Many people think metaphysics is what is transcendental, what is “beyond the physical” or “outside spacetime.” Laypeople get this impression from pseudo-intellectual hippies. Academics get this impression from an etymological misunderstanding of “meta” and “physics.” Metaphysics, however, is the study of first principles: a set of propositions that explain the nature of reality as a whole.
The works of Aristotle have a big influence in western philosophy. His chapter on metaphysics directly follows his chapter on physics. Hence, the chapter on first principles was named because it literally is “beyond” or “after” the chapter on physics. Metaphysical discussions often involve discussion of non-physical or supernatural entities, but traditionally it has been the examination of the nature of reality.
Thales was the oldest recorded western philosopher. Back then, philosophers were concerned with the rational examination of the world. Living near the ocean, Thales observed empirically the importance of water in the ecosystem. Clouds (vapors) form rain (liquid) and seawater dries into salt (solid). He extrapolated that everything consists of water because everything relates to evaporation or condensation in some way. For Thales, the principle that governed reality was water.
Observation vs Reason in Metaphysics
It sounds silly to say that everything is made out of water, but scientists still do what Thales did 2600 years ago. Physicists would now claim that the first principles consist of subatomic particles or their governing laws. Science, a branch of philosophy, dominates the empirical study of reality. Metaphysics is still crucial because it is the rational examination of reality.
Scientists tell us what is healthy and what is not. However, science cannot tell us what is health itself. Health is not a physical object you can hold in your hand. Philosophy expands upon abstract concepts or ideas. Philosophers help to answer questions like what is health, what is a beautiful smile, and what is a good dentist. “What is” questions are metaphysical questions and cannot be answered with observation alone. We must rely on rational inquiry and logic when doing metaphysics.
Thales mainly used observation to make claims about reality. Extrapolation, a type of inductive reasoning, allows us to make general claims. This is common in science. You observe that billions of people have four wisdom teeth, so you make a general claim that “humans tend to have four wisdom teeth.” The universal claim “all humans have four wisdom teeth” cannot be made because some humans do not have four wisdom teeth. We used deductive reasoning to show that a universal claim is false because it contradicts with a particular claim that is true. Two contradictory statements cannot be both true, logically speaking.
While inductive claims can possibility be false, deductive statements involve valid logical reasoning. This means that given all the premises of a argument are true, the conclusion cannot possibility be false. If it is true that I have four wisdom teeth, it is then logically impossible that I do not have at least one wisdom tooth.
One must note that you can only take someone’s deductive reasoning to the bank if their premises are actually false. Personally, I was born with only two wisdom teeth. The reasoning is valid, but since the premise is false, the conclusion is not necessarily true. Notice that the conclusion is actually true independent of true premies or a valid argument; I have at least one wisdom tooth.
How do we figure out if we have true or false premises? Get a PhD in philosophy. Just kidding. We can count empirically to answer questions like “how many wisdom teeth do I have?.” We use the dialectical method to answer questions like “what is justice?.” Abstract statements are clearly false if they are self-contradictory. Take for example the statement “all statements are false.” If the statement is false, then it is false (tautology). If the statement is true, then the universal claim must be actually false since there exists at least one statement that is true (contradiction). Either way, we know that the universal statement must be logically false in-itself and we can deductively conclude that not all statements are false.
The dialectical method starts off with an abstract idea and explores if it is self-contradictory or contradicts something that is true in speculative reasoning. We speculate about the existence of god. When we think about living a good life, we are doing practical reasoning. Factual statements relate to truth, but moral statements relate to value. Metaphysics tends to answer “what is” questions but metaethics tends to answer “what should.”
In metaethics, we are looking for universal principles (first principles) that explain the nature of morality. For example, “do no harm” tells us that we should never harm independent of the circumstances. We look for universal principles because we cannot just observe the moral status of a situation. We often fall into moral relativism or indeterminism because one person views a situation as good and another views the same situation as bad. Universal principles give us definitive answers to particular situations.
For practical reasons, it is must easier to remember a simple set of principles rather then memorize which situations morally require which actions. There will be hundreds of unique ethical situations you will face in a lifetime. Epistemically, you cannot apply simple “common sense” or personal opinions to solve complex moral dilemma involving multiple people. Principles must have a communicable, rational foundation and be reevaluated for consistency in the face of new ideas. Logically, if we have contradictory ethical principles, we cannot determine what to do at the end of the day.
One cannot make a health, esthetic, or moral judgment just by experience alone because such judgments involve abstract concepts and abstract concepts cannot be directly observed. “What is” and “what should” questions are only answerable by doing metaphysics. This involves rational injury with a good understanding of logic and a commitment throughout life. You must examine your life and the ideas you have learned to be a good dental professional.
One can evaluate some ideas using the principle of non-contradiction alone. However, we must, most of the time, advance a theory and evaluate it for consistency and practical values. Truth is hard to find. That is part of the human condition.
I encourage you to look at Intro to Dental Ethics (link below) to learn about metaphysics and the ethical principles used in dental ethics. Please keep rational discussion alive; we all better from it.