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Monday, September 22, 2014

Meta-Physics

The latest SA cover article by Lawrence Krauss "A Beacon from the Big Bang" discusses the discovery of gravitational waves from the inflation of the Universe microseconds after the origin of the universe. This discovery, if confirmed, could launch a new Scientific Revolution that unites quantum and macro physics into the unified "theory of everything" including wild previously undiscovered dimensions in our universe and new, possibly infinite universes distinct from our own.

Wow! Wow! Wow!

Krauss: "From the perspective of understanding the very origins of our universe and the vexing problem of why it exists at all, probing inflation by the observation of gravitational waves has the potential of turning what many consider to be one of the grandest metaphysical speculations of all into hard physics." (p.67)

Now that sentence stimulates in me an inquiry into the meaning of "metaphysics" and the role of philosophy vis-a-vis science.

"Metaphysics" (After Physics), which Aristotle called the chapter that came after his chapter called Physics, became pretty wierd in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Physis is the Greek word for nature and meta can be translated as "after," "above," and "beyond." Metaphysics was considered the special knowledge and technique of spiritualists and occultists like Rosacrucians, Christian Scientists, Scientologists, Cabalists, Sufis, Metaphysicians, and even Theologians.

Therefore among rational, secular, and scientific thinkers and skeptics, metaphysics became quite discredited. Philosophers used "ontology" instead of "metaphysics." But that only served to heap discredit on Ontology and Philosophy. I certainly would not want to be accused of being a metaphysician or at all dabbling in metaphysics.

Yet here the word is being used by a very credible astrophysicist.

The word implies something beyond, after, and/or above nature. Yet nature is defined as "all there is" and "all that is subject to scientific inquiry." That seems to exclude "Santa Claus," the "Great Pumpkin," "gods," "angels and devils," "ghosts in machines," "sphinxes," "minotaurs," (who knows about "mermaids" and "unicorns") concepts which are clearly above or beyond the natural order and so not useful to this skeptic except as metaphors for something that can be subject to scientific inquiry or fancies of the imagination fueling artistic endeavors. (Including my new favorite Terry Prachett Diskworld books--but more on his "theology" later.)

There it is: imagination. Einstein says imagination is the main driver of science. What imagination is I'll let the evolutionary psychologists and neuroscientists determine. It seems to be the singular, special capacity of human existence linked to consciousness and symbolic behavior. It is our ability to speculate and so try on theories of the origins and workings of nature. It is our ability to project future states and so plan and change the world.

Nature and our knowledge of it are not static but continually transforming. And so there is an after- or beyond-nature which is the Future of nature, continually be-coming partially due to our interaction with it. A becoming for good or for evil as we choose using our insight into nature. Science, art, religion, and good old common sense, all endeavors of the human enterprise, struggle with the origins and ends, the Alpha and the Omega, of and beyond nature including its universes, our world, and our selves. In our imagination, our speculation, and our action, the Alpha and Omega are/is already here and now pushing and pulling us personally and collectively.

And so astrophysicist Krauss can embrace "metaphysical speculation" and attempt to turn it into "hard physics."

Which leads me to consider the role of philosophy in relation to science and other human endeavors. I see it as sort of the before and after of science and other human enterprises.

As I have earlier indicated I distinguish three realms of human enterprise: economy (the realm of life and the desire to survive and thrive), culture (the realm of meaning and the desire to know), and politics (the realm of power and the desire to act/initiate). Incidentally, "love" can be defined in relation to each of these realms and their desires.

Within the cultural realm are many professions and disciplines. Among them are science, art, religion, and philosophy itself. Philosophy is a reflection on these disciplines. It is literary and art criticism. It is interpretation of the sciences and their theories. It is history and explication of religions and their manifestations. It is inquiry into the meaning and role of philosophy and its concepts. In reflecting on the meanings of these disciplines in the past, philosophy is also speculating on the future within the disciplines and among them and in relation to the other two realms of human desire and endeavor, the political and the economic.

Good philosophy does not take the place of or rule over any of these disciplines or human endeavors. It appreciates and spurs them on. It drives us to discover through them the Alpha and Omega of our human existence and its world.  Now that's a metaphysics that I can accept.



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