Is Metaphysics a Science?

The following are excerpts from Thomas J. Burke's article, "Is Metaphysics a Science?," which answers the question: Can the study of metaphysics be classified currently or ever qualify in the future as a scientific endeavor? If yes, what criteria or methods would need to be in place and practiced to make them scientific? If no, what is it about "science" that prevents metaphysics from qualifying?

In a recently published article from the peer-reviewed academic journal, Socio-Historical Examination of Religion and Ministry (SHERM), Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Hillsdale College, Dr. Thomas J. Burke, argues that metaphysics is not nor could ever become a science in the sense of the modern “hard” sciences today because a) it seeks a different sort of knowledge, which b) cannot be acquired by the methods of modern science; and c) metaphysics serves a different cognitive purpose than the sort of knowledge that science can provide. It is, nevertheless, a rational subject, one in fact that supplies the necessary rational foundation for the positive sciences.

What is Metaphysics?

As Dr. Burke explains: according to Aristotle, a quintessential metaphysician, metaphysics is the study of being qua being (Metaph. 1003a.17–40). As such, it deals with the first principles of being. What, therefore, distinguishes it from other sciences is not the nature of the subject or how it carries out its task, but the subject matter, instead. Other disciplines “Cut off a part of being and investigate the attributes of this part” (1003a.25). For Aristotle, then, metaphysics is a science since it has its own subject matter, one which is observed empirically and the first principles of which are clear and knowable by abstraction from that empirical observation (1005b.9‒19). In short, Aristotle conceives of metaphysics as a science, one distinguishable from other sciences like physics or mathematics by virtue of the fact that its subject matter is being itself and the universal properties that belong to it as such. Other sciences are about some particular form of being or some particular property of being. Thus, physics focusses on change, biology on living organisms, and mathematics on numbers. Metaphysics, on the other hand, will be concerned with things such as substance, which anything that exists either will be or will be in, causality as such (not some particular cause), and the principles that characterize all beings qua being itself. The procedure will also be the same as that practiced in other sciences: observation and abstraction from those observations. So, the reason Aristotle could consider metaphysics a science was due to his understanding of how any science operates. He believed one abstracts universal properties and principles from empirical observations and that those abstracted results then form the basis for deductions therefrom.

Contrariwise, modern scientists seek empirical, physical causes, not first principles or universal properties. Modern science operates quite differently than Aristotelian science. Therefore, given those differences, Aristotle’s inclusion of metaphysics among the sciences must be rejected. Feser, a confessed contemporary Aristotelian, makes a sharp distinction between metaphysics and modern science. As noted above, he points out that the natural sciences are those “concerned with the study of the actually existing empirical world of material objects and processes.” Metaphysics, on the other hand, “investigates the most general structure of reality and the ultimate causes of things.” He then clarifies the domain of metaphysics. It deals “with what could have been the case, what necessarily must be the case, what cannot possibly have been the case and what exactly it is that grounds these possibilities, necessities, and impossibilities.” In addition, it deals not only with the ground of empirical reality but also with being in general, material and non-material. So, according to Feser’s categorization of these disciplines, the natural sciences try to discover what material things there are and the (natural) causal relations between. Metaphysics, however, investigates whatever reality exists beyond or in addition to matter and material processes, as well as the relations between those realities, the relations between those realities and the material world, and the nature of the material world and its elements per se. Thus, science investigates the phenomena of the physical world in order to understand what relationships exist between the entities that exist within it; metaphysics does not. As a result, mathematics is the general “language” of science and the appropriate logic is a logic of relations. Metaphysics seeks to know what makes the physical world and its relations possible, what the natures of those entities and those relations are, and what metaphysical (non-physical) realities are necessary for those physical realities to be and to function as they do. Consequently, mathematics plays no role in this endeavor, for it is concerned with the “whatness” of things, thereby requiring a “what logic.” Hence, scientists assume there are natural causes and its results are not affected by “the nature” of causality—whether, for example, causes in nature are John Locke’s “hidden powers” or are reducible to David Hume’s “constant conjunctions”—but metaphysicians question what causality is, what sort of explanation causal explanation is, and what the nature of causality must be if causes are to supply satisfactory explanations.

To summarize, the natural sciences investigate the physical, material nature of the world, attempting to understand it and the physical, material causal relations by which it operates. It attempts to do so through empirical observation and experimentation, thereby creating theories that attempt to discover “laws of nature.” Metaphysics, on the other hand, seeks to discover and explore the nature of reality by which the material world depends. It does not look for physical causes, but non-physical realities; it does not look for physical foundations, but non-physical foundations for the physical world. It attempts to determine what must be the case for the physical world to be and to function as it does. It seeks to know what things are, not how they work. Thus, metaphysics, traditional and contemporary, is not a science in the sense of a modern “hard” science.

The Necessity of Metaphysical Knowledge

Having established that metaphysics is not nor ever could be a member of the class of “science,” the latter understood as the class of modern “hard” science, the question now becomes whether metaphysics gives us knowledge at all. The answer is yes; and indeed, it gives us more rationally important and foundational knowledge than any science, hard or soft. This is shown by the following. First, the natural sciences, in their modern incarnation, rose historically due to developments in scholastic and modern philosophy. Certainly, the ancient Greeks played a vital part, laying the groundwork by seeking naturalistic explanations of the physical world, developing the notion of reason and natural law. But the methods and procedures employed, and the nature of the knowledge attained by that extant line of Greek science, were not those of modern science. As Francis Bacon pointed out, Aristotelian induction sought to abstract universal essences and then deduce from them the “scientific” details. The inductive method of modern science, on the contrary, seeks to develop intermediary hypotheses and then test them experimentally before settling on a theory or establishing a law of nature by which to explain the phenomena. In addition, “hard” science relies heavily and essentially on mathematics. The story behind the development of this new and very effective way of doing science is complicated and involved, but it must be noted that there were metaphysical (indeed, even theological) principles behind it.

The notion that there are set laws of nature discoverable by human reason owes much of its force to Aquinas and the scholastic tradition. His view of God as rational Creator provided an explanatory foundation for the necessary assumption that the material universe operates in accordance with natural law. His distinction between nature and grace, and the accompanying view that God designed human reason to be capable of understanding the universe, provided a compelling rationale and justification for engaging in the search for natural laws. John Duns Scotus’ emphasis on God’s sovereignty and William of Ockham’s nominalism entailed that a) God could make the universe anyway he wished, make creatures operate any way he decided, and enact whatever laws he wished so that, consequently, b) only by looking at the particular things and occurrences in the world can we discover what things are, why they behave the way they do, and what laws govern them. These metaphysical and theological assumptions, among other factors, provided the conceptual background that enabled early modern philosophers and scientists to conceive of and develop the modern scientific attitude towards (and approach to) the study of nature.

In short, there is more to reality than science can ever reveal or explain to us, and at least some of that reality is explored through the domain of metaphysics. Thus, metaphysics is certainly a rational discipline. Thus, metaphysics is not only possible, it is inescapable. Without a metaphysical foundation, science itself would lack rationality. One might attempt to justify it pragmatically, but a pragmatic justification is rational only if there is a rational justification for pragmatism. But such a justification would be a metaphysical one. Thus, metaphysics is not merely possible, it is necessary for a rational understanding of the universe and human life therein.

You can read Dr. Burke's entire article for free as part of the Global Center for Religious Research's commitment to continued exploration into the social-scientific study of religious history.

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