MadSci Network: Science History

Re: Does metaphysics explain the universe better/more accurately than science?

Date: Sun May 6 14:48:31 2012
Posted By: Jens Peter Bork, M.D., Internal Medicine, Erlangen University Hospital
Area of science: Science History
ID: 1333363888.Sh

Dear Rob,

I cannot give you a simple answer, but I will try my best. Since your questions are very general and basic, I can only hint in the direction to read further. As a starting point, you might be interested in looking up the terms you use in a renowned online dictionary such as this one:

  1. Is metaphysics (Aristotle, Aquinas) science?
    In current usage of the word, metaphysics is not science. Science relies on the reproducible observation, e. g. in the form of laboratory experiments or careful observation of natural phenomena, to make statements and predictions about those phenomena themselves, or about others of their kind. The tool that made science strong is the concept of the falsifiable theory:

    1. Observation: observe something in nature.
    2. Hypothesizing: think of a possible explanation.
    3. Making conclusions from your hypothesis: Ask yourself, that IF your explanation is true, how should what you observed behave under different circumstances, or how should similar but different objects behave under the same circumstances?
    4. Testing: find out if they do behave like your hypothesis says they should behave, or if they don't.
    5. Falsification vs. success in testing: If your objects behave like they should, your hypothesis MIGHT be right. If they don't, it probably is not. Either way, you can repeat the process and go back to step 2.

    There is no such process in metaphysics, so the two are different endeavours of the mind. That doesn't say that one is superior to the other.

  2. No empirical science can prove or demonstrate that materialism is true.
    Well, probably not, but not so fast. There are different uses of the word "materialism". In one sense, let's call it methodical materialism, materialism is inherent to science: We assume that all scientific questions (how big is the Earth? How old is the universe? What are insect wings made of?) have scientific answers, and only scientific answers. Used this way is one of the basic assumptions of science, not one of science's possible objectives, and thus, not provable by science. If you extend the use of the word materialism to something you could call "metaphysical materialism" it would mean something like: All meaningful questions are scientific questions, and all meaningful answers are scientific answers. These, however, are metaphysical statements, and thus, not science.

  3. Materialism is a philosophical assumption.
    In the case of "methodical materialism", materialism is an assumption, though an assumption very well borne out by the success of science (if you can wipe out humanity with atomic bombs, science cannot be all that wrong). In the case of "metaphysical materialism", materialism is not an assumption but a non-trivial metaphysical statement to be discussed in the framework of metaphysics (i.e., not science).

  4. Does metaphysics say more about the universe than physics?
    Well, what do you want to know? Metaphysics has not answered even ONE scientific question, even it was only, "what did you have for lunch yesterday?" No metaphysicist has ever shown us how big the Earth is, or how old; how a bumblebee can fly in spite of its ridiculously short wings, or how far away Alpha Centauri is. For that matter, no metaphysicist has told us if and if so, why, it is a good idea to drink clean water; has never made a light bulb shine; or made an atomic bomb go off. Speaking about the universe at large (very, very large), no metaphysicist can reliably answer how big, how old, how massive the Universe is or how, even approximately, it will look, in say, a trillion years from now. Science, however can tell us just that, as you may see here, for example: On the other hand, science simply doesn't tell you a thing about if or if not there is a creator (some scientists and philosophers of science will disagree here and answer that it does, and that the answer is “probably not”); if that girl across the dining hall is the right one for you; or if it is right or not to kill a killer. Metaphysics may help you in one or more of these problems, but since metaphysics (by definition) doesn‘t have the hypothesis – testing - falsification cycle, how are you going to know if the metaphysicist you are asking is right? Is that a "better" or "worse" explanation? I honestly don't know. It does get hairy here, but I hope I can be of help.

All the best,
Jens Peter Bork, MD

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