity. Rich or poor, sick and healthy, old and young, beautiful and ugly, short and tall are all subject to relativity. This has been accepted as a fact of life in this world.
We’ll all die some day because we’re moral. Death is a reality that doesn’t discriminate. It is a fair and just institution. So is being or existence for that matter. We all exist. Everything in this world, universe, and life has its own being. Even when we die, our bodies still exist. Even if we’re cremated after we die, we exist in some form. You might argue that after I pass on, I become nothing. To put it mildly, this is really absurd. You may not be a whole, because only your body is here not the entirety of your reality. Nevertheless, when it comes to your existence, you’re, but in some form.
The best analogy or metaphor for what St. Paul said in the Acts is the ocean. We’re all in the ocean of being like the fish. We live, move and have our existence by the Ultimate Reality. The fish focus only on what they see. However, one day they come to their mothers and ask: Mother can you show us the water? Being astonished by their questions she replied: Honey, you’re all immersed in the ocean, so where ever you’re, the water is surrounding you.
As we know, analogies have their own shortcomings. Nonetheless, we need them to explain the unexplainable matters, especially when they’re spiritual and metaphysical.
Necessary Being might not be the highest Reality through which everything is given existence. It could be the first manifestation of the Ultimate Reality. Being, is the highest Reality for Plato. This is the place of Parmenides for whom motion, change, and becoming were but illusion. Parmenides said ‘What is, is’, which explains what he had in mind. Since our very
existence is not in motion, we can understand why there is such a thing as change. Otherwise, Aristotle’s form, being in the object of the world, can’t explain why everything is in the process of change and becoming. So being qua being of Aristotle is not how it is used ordinarily in our language. To use the verb ‘to be’, for instance, like ‘being tired of working hard, I took a vacation’ is not what Aristotle had in mind. Being here is being looked at in and of itself. When I say, ‘I’m’, ‘I’ is changing but ‘am’ is not. However, what is being in itself? Using an analogy here, being is like the ray of the sun, and Being is the sun. No matter how far we’re from the sun, we’re still connected to it. This is like spider web. Imagine we have a circle with circumferences. The closer we’re to the center, the more intensified our existence is. This doesn’t mean existence is in motion. Being finally is nothing. It is no-thing. But even this nothing glows. We may be far away from the sun of Being in the darkness, however, we’re still related and connected to the source.
Think for a moment, if the Ultimate Reality, whose first manifestation is Being, is beyond any dualism, that is, rest and motion, being and non-being, thus, it cannot even be, then we cannot measure motion as a result. If this is the case, then movement and becoming are nothing but illusion. Perhaps this was what Parmenides alluded to.
Aristotle doesn’t seem to have been able to relate our beings to the Being of Plato. Plato, on the other hand, being closer to Hinduism, should have made this connection. Plotinus is the figure who made an attempt to do so and he was by in large, successful.