Metaphysics<>Physics Caricature

Very difficult to have conversations at the limits of fundamental physics.

Physicists are obviously very attached to which parts of fundamental physics – and deep understanding thereof – are considered “fixed” in their firmament. And that’s true even if they appear open-minded on philosophical discussions. It’s impossible for all of us to have the same depth of understanding – or even the same kind of understanding – of all the sub-topics as conversations dot all over this map – of life, the universe and everything – for me that’s a given, the reason for the dialogue.

All too often however, you get to the “turtles all the way down” lower limit to whatever we choose to name “physics” and when you are prepared to admit you’re really talking metaphysics – and more to the point being comfortable doing it. However, when the caricature becomes

Physics= real, whereas
Metaphysics = anything goes, flights of fancy, etc.

The dialogue has ended, at least temporarily.

In metaphysics, and at the lower reaches of the physics that interface with it, the idea that objective, empirical falsifiability is the sole test of an idea is an obvious flaw. It’s about what indirect predictions, including empirically falsifiable ones higher-up in the observable stack, can create the best, most consistent stack with the least reasons to doubt, the best reasons to take as true. The best chances of fixing existing problems, the least chances of introducing new ones. I mentioned this in the previous post – Whitehead and Wittgenstein at the very least. Even within the canon of accepted physical science, there are many methods and processes for assessing truth and validity other than direct falsification: Bayes, Occam, etc.

Choosing a single test is fine as a boundary condition – a working definition – for any given discourse, but is ideology if it is seen to set a fundamental limit on what things exist in reality.


(A branched thread …)

4 thoughts on “Metaphysics<>Physics Caricature”

  1. You’ve touched on something I noticed in Rovelli’s “Helgoland”: he speaks frequently of the “physical.” For example:

    “[the] physical world [is] a net of relations. Objects are its nodes.” (p. 79)

    “. . . there must be a physical correlation between a physical variable inside me and the physical state of the rock.” (p. 172)

    Since Rovelli views matter as reducible to relations, by “physical” he can’t mean “material” in the usual way. My first thought is that his definition has something to do with the power of science to manipulate the world, another touchstone of the book (along with a disdain for “metaphysical” assumptions). Since math is at the root of this power, perhaps he means by “physical” something amenable to mathematical prediction (even if only at the level of probability).

    I’ve been turning this idea over in my mind prior to reviewing the book (having finally finished making notes). But your take on the use (or misuse) of the word “physical” hints that it might have to do with “verifiable” or “empirically falsifiable.” I wonder if I might have the benefit of your thoughts.

  2. Yes, it’s an example of why I intervened in that Twitter discussion. Physicists seem happy to keep pushing back their definition of physical as more and more metaphysical ideas become “verified” the scientific way. And yet, whilst unverified metaphysical ideas exist, metaphysics gets poo-pooed.

    It’s a land grab that says the only “true” knowledge is scientific and that all of science is physics at heart. I was being slightly toungue-in-cheek when I suggested the definition should stop at directly empirically falsifiable.

    Falsifiable predictions and thesis are combined with various levels of indirection … acceptable to science. But I see a blurry-field between metaphysical speculations that show little chance of ever being verified and those directly observable as “the real ontology of the world” (at any given point in time.)

  3. I should add. Rovelli specifically, I saw those “relations” (relevant, informative relations) as exactly what I think of as an informational (epistemological) metaphysics (and very close to Whitehead).

    Like Marletto, physicists seem happy to call “physical” anything they can “bring within science” – which might boil down to being mathematically manipulatable (hadn’t thought of that) – though in a way that’s what I would call information. The missing piece for me is the “ontological commitment” to be able to say “this is what really exists” – a way of talking beyond metaphor.

    I see the boundary between metaphysics and physics as a “good fence” – useful to agree there is one, even if we agree to move it about as our knowledge changes.

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