Theoretical physics theories such as General/Special Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, Big Bang, String Theory (just stating the modern, popular ones) seems to stay in the "science" department, but shouldn't it (or, does it, as I don't really know what's the reality in the universities) be considered as metaphysics?

These theories seems to be in line with many other metaphysical theories from past philosophers (when the distinction from natural sciences didn't exist). Why isn't it today?

I should add to the question - if we do consider those theories as metaphysical, does they have a philosophical stand, without the need of a scientific approval? (of course the discussion around string theory comes to mind as related to this.)

  • I read the book "The Tao of Physics" by Fritjof Capra. The entire book is a demonstration of the parallels between the mystical experience and discoveries of modern physics. For me it was a mystical experience to read it. – Truth Reigns Feb 17 '18 at 21:57
  • Relativity has been confirmed with an eclipse observation in Brazil in 1919, and also with the atomic bomb converting matter into energy. Quantum mechanics also has many practical observations. Big Bang is a different story, and String Theory is a completely different story. – Rodrigo Feb 18 '18 at 0:42
  • These theories have metaphysical components, typically known as "interpretations". They also have mathematical formalisms that can be used largely independently of interpretations (hence agreement on predictions of quantum mechanics despite the assortment of widely diverging interpretations). One role of metaphysical components was emphacized by Feynman, "different views suggest different kinds of modifications which might be made and hence are not equivalent in the hypotheses one generates from them in one's attempt to understand what is not yet understood". – Conifold Feb 18 '18 at 22:27
  • @Conifold so should we (or even can we?) take these metaphysical components outside of the theory and treat them as metaphysics, instead of looking of the whole theory that combines multiple levels, thus being, for example, more difficult to criticize? – Yechiam Weiss Feb 18 '18 at 22:40
  • I do not see how ontology can be understood without at least some familiarity with the formalism. One of the problems of old natural philosophy (like Schelling's) was that it was too much a romantic flight of fancy and as a result sterile in practice, being more constrained in speculation/criticism is perhaps a blessing in disguise. – Conifold Feb 18 '18 at 22:51

In the first half of the 20th century a group of philosophers, called Vienna Circle, discussed the question: How to establish a border between science and metaphysics.

Prompted by their discussion but in contrast to their findings the Austrian philosopher Karl Popper stated the following demarcation criterion:

The difference between scientific and metaphysical statements is the fact, that the former can be falsified but the latter can not.

For Popper’s thesis see his book „The Logic of Scientific Discovery“.

Popper‘s thesis is in accordance with the fact, that scientific theories like the Theory of Relativity and Quantum Theory are open to falsification by observation. Up to now, these theories have not been falsified, there are no observations which contradict these theories. But we can identify there domain of validity.

On the other hand there is no scientific theory which includes Big Bang as an event. Big Bang is a limit of the cosmological standard model. But Big Bang is not part of the theory, because several physical quantities become tend to infinity when approaching Big Bang backwards in time. However, there are some scientific speculations how to embed Big Bang into a cyclic cosmological model.

The status of String Theory is highly debated. It is unclear whether String Theory makes any observable predictions at all. The question is whether String Theory is metaphysics or science. But in any case, String theory relies on an interesting mathematical theory.

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  • Scientific theories can be falsified while metaphysical theories can be refuted. Different things in an important sense but also similar in an important sense. . – user20253 Mar 16 '18 at 18:03
  • I thought the idea of falsification was to separate science from pseudo-science, no? – Yechiam Weiss Mar 16 '18 at 22:09

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