Does Science Need Metaphysics?

I’m going to say no, but let me explain before any philosophers (armchair or otherwise) jump on my answer.

Metaphysics is philosophy.  Science is, well, science. At one time, these two fields were not far apart. It could be argued that the divide between them didn’t really come until the last few hundred years. In ancient times, knowledge was knowledge. Knowledge might be about different things but there was a sort of seamless blending of knowledge about one thing with knowledge about other things. Aristotle, the father of philosophy  who wrote on almost everything, is sometimes cited as the “last person to know everything”. This was possible not only because the amount of knowledge was more limited but also because the methods and domains of knowledge were not distinct. The same methods used to address problems in philosophy could be used in biology or physics. If one understood the methods, one could apply them to any field.

Metaphysics itself is a branch of philosophy . It “is the branch of philosophy that examines the fundamental nature of reality, including the relationship between mind and matter, between substance and attribute, and between potentiality and actuality”. Metaphysics works using logic and reasoning to deduct an understanding of the world. In Aristotle’s time, this was the method of philosophy and it was the method of science.

Science in our time, of course, needs to use logic and reasoning too, but it works primarily by measuring relationships in the world and inducing an understanding of the world from the relationships. Let me repeat this again. Science measures and discovers relationships. It creates models to understand the world through induction with the relationships it discovers. The measurements and relationships are not subjective but are shared within a community of other scientists that are theoretically able to make the same measurements and discover the same relationships because common measuring techniques are used.

Where is science on the question of the  “fundamental nature of reality”? Most people without hesitation would say science is materialistic or physicalistic. Many scientists would say they are materialists. For most of them, materialism is the opposite of the supernaturalism, the opposite of believing in things that can’t be measured. Most idealists think modern science is materialistic. Bernardo Kastrup, probably one of the leading idealist of this time, sees the connection.

The popularity of materialism is founded on a confusion: somehow, our culture has come to associate it with science and technology, both of which have been stupendously successful over the past three centuries. But that success isn’t attributable to materialism; it is attributable, instead, to our ability to inquire into, model and then predict nature’s behavior.

Kastrup has this much right. What contemporary science is about isn’t the fundamental nature of reality. It is about measuring and predicting. Calls for a post-materialist science, such the The Manifesto for Post-Materialist Science, or Phillip Goff’s calls for new scientific methods, as in Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness, are off the mark. But so is any scientist who think that a materialistic worldview is the only possible scientific worldview.

Science is anti-metaphysical. It doesn’t care about the ultimate nature of what it is observing and measuring. Its models, its particles, forces, and fields, are not models of fundamental reality. They are useful abstractions that provide a common language for discussing relationships and measurements nothing more. They are useful until better ones come along but they are not descriptions of the reality.

Some may object that a sort of anti-metaphysical, pragmatism is a form of metaphysics. Well, perhaps, it is. But, if it is, it is a metaphysics that doesn’t care about the fundamental nature of reality, that maybe considers it a pointless question.

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37 Responses to Does Science Need Metaphysics?

  1. This is a complex question. Jim Baggott in his book, ‘Farewell to Reality’, makes the point that every scientific theory essentially makes a metaphysical statement. The inductive inferences assume that no “black sheep” observation will come along to falsify it, an assumption that can never be proven, only disproven.

    At least, that’s the case if you’re a scientific realist. For an instrumentalist, scientific theories are predictive frameworks. I’m an emotional realist, but an intellectual instrumentalist.

    In that instrumental and operational sense, science can get by totally ignoring the actual field of metaphysics.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wyrd Smythe says:

      I’m almost finished reading that Baggott book and thoroughly enjoying it. I very much agree with what he’s saying there.

      You mentioned realism, and I think most scientists (to the extent most even think about this) would find themselves more into realism than materialism. The reason for the success of science is that it appears based on a real, constant world. Quantum physicists, especially, seem pretty clear on the difference between realism and materialism.

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    • James Cross says:

      I think a metaphysician (depending upon his/her metaphysics) might say definitely a black swan/sheep will not come along but a scientist would say we haven’t seen yet so we’ll stick with our view until we see one.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I do think you’re right that science doesn’t need metaphysics James, but then I don’t consider it to have metaphysics — my perception is that this is considered to exist as one of the domains of philosophy; along with epistemology and axiology.

    Here’s where things get controversial though. I believe that improving science largely depends upon creating a community of respected professionals with generally accepted principles in the domains of philosophy. I propose four such principles, and one of them does happen to be metaphysical. It goes like this:
    To the extent that causality fails in a given system, nothing exists to discover in that system.
    What this would effectively do is divide science up into two separate communities. One of them would entertain the notion that causality can fail in our world in an ontological sense (or essentially that some things occur without reason from which to do so), while the other community would not.

    For example, some physicists today believe that Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle reflects a fundamental void in causal dynamics. This would put them into the form of science which is open to the existence of supernatural function. Conversely other physicists believe that Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle merely reflects a useful epistemic limit given obvious human constraints. They’d remain under the metaphysics of natural function.

    Furthermore scientists who believe that consciousness exists as a non-worldly kind of stuff, would thus find themselves in “club magic”. Regarding the mainstream view in science that qualia can occur by means of information processing alone, I suppose this is still debatable. I argue however that if the information which goes to my brain when my thumb gets whacked, were instead on paper, as well as properly processed by some means into other information on paper, that nothing would feel what I do when my thumb gets whacked. So I believe that in a causal realm, information processed into other information, will not produce what I feel. Instead I believe there must be mechanisms in my head responsible, such as the em fields associated with neuron firing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • James Cross says:

      A couple of general thoughts. A lot is made about the statistical uncertainty in QM but that same uncertainty extends into the classical world. This is apparent in the social sciences and medicine where causality is seldom definitive. We know, for example, poverty has all sorts of negative effects on people but we know individuals that rise above the effects. Almost all drugs, even the most effective ones, do not affect everyone the same way. Some people do not benefit and some have adverse reactions. I think I saw somewhere a description of gravity that describes its effect in statistical terms. Given a long enough time there will be, through random movement, periods where gas particles in an enclosed space will have low entropy.

      I guess all I’m saying is causality is somewhat relative. There is always a random element of uncertainty but in some sciences and at some levels of reality the random component is so small that it appears non-existent.

      • Statistical uncertainty in the classical world is certainly observed. If that were the end of it however I doubt that many physicists would make ontological claims that there are some effects in this world that aren’t perfectly determined to occur exactly as they do. But when we get into quantum strangeness, events simply don’t seem to make sense to us anymore. It could be that “God plays dice” here, though I interpret the variability that’s observed as epistemic rather than ontological. Regardless, if my metaphysical principle ever were to become widely accepted, there’d be standard science which presumes perfect causality in all cases, as well as a much stigmatized “causal plus” form. This is the only effective use of metaphysics that I know of.

        View at Medium.com

        Liked by 1 person

        • James Cross says:

          There’s an interesting article out that explains quantum randomness with relativity. Very interesting, although the math is beyond me.

          https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1367-2630/ab76f7

          “Quantum mechanics is an incredibly successful theory and yet the statistical nature of its predictions is hard to accept and has been the subject of numerous debates. The notion of inherent randomness, something that happens without any cause, goes against our rational understanding of reality. To add to the puzzle, randomness that appears in non-relativistic quantum theory tacitly respects relativity, for example, it makes instantaneous signaling impossible. Here, we argue that this is because the special theory of relativity can itself account for such a random behavior. We show that the full mathematical structure of the Lorentz transformation, the one which includes the superluminal part, implies the emergence of non-deterministic dynamics, together with complex probability amplitudes and multiple trajectories. This indicates that the connections between the two seemingly different theories are deeper and more subtle than previously thought.”

          Liked by 1 person

      • That theory looks well beyond me James. But it either makes epistemological claims about uncertainty or ontological claims. If ontological then I’d put it in the supernatural form of science.

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        • anng says:

          Heizenberg’s Uncertainty Principle says that we cannot know both position and speed of what we call sub-atomic “particles”. That makes them sound rather like a spec-of-dust. But there’s no evidence that’s their actual shape. Quantum Mechanics also states that these “particles” can only hold energy in discrete packets – known as Quanta. So, the physicists 100 years ago added probability theory to their physics equations. However, probability theory is nowhere near perfect. (Here speaks a mathematician who believes that lines can have zero width!)

          Chaos Theory covers the situations where equations are deterministic, but can give a range of vastly different results however tiny the difference between starting points is.
          Example f(x)=x squared.
          To play with these issues, I strongly recommend looking at Santa Fe Institute.
          https://www.complexityexplorer.org/

          Liked by 2 people

        • Check me on this Anng (or anyone). It’s my understanding that matter/energy sometimes behaves more “particle” like, while other times it behaves more “wave” like. Though that’s pretty standard, as our measurements get more exacting in either regard, things seem to get quite weird. Particle measurement exactness confounds us with apparent wave dynamics, while wave measurement exactness confounds us with apparent particle dynamics. The net result is that we perceive things to occur with fundamental variability.

          Personally I take this to mean that we simply don’t grasp what’s going on well enough to perceive things correctly, but presume certainty in the end. And if matter is neither particle nor wave, though we must try to make do with those kinds of measurements, then why shouldn’t that be the case? But many interpret the uncertainty associated with our measurements to mean that causality itself fails in an ontological rather than just epistemic capacity. I refer to this as a “magical” interpretation given that effects aren’t ultimately caused to happen exactly as they do.

          Then still others aren’t happy with either of these interpretations and propose that there shouldn’t be any QM uncertainty. Instead each of the “wrong” possibilities in our universe do actually exist in separate universes — universes which emerge from ours given the provided QM circumstances! So if that last interpretation may effectively be assessed as “magic”, it seems to me that this next can be assessed as “Über magic to the nth degree”.

          The theme of my earlier commentary here is that my single principle of metaphysics might be helpful as a tenet of science. Thus science would be segregated into forms in which causality is presumed (as in my own QM interpretation), as well as forms in which causal dynamics may indeed fail (as seems to be the case under the other two interpretations).

          Liked by 2 people

        • anng says:

          The wave-particle duality refers to differing results that some experiments produce. Firstly, lets make sure that we know that the “wave” aspect is merely how properties go up and down over time. They’re not talking about actual waves nor actual particles.
          Millikan’s famous slit experiment on a single electron done one way comes out with an interference pattern like light would – which we all know is a wave because the electrical charge goes up and down over time. And with the experiment done a different way, behaves like a particle in that it only goes through one slit.

          I think subatomic particles are not like either an electomagnetic wave nor a “billiard ball” particle. In fact, I would be surprised if they weren’t just a smudge of a force or mass. I have come across the idea of space being underlain by a quantum mesh of energy.

          We humans can’t measure tiny particles like this without disturbing them.

          I like to start off with simple explanations – it used to work well with my children. Their GCSE teachers used to say “I can’t teach your child because the other children would get confused”!

          I had to look up the words “ontological” and “epistemic” but don’t think they’re useful for stuff we can’t see. Philosophers and some physicists may like using them because they sound learn-ed.

          Hope you’re OK with this.
          anng

          Liked by 1 person

        • anng says:

          In my last entry, I omitted an important word – Millikan’s Dual Slit experiment.

          Liked by 1 person

        • I’m definitely okay with your concerns Anng. In fact I detest how confused online resources (such as Wikipedia) happen to be. We all need effective definitions for specific terms from time to time, though instead we’re given definitions which reference any number of similarly esoteric terms which thus also require looking up, or potentially endless recursion. Apparently using standard English terms would be too helpful. Earlier this month I had the same conversation regarding epistemology with someone who called himself “Astronomer Eric”. (It was late in the 44 comments.) http://www.evphil.com/blog/consciousness-3-the-hard-problem

          “Ontology” seems used to reference what actually exists beyond mere conscious perceptions of what’s real. None of our senses address what’s objectively real for example, sometimes referred to as noumena, though do seem to remain effective constructs. They provide a medium from which existence is experienced. For example, if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Nope. “Sound” seems to exist as a construct of the conscious entity. This is to say that it’s merely phenomenal, or epistemological rather than ontological.

          So back to my point, some physicists aren’t satisfied considering Heisenberg’s principle epistemologically, or the way that all other effective principles in physics happen to be considered. This one is presumed to reference what exists in an objective capacity. Thus I’m saying that the void in causality associated with their interpretation may effectively be assessed as “magic”.

          Furthermore this certainty void isn’t sufficient for people like the amazingly gifted and well spoken Sean Carroll. His group gets what it wants by theorizing the emergence of endless universes (or “Many Worlds”) created by means of the non-fulfillment of the possibilities which didn’t end up being the case here.

          So I perceive three standard options to be in the mix today. Heisenberg’s principle could be interpreted epistemologically, and so conform with all other proposals in the field. Next it could be interpreted ontologically, and thus the associated void in causality may effectively be interpreted as “magic”. Or there could even be an ontological certainty of endless universes which emerge from our own each instant — effectively “Über magic to the nth degree”. Or if I’ve got this whole thing wrong, then I’d hope for someone to straighten me out!

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Wyrd Smythe says:

    “I’m going to say no,”

    Me, too! Case closed. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Steve Ruis says:

    Just so you’ll know, I am a retired chemistry professor with an academic minor in philosophy and a life-long fascination with the same.

    Modern science separated from “natural philosophy” about 400 years or so ago. The rump of metaphysics and the philosophy of science left behind (and developed since) is much diminished from what it was before. The big difference is, I believe, the emphasis on practicality of science. Science doesn’t look for truth at all, let alone fundamental truth, per se. Science looks for what works. Everything is provisional, but if it works, work it like a rented mule until it doesn’t anymore. This doesn’t mean that individual scientists didn’t look for fundamental truths (some still do) but it isn’t woven into the enterprise.

    I find the search to truth to be intellectually intoxicating and illusory at the same time. For example, to explain measurements and measurement uncertainty to my beginning chemistry students I walked them through measuring the length of one of the lab stables. We start from crude estimates, move on to meter sticks, steel measuring tapes, and proceed up to laser interferometers. All the while the the measurement uncertainty drops and drops. But the capper is that the odds of one end of the table being exactly parallel (or even flat) to the other is very, very small, so the “length of the table top” depends upon where you measure it. Basically this is a starting point on the wild ride of measurement science in which as we get better an better at the operations but the questions become more and more nebulous. Chemists talk about atomic diameters and radii as if atoms had an outer surface to measure to and from … they do not.

    I don’t think the universe is set up around universal truths and such are the stuff justifying the existence of philosophy, the word which still means the love of wisdom, and the wisdom is that universal truths are very hard to come by. And nature is the final arbiter of science, but philosophy is not experimental, and so loses that. Philosophy exists, I believe to teach us how to think, to grapple with questions, so questions that cannot be answered (either “yet” or maybe at all) are the fodder of philosophy because answers do not need to be found to learn how to address questions.

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  5. jjhiii24 says:

    James,
    As always, your postings precipitate really interesting conversations with your readers, and while I generally would advocate for the inclusion of metaphysics in any endeavor at some level, as you know, this seems to me not to be an “either or” issue. “Fundamental truths” may not naturally result from scientific endeavors, but perhaps their vital nature may simply be, as yet,undiscovered.

    Instead of framing the question in terms of whether or not employing metaphysics is necessary or useful in acquiring empirical knowledge of the unobservable, perhaps we should focus on figuring out how we might attempt to conceptualize reality—in principle—utilizing both metaphysical and scientific ideas, and how our scientific theories might be enhanced if a degree of authority is given to both the scientific method and to our philosophic approach to Metaphysics. To suggest that there is no role at all for any other approach than what science can devise in any endeavor of investigation flies in the face of what we all can verify subjectively—that we exist and experience that existence as a result of more than just scientific observations and experiments.

    Many cognitive scientists argue that intuitive and analytic thinking should not be viewed as opposites. Studies indicate that our decision-making often works best when we blend both strategies, and once we cross over into our intuitive sensibilities in our investigations, which ARE necessary for attaining optimal results, suddenly, the insubstantial or metaphysical components of our thinking become relevant.

    Albert Einstein, one of the preeminent thinkers of human history, who worked relentlessly to unravel the elemental laws of the universe, once wrote, “There is no logical way to the discovery of these elemental laws. There is only the way of intuition, which is helped by a feeling for the order lying behind the appearance.”

    Science may not require metaphysical background assumptions in order to be conducted and to reach definitive conclusions about physical processes and objective phenomena, but that’s like saying the NFL doesn’t require metaphysics in order to determine who goes to the Superbowl. Engaging in metaphysics or bringing metaphysical ideas to bear may not be necessary when conducting any number of different activities, but that doesn’t negate their usefulness, nor does it eliminate the possibility that incorporating such ideas might contribute in a significant way to our understanding generally.

    Liked by 1 person

    • James Cross says:

      Thanks for commenting.

      I am not necessarily saying metaphysics or philosophy has no use or that science is the only valuable form of knowledge.

      My reaction is more against two different viewpoints. One viewpoint is that of those that want to criticize “materialistic science” and expect that there should be some path for their unscientific views to be validated by science. The other viewpoint is that of scientists who think only the scientific viewpoint is valid and is the only path to truth.

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  6. Wyrd Smythe says:

    FWIW, I’ve come to think philosophy mainly falls into the category of things, such as music, art, and literature, that make life more rich and interesting. It is to some extent, as with literature, an examination of the human condition.

    And sometimes it’s just entertainment. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • James Cross says:

      I have mixed feelings about it. It is useful for sharpening logic and reasoning. There certainly are some valuable endeavors, I think, in the areas of ethics, morality, and political science; however, none of those can even indirectly be derived from science as best I can figure. I’m inclined right now to think the metaphysical stuff – materialism, idealism, dualism, etc – is all subject to something similar to Godel’s Theorem. If you start with some assumptions you can reach some conclusions but you can’t ever prove your assumptions.

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  7. Marilyn Morrison says:

    If we are looking to science for relationship of matter and how things react to one another, we should not forget to include humans and how they react to themselves and others. Our level of understand of the world must include, in my opinion how each of us sees ourselves in our inner word as we process outside experiences. We cannot simply excude man’s basis for being here. Why are we here. Internal questions must be asked and answered even though they may change as our understanding of science and humanity grow into a partnership to create a more inclusive world view. For example if with scientific discovery we asked, ” How can this discovery benefit mankind”, and proceed toward a positive outcome for both humanity and science we not only learn but also understand what we do with scientific knowledge affects humans a great deal. Its not what we learn through science, it is whether or not we ask the right question in the process of discovery.

    Liked by 1 person

    • James Cross says:

      I think this is similar to something I was trying to say in a comment above when I wrote:

      “There certainly are some valuable endeavors, I think, in the areas of ethics, morality, and political science; however, none of those can even indirectly be derived from science as best I can figure”.

      I certainly believe in equality, liberty, that I have an obligation to help others when I can and an obligation not to harm others. I can’t see any scientific reason for those beliefs but I can see that science can and should be of value in helping to implement them.

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      • Wyrd Smythe says:

        One can try: A central tenant of physics is that the laws are the same in all frames of reference. The Copernican principle removes the idea of privilege. Relativity teaches us things are relative to our own point of view.

        If one accepts that human consciousness is objectively remarkable, one can form a morality based essentially on reciprocity. Also known as the Golden Rule. “I am a sovereign unit with goals. So are others. I am not privileged; my point of view is relative. If I want others to accept my sovereignty, I must likewise accept that of others.”

        Which alone demonstrates how remarkable our minds are. If we took our lessons strictly from evolution and nature, we’d base morality on strength and personal survival. But we humans can rise above “selfish genes.”

        Liked by 1 person

        • James Cross says:

          I like your attempt but I think it is a stretch.

          I have pondered a similar in intent effort to derive morality from science.

          It starts with a definition of intelligence that it is process that maximizes future options and possibilities. On this basis, self-organizing slim molds, along with humans, are intelligent. Anything that diminishes future options and possibilities – for example, harming others, the environment, etc – would be unintelligent and, thereby,immoral. Taking self-sacrificing actions – to save or help others, for example – would be moral since they will maximize future possibilities. The possibilities and options we are maximizing have to be from a point of view outside self-interest.

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        • Wyrd Smythe says:

          What is the moral grounding for egalitarianism? Why should I not use my intelligence to maximize my future options and possibilities?

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        • James Cross says:

          I would say my attempt is a stretch too.

          However, egalitarianism, it could be argued, provides for more possibilities in society to emerge since it provides for input from a larger population base. An argument sometimes made for diversity in education.

          Most living beings, including most humans, act only to maximize their possibilities. But a more enlightened person would adopt a universal perspective and maximize the possibilities of the planet and ultimately the whole universe.

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        • Wyrd Smythe says:

          Well, yeah, moral philosophy is mostly ontology, so anti-realism applies to a lot of it. Kant had his Categorical Imperative, which I’ve found is a pretty good razor for specific actions (but less so for real life). It’s not a field with good answers. (Religion or spirituality — having a teleological metaphysics — makes it so much easier. 😀 )

          If I understand, you’re saying higher intelligence (being “enlightened”) leads to a moral view because it’s better for society, even if it’s not better for me?

          Why should I care about that? What value does the future of society have for me? What is the basis for this egalitarian view? (Opposed to strong survive, weak don’t.)

          In the absence of a metaphysics, the only thing I’ve ever found worthy of sovereignty is the “miracle” of higher consciousness. (In some sense, religion recognizes this and calls it a “soul”.) Human minds are amazing enough to deserve parity.

          Liked by 1 person

        • James Cross says:

          Yeah, but I would say maybe any minds, not just the human ones, which would be a strong argument for vegetarianism and a Buddhist no harm policy. However, I don’t personally follow that but sometimes I think maybe I should.

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        • Wyrd Smythe says:

          Many do place all minds on the same level. I don’t. I love animals, but don’t consider them my equals. I’m fully in touch with, and not ashamed of, my inner predator. 😀

          That said, industrialized meat production is horrific. I look forward to when I can get a good cloned tenderloin from a vat.

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  8. anng says:

    James,
    Looking at your title, “Does Science need Metaphysics” I rushed to the dictionary which says
    “the branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things, including abstract concepts such as being, knowing, identity, time, and space.- they would regard the question of the initial conditions for the universe as belonging to the realm of metaphysics or religion”
    I first connected Science and Religion when Fritjof Capra’s book, “The Tao of Physics” came out in 1975. He is still working in this area with “The Systems View of Life” being his latest book.
    The Science and Medical Network, https://explore.scimednet.org/ hosts good conferences. Last Nov they ran “Beyond the Brain” which was very good.
    An author I’ve read since the 90s, Physicist Chris Clarke is probably more what you’re thinking of with his book . He’s criticising the paradigms being used in physics with a Logical Positivism critique. He was working from the Schumacher Society, but unfortunately, recently died.

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