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Beyond Physics No More?

by Rick Lewis

Let’s get meta-physical! Metaphysics is philosophy’s oldest and most central strand. When Greek philosophy first kicked off in the port of Miletus on the coast of Anatolia 2,500 years ago, the biggest question pondered by the likes of Thales and Anaximander was this: what is the underlying reality of the universe, beneath the surface appearances of our everyday world? Thales thought that everything was, deep down, made of water. Squeeze something hard enough and juice runs out – see? Anaximander disagreed; the underlying reality, he said, was an unobservable element called apeiron. And so Western philosophy began, with speculations that could not be directly checked but which might with greater or lesser success explain those phenomena that we can directly observe. Democritus (460-370BC) hypothesised that simplicity of explanation could be combined with the diversity of the observed world if we assume everything to be made up of arrangements of tiny indivisible articles he called atoms. Epicurus a century later agreed but added that rather than just bouncing around in a mathematically predicatable fashion, sometimes the atoms swerve unpredictably as they fall through the void – and this swerve (called a clinamen), by defeating determinism, is the source of our free will. You can read much more in this issue about Epicurus and his theories and we have a great cartoon strip about him too.

Such speculations didn’t have a specific label until Aristotle’s editors gathered together his notes about them into a volume they called ‘Metaphysics’, meaning ‘Beyond Physics’, perhaps because Physics was the title of the previous volume.

Our metaphysics articles in this issue includes a feature on Bishop Berkeley; so you can find out why he believed in ideas, but not in matter, and also why he made the surprising claim that his colourful ideas were a philosophy of common sense. Berkeley’s idealism is well known, but it’s often forgotten he too, like Democritus and Epicurus, believed in atoms – though naturally he had his own unique take on 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 argue that in the process, Spinoza gives us valuable clues as to how to understand some perplexing puzzles in science today. Nick Inman asks about the nature of human identity and asks where, exactly, it is located, and Jon David wonders whether rocks have awareness. And there you see a sample of the themes that have preoccupied metaphysicians for centuries.

For a couple of thousand years, metaphysics was such a central, essential part of philosophy that for many people, it was the real story. The majority of the great philosophical theories and debates down the ages were in one way or another part of metaphysics. Metaphysics is about the deep structure of the universe, about how things really are, as opposed to how they look. But this question directly connects with others which are part of metaphysics too. Does God exist, and if so, what’s He (or She) like? How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? How does the mind or soul connect with the body? Free will is another perennial problem in metaphysics, and should not be confused with Free Willy, which was a movie about a whale.

Relatively recently, in the last three centuries or so, the invention of new scientific instruments has revealed things about the universe which were previously hidden from our perceptions by scale or distance. Philosophers used to hypothesise about everything being made of atoms – a recurring subject of discussion in metaphysics for two thousand years. Yet over the last one hundred years the structure of atoms has become very well understood through both theoretical and experimental physics and we can even take photographs of them, using powerful electron microscopes. Does this mean that the whole discussion of atomic theory has moved from the realm of metaphysics into the realm of physics? If so, might other discussions in metaphysics follow suit in the future? The mind-body problem has already done so, if you believe physicalists like Daniel Dennett, but very much hasn’t if you agree with dualists like David Chalmers. The jury is still out on that one, but perhaps there are other metaphysical questions which can be solved by science. So, might metaphysics soon become a quaint historical footnote like alchemy?

Clearly some metaphysical questions – like the existence of atoms – have indeed crossed into the realm of experimental science, into a space where they can actually, finally be answered. But there may be movement in the other direction too. Some philosophers have recently been scrapping with scientists like Stephen Hawking about whether the world still needs philosophy. Hawking claimed that “philosophy is dead”, as physics now does all the work that philosophy used to do. Yes, retort philosophy’s defenders – that is because you astrophysicists have all become amateur metaphysicians yourselves, theorising about supersymmetric strings and dark energy and parallel universes and other matters way beyond the reach of your telescopes! So from that perspective, metaphysics is not old-fashioned – on the contrary, it is the new black. And as we stare out into the blackness still seeking answers about the nature of the cosmos and the place of consciousness within it, mere labels, such as ‘scientist’ and ‘philosopher’ may come to seem less important than the questions themselves.

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