Autodidacts may come in many different shapes and forms—I believe they all, as all humans do once they are sufficiently educated, engage in philosophical questions, at least on some level. However, in this case, we can use the term to refer to a self-taught philosopher or student of philosophy. So why is the study of metaphysics important to an autodidact?
Metaphysics, defined in its broad sense, is the study of the nature of reality encompassing some of the following questions:
- Is there a god?
- What are cause and effect?
- Is identity real?
- Can the mind possess consciousness?
- What is the nature of time and is it possible to time travel?
- What can be said to exist?
- Do things have essences?
- What are numbers and what are their properties?
- How many possible worlds could there be?
- What is free will and do we have it—and what are the different types of philosophical positions with respect to free will?
- How did our observable universe come to be?
- Why is there something rather than nothing?
It seems natural to think that this area of inquiry should be indispensable to have any grasp of the fundamental way the world is—metaphysics is, therefore, all encompassing and leaves no stones unturned. The universe, we think, consists of things we can observe: through experiments, observations, models and so forth. Whether our minds can really perceive the ultimate and true nature of things, the way the universe is independent of human cognition, is impossible to know, as we cannot independent of our sense experience go and check to see if we are in fact mistaken, and are not experiencing the world the way it really is—not just how it appears to be).
It may sound like metaphysical questions have no definitive answers, and philosophers will find themselves going around and around in circles, never making any progress. To a degree, this is true. One cannot think their way to new discoveries independent of experience, but the exception to this is mathematical knowledge. A mathematician can think of a new way of modeling the world, make the “discovery” via mathematical truth and proof, then later go and hand this insight over to an experimental physicist to test this mathematical theory to see if it has any type of correspondence or isomorphism (when two groups of things have the same fundamental structure) with reality. So, this is an example of how we can build our knowledge of the world. It is safe to say, that long gone are the days in philosophy where one could simply sit and think to discover new truths about reality without the nourishment of sense data (information we derive from experience). However, that said, the implications and broad applications of the knowledge we gain from experimental evidence and other empirical methods are where philosophy will always be of use.
Why is that so? This is the case as we need to know what to do with the knowledge we have gained. The goal of science is to describe what there is through using the scientific method. Much of the philosophy of science, which explores metaphysical questions, is about clarifying the way science is done, what claims scientists are making, and how we can know that we are doing science or when we are doing pseudoscience. The philosophy of science is where the work of the modern-day metaphysician is done in philosophy. But there are many specialisations other than the philosophy of science: such as the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of language and the philosophy of religion where the metaphysician is also found. Although most if not all questions in philosophy are in at least some way underpinned by metaphysics as was clarified from the outset, it is the study of the nature of reality and all realms of inquiry are built upon it.
This is why somebody who is asking questions in philosophy should know how to decipher the way a metaphysician talks about the world. This is of paramount importance to the philosopher and anybody who is interested in undertaking philosophical discussions with others.