What does metaphysics imply? What does a metaphysicist do exactly?
There is no logical reason why a person who does metaphysics should not be called a 'metaphysicist'
rather than a metaphysician, the word generally used. Perhaps physicists would be called 'physicians'
were it not for the fact that that word has already been appropriated by medical practitioners.
Having written a book of metaphysics (Naive Metaphysics 1994) I suppose that qualifies me as a
member of the exclusive club of metaphysicians. What is it exactly that we do?
Ever since Socrates, philosophers have asked 'What is...?' questions. For example, 'What is
knowledge?', 'What is meaning?', 'What is free will?', 'What is a person?', 'What is causation?', 'What
is time?', 'What is truth?'
Metaphysicians ask some of these questions too, but they do so as part of the project of answering
the question, What is reality?Aristotle wrote about investigating 'being quabeing', or the various
ways or senses in which different kinds of thing we might talk about — material objects, qualities,
actions, times — might be said to 'be'.
Because every branch of knowledge investigates reality in one form or another, metaphysicians
sometimes talk about ultimatereality. For ordinary practical purposes, we get along with a distinction
between appearance and reality: a person's appearance and how they really feel, or the photo in the
holiday brochure compared with the real thing. One question raised traditionally by metaphysicians —
most famously by Bishop Berkeley when he declared that everything that exists is either an
immaterial soul, or an idea in the mind of God — is whether the things we take to be real (in
Berkeley's case, material objects) might not be appearances of some deeper, underlying reality.
According to Berkeley, when we look out into the world, we are looking at the inside of God's mind.
If Berkeley seems too weird and wonderful for your taste, consider a metaphysical question which the
poet John Donne expressed in the lines of his song, “Tell me where all past yeares are” (see my
answer to Rute and Alan on the Ninth page of questions and answers). Let's say you are happy to
call yourself a materialist. You don't see any problem, say, with accounting for the relation between
mind and body. But consider this: what kind of entity is a fact? Or, more particularly, What kind of
entity is a fact about the past?
If you say that everything that has ever happened in the world has a reality which is independent of
human memory, or the traces that events leave behind, then a metaphysician of Donne's persuasion
would say that you owe an explanation of what it is for a truth about the past or a past fact to 'exist', in
the absence of a God or a recording angel. Realismabout the past seems a surprising thing to hold
for one who believes in the hard, gritty reality of the here and now.
For a metaphysician, belief in the existence of God is not obligatory. With one or two notable
exceptions, metaphysicians have given up trying to prove the existence of God. However, to quote
F.H. Bradley's words, “...with certain persons, the intellectual effort to understand the universe is a
principal way of thus experiencing the Deity. No one, probably, who has not felt this, however
differently he might describe it, has ever cared much for metaphysics” (Appearance and Reality