Beyond physics, no more? | Number 117

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by Rick Lewis

Let’s be meta-physical! Metaphysics is the oldest and most central current of philosophy. When Greek philosophy began 2,500 years ago in the port of Miletus on the coast of Anatolia, the biggest question facing Thales and Anaximander was this: what is the underlying reality of the universe, under the superficial appearances of our daily life? world? Thales thought that everything was basically made of water. Squeeze something hard enough and the juice runs out – see? Anaximander disagreed; the underlying reality, he said, was an unobservable element called apperon. And so began Western philosophy, with speculations that could not be verified directly, but which could explain more or less successfully the phenomena that we box observe directly. Democritus (460-370 BC) hypothesized that the simplicity of explanation could be combined with the diversity of the observed world if we assume that everything is composed of arrangements of tiny indivisible articles that he called atoms. A century later, Epicurus agreed, but added that instead of just bouncing around in a mathematically predictable way, atoms sometimes move apart unpredictably as they fall into a vacuum – and this gap (called a clinamen) , defeating determinism, is the source of our freedom. will be. You can read a lot more in this issue about Epicurus and his theories and we have a great comic about him too.

Such speculations had no specific label until Aristotle’s editors collected his notes on them into a volume which they called “Metaphysics”, meaning “Beyond Physics”, may -be because Physics was the title of the previous volume.

Our metaphysics articles in this issue include an article on Bishop Berkeley; so you can find out why he believed in ideas but not matter, and also why he surprisingly asserted that his colorful ideas were a philosophy of common sense. Berkeley’s idealism is well known, but it is often forgotten that he too, like Democritus and Epicurus, believed in atoms – although he naturally had his own view of what they were. The article on Spinoza explores his reasons for thinking that God and nature were one and the same – but the author goes on to claim that in the process, Spinoza gives us valuable clues as to how to understand some puzzling enigmas of the science today. Nick Inman questions the nature of human identity and asks where exactly it lies, and Jon David wonders if rocks have consciousness. And there you see a sampling of the themes that have preoccupied metaphysicians for centuries.

For a few thousand years, metaphysics was such a central and essential part of philosophy that for many people it was the real story. The majority of major philosophical theories and debates throughout the ages were in one way or another part of metaphysics. Metaphysics concerns the deep structure of the universe, the reality of things, as opposed to their appearance. But this question is directly linked to others which also pertain to metaphysics. Does God exist, and if so, what does he (or she) look like? How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? How does the spirit or soul connect to the body? Free will is another permanent problem of metaphysics and should not be confused with Save Willywhich was a movie about a whale.

Relatively recently, over the past three centuries or so, the invention of new scientific instruments has revealed things about the universe that were previously hidden from our perceptions by scale or distance. Philosophers used to hypothesize that everything was made of atoms – a recurring topic of discussion in metaphysics for two thousand years. Yet over the past hundred years the structure of atoms has become very well understood through theoretical and experimental physics and we can even photograph them using powerful electron microscopes. Does this mean that the whole discussion of atomic theory has shifted from the realm of metaphysics to the realm of physics? If so, could further discussions in metaphysics follow in the future? The mind-body problem has done it before, if you believe physicalists like Daniel Dennett, but not at all if you agree with dualists like David Chalmers. The jury is still out on that one, but perhaps there are other metaphysical questions that can be answered by science. So, could metaphysics soon become a quaint historical footnote like alchemy?

It is clear that some metaphysical questions – like the existence of atoms – have indeed passed into the realm of experimental science, into a space where they can finally find an answer. But there can also be movement in the other direction. Some philosophers have recently argued with scientists like Stephen Hawking about whether the world still needs philosophy. Hawking asserted that “philosophy is dead”, because physics now does all the work that philosophy once did. Yes, retort the defenders of philosophy – that’s because you astrophysicists have become amateur metaphysicians yourselves, theorizing about supersymmetric strings and dark energy and parallel universes and other subjects far beyond. beyond the reach of your telescopes! So, from this point of view, metaphysics is not old-fashioned – on the contrary, it is the new black. And as we stare in the dark still seeking answers about the nature of the cosmos and the place of consciousness within it, simple labels, such as “scientist” and “philosopher,” can seem less important than the questions they are. themselves.