The problem with philosophical metaphysics

Stephen Hawking said that philosophy is dead. That probably hasn't sat well with some philosophers, but he's right – at least in the sense I think he means.

To my mind, there are essentially two major branches of philosophy – one deals with logic, critical thinking, and the implications of science for the human experience. I think that type of philosophy is doing just fine, and probably always will. 

The other kind is the trying to figure shit out kind. The kind that asks questions like, "What is the nature of time?", or "Does the universe require a cause?" That's philosophical metaphysics, and it's dead in the water.

Science wins because it works. The underlying principles of scientific inquiry weren't developed overnight; they developed over millennia, through rigorous trial and error. Over time, we began to figure out that certain types of methods produced results that, when others repeated our experiments, could be duplicated. They allowed us to reliably manipulated the natural world and predict its behavior.

Metaphysics can't do anything like that. You can't figure out the nature of time (for example) by sitting around and thinking about it; you have to get off your ass, making observations and doing experiments. For that reason, the physicist will always be in a better position to describe the nature of time than any philosopher.

The reason this is so is that metaphysics operates by using the rules of logic and/or intuitive knowledge of our human frame of reference, and tries to cantilever that logic and/or intuition into areas that are untested or unknown. The idea of the universe needing a cause is just such an example – things around us need a cause, right? And the universe is a thing, right? Ergo, the universe needs a cause!

But if science has taught us anything, it's that the world around us is often profoundly counter-intuitive. It may, in some case, defy the "rules" of logic. What medieval philosopher could have made sense of nuclear decay, virtual particles, or quantum entanglement? Or – in the more speculative realm of things – parallel universes with different laws, 10-dimensional hyperspace, and colliding p-branes?

Our immediate frame of reference, in which our intuitions reign, can only give us a small glimpse of reality. So we've developed methods of peering beyond our frame of reference – methods that we only know are valid because they work. They allow us to predict and manipulate the behavior of reality at the most immense and the most miniscule scales, no matter how counter-intuitive the results may be.


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