Geoffrey Catchpole, Member, on 1 October, 2002.

I will begin with definitions, explore the relevant history, review implications and draw some conclusions.

Definitions (Concise Oxford Dictionary and Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Physics -The science dealing with the properties and interactions of matter and energy (from the Greek `phusika'- natural things- and from `phusis' - nature ).(COD)

Physics - A science that deals with the structure of matter and the interactions between the fundamental constituents of the observable universe…Physics can at base be defined as the science of matter, motion and energy whose laws are typically expressed with economy and precision in the language of mathematics. (EB)

Metaphysics - 1. The theoretical philosophy of being and knowing. 2. The philosophy of mind. 3.Colloquial - abstract or subtle talk; mere theory. (Derivation: Middle English `metaphysic' via Old French `metaphysique' from Medieval Latin `metaphysica', ultimately from Greek `ta meta ta phusika'= `the things after the Physics', from the sequence of Aristotle's works.) (COD)

Metaphysics - An enquiry into what exists…to determine what is truly real. (EB)


The Greeks Pre-Socrates Greeks faced chaos and sought order. The Ionians developed a materialist cosmology until Parmenides and followers distinguished mind from matter. Post-Socratic thinkers such as Plato (and Bradley later) were actually criticizing conventional views - looking behind appearances for simple, unchanging and stable foundations - developing metaphysics in order to synthesise the specialist sciences of their times and to incorporate moral, legal, aesthetic and religious aspects of human life. Plato argued that mathematicians hypothesise truths and deduce from them, whereas `Dialecticians' seek foundations. The study of `first principles' (Bradley's view of metaphysics) is based on the Greek `archai' - i.e. a primary premise or ultimate pre-supposition. While the Pythagoreans originated natural rather than divine origins for the cosmos, thus promoting mathematical physics, Aristotle proposed a teleological natural history. However - as Victor Suchar pointed out in his talk on Whitehead - Nietzsche argued that Plato's claims for the primacy of reason and morality were based upon his postulates of `Forms' , such as the `Idea of the Good', and that the foundation of social order on ideas of a natural order are in fact impositions by philosophers, not discoveries. Illusions may help to make sense of life, but they remain illusions. From Aristotle to at least the 18th century metaphysical accounts were directed to the ontology of fundamental reality in general relation to problems of identity/difference and unity/plurality. (While Aristotle himself referred to `theology', the term later ascribed to his area of discussion was `metaphysics'.)

The 17th Century Particular sciences, including physics, were too independent of each other to count collectively as `science', a single system. Even if unified it would not have served for metaphysics, since methods differ. Rationalists saw metaphysics as deductive systems based on a concept of fundamental substance - e.g. for Berkeley minds/spirits, for Leibniz `monads' (centres of experience), for Spinoza `God' or Nature' (i.e. everything). Even Descartes, primarily concerned with mathematics - particularly geometry - saw scientific method as deduction from the self-evident - for him God, mind and matter.

Concepts of substance, quality and relation are interdependent, but ideas of ultimate reality are seen as independent, self-caused and basic, underlying science. The metaphysical ideal is a fully explanatory and coherent account of reality, different from commonsense views based upon unreliable and unstable appearances. Concepts of time, space, thing, attribute, change, process, etc. are all open to challenge. While science offers more precise and defined concepts, it is seen as merely providing a connected quantitative description of phenomena, abstracted from experiences of everyday life and thus its presuppositions are suspect, even if practical results are dependable.

The 18th Century Since the 18th Century most philosophers have accepted that the supersensible cannot be known about or of, directly or by inference.

Hume argued that ideas are not innate - they originate in experience. Deductive relationships of ideas simply reflect logic and are necessarily true only because of that, while factual propositions are falsifiable. Moreover, causality is only regularity of precedence of experience, so it may not be used to link the sensible and supersensible. For him `true metaphysics' is critical reflection, although his ultimates were the sense-impressions themselves. Kant was also concerned with direct human experience, but he favoured an immanent rather than a transcendent metaphysics. Although knowledge of the supersensible is impossible, he thought that examination of the presuppositions of experience could be put `on the sure path of science' and that beliefs about God, freedom and immortality are necessary beliefs. The senses supply intuitions, but general descriptions of particular experiences depend upon concepts resulting from understanding. However, concepts alone (such as those of cause and substance) cannot produce knowledge, although some concepts are `a priori' (before experience), which affect feelings and morals. He argued for what must be thought, not what can be known, and gave antitheses to general metaphysical theses about God, existence, etc. For him, supersensibles exist but cannot be known, because our thinking is based upon particulars.

The 19th Century While Kant wanted to examine the presuppositions of science, which result from our limitations to spatio-temporal possibilities, and conditions for everyday experience, Bradley did not. {Quote} While he declared once that metaphysics consists in "finding bad reasons for what one believes upon instinct" he claimed to seek "reality as against mere appearance" through revealing the ultimate features which underpin a rational account of experience. He and others claimed that metaphysical propositions (such as `cogito ergo sum' ) cannot be denied without paradox - i.e. denying thinking needs thought and denying existence requires existence. Against that, it has been pointed out that Materialism or Aristotelian teleology can properly be denied. Bradley's Idealism and the `Absolute' of his German counterpart Hegel are equally vulnerable to denial.

The 20th Century Reaction to Idealist metaphysics began with Moore, who emphasized the claims of commonsense, and by Logical Positivists (following Comte's relegation of metaphysics to a phase between superstition and science) who saw metaphysics as essentially emotive. Their credo was `only what can be verified can be claimed to be true'. Critics pointed out that claims about generality and history are clearly not meaningless, whatever the status of aesthetics, ethics, religion, etc. may be. Carnap argued against Moore that commonsense is internally self-serving and he asserted that any consistent system could rationally serve us (excluding those grounded on strangeness or complexity). Attention then turned to presuppositions both inside and outside such systems. Wittgenstein focused on language, since contexts determine meanings, but conceding that what cannot be said may be shown. Anthony Quinton said that Wittgenstein saw philosophy as "local, piecemeal clarification of our existing conceptual equipment".

Hume had shown that both realist and transcendentalist concepts (such as Spinoza's `God', Kant's `Categories' and Leibniz's `Nature') are metaphysical creations. Kant showed that we cannot escape our spatio-temporal experience - science is based upon our concept of cause and effect, obligatory to our thought - we cannot comprehend the incomprehensible. Wittgenstein declared that once we had played our language games "we must pull up the ladder". Yet, as Victor Suchar explained in an earlier talk here, the approach to experience by both Carnap (with respect to science) and Whitehead (in terms of organicism) amount to systematic constructions worthy of thought. Whitehead argued that experience is built from data, but its changing nature reflects a logic of all possible experience, which allows both induction in science and religious speculation to be accommodated within a rational account.


It may now be claimed that at least transcendental metaphysics is invalid, but the pursuit of knowledge (epistemology) is not. Examination continues of conditions necessary for knowledge, through investigation of such terms as `existence', `truth', `similarity/difference', `possibility/impossibility', `certainty/uncertainty', etc. If what is essential is decided (as in metaphysical systems) deductions can be made, but that is the crux of the problem. Hume argued that existence is not a property - every concept entails its existence. It was also shown that Locke's `causation' was giving substance to a linguistic entity.

Metaphysical statements can be made and examined variously. Unlike the Logical Positivists, Kant did not dismiss them without examination and refutation, one by one. Lately, attention has been directed to contexts, identity confusions and the uses of key concepts, although variety in nature and the limits of what can be known are still subjects of interest. Recently, Mary Warnock, who agrees that uses and contexts are crucial , nevertheless claimed that "any argument or statement can be metaphysical". Anthony Quinton disagreed - although some use the term for any counter-intuitive, paradoxical thesis, he does not accept that any statement can be metaphysical. He counter-argued that "No statement can be metaphysical unless it is at once substantial, not a definitional truism and is highly general". He agrees, however, that `we must look at the reasons for which it is made'. He noted that metaphysical statements need not be paradoxical (e.g. `survival of death is impossible') and paradoxical statements need not be metaphysical (`All human actions are selfish'). In that context we may note that televised shows in the United States that offer communication with the dead have proliferated since September 11th 2001 and that a professorial commentator has suggested that public familiarity with the concept of invisible energy has been boosted by mobile phones, microwave ovens and discussion on the age of the Universe. Thus, the concept of post-death survival would appear neither paradoxical nor counter-intuitive - nor, perhaps, metaphysical?

`Intuition' is often now stated as the origin of a fundamental discovery in science and mathematics, although some philosophers have dismissed it as `neurosis'. It is generally accepted however that deduction from axioms - even `probabilities' if quantifiable - is a valid form of argument when rigorously conducted, while empirical induction can still be challenged as falsifiable, however rigorous. Thus the task of the metaphysician today has been summarized by one writer as `to speculate on questions not yet soluble, to co-ordinate knowledge and to criticize assumptions'. Quinton comments that metaphysicians generally recommend conceptual frameworks of experience in order to resolve partial conflicts in physics, psychology and biology, often usefully. Further, Cartesian dualism stimulated 17th Century physics (which in turn influenced Hobbes, for example) and Hegel's concern with human then cosmic history stimulated historical studies. The pursuit of knowledge per se, however, has been linked since the Greeks with morals, emotions and aesthetics, and a concept of `mind'(about which more later). Notwithstanding his own metaphysics, Bradley said "All philosophy has to do is to understand what is, and moral philosophy has to understand morals which exist, not to make them or give directions for making them".

Challenging orthodoxies This is a brief review of some contemporaries who are probing beneath the surface of experience. At one end of the spectrum is Roger Penrose, well known for his Platonism, who believes that pure mathematical truths exist behind a contingent universe. More central is Hilary Putnam, first a Carnap follower, then a realist who accepted scientific theories as approximate truths, then (post-Wittgenstein) abandoning theorizing in favour of examining how we use concepts of meaning and truth. Similarly, A.C.Grayling, in his recent book `The Meaning of Things', claims that meaning `lies not in things themselves but in our attitudes to them', referring however in particular to `fear, happiness, faith, ambition, art' etc. (In that context we should perhaps note a commentator who recently claimed that Andy Warhol's depiction of an electric chair is where `metaphysics and physics meet'.) As challenging in another sector are views represented by David Lewis (recently deceased) who was described as a `modal realist', since he regarded the possibility of many universes to be real. There are those also who look to biology for enlightenment - John Polkinghorne representing one wing, who challenges creationists to accept the verdicts of science, but sees continuous creation by creatures who are' allowed to make themselves' in co-operation with a God who created an evolutionary universe. On another wing are biophysicists such as B.S. Chandrasekhar, accepting both classical and quantum mechanics, who seek to add `artistry in approximating and the wisdom to know when to stop' in biology, as earlier in physics.

The traditional problem of reconciling accounts of the animate and inanimate worlds is seen now in contemporary concern for the status of `mind'. If dualism is rejected in favour of materialism scientific explanation faces a problem of `consciousness', but if `mind' (like `God') is seen as a prime mover, it may stimulate the search for meaning and morality but it is both irrefutable and not provable. Epiphenomenalism sees mind simply as a fortuitous effect of a purposeless material world, but offers little else. Putnam links `mind' with the real world through his claim that `mind is a system of object-involving capacities', but Joseph Le Doux (Prospect, August 2002) amplifies this approach in linking this with `self' and `personality'. `The self is in essence a complex set of implicit and explicit memories'. `Self is synoptic…Synopses are simply the brain's way of receiving, storing and retrieving our personalities, as determined by all the psychological, cultural and genetic factors'. Given that type of explanation, he maintains that "We do not have to sacrifice the other ways of understanding existence". An opposing view is put by Nicholas Maxwell, who distinguishes `mental, experiential or human aspects of what exists from the physical aspects'. He claims that `the silence of physics about the experiential provides no grounds whatsoever for holding, as some suppose, that the experiential does not really objectively exist…Personalistic explanation is compatible with, but not reducible to scientific or physical explanation, because it presupposes the experiential which is not reducible to the physical…Consciousness can be understood, up to a point, personalistically, but is resistant to scientific explanation'.

Some concluding observations

Metaphysicians may perhaps be described as those who seek to make sense of both physical and social worlds through what Victor has described as the philosopher's task of freeing people from illusions - themselves included I would suggest. Their tools have been described as speculation, co-ordination and criticism. It may also be observed that their views and approaches reflect those of their own time, as with the sciences. The Greeks faced chaotic times and sought order, first in materialist cosmology, then through political and moral philosophy. Much later, people like Collingwood argued that metaphysicians expose the presuppositions of science at a particular epoch. Whitehead claimed that each epoch has basic assumptions that shape the thoughts and arguments of the time. In our time Kuhn looked at the history of revolutionary fundamental changes in scientific thought and drew conclusions on the processes of such change, noting in particular the resistance by an established order to change. (A current example may be that of Janna Levin, who is a theoretical physicist whose study of spinning black holes has led her to propose revision of the established view of cosmological simplicity and regularity through chaos and complexity theories - great hostility has been evident.) Some critics, however, have regretted the loss of theological, political and ethical discussion by philosophers since the 1950s, welcoming the abandonment of metaphysical systems but deploring the `trifles', the logic-chopping and lack of `concrete guidance' which replaced them.

Philosophical argument may well turn in future on the explosive effects of the new sciences, producing and benefiting in turn from the new technologies now being developed. Revolutions in thought can still be anticipated from various quarters. Paul Dirac, a mathematician responsible for some recent fundamental advances in science, claimed that `intuition' and a concept of `beauty' initiated his contributions, whereas reported evidence from quasar observations suggests that the speed of light has changed, which threatens the Einstein constant and theories of the origin and spatio-temporal relativity of the universe. In philosophy consideration of complexity is prompting `emergence' theories and a commentator has suggested that philosophy and physics are now merging into `foundations of physics'.

Old chestnuts tend to persist, however, possibly because we cannot think otherwise, and I conclude with two questions you may care to address. 1.Does design necessarily imply a Designer? 2. Is the encyclopaedism needed for a `theory of everything' now beyond us ?

Geoffrey Catchpole