What is a metaphysical explanation of a phenomenon?

Kim asked:

What is a metaphysical explanation of a phenomenon?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Your question contains two claims about metaphysics: both of them controversial.

The first claim is that metaphysics is concerned with giving explanations. Just as physics explains why the Earth goes round the Sun, or chemistry explains why copper dissolves in concentrated nitric acid, so metaphysics explains… what exactly?

The second claim is that metaphysics is interested in phenomena, that is to say, particlar things we experience, or discover about the world. Once upon a time, it was believed that earthquakes were caused by an angry god. Now, the accepted explanation is given by geology and the tectonic structure of the Earth.

Pick any phenomenon you like, and you will find a science to explain it, assuming it is capable of explanation. I wouldn’t like to be in the position of defending the view that some phenomena are intrinsically inexplicable, although there are many that we don’t yet know how to explain.

You can see the problem. One answer that has been given assumes that metaphysics does explain, but what it explains isn’t any particular phenomenon in the world. What metaphysics explains is the very existence of the world itself. A proof of the existence of God would be a ‘metaphysical’ explanation of the existence of the world. As a metaphysical proof, it doesn’t rely on empirical observations of phenomena, the way science does.

Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason argued that none of the ‘proofs’ of the existence of God are valid. All we can prove is the validity of principles, such as the principle of causality or the principle of the permanence of substance, which he regarded as a necessary condition for human experience. These principles apply to all phenomena equally, rather than to any particular phenomenon in the world. You could say that according to Kant, metaphysics explains the ‘phenomenon of causality’.

An alternative approach would be that metaphysics doesn’t offer explanations of any kind, although it is concerned with phenomena. What metaphysics seeks to do is describe phenomena, or offer a general framework for description, at a greater level of generality than is normally required for everyday life, or for science.

This is the view that I hold. What kinds of phenomena is metaphysics interested in? One example would be the question of what it is to be a subject of experience in a world, or what it is to be ‘I’. Chemistry, biology, psychology all contribute to our understanding of what human beings are, how we function as a part of nature. I am one of these human beings. What kind of ‘phenomenon’ is the experience of being ‘I’? It’s the most real phenomenon to me, but when I try to describe it, all I am able to describe are everyday facts about what it is to be a human being.

Metaphysics as I have just characterized it – which is interested in particular phenomena but not in explanation – doesn’t look a good candidate for a ‘science’. What metaphysics aims to do is to see what is already there, but from a greater height or a greater angle of view. We already know the basic truths of metaphysics, and yet we don’t know.

A truth of metaphysics is like the elephant in the room which we don’t notice because it is always there, or the wood we fail to see for the trees.


One thought on “What is a metaphysical explanation of a phenomenon?

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