Monthly Archives: April 2015

Metaphysics 101 Part 5

(Part 5 of Ten)

(continued from Part 4 of Ten)

Metaphysical thought

Metaphysical thought defies a definitive description of itself. It is unlike anything else in the Universe. Electromagnetism, unlike the other three universal forces, is an integral part of thought (see: Bets, Anyone?, December 7, 2011). In the article I’ve just cited, I suggest that electromagnetism may have the edge over gravity in our quest for TOE (the Theory of Everything). I don’t believe there is a ‘theory of everything,’ but if gravity is the body of the Universe, electromagnetism is its mind. I believe that it will be electromagnetism that leads us to some kind of unified theory (if ever) for the physics of the universe, not gravity alone.

Thought exists within that band of the universe we know as ‘life.’ Within a tiny but crowded strip of life on earth there have been and are millions of species. Ours is the only species that thinks about thought.

Metaphysics and epistemology are intimately associated. Both those subjects are major branches of philosophy along with politics, ethics, and esthetics. There are other branches, stems, and twigs depending on who is cataloging the divisions of philosophy, e.g., logic, which I think of as part of epistemology and other disciplines. I also think of logic not so much as a branch of philosophy as it is the lifeblood running through the veins of all branches of philosophy.

Radical Thought

Not too long after teething and having our diapers changed, many of us sense that all is not quite right in the world. Some of us just go with the flow or follow the drumbeat and passively let life just ‘happen’ to us. And then there are a few of us who are radical, i.e., we are compelled to understand the origin and roots of that cosmic tree of life. We also feel best when we swing high on the bough of ethics. More on that later.

Pruning that tree requires radical thought. The current use of the word “radical” is misleading because of the almost exclusive use of that word in its political sense. The word is borrowed from Latin and despite its negative connotation in current social media, it means “root.” As with trees, the roots of the tree are below the branches and topsoil. The roots are gnarled and have needed to be untangled since antiquity.

Classic Philosophy

It is my understanding that all formal philosophy is basically Aristotelian or Platonic. Although the philosophic positions of those ancient icons of philosophy are amply documented, those of Socrates and pre-Socratic philosophers are shrouded in the fog of antiquity. But judging by oral fragments of pre-Socratic philosophers, they were implicitly Platonic or Aristotelian. The same is true of the basic philosophic positions each of us explicitly or implicitly maintains.


The darkest corner of Plato’s cave is where its occupants are chained so that they can perceive only the shadows on the cave’s deepest wall but never the source of those shadows. All that humanity can know about the shadows is that they are ideal “Forms,” perfect and pure abstractions. Bottom line: The “real” world is unknowable through the senses.


Aristotle posited that our senses are portals through which knowledge is gathered by observation, then categorized and integrated via inductive reasoning. He also brilliantly invented the syllogism, the principal tool for deductive reasoning, a major tool of logic. He rejected Plato’s concept that our senses merely reveal shadows of reality. Bottom line: the world is knowable through the senses.

Plato and Aristotle set the precedent for a prime controversy that rages to this day. Plato’s world is dual; Aristotle’s world is singular. The ramifications of Plato’s dual world jolts epistemology; the world of Aristotle embraces it.

The revered philosophers disagreed about the fundamental essence of the world, but agreed about slavery: they both claimed that there are “natural” slaves and masters! Through the ages, they were not alone. Augustine and Aquinas (icons of the Middle Ages) preached that slavery is God’s punishment for sin; the ‘champion of freedom,’ John Locke, living in no less than the Age of Enlightenment, invested in the Afro-American slave trade. His personal ‘enlightenment’ didn’t go as far as enlightening him about the unspeakable horror of slavery. In fact he wrote a convoluted rationalization in favor of slavery—“a theory of slavery.”

I’ve selected these examples to highlight the need to judge the merits and shortcomings of philosophers without regard to their revered celebrity. I have found it liberating to separate what philosophers posit from who they areand further, to recognize which elements of their philosophy are illuminating and which are not. And, at the first hint of a fundamental flaw in a philosopher’s arguments, I take out Occam’s razor and snip!

Stay tuned. As Bette Davis jeered in the movie, All About Eve, “It gets better!”

(to be continued in Part 6 of Ten)

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Metaphysics 101 Part 4

(Part 4 of Ten)

(continued from Part 3 of Ten)

Cosmic Domino Effect

There can be no deeper issue than whether determinism or free will is the source of human thought. If my typing fingers are merely responding to the dictates of predetermined cerebral activity initiated by the dance of once superheated particles that began almost 14 billion years ago—particles that are currently in the form of a unique DNA-print of my brain cells—then, the text on this page is no more than an automatic microcosmic activity devoid of any meaning and is the antithesis of free thought.

At a macrocosmic level, the same is true. For example, suppose I “decide” to travel somewhere. Absolute determinism posits that it was particles (not I) that activated “my” decision to travel. Further, although I may believe I’m “free” to choose my destination, routes, methods of travel and time lines, determinism maintains that the dance of subatomic particles dictates all thoughts and action, including thoughts that arbitrarily leap out of the mind with no apparent motivation. Technically, determinism also posits that those particles had been activated by other particles that preceded them, and the particles that preceded those particles had similarly been affected by particles before them, and so on back to the creation of primordial particles eons ago. It follows that thought would be only part of a cosmic domino effect initiated at the Big Bang, along with the birth of time. In that world there would be no difference between inanimate and animate matter.

The overwhelming consensus in the scientific community is that time moves only in a forward direction even though there are no physical laws to prevent it from moving backwards. Time is calculated to have begun 10-43 seconds into the Big Bang. Hypothetically, if the temporal evolution of the universe were run backwards, physics as we know it ceases to exist beyond that infinitesimal fraction of a second. If absolute determinism is inseparable from that instant and therefore from the titanic primordial battle between matter and antimatter at the birth of the Universe to the present, then all metaphysical and epistemological speculation is meaningless and we are only puppets of the stars. Basically, astrology is a branch of determinism. In Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet, the central theme is tragic determinism. At the beginning of the play, its narrator (Chorus) states: A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life. At one of the play’s critical moments, Romeo cries out against inevitability: Then I defy you stars! That is his attempt at free will, but of course he fails.

[In acknowledgement of Shakespeare’s profound diversity of themes, I add that he also expresses the antithesis of determinism in Julius Caesar when he has Cassius say: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves, and in the same play has Caesar say: The cause is in my will!, an affirmation of free will.]

The inescapable corollary to the concept of determinism is that all thoughts and actions are predetermined whether or not a Supreme Being exists. In turn, the notion of predetermination precludes any validity to metaphysics, epistemology, and thought itself: Automatons do not think. By definition, determinism precludes free thought.

Free Thought and Truth

The very word truth is loaded with conceptual IEDs. For example, if we use the word “truth” in the context of metaphysics we are instantly in the minefield of axioms, paradoxes, and ironies. We are challenged by a glut of imperfect definitions, linguistic niceties, and circular, cliché arguments.

I remember a story that is probably true (note that the word “probably” shields me from a conceptual IED, at least for the moment). The story goes that in the course of a lecture on language and metaphysics, an expert linguist told his audience that there are many languages that include a grammatically correct double negative, but there is no language that has a double affirmative. At that point, a member of his audience interrupted with the words, Yeah…Yeah. Obviously, the lecturer had a larger concept in mind when he stepped on that perceived conceptual IED.

In a larger and significant context, metaphysical discussions often degenerate to word games. In that game, a better debater may ‘win’ a debate only because of her superior debating skills, but not necessarily because she is closer to truth than her opponent. Conversely, an inferior debater may ‘lose’ a debate only because of his inferior debating skills even though he may be closer to the truth than his opponent. If we engage in debates with our primary goal focused on ‘victory’ over our ‘opponent’ rather than focus on the search for truth, then we are not seriously seeking truth. A genuine search for truth is not a verbal olympic game.

In Search of Truth

Despite undergoing numerous evolutionary changes, dinosaurs remained mentally static for 150 million years. I’m sure that if that asteroid 65 million years ago hadn’t collided with the earth, dinosaurs would still be preoccupied with changing their armor from epoch to epoch. Insects preceded reptiles by millions of years, and they still haven’t risen above the donning of an infinite variety of wings and colors. Human’s appeared on earth barely two million years ago and suddenly (geologically speaking) metaphysical thought enters the stream of life. In the almost 14 billion years of its existence, the Universe has had a discrete number of colossal events. The advent of metaphysical thought is one of them.

(to be continued in Part 5 of Ten)

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