Physics and Metaphysics

In this article Frank asks about the relationship between the ‘how’ question and the ‘why’ question. As Prof John Lennox points out – science can tell you how the kettle works, the properties of electricity etc – it cannot tell you why you put the kettle on in the first place!

Physics and Metaphysics

The word ‘physics’ comes from the Greek word ‘physis’ which simply means nature. The word ‘metaphysics’ means beyond nature, and I will use it in the sense of the structure, function, organisation, and information in nature. A simple example will make this clear. Consider a mechanical clock. It is made up of gear wheel parts which are driven by a pendulum which itself is kept in motion by a wound-up spring. The physics of the clock is simply the mechanical bits that make up the clock so that it functions as a clock and keeps time. The metaphysics of the clock is the arrangement of these mechanical bits so that the clock functions as a time piece.

This arrangement is a type of value adding which is extra to the mechanical bits and cannot be found in the mechanical bits. The value adding includes design, engineering, information, creativity, and intention which orders the mechanical bits. This value adding is the metaphysics.  It is important to note that metaphysics is an extra on top of the bits and pieces making up the clock. Both are necessary but only one is readily measured – the physics. The metaphysics is equally there but is accessed by inference only. Thus, you can pull the clock apart and by careful observation or analysis, you can work out how the clock works and even understand how the gear wheels have been cut and their relationship to each other to turn the pendulum into time. What can only be obtained by inference from this are value adding questions such as why it has been made to work this way: its structure, function, and intention. We might call the latter the clock’s synthesis and at the very least acknowledge that a person was involved in the clock’s design and construction. However, inference is always incomplete and what one person infers is not what another might.

Science is the enterprise of understanding the physics of nature. Careful experimental and theoretical analysis allows an understanding of this nature and its many internal relationships. This is the supreme utility of science and therefore can be turned to our advantage in engineering, and medicine. We can creatively manipulate the world around us with this comprehension and understanding and its impact on human flourishing clearly seen. Of course, science is a human pursuit and is encompassed by human moral agency which also means science can be used as a destructive force.

The very enterprise of science inevitably opens the door to metaphysical inference as well.  Some would argue that it is not the job of science to support any metaphysical inference. However, science does have its own form of metaphysical syntheses: time & chance processes. Whether we are talking of stellar evolution, biological evolution, or social evolution, time and chance processes are arguably the main ingredients in the metaphysics of our universe. Whilst some may be satisfied with this as a sufficient answer, others consider it too unsophisticated to produce the structure, function, organisation, and fine tuning of the physical universe. This disquiet needs to be taken seriously and crosses over to areas beyond science’s capacity to provide sophisticated answers. Theoretical physicist Paul Davies writes,

“In my book ‘The Accidental Universe’ I have made a comprehensive study of all the apparent ‘accidents’ and ‘coincidences’ that seem to be necessary in order that important complex structures which we observe in the universe should exist. The sheer improbability that these felicitous concurrences could be the result of a series of exceptionally lucky accidents has prompted many scientists to agree with [Astronomer FRS – Sir Fred] Hoyle’s pronouncement that ‘the universe is a put-up job’…  The laws which enable the universe to come into being spontaneously seem themselves to be the product of exceedingly ingenious design. If physics is the product of design, the universe must have a purpose, and the evidence of modern physics suggests strongly to me that the purpose includes us” (‘Superforce – The Search for a Grand Unified Theory of Nature’, Davies, P., Heinemann: London, pp242-243, 1984)

I’m inclined to acknowledge, by reasonable inference, that there is a transcendent God which makes sense of it all.

Dr Frank Stootman

Do We Live in an Objective World? Dr Frank Stootman

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