concept pages: copyright Robert Ellis 2011


The term 'metaphysics' comes from a Greek word coined by Aristotle, and meaning the study of things beyond the physical world. However, the physical world in itself is beyond our experience - all we have access to is what our senses tell us about what we assume to be the physical world - so the word has been more usefully employed in philosophy to mean the study of things beyond our experience. Traditionally, religions have made claims about 'truths' beyond our experience, known through revelation or intuition. The rationalist tradition in Western philosophy has also made claims about truths beyond experience known through reason. Both of these kinds of claims may be described as metaphysical, and both are rejected in Middle Way philosophy.

It is argued in Middle Way philosophy that metaphysical beliefs are beyond any method of non-dogmatic justication. This means that their psychological role is to support dogmatic beliefs that do not help us to understand the world we actually experience. Instead, our egos become deeply invested in these dogmatic metaphysical beliefs, and we are prevented from engaging with conditions because we interpret everything in terms of them. Metaphysics is thus responsible for our ignorance of the world and our rejection of values that we oppose ourselves to. Where we disagree or are ignorant, metaphysical beliefs make it impossible to really examine our experience of the world, or our experience of others, or even our experience of our own emotions, in order to understand them more objectively. Our attachment to metaphysical beliefs also leads to psychological conflict, and prevents the integration of the energies in the psyche.

Metaphysics can be categorised in positive and negative forms. Positive metaphysics involves positive claims about things that are true beyond our experience - for example that an object in front of you (e.g. a computer) exists apart from your ideas and perceptions of it, or that we have freewill, or that God exists. Negative metaphysics, however, consists in the definite claim that such positive metaphysical claims are untrue. We have experiences of objects, but we do not know for sure whether or not objects exist in themselves. Nor do we know that God does not exist or that we do not have freewill. There are many modern thinkers who slip from the doubts about positive metaphysics into negative metaphysics, but negative metaphysics is just as dogmatic as positive metaphysics. In following the Middle Way it is essential to keep an equidistance between positive and negative forms of metaphysics, which means keeping an equidistance between groups that maintain one kind of dogma and those who maintain the opposite: theists and atheists, libertarians and determinists, realists and idealists, analytic and continental philosophers, utopians and cynics.

Metaphysics depends in its turn on assumptions about the meaning of the terms or symbols from which it is composed. Those who believe in metaphysics believe, by implication, that the words or symbols of their belief represent a reality of some kind (or, at the other extreme, they deny that symbols gain any meaning through representation). This, to begin with, is a misunderstanding (though a deeply entrenched one) of how symbols are meaningful to us. For more on this issue, see the concept page on meaning.

The boundaries of metaphysics are vague and a matter for debate. Roughly speaking, however, metaphysical views are those which are not capable of incremental justification through experience. I think it is misleading to describe as 'metaphysical' any theory which can support a programme of investigation, even if it is abstract and its justification is lengthy and complex - many complex scientific theories (e.g. quantum physics, evolution) are like this, as is Middle Way philosophy itself. On the other hand it is equally misleading to describe, say, belief in God, or the traditional Buddhist belief in rebirth, as theories subject to empirical justification or refutation and thus not metaphysical: these beliefs are not increasingly justified by more evidence, but rather are the preserve of specific groups whose dogmatic faith is boosted by interpreting their experience in its terms. Metaphysics is always an all-or-nothing affair, an absolute resolution, whereas investigation through experience always offers at least a few answers, and always equally some further questions.


Links to further discussion

Metaphysics (introductory page)

Dogmatism (concept page)

Metaphysical agnosticism (concept page)

Negative metaphysics (concept page)

Objection no. 2: Middle Way theory is as metaphysical as the theories that it is criticising

Objection no. 4: We cannot escape metaphysics. Even scientists have to use metaphysical assumptions.

The nature of dualistic belief processes (from thesis)

The psychological basis of dualism and its philosophical expression (from thesis)

Introduction to eternalism in thesis

Introduction to nihilism in thesis


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