It is all very meta...

This is my first post, and it is based on an email that I sent my girlfriend regarding my musings on finding value in metaphysics. It's not too Philosophy heavy and should hopefully give you a feel for where I am coming from on the Philosophy side. Feedback is always appreciated.


It’s all very Meta...

Metaphysics always bothered me at university. It was the branch of philosophy that felt the least "real", which for me always meant the least applicable to real life. With disciplines like ethics, epistemology (theory of knowledge), philosophy of religion and history of philosophy, there were genuine real world ways that you could apply what you learned and the debates were often about things that mattered to me. Metaphysics to me always felt a bit like it was dabbling where it shouldn't have - the subject that sat somewhere between subjects like science, reason, logic and religion, theology and faith.


Metaphysics is probably best explained as attempting to describe the nature of the world and what is in it, but I could never escape the feeling that physics and science just did this better. A good analogy would be similar to homeopathy and medicine. Medicine describes, explains and proves why certain drugs work and others do not. Homeopathy fills in the blanks with an explanation that makes little or no sense and is based on faith. As Tim Minchin said, once something has been proven to work, it ceases to be pseudo-medicine and becomes just medicine. The same could be said for meta-physics and physics - as soon as something is actually explained, it ceases to be meta-physics and becomes physics.


The problem was, I really liked metaphysics on occasions, which as someone who is reasonable and logical, this never sat well with me. To carry on the analogy, it would be a bit like a qualified doctor saying "sure, I know that homeopathy is pseudo-science, but, you know, I just happen to like it!". That clearly would never fly. I've been mulling this over and while I don't tend to read much by the way of metaphysics, I still really enjoy it. There are some really cool subjects that are discussed in it. I'll give you a few examples.


Possible Worlds - Some people believe that for everything you can possibly conceive of, a possible world where that option plays out actually exists. This is beyond the "multiple universes" theory, rather it is a case of every idea and independent thought that can possibly happen, can and does in some possible world. This is an important tool in establishing free will as it allows you to say that we know that "things could have been otherwise than they are". I always enjoyed this debate


A brain in a box - How can I prove I exist? Descartes famous statement of "I think therefore I am" or "cogito ergo sum"  is considered one of the foundations of modern philosophy and an important step in establishing a proof that we really do exist. Of course, some critics responded with the only part of that statement that anyone can actually prove is "cogito" - I think, because there is no logic that allows you to prove the I am" bit, that is itself a spiritual leap, and one that Descartes made without telling you he was doing so.


Time travel - the theory of time travel was fascinating stuff, partly because it mixed physics and philosophy, but also because I enjoyed the my lecturers offering a compelling explanation as to why you could only ever travel backwards from the direction time was running. However, time can run either way, i.e. backwards or forwards depending on which "way" the universe was expanding or contracting. This blended classical philosophy with quantum mechanics and really, ummmm, cooked your noodle, for want of a better description when you thought about someone travelling backwards in time from a period where time was running backwards and what effect this had on causation.


So you can kind-of see, the topics themselves are interesting. They are also often highly theoretical and this led me to ask how useful they are to debate, discuss and think about. While somewhat questionable, I always enjoyed them. This morning, while out for a run, I was doing what all good philosophers do, and was asking myself "why"? I think I came up with an answer after, genuinely, years of wondering this.


I think that looking at metaphysics as the pseudo-science to disciplines like physics, reason and logic is wrong, that is to take metaphysics at face value and to miss the point of it. Metaphysics is to philosophy as art is to science. The value in metaphysics comes not from literal absolute meaning of it - works of art are much more than the canvas they are painted on and chemicals the paint is made of. The value of art is in aspects like the cultural importance of painting at the time, the discipline and skill in creating the painting itself, the meaning and the message of painting, the beauty in how it is constructed and many other reasons. To look at a painting and see the just the canvas is, often to miss the point - there are many other reasons that make the painting beautiful, of value and intellectually stimulating. 


The same can be said for metaphysics - the value is that discussing and thinking about these subjects is in itself an exercise in mental reasoning, allows you to shape your thinking about issues that haven't yet been thought of and ask questions that have not yet been asked, let alone answered by science and other subjects. As a discipline, it can also deal with things like the nature of artistic beauty, aesthetic quality and mathematical beauty, asking questions that straddle both art and science. For example, why do we find beauty in paintings that are have Fibonacci numbers, or why are humans fascinated with irrational numbers and what is it that makes the ideas of subjects like solipsism (i.e. I am the only one in the universe) and time travel frightening and exciting?


I've kind of settled on the idea that the value in metaphysics comes from the value of thinking about the ideas themselves and how they can stretch, challenge shape peoples thinking. Metaphysics brings out our creative side of Philosophy and straddles the disciplines of science and art, often asking questions that other subjects and branches of philosophy refuse to ask. Metaphysics, like art, is valuable not just for what it is literally, but for what it can inspire in people and the questions it can make people ask.

And that counts for something, particularly in a world where too many people are afraid to ask the simplest of questions.