Aristotle considered metaphysics to be both the beginning and the end of philosophical and scientific inquiry. Why philosophy and science ends with metaphysics can be found in its very basic definition and endpoint, which entails an intellectual excursion beyond the intelligible world of reason and the senses and into the non-physical world. By definition, metaphysics equates to the study of what is “beyond the physical.” Since the beginning of human history, all societies at one time or another have assumed and believed that there is a basic dichotomy underlying “reality” between what is seen and what is unseen. In essence, metaphysics assumes and is predicated on a belief in both a physical and non-physical world.
Thus, the metaphysician is situated in a realm that is beyond space, time, and matter. In the Western world, Pythagoras is considered to be the “master-builder” of not only metaphysics but also, in a broader sense, basic wisdom. Pythagoras was inspired by the Buddha after having traversed Asian civilization for metaphysical knowledge and wisdom. The basic goal of Pythagorean wisdom from which all of Western philosophy sprang forth – in addition to wisdom from all other civilizations and religions – is simple but profound, which is to make ordinary men good, and to make good men into eternal semi-gods who transcend the karmic cycle of “generation and death.” Today’s analogy to the cycle of generation and death is perhaps the “manic-depressive” cycle of a nihilistic age.
Heraclitus was the foremost contemporary of Pythagoras, whose main contribution to Western thought was the idea that all matter equated to energy and in turn all energy was in a constant state of flux. Thus, given that everything is in a state of flux, all that is considered to be true could also be its opposite, and vice versa. Unfortunately, much of this ancient wisdom coming from Pythagoras and Heraclitus is lost, and as a result today’s philosophers and scientists are combing through fragments that remain from antiquity. But what follows from Heraclitus’s idea of a world in flux is that in order for something to be eternal, everlasting, and true, it must be permanent, stable, and unchanging. Therefore, the “ultimate truth” is perhaps that nothing in the physical realm of existence is eternal, permanent, or true except for a single eternal essence or form from which all other things derive their existence.
Parmenides is considered by some to be the father of metaphysics in the Western world. But in actuality, Parmenides was a follower of Pythagoras, which in turn renders Pythagoras the father of metaphysics in the Western world. What Parmenides emphasized was the abandonment of “appearances” and “illusion” in order to acknowledge “reality” and “truth.” According to the Pythagorean school that Parmenides subscribed to, all knowledge and science flows from an eternal source, which in turn possesses the “supreme knowledge” or the “ultimate truth” that all philosophers and scientists are seeking. In terms of whether the “supreme knowledge” or “ultimate truth” is attainable by human beings, there are three different views in the Western tradition. For one, there is the Platonic view, which is that the “supreme knowledge” and “ultimate truth” is attainable through the acquisition of knowledge. Second is the Stoic view, which is that supreme knowledge and the ultimate truth exists but that it is unattainable during one’s lifetime. Finally, there is the Epicurean view, which suggests that there is no supreme knowledge or ultimate truth.
Thus, from a Platonic standpoint, there are four stages in Man’s advancement towards the ultimate truth. For one, there is the stage of acquiring knowledge. Second, there is the attainment of wisdom through the acquisition of knowledge. Third is detachment from all worldly affairs after having attained wisdom. And finally, there is the attainment of the ultimate truth as a result of detachment from worldly affairs. Plato is known for having synthesized the teachings of Pythagoras, Heraclitus, and Parmenides. In turn, all of Western philosophy is merely a footnote to Plato’s system, as suggested by Alfred North Whitehead. Plato’s main contribution to the study of metaphysics was his conception of “universals” versus “particulars.” The former is considered to be eternal and perfect, whereas the latter is transient and imperfect. According to Plato, the search for universals is what defines a true philosopher and separates him or her from everyone else. As Plato wrote in Republic: “By nature Philosophers are lovers of the science unveiling the beingness which eternally is, and do not go wandering in cycles of generation and death.”
Also, according to Plato, knowledge of universals is a priori, which means human beings were born knowing about an eternal and perfect world that is different than our imperfect physical world. But knowledge of this eternal and perfect world is unconscious and thus we have to unearth this knowledge through an educative process. Moreover, perfection and a perfect world exist simply by virtue of being conceivable to the human mind. If perfection and a perfect world did not exist, then it would not be conceivable to the human mind.
Nevertheless, knowledge of an ultimate reality is possible, and reality, according to Plato, is the eternal and perfect world of universals that are non-material and can only be deciphered through non-sensory means. In turn, the imperfect world of particulars that is material and can be deciphered through sensory means is merely an allegory for reality. Perhaps the most important point one can make in the study of metaphysics is that in order for anything to exist, there has to be something eternal and permanent amidst transience and impermanence. As Aristotle wrote: “If nothing eternal existed, the becoming could not exist either.”
Also, for every particular, there is a corresponding universal and as a result the world of universals can be deciphered by abstraction and thought but not through the senses. Because the particulars of this sensory world are constantly in a state of change and flux, they cannot be permanent or perfect and thus they cannot be real. To be perfect and real, a thing has to be immutable and unchanging in essence and form, and this can only be found in the world of universals. Moreover, the world of particulars is merely an imitation of the world of universals. Thus, science, which includes all scientific disciplines, seeks to discover the structure of the world of “forms” or “universals.” But by studying the most basic or simple particulars, we could perhaps infer certain facts or truths about the world of universals.
All scientific disciplines begin with a basic set of assumptions or premises about the world. In order for the science to be valid, the basic assumptions or premises underlying the science must be valid and true. Otherwise, the science is merely hypothetical and not necessarily true. Thus, the perennial question of science is whether there is one fundamental form or principle in the world of universals from which all other forms or principles come from. If this were the case, science would then be an integrated whole rather than different disciplines with each having its own unique set of basic assumptions and premises.
Thus, what science is looking for is the basic axiom, purpose, and source of existence. Falling short of an understanding of the basic axiom, purpose, and source of existence means everything else, including reality, is unintelligible. Without knowing the basic axiom, purpose, and source of existence, we cannot know anything. In a sense, all of philosophy and science is metaphysical, as suggested by Heidegger. In turn, the totality of Western philosophy and science is divided into two camps. On one hand, there are the “teleologists” led by Plato, who believe that there is a basic axiom, purpose, and source of existence. On the other hand, there are the “atomists” led by Epicurus, who believe that there is no basic axiom, purpose, or source of existence. However, the key is that the basic axiom, purpose, and source of existence, according to Plato, transcends the intellect. These things can only be known through either intuition or a vision. As a result, the most basic thing that science seeks can only be sought through mysticism.
In turn, Mysticism suggests that knowledge of the ultimate form can be attained only by wriggling free of the physical world of particulars. Once we stop at an ultimate essence or form, we can then ascertain where all other things come from. However, Western intellectualism and scientific thought is largely divorced from its metaphysical roots which stem from antiquity. Thus, the karmic cycle of generation and death as well as the “manic-depressive” cycle continue. But in order to escape these cycles and for order and stability to prevail in an international system, one must reacquaint oneself with basic truths that are both eternal and self-evident yet elusive and often forgotten by a multitude of people. Thus, without the ultimate truth which is metaphysical in nature yet embodied in a leader, there cannot be eternal order and peace on either a global or a universal scale, and as a result one must endure disorder and social strife for an indefinite period of time.