Chapter 1: From Natural Science to Metaphysics

1. The First Step on the Path of Knowledge

There are certain scholars who are of the view that man's effort to gain knowledge began with an effort to understand nature. Of course, this effort was, at first, quite limited and shallow. It consisted of identifying qualities such as color, form, smell, taste, coldness, warmth and roughness in the objects and creatures with which man came into contact. This primeval form of human knowledge was not much different from the sort of knowledge that many other animals attain about their living environment.

The advantage of man over the other animals has always been that his esteem for knowledge did not stop at this basic level and he has constantly tried to increase his understanding and knowledge. Extensive historical experience shows that mankind has been ambitious in its pursuit of ever greater knowledge about the world and that it has refused to limit its efforts in this regard.

One of the most perplexing questions about human existence is: What is the motive behind man's limitless esteem for knowledge? Whether such esteem is one of the innate urges of mankind, a hunger that has yet to be fully satiated and perhaps will never be completely satisfied? or is it that esteem for knowledge and understanding is not an inherent urge of man but rather a tool by which he hopes to satisfy his instinctive and fundamental needs and desires?

It is not easy to give a clear and definitive answer to such questions, and we are not about to touch them in our present discussion. Whatever his motivations may be for seeking knowledge and wisdom, one thing is quite clear that is, having taken each step, man has prepared the next one on the path of learning and he has never stopped his struggles and efforts in his search for attaining deeper knowledge and understanding1.

2. Scientific Knowledge of Nature

After gaining superficial and simple knowledge of his environment, man set upon gaining deeper insight into the natural world. He made an effort to gain knowledge of the inner structure of natural objects, their relationships to one another, and the causes of their emergence and decay.

The invaluable information that man gained in his endeavor proved to be of much use to him, as enabling him to improve his standard of living. Having attained these tangible results, man was motivated to expand and intensify his understanding of nature. This comprehension got more deeper, more fruitful and more widespread, giving birth to the various branches of the natural sciences.

3. Knowledge of "Form and Number"

Let us assume that man had become familiar with form and number in the early stages of his study of nature. Of course, his understanding of form and number was rooted in nature. In other words, he became acquainted with "concrete form" and "concrete number" not with "abstract form" and "abstract number".

Such simple familiarity with "concrete form and number" was very fruitful to man, to the extent that he reached that stage of intellectual development where he was able to form a single universal judgement from many notions of experience with regard to like objects, isolating the various qualities and characteristics of each object and forming a separate and independent concept for each of them. He also formed distinct concepts for form and number. These concepts were independent of all objects. In other words, they were abstracts. Thanks to his mental vigor and intellectual creativity, man created "mathematical numbers" and "geometric form" in his own mind, which opened a new inquiry into the intellectual exploration of nature, as a result, several researchers became interested in them and began to study them.

These researchers carried out the same calculations that people used in their everyday affairs on "mathematical form and number" and gradually discovered certain nexuses between numbers and forms, the nexuses which were unknown to them up to that time.

The discovery of these relationships also led man towards gaining a better understanding of nature and developing interest in extensive research into the nature of these relationships. As a result, a new field of study came to the fore which was later called "Mathematics".

4. Knowledge of the Principles of Nature

Scientific investigation into natural phenomenon and the causes of their coming into being, gradually, drew the attention of some researchers to a new problem. In their research, they had discovered that every natural phenomenon comes into being due to a number of causes. At the same time, every one of these causes is itself a natural phenomenon, the causes of their occurrence must also be discovered. If the causes of the emergence of these phenomena are nothing but a series of natural phenomenon, then we must look for the causes of their coming into being as well.

These thinkers were, thus, led into asking themselves: Does this chain of natural cause and effect continue indefinitely, or does it end at a point which is the origin and principle of all beings? And if this chain of cause and effect ends at a certain point, what is that principle and where is it?

The posing of such question was led to the creation of new branch of knowledge, the aim of which was to understand the principles of nature.

5. Metaphysics

Aristotle (384-322 B.C), the great Greek philosopher, wrote an extensive treatise on understanding the principles of nature. These works constitute a considerable segment of his entire scientific and philosophical works, In the classified collection of his philosophical and scientific works this section immediately follows the section on natural sciences. In his book Al-first, Ibn Nadim (438.H) writes that the arrangement of the books are as follows: logic, physics, theology2, ethics3.

Is this arrangement made by Aristotle himself or by those who published his books after his death? Moein Persian Dictionary has this to say on this matter: "Aristotle placed this section of learning after the natural sciences (physics) and called it Metaphysics"4

But in The German Dictionary, Brockhaus, it is held that the arrangement in question is the work of Aristotle's publishers as he says: Metaphysics pertains to the ultimate causes of objects which are beyond observation and experience. Etiologically, metaphysics means after physics, so the publishers of Aristotle's books placed this section of his writings after the works on physics (natural science)5.

In any case, in the collections of philosophical works which have been left behind by the Peripatetics, that is, the Aristotelians, the section dealing with the "knowledge of the principles of nature" follows the section dealing with "understanding nature" that is, the natural sciences.

In his book, Shifa, Ibn-Sinã (980-1036 AD) says: "This is the sixth art, in the seventh art we shall consider the life of plants, and in the eight art we shall deal with the condition of the animals. At that point we shall end our study of natural science. Then we shall deal with the science of mathematics, in four arts.

These will be followed by theology. we shall conclude the book with a brief discussion of ethics6.

Ibn-Sina set out to discuss "Mathematics" after natural sciences. This is to be followed by "theology", that is, "the knowledge of the principles of nature". But in the published text of Shifa, the Aristotelian arrangement has been adhered to, and the section dealing with "theology" immediately follows the section on "natural sciences". The section of Mathematics is not included in this text at all.

  • 1. Nahjul-Balaghah, 2:241
  • 2. Theology is a part of metaphysics.
  • 3. Ibn Nadim, Al-Fehrest, p. 361
  • 4. Moien, Farhang-e Moien (Persian).
  • 5. Encyclopedia of Brockhaus
  • 6. Ibn Sina, Shifa, p. 277