The term ‘metaphysics’ comes from a Greek word coined by Aristotle, 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 by the Middle Way.
Metaphysical beliefs are beyond any method of non-dogmatic justification, being typically justified by appeals to the authority of God, a leading individual, an extraordinary experience, circular abstract reasoning, tradition or group practice. None of these kinds of justification are accessible to individual experience, meaning that metaphysical beliefs are apparently placed beyond challenge. However, this apparent security is misleading. Because metaphysics has no basis in experience it is actually very brittle and can quickly be abandoned for its opposite.
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.
The function of metaphysical beliefs in evolutionary terms seems to be group loyalty. Beliefs shared by a group that also appear to be beyond challenge can help to keep the group together. However, in modern conditions, this group loyalty function is far less useful to us as it stops us addressing complex conditions around us.
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. As George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have effectively argued, meaning is embodied and impacts on us through our whole physical experience.
Metaphysics involves clear definition in its own terms. We can identify metaphysical claims because they are absolute (i.e. not incremental), apparently infallible, representational, and dualistic. However, what makes them harmful is the dogmatic psychological function, which involves repression and reliance on groups. This psychological function may not necessarily be to the fore in the mind of a particular believer at a given moment, though. Metaphysical beliefs jostle for attention together with non-metaphysical beliefs in all our minds. So it is not people who are metaphysical, but claims. We can usually identify a metaphysical belief in the abstract, but it is much harder to determine how far a person is motivated by that belief amongst others.