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Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”

This week we begin our look at metaphysics: the study of the fundamental aspects, or nature, of reality. The term “metaphysics” comes from the Greek philosopher Aristotle who needed a term to describe the activities of philosophers that go beyond scientifically-answerable questions (hence, meta-physics: that which is above, beyond, or after physics). Metaphysics is perhaps the most abstract area of philosophy because we ask the most general and fundamental questions like: what is real? And what, if anything, exists?

Metaphysics is inherently tied to another area of philosophy, epistemology, because once we begin inquiring into questions of reality and existence, this naturally leads to the subsequent question of “how can we know what is real or exists?” We’ll hold off on the epistemological questions for now, though, and just stick to questions of reality and existence.

Philosophers approach these kinds of questions in a variety of different ways. Some are very permissive in what they think exists and others are more sparing by placing constraints on what can be thought to exist. The latter usually use facts about ourselves or the world to limit what can meaningfully be said to exist. Whatever the case may be, when philosophers go about constructing theories of reality, they are building what are called “ontologies”: theories of being or what exists. As the building blocks of realty, some ontologies include both physical and non-physical things, some only include physical things, and others only include non-physical things and say that physical things are illusory. Weird, right?

To get us thinking about all of this, let’s think about what we normally take to exist. Imagine someone asks you to make a short list of what can be said to exist, i.e., build an ontology. Would your list only consists of the objects of science? That is, only physical, measurable stuff? Or would your list only include non-physical, immaterial things that you can’t see, taste, touch, smell, or hear? Or perhaps you would include both kinds of things in your existence list. In putting your list together, state what you think exists—either physical or non-physical stuff, or both—and give some examples of what these things are. If you find it difficult starting your list, you might reflect first on what you take to exist primarily—is it the world the senses give us or is it the stuff you are consciously aware of (I.e., your thoughts, ideas, feelings, memories, etc).

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