All men by nature desire to know. So begins the first book of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, written about two-and-a-half thousand years ago but still one of the most influential works of philosophy. The best minds, since antiquity to the present time, have been grappling with questions on the nature of reality. Although science has unravelled some of the mysteries of the universe, many of the questions raised by metaphysics still await answers. These questions begin with the word ‘metaphysics’ itself. According to the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, it is not easy to say what metaphysics is. But to put it simply, metaphysics is the study of that which is beyond the physical world. Plato established the first complete metaphysical system of philosophy, which influenced later philosophical schools and even renowned 20th century philosopher and scientist A.N. Whitehead said that, “All philosophy is footnotes added to Plato”.
Plato and Aristotle in spite of their different views on the nature of reality stressed the need for a system of metaphysics that could penetrate through the world of appearances and reach the deeper, hidden meaning. Metaphysicians seek to understand being or existence as mental constructs, unlike the physicist who wants to understand being as a physical object. Metaphysics is the search for God, for the soul, and for the experiential quality that is neither material nor quantifiable.
Modern man is driven by the analytic and scientific way. However, such a way has no answers for the ultimate meaning of life. In the early period of Islam, philosophy and metaphysics became subjects of great conversation among Muslim scholars. The Persian polymath Ibn Sina says in his book, Al- Najah, that “the the subject of metaphysics is the existent… in as much as it applies to the principle of existence and in as much as something universal attaches to it.” Even Imam Ghazali, who vehemently attacked philosophers in his later life, recognised the immense value of metaphysical insights. Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum physics is more related to metaphysics than to physics. John Passmore writes in his famous book, A Hundred Years of Philosophy, that some of the great 20th century scientists turned towards metaphysics and religion to explain the phenomenal world of science. Such scientists included Sir Arthur Eddington, James Jeans, and A.N. Whitehead, all of whom embraced a metaphysical interpretation of the physical world.
The question of existence cannot be grasped by mere scientific or analytical methods. To understand reality with physical senses only is like the five blind men feeling different parts of an elephant and thinking it to be five different objects. Rumi composed a masnavi on it: “Depending upon where they touch it, they believe the elephant to be like a water spout (trunk), a fan (ear), a pillar (leg) and a throne (back).” Rumi uses this story as an example of the limits of individual perception. Modern man has brains enough to understand that judging the universe on the basis of sensory perceptions would be akin to blind men describing the elephant as a pillar, or throne, or spout, or fan.
Let me conclude with a couplet from the great Mirza Ghalib:
Hai ġhaib-e-ġhaib jis ko samajhte
haiñ ham shuhūd
Haiñ khwāb meiñ hunoz jo jāgey
haiñ khwāb meiñ
(What we take as manifest (just) points to the (inscrutable) mystery of the beyond; Those who wake in a dream are still in the dream.) The writer is a teacher.