Marrying Science and Metaphysics
July 12, 2020
A Transcendental Science
Before taking the first course for my philosophy minor, I didn’t know how to define metaphysics or how it related to science. I figured metaphysics was speculation about only non-physical or other-worldly phenomena. I thought that metaphysics was a set of belief systems that one could choose to add onto their scientific knowledge. What I have learned is that, regardless of how immaterial or unscientific a metaphysical system may be, each is grounded in reason and presented as a logically sound argument. Science and metaphysics are both essential forms of knowledge that we should pursue with equal vigor.
Similar to the scientific method, metaphysical systems are based on hypotheses that are each supported by evidence. In the case of science, that evidence is empirical, measurable, and objective. With metaphysics, the evidence is one layer removed from the physical — extrapolated from experience — so it is subjective and immeasurable. Metaphysical systems are presented such that if you accept all of the hypotheses, then the conclusions logically follow. The difference is that in science, you can use evidence as proof, whereas metaphysical evidence immaterial and can only be used to improve (not to prove) an argument.
It is true for both science and metaphysics that it is up the individual to decide whether:
- The hypotheses are valid as they are given
- The conclusion follows from the hypotheses
Science and metaphysics address two different sets of questions, but their answers are equally rigorous. Both present evidence and gradually construct cohesive, logically sound systems. Both describe how the world operates, and, most notably, both attempt to ascertain what is real.
Immanuel Kant popularized the terms “a priori” and “a posteriori” to describe two different types of knowledge. That which is a priori is from intuition, born from our reasoning alone and not conditioned on empirical evidence. A posteriori knowledge is that which is gained through experience — empirical knowledge. Do you agree that there is some knowledge you have that is independent of your experiences?
Metaphysics answers a priori questions and science answers a posteriori questions. With that demarcation in mind, I have come to think of metaphysics as “transcendental science.” A priori questions are transcendental because they are prompted by reason alone and not dependent on empirical, sensuous experience. The term “transcendental” is referencing Kant’s “transcendental ideas,” which I will explore in in the next section.
Kant and Freedom
One transcendental idea that Kant identifies is freedom. He proves the existence of freedom by first claiming that there must be at least one force other than the natural laws of causality to govern phenomena (events of any kind and the happenings of the universe). An exclusively cause-and-effect relationship breaks down when you trace the chain back to its origin. Was the beginning of the universe an effect or a cause? Kant claims that no phenomenon is an end in itself, meaning that it is conditioned on preceding phenomena (1). By that logic, the beginning of the universe would be merely an effect of some previous cause. Where does this series of phenomena really begin? If the world is only governed by causality, then there is no beginning, only the effect of some earlier cause.
Subsequently, Kant claims that if you believe there is a beginning to the universe, then you must accept that there is some force other than causality that governs phenomena. He calls that force freedom. This idea of freedom is transcendental because it is born from reason alone — a priori — and cannot be directly experienced, unlike cause and effect. Kant defines freedom as the “spontaneity of cause,” or that which initiates a series of phenomena (1). Only ends in themselves, like you and me, have the power to be the spontaneity of cause — to transcend natural laws.
This is a perfect example of a metaphysical idea because it answers an a priori question: “Is there any force in the universe other than natural causality?” This question is one that is not limited to empirical experience but one extrapolated from experience and approached by reason. Kant answers the question scientifically, presenting hypotheses that logically lead to his conclusion: the existence of freedom.
Perhaps the greatest evidence indicating the validity of metaphysics lies in the discoveries of modern physics — super position, quantum entanglement, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, etc. — which seem to address transcendental questions as well as empirical ones.
Many metaphysical systems claim that there is an imperceptible world that we cannot experience due to the limitations of our senses, and some claim that the world we experience comes into existence merely because we are here to perceive it. That latter claim, about the influence of an observer on reality, is one that is propped up by quantum physics, primarily Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. It mathematically proves that “one cannot assign exact simultaneous values to the position and momentum of a physical system” (2). The act of measuring momentum or position affects one’s ability to know and measure the other attribute. This contradicts classical physics and the world we thought we lived in before this discovery. At the quantum level, the presence of an observer actually alters the observed reality. There is a clear overlap here between metaphysics and science. This is scientific evidence that supports theories about an age-old metaphysical question: “How does our human perception map to and/or influence reality?”
Transcend Science with Science
What is most compelling and interesting to me is the natural harmony between science and metaphysics. Each, in fact, lend themselves well to the advancement of the other. Metaphysical questions drive scientific exploration, and scientific discoveries prompt further metaphysical inquisition and speculation. We should reinforce this cycle to improve the human condition through the application of both types of knowledge — scientific and metaphysical.
We certainly do not observe quantum phenomena on a daily basis, but the classical, billiard-ball physics that we do experience is not the whole picture; you have to include quantum physics, which has metaphysical implications. Similarly, freedom cannot be directly experienced, measured, or objectively identified, yet it is an idea familiar to us all.
Would our knowledge of the world be complete without transcendental ideas like freedom or without the discoveries of quantum physics? Is empirical, scientific knowledge exhaustive? It’s not. Science and metaphysics should be considered equally valid in our collective pursuit to understand the nature of ourselves and the universe.
- The Critique of Pure Reason — Immanuel Kant
- “The Uncertainty Principle” — Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy