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Beyond Physics

by Rick Lewis

Welcome to our Metaphysical issue! What exactly is metaphysics, you might reasonably ask. According to Peter van Inwagen, writing in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, this is a tricky question. In ye olde days, he says, it was defined by the questions it asked, which concerned “being as such”, “the first causes of things” or “things that do not change.” However, he argues, many axioms from those dark times (such as the very existence of a first cause, or of an unchanging substance, or indeed of angels dancing on pins) are themselves now seen as dubious metaphysical claims; and many new questions are now regarded as part of metaphysics, so the whole thing has become a little untidy. Not only that; metaphysics was on the receiving end of much hostility in the 20th century from philosophers who said it was an appalling tangle of woolly and uncheckable claims and should be avoided at all costs.

In any case, there would be widespread agreement (a rare and precious commodity!) that metaphysics is the oldest part of philosophy and that it is concerned with the deep nature and underlying structure of the universe, aside from surface appearances. The great metaphysicians of the past include Spinoza (All of nature is part of God); Leibniz with his ‘monads’; Descartes with his ‘dualism’ between minds and bodies; and pre-Socratic philosophers like Thales with their speculations about the world (“It’s all made of water…”). We won’t be discussing these fascinating historical systems in this issue; instead we have articles on a few of the metaphysical problems which are particularly bothering philosophers today. These include the nature of time; whether nature loves simplicity; and the existence of mathematical objects. Two of the most important metaphysical questions of today are what is consciousness and how does it arise in a physical universe, so we have three articles on the mind and its relationship to the body. Perhaps connected is the ever-popular question of whether we have free will.

Metaphysics takes its name from the traditional labelling of the surviving works of Aristotle. Apparently, a century or so after Aristotle’s death, an editor reorganising the great man’s many books gathered together fourteen on various topics and labelled them all Ta meta ta phusika meaning “the ones beyond [or after] the works on physics”. The name stuck, which just shows the confusion editors can cause. But modern metaphysics is ‘beyond physics’ in another way. Professor Stephen Hawking recently suggested that advances in physics have made philosophy redundant, but one of the growth areas of philosophy these days is to try to untangle the implications of some of the extraordinary theories of modern physics. A classic example is the attempt by philosophers to understand one of physics’ key concepts: time. A succession of thinkers from McTaggart onwards have attempted to understand the nature of time, and the latest of these is Raymond Tallis in his column.

Physics students are exhorted to always dig deeper, to look for the most fundamental underlying explanation, the smallest particles, the most general laws. Physics and metaphysics aren’t so different in this respect – maybe they even complement each other. Physics attempts to describe the cosmos and its laws in terms of mathematics, and several key metaphysical questions concern the nature of mathematics. Are numbers real? In what sense? Why should the universe dance to the tune of mathematics? Philosophers have wrestled with that one since the days of Pythagoras. I remember being taught about quantum mechanics when I was at university. We were started off with simple equations expressing some very uncontroversial assumptions about the world and then guided through several pages of workings from equation to equation until – hey presto – we found we had derived Schrödinger’s equation, the most familiar mathematical expression of quantum mechanics. The initial propositions were true of the physical world, certainly, and the final outcome – Schrödinger’s equation – accurately predicts the behaviour of the physical world, as has been shown by countless experiments. But the steps in between seemed the most abstract of mathematics, with no possible relationship to the physical world, and included that highly ‘imaginary’ quantity the root of minus one. It was the most startling moment of my undergraduate career (even more than the time our lecturer for ‘Waves & Vibrations’ told us how to knock down streetlamps using only an index finger). I couldn’t see why the whole world, right down to the tiniest subatomic particles, should obey the abstract mathematics which I and my fellow students had just scratched our way through. I had the unnerving feeling that we had just been given a glimpse of the bare bones of the cosmos.

Quantum mechanics has great predictive power, so it is a highly successful theory. However, nobody is really quite sure what to make of it in physical terms. Each of the competing interpretations has implications which are bizarre, but which one is true? According to a recent New Scientist it is increasingly respectable for physicists to speculate that our universe is just one among many, all of them existing in parallel and with no (or only weak) interactions between them. Adopting this model would fit with one interpretation of quantum theory and would also help to explain the amount of ‘dark matter’ in the observed universe, which is otherwise a bit of a puzzle. But isn’t it a classic example of metaphysics?

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