Metaphysics: not science

Metaphysics is a dark ocean without shores or lighthouse, strewn with many a philosophic wreck.

Immanuel Kant

Metaphysics is really the branch of philosophy that contemplates the questions of existence, being, the origin of the Universe and similar questions. Unfortunately, the term has also been perverted to mean spiritualism, magic and “experiences beyond physics”.

Let us look at the dictionary definition:

  1. the branch of philosophy that treats of first principles, includes ontology and cosmology, and is intimately connected with epistemology.
  2. philosophy, especially in its more abstruse branches.
  3. the underlying theoretical principles of a subject or field of inquiry.

which we adapt from

Why it is not science

On the face of it metaphysics seem to be very similar to science. Both subjects want to understand the natural world around us.

The big difference is that science is based on empirical evidence. Science is about exploring the world around us and putting our theories to the test by making empirical predictions. A theory is only scientific if it, at least in principle, makes predictions that we can test.

This is very closely related to the scientific method, which serves as a guideline to scientific thinking. Simplified the scientific method is

  1. Observation: use your experience of the world. Consider some phenomena.
  2. Theory: make some mathematical theory that explains the said phenomena.
  3. Prediction: use your mathematical theory to make predictions beyond the initial phenomena.
  4. Test: you now look for the predicted phenomena. If you don’t find it you go back to step 2.

The above is of course over simplified and idealistic. The point is one has to make clear predictions that can be tested.

Metaphysics fails here

Metaphysics is not constrained in this way. Metaphysical ideas cannot usually be put to the test via empirical evidence. This means they cannot be falsified. Importantly this means that differing positions in metaphysics cannot be supported or refuted based on experimental evidence.

Therefore, metaphysics requires some belief. You can argue a metaphysical position based on your opinion and maybe some philosophical consequences of this position. However, you could never appeal to experimental or observational evidence. If you could, it would be science!

The lesson for us all

So, when people make claims that they have a theory of everything or a theory of the atom based on high school mathematics or any thing similar you must ask yourself “is it science?”

By this I mean they should have a mathematical framework in which one can make calculations of physical phenomena that can, at least in principle be tested.

If this is not the case then at best it is metaphysics, at worse pseudoscience.

When he to whom one speaks does not understand, and he who speaks himself does not understand, that is metaphysics.