Epistemology and Metaphysics

Sandra LaFave

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that investigates the nature, source, and limits of KNOWLEDGE. You can easily figure out what "epistemology" means if you know a little Greek. "Episteme" is the Greek word for "knowledge," and you already know what logos means.

The following are all typical epistemological questions:

  1. Is there any knowledge in the world so certain that no reasonable person could doubt it?

  2. Is there any secure basis for our future expectations, or is it just a matter of crossing our fingers and hoping for the best?

  3. Does science explain — does it help us to understand anything? or does it merely describe?

  4. What, if anything, is the contribution of the senses to knowledge?

Rationalism in epistemology is the view that knowledge does not come from the senses. According to rationalists, the paradigm of knowledge is mathematics. Rationalists say knowledge comes primarily or solely from reason, or from intuition, or that we possess it innately (from birth). Plato and Descartes are examples of rationalist philosophers. Find Plato and Descartes on the Chronological List of Western Philosophers. When did they live?

Empiricism in epistemology is the view that knowledge does come primarily or solely from the senses. Aristotle, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume are empiricist philosophers. When did those philosophers live?

The terms "rationalism" and "empiricism" in philosophy refer primarily to movements in modern philosophy. According to the Chronological List of Western Philosophers, when was that?

Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that investigates the general nature of being or reality, especially the being of the sensible world, God, freedom, and souls.

The word "metaphysics" is usually synonymous with the word "ontology." Some authors, e.g., Donald Palmer, make a distinction between metaphysics and ontology. Palmer defines metaphysics as "the branch of philosophy that attempts to construct a general, speculative worldview; a complete, systematic account of all reality and experience, usually involving an epistemology, an ontology, an ethics, and an aesthetics." (From Donald Palmer, Looking at Philosophy, p. 410) This difference in usage is not a big deal. Philosophers don't worry about it; they understand what you're getting at, whether you call it "metaphysics" or "ontology."

The following are all metaphysical (or ontological) questions:

  1. What is reality?

  2. What do real things have that unreal things lack?

  3. Are some kinds of things (e.g., material things) more real than others (e.g., concepts)?

  4. Does a tree falling in the forest if no one is around make a real sound?

  5. Is God real?

  6. Is the mind a separate substance? If so, how does it relate to matter? What is matter?

  7. Does human freedom exist? If so, what is it?

An important metaphysical question is: what sort of reality is mind or consciousness? This is a current "hot" issue in metaphysics, because of investigations in cognitive science and artificial intelligence. For example, some people argue that a robot could never "really" be conscious. They assume robots necessarily lack something people have -- that there is something people have that is special and perhaps unique. So the metaphysical question in this debate is: what (if anything) do the "really conscious" beings have that the robots lack?


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