A. I have met the criticism that metaphysical theories doesn't/shouldn't care about (natural) science (=physics mostly, if not only), as in it doesn't really have a direct relation to it (such criticism was noted on several of my questions, and is pretty rational and probably true).

But I must admit, I'm rather confused. I'll start with a quote from Chalmers' article "Idealism and the Mind-body Problem":

The basic motivations for cosmopsychism and cosmic idealism are closely related to the motivations for panpsychism and micro-idealism. As with [panpsychism and micro-idealism] views, cosmopsychism and cosmic idealism can be jointly motivated through the success of science [my marking], the problem of consciousness, and the inscrutability of matter.

Now, this seem to be clearly connecting metaphysics with science (and not the only place; Chalmers also talks extensively about the relations of different idealistic theories with quantum mechanics, specifically quantum entanglement - for example: "[in talks about what Chalmers calls macro-idealism, meaning idealism in the 'normal-sized' bodies, such as humans and perhaps animals] it is also not easy to see how quantum entanglement can stably remain somewhere around the person level rather than spreading to the cosmic level...).

From the article (and from what I previously thought metaphysics were), it seems as though metaphysical theories need to at least be coherent with existing scientific theories (if not to be able to explain and predict scientific facts). This seems rather weird, as I got the impression from the arguments I had in this site that metaphysical theories shouldn't meddle with scientific theories, in such a way that there should be a strict distinction between the two fields. So what happened here? Did I understand Chalmers wrong? Did I understand the arguments wrong? (Did Chalmers understand metaphysics wrong?)

B. [considering separating to a different question, tell me in the comments if I should:] there's another thing I'm not sure about in metaphysics. It's the fundamental understanding of "meta" in metaphysics - I hear that it means "before" physics, as in what's the basis for physics, what's the underlying systematic view of the world. But if I remember correctly, metaphysics was originally coined by Aristotle as the next book of his physics - meaning that metaphysics is actually after physics. Any help here please?

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    What I am getting is that metaphysics should take results of science into account, perhaps even be motivated by them. German idealists instead had a dream of "better" Science drawn according to their principles, it did not go well. In Aristotle's corpus what was after Physics the editors labeled Metaphysics, it discussed "grander" matters. Whether one goes from the general to the concrete or the other way depends entirely on one's purposes. – Conifold Feb 21 '18 at 23:29
  • @Conifold didn't you specifically say that metaphysics should be strictly unrelated to science? If we go the path of "should take results of science into account, be motivated by them", wouldn't we come to the conclusion that metaphysics can be rejected by scientific findings, which I clearly remember some here argued against? – Yechiam Weiss Feb 21 '18 at 23:41
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    As I see it, neither of these can push the other around, but they both have to explain the same experiences. If you go in a Popper/Kuhn direction, physics also has to lag metaphysics, or contradict most of the alternatives, because it has to choose a metaphysical foundation for its definitions and stick with those until they are controverted. – jobermark Feb 22 '18 at 0:24
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    @JohnForkosh Weinberg doesn't know a lot about philosophy. Physicists all have a metaphysical baggage that they take on board with their theories, and metaphysics of science just tries to make these commitments explicit and coherent. They can be proven wrong by arguments. Physicists like Weinberg just want to leave their implicit commitments unexamined. – Quentin Ruyant Feb 22 '18 at 16:03
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    @JohnForkosh this is a complex matter but the failure of positivist programs tend to show that there's a continuity between science and metaphysics. The main reason is, roughly, that the core principles and laws of a theory are never confirmed or refuted directly by any experiment (only models that combine all laws/principles plus auxiliary hypotheses, implicit assumptions and practical knowledge are) So merely saying that a theory is true or approximately true, that is, using the theory as a description of reality, commits one somehow and the question of metaphysics is: to what? – Quentin Ruyant Feb 23 '18 at 10:08

Metaphysics stands before and after physics. It surrounds physics, standing between physics and Reality and a fundamental theory. Physics is not fundamental and will never have such a theory. If we want a fundamental theory we must study metaphysics. That is to say, if we want to explain the phenomena studied by physics we must transcend physics.

Metaphysics must always take full account of physics and should explain it. Chalmers' article illustrates the relationship. The problem of consciousness, the inscrutability of matter etc., must be taken into account and explained within a metaphysical theory if the theory is to be plausible and useful.

Metaphysics is the boardroom of knowledge where the big decisions are taken. The natural sciences form a working party dealing with the world of appearances and reporting back to the the Board. The Board must take full account of these reports but its task takes it well beyond the limited realm of the empirical sciences.

  • I like how you keep this thread alive :) and wow, I never thought of metaphysics in the analogy you use in the last paragraph. I wonder though if contemporary philosophy treat metaphysics-physics relation that way. – Yechiam Weiss May 26 '18 at 13:09
  • @YechiamWeiss - Mainstream contemporary philosophy seems to care little for metaphysics. (With, I would say, predictable results). ,. – PeterJ May 27 '18 at 9:36
  • and non-mainstream? You have anyone in mind for me to read? – Yechiam Weiss May 27 '18 at 9:53
  • @YechiamWeiss - Names that come to mind are Francis Bradley (Appearance and Reality), Hermann Weyl (Open World) Nagarjuna,(Fundamental Verses) George Spencer Brown (Laws of Form) , Paul Davies (Mind of God). These are some of my favourites. Other metaphyscians are usually good at proving that metaphysics does not produce a positive result but are rarely able to comprehend what this implies and so give up (Russell, Carnap, Dennett, Chalmers etc) . – PeterJ May 29 '18 at 11:44

I think this is a rather difficult question to address directly/compactly, but here's my take:

Firstly, "science" is a term that requires clarification. The existing practice of science involves both predictions of observable phenomena and also explanations (models, theories) of such phenomena.

Now, every metaphysical theory essentially has to accept the "predictive" aspect of science. For example, if you have a metaphysical theory that asserts purely divine mechanisms of disease and cure, and you refuse to use the scientific fact that antibiotics cure bacterial infections, pretty soon you'll run out of adherents. So all viable metaphysical theories have to accept/adjust to the "strong" facts (i.e. predictable patterns) that science discovers about the manifest world.

However, when we talk about the "explanatory" aspect of science, which pretty much always involves the use of certain entities or abstractions that are not directly observable, these explanations themselves are essentially (or at least heavily) metaphysics -- certainly in a positivist/empiricist sense. For example, science used to refer to something called "phlogiston" to explain the phenomena of burning; we know that it was a purely metaphysical entity, because it turned out not to exist! And nowadays we can talk about "gravity", which used to be considered a "force", but now is perhaps thought to be some characteristic of "curvature of spacetime", and in the future may get discarded in favor of another explanatory entity. Incidentally, there is nothing wrong with this -- science advances by testing various "metaphysical" models and keeping those that do not contradict observations. But it would be misleading, I think, to think of "science" and "metaphysics" as some completely unrelated intellectual pursuits, because at least the practice of science certainly involves metaphysics to a significant extent.

To summarize so far: 1. When it comes to prediction of observed phenomena in the manifest world, any metaphysical theory has to yield to science (and indeed whatever can be predicted accurately immediately becomes part of science). 2. When it comes to explanations of either the manifest or some kind of other "ultimate" reality, one can't easily contrast metaphysical vs. "scientific" explanation, because any such explanation can be viewed as fundamentally metaphysical -- as soon as it involves something that's not directly observable.

So, at best, we can perhaps ask whether a particular metaphysical theory A does (or should) accept another metaphysical theory B that is prevalent in the scientific community. And I can't think of any generic answer here. It may, but it doesn't have to, and often doesn't. Which is not particularly surprising, for even within the scientific community, at various times different groups of scientists also prefer different (explanatory) theories.

IMO, it comes down to the criteria by which to judge the goodness of an explanatory (metaphysical) theory. Scientific theories tend to be more economical (in the use of unobservabe entities), designed to be falsifiable in some way, reuse existing terms from accepted theories, etc. "General" metaphysical theories tend to focus on a certain kind of simplicity, or aesthetic beauty, or ethical considerations, or emotional needs, etc. Whatever one thinks are the most important criteria (of explanation) will guide one's choice of theory. And then one will tend to view other theories, including scientific ones, also in terms of how well they satisfy one's preferred criteria.

For example, if your preferred criteria is to minimize the number of unobservable entities in a theory, you might choose/build a metaphysical theory that mimics existing scientific theories, re-uses some of the same terms (e.g. "quantum entanglement"), etc. Or, you might minimize the unobservables by choosing a theory where "everything" is explainable in terms of a single unobservable Being. In both cases, you'd likely prefer to fly on a plane built using "pure" scientific facts (i.e. wings generate lift, etc); but your explanations might range from a (scientific) "this is simply how the universe works" to a (theistic) "this is how Being designed this universe to work".


I'd suggest whether or not "metaphysics should care about physics" all depends on how close current physical theory actually is to the "ultimate truth" (whatever that might be, if it even exists).

On the one hand, suppose current physical theory is indeed very close to the so-called "theory of everything", and that only a few more bells-and-whistles are needed to construct a completely satisfactory theory of all existence, with no loose ends remaining whatsoever. Then, yeah, metaphysics should care lots about what physics is saying, because the entire metaphysics programme would just amount to an interpretation of exactly that perfect final theory.

On the other hand, ancient Greek metaphysicians would have been well-advised not to care about the epicycle theory of planetary motion, which was based on the topsy-turvy wrong idea that the Sun and planets revolve around the Earth (at least they got it right about the Moon). So grounding your metaphysics on that entirely wrong physics gets you nowhere: garbage-in, garbage-out.

So is today's physics finally barking up the right metaphysical tree, or is it just an epicycles-like numbers game intricately manipulated to obtain results that agree with observations, but based on an entirely erroneous conception of reality? If forced to place a bet, I'd personally bet on erroneous simply due to the odds, i.e., "there are more things in heaven and earth...". Moreover, it's more metaphysical fun to dream up something entirely new, but then it's dangerous to take such dreams too seriously, which seems to be an under-recognized problem by some metaphysicians.

Edit (reply to @YechiamWeiss comment)

copy of Y.W.'s comment:   It seems to me like you're switching the metaphysics and physics in their relation - it's physics that's (supposedly) built upon metaphysics, not the other way around.

Maybe metaphysicians (philosophers of science) think physics is "supposedly built" [your words] on metaphysics, but that's not what the physicists doing the actual building think. And although they (physicists) typically can't help having some metaphysical predispositions, that isn't typically the ultimate determining factor in the direction of their research. Experimental observations and then mathematical elegance more typically are. In the long run, an elegant metaphysics that's also consistent with the physics hopefully emerges, in which case you can reconstruct the entire edifice as though ground-up/ab initio based on the foundational metaphysics. And that'll be more elegant, but it won't be what historically happened.

To wit, note the "shut up and calculate" school of thought https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Shut_up_and_calculate which explicitly (and maybe a little facetiously) downplays any role for metaphysics, although the "shut up and contemplate" alternative also cited there somewhat softens that position.

There may be some philosophers who hold the "physics that's (supposedly) built upon metaphysics" position, but in my opinion that's pretty (and totally unjustifiably) pompous. It presupposes the intelligence/insight/whatever to more-or-less foundationally intuit the world through pure thought alone. However, for example, there's not one single philosopher nor one single physicist who anticipated any of the non-classical aspects of the world that came to light in the twentieth (and very late nineteenth) century. Everybody got dragged kicking and screaming into that new view of reality. But at least the physicists completely openly admitted their own prior stupidity (okay, eventually admitted), whereas my sense is that philosophers aren't quite so open about that (although I know next-to-nothing about it).

In any case, admitted or not, it's true. And that suggests experimental evidence is a necessary crutch for human thought about the nature of the world. It happened with epicycles, it happened with phlogiston, with the atomic/molecular theory of matter/chemistry, with non-Galilean relativity, with discrete quanta, etc, etc. So are you now trying to tell me that philosophers are finally equipped with everything they need to know, whereby their pure thought alone will come up with the correct foundational picture of the world??? I don't think so!!!

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    It seems to me like you're switching the metaphysics and physics in their relation - it's physics that's (supposedly) build upon metaphysics, not the other way around. – Yechiam Weiss Feb 23 '18 at 9:18
  • @YechiamWeiss please see "edit" above for (too lengthy for comment) reply to your comment. – John Forkosh Feb 23 '18 at 10:34
  • You're assuming metaphysics stands on its own and physics stands on its own. "philosophers are equipped with everything they need to know, whereby their pure thought alone will come up with the correct foundational picture of the world", is one field of metaphysics, usually called speculative natural philosophy (which is, admittedly sadly for me, pretty much gone now). Metaphysics isn't only that. It's also the thought of how we perceive the world, how the world is build prior to the empirical research- – Yechiam Weiss Feb 23 '18 at 15:23
  • and even the "shut up and calculate" thought is inherently based on metaphysical assumption - that which is often called positivism. – Yechiam Weiss Feb 23 '18 at 15:23
  • @YechiamWeiss Re "It's also the thought of how we perceive the world, how the world is build [note: that should be "built"] prior to the empirical research", okay, my bad. I'm apparently barking up the wrong tree with respect to your question. Indeed, I was only vaguely aware of your tree. I think physics necessarily (it has no other choice) interprets perception with respect to the verifiably reproducible behavior of well-defined apparatus. Beyond that, consciousness/perception/qualia/whatever, is beyond the realm of physics. So in that realm, you shouldn't even be mentioning physics. – John Forkosh Feb 24 '18 at 4:30

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