The Limits Of Metaphysics
Updated: May 8
Where do we stand in terms of understanding the world around us? We can discuss this from two perspectives. One, the metaphysical perspective, and also the scientific perspective. By metaphysical perspective, I mean how far can we attempt to answer really deep, fundamental and metaphysical questions about the origin of our universe, the origin of time, etc.. By the scientific perspective, I mean how far can we explain the world by doing actual science: devising theories and experiments.
In this blog, I will be discussing the metaphysical approach, because I have discussed the scientific approach in this blog. One more thing before we start. This is not official metaphysics, this is simply my chain of thoughts about metaphysics. I don't claim these to be my original ideas, but it's true that I have not read about any of this anywhere, and this is all my argument. So take it with a pinch of salt!
To address very fundamental questions, we must begin with the reasonable assumption that at the most fundamental state, no particular phenomenon should be preferred to occur over any other phenomenon. If this is not assumed to be the fundamental working hypothesis, we must explain why a particular phenomenon is more likely to occur. Explaining this fundamentally is extremely difficult because the problem of explaining what decided this order of preference would inevitably come up. And answering this question without some presupposition is impossible. You must realize that for our hypothesis to be called a fundamental one, we must base it on little or no presuppositions. If we say no particular phenomenon should be preferred to occur over other phenomena, we only need to explain the origin(s) of the phenomena, and nothing else. Before we think about the implications of our hypothesis, I should remind you that it is only a working hypothesis. While it is reasonable that this working hypothesis should hold at a fundamental state, we have no means of verifying it. When we think of the implications of the hypothesis, we are faced with two options. Either nothing should have occurred, or every possible phenomenon must have taken place simultaneously, with no single phenomenon being preferred over the others. (By saying every possible phenomenon should occur, we actually mean that no phenomenon should be considered impossible.) This line of reasoning justifies that we must choose between nothing and everything. It is logically consistent that nothing should occur. However, this very appealing idea can't account for our existence. (While we can't say for sure whether reality exists objectively outside our minds, it must be understood that the option of nothing existing can't account for our experiences and must, thus, be ruled out.) The other alternative is that everything must exist. It is obvious that every possible phenomenon that can occur at the most fundamental state is well beyond the imagination of the human mind. If we assume this latter option to be the correct one, then at best, we can say that the paradoxical reality we find ourselves in is simply one of the infinitely-many possibilities. Please note that when we say all possibilities must take place, we do not specify whether they take place in a single system, or whether the most fundamental state simply splits itself into many sub-states where the possibilities take place. It is not clear to me how we can go about answering this question.
It should also be noted that for our fundamental working hypothesis to hold, these possibilities need to occur simultaneously. Why? If there can be no preference at a fundamental level, then possibility A can't be preferred to occur before or after possibility B. This means all the possibilities must occur at the same time. Also, suppose possibility A has already occurred in system A. This doesn't mean that possibility A can't occur in any parallel system. If we assume this to be the case, we would violate our fundamental working hypothesis. No possibility should be preferred to occur in one system any more than the other systems. Thus, all the possibilities must occur in all the systems, to not violate our working hypothesis. Before we proceed, it is important to define what exactly we mean by the most fundamental state here. The most fundamental state is simply the state that can be achieved only through one way, and before that nothing existed. It is the most fundamental system that just came into existence, and is at the root of everything. Now, how exactly this most fundamental state cropped up will perhaps always remain unanswerable, but it may be possible to logically predict the consequent events that followed.
Next, we must ask what happens to the most fundamental state. We have argued that the most fundamental state may split into different sub-states that evolve differently to fulfill the different possibilities. It is important, at this point, to ask once this process starts, whether the most fundamental state ceases to exist or it exists even after giving rise to the different sub-states. One may argue that the fundamental state simply gives rise to the different sub-states while still existing itself, just as a mother can give birth to her children and exist herself after that. However, again, there is no definite answer to this question. The most likely answer would be that the most fundamental state changes to the collection of these sub-states, and ceases to exist in its original form.
But there are a few problems with our fundamental working hypothesis. The first question that comes up is this: Do the subsystems go on evolving infinitely, or is there an end? This is a very crucial point. Without going into discussions about time and entropy, I can assure you that this is perhaps the most fatal problem in our fundamental working hypothesis, and it is likely impossible to logically predict the evolution of the most fundamental state. Whatever solutions have come to my mind are not free of loopholes. Next problem. We have argued that all possibilities must occur in all the systems. Now consider possibility A, which is defined as possibility B not occurring. It is clear that both A and B can't occur in the same system, since if A occurs, by definition B can't occur. So, all possibilities can't occur in all the systems because there are some possibilities which can't occur simultaneously. We violate our fundamental working hypothesis. We may assume that there are different ‘copies’ of the same system, and if A occurs in one copy, B occurs in one of the other copies. But then, why can't B occur in the former copy and A in the latter? It is clear that we can't solve the problem in this manner. Next, let us consider the idea that there must be an overall effect of constancy. (If this does not hold for a system, it possibly means that either the system is part of a greater system where this law holds, or the system in question is an intermediate system of a series of phenomena which will ultimately stop at a more fundamental system, where the law holds.) Our fundamental working hypothesis was simply that either nothing should have occurred, or everything should have occurred. Now the question of how something can emerge out of nothing (since nothing existed before the fundamental state) inevitably comes up. While it is impossible to explain this satisfactorily, a novel approach can be to assume that fundamentally all the phenomena can be classified into two categories, say, positive and negative. When considered in its entirety, the fundamental state is simply the sum of equal amounts of positive and negative, thus zero. Now, questions like how did these categories emerge, and why can't there be more than two categories, come up, and may be unanswerable for all we know. However, by assuming that ultimately the fundamental state consists of nothing (equal amounts of positive and negative), we actually stick to our fundamental working hypothesis that nothing should have occurred. But the concept of positive and negative is too vague. However, let us assume that the most fundamental state simply splits into two states where possibilities of the opposite nature (we define them as positive and negative just for convenience) take place. You may ask what determines whether the positive possibilities will take place in the first state or second state. However, there is really no concept of first or second with these states. They are just opposite of each other. This is the opposite of that, and in the same way that is the opposite of this, and in their entirety, they represent nothing. (Here we have assumed that nothing is something, and nothing can be manifested either by nothing, or by equal amounts of positive and negative. On a darker note, it may, however, be the case that we are just playing around with words, and our language can never truly express what happened at the most fundamental state.)
But there is a problem with this idea as well. Consider this question: if a shorter and easier path is available, why should a fundamental system not take that path? The following discussion would explain the relevance of the question. It can be comfortably assumed that the goal of a fundamental system is to conserve everything. In simple words, if it was initially zero, it must remain zero in the end. There are two ways to achieve this. First, the system just remains in its initial state. Zero remains zero. This is the easier way, but unfortunately can't explain our existence. The other way is to create equal amounts of positive and negative, as already discussed, that sums up to zero. This is the difficult way, but the more likely one as well. This simply means that our world is existing in a small portion of either the positive or the negative, and there must exist in a parallel system an exactly opposite world. Opposite in what sense, we can't answer fundamentally. Unless we assume that choosing each path is a possibility, and in some other system at the same level, the easier path has been chosen, there seems to be no fundamental answer to this question. But assuming this would conclusively prove that what we are considering as the most fundamental system is not that. Since a different system at the same level must exist where the easier path has been chosen. The most fundamental state is the single state that exists at the most fundamental level: there is only one way to achieve that state, before that nothing existed and at the same level of which nothing can exist. If the latter assumption is false, it would mean that those two (or more than two) states are emergent from some deeper state, which would contradict that fact that nothing can exist before that state.
Now, we are faced with the question how far can we explain the world around us from the metaphysics perspective. We may conclude that the idea that there should be no kind of preference at a fundamental level is false, because it gives rise to some logical problems. This means someone or something beyond our knowledge must be responsible for this preference. We may also conclude that our knowledge is incomplete, and although the idea that there should be no kind of preference at a fundamental level is true, we are not yet in a position to understand the full implications of this statement. In the end, we can say that it is likely we would never be able to answer the most fundamental questions satisfactorily. Even if we can create a complete picture of our universe using the physical sciences, it would be far from a model for the fundamental nature of reality, a model which would hold beyond our universe, everywhere. While the progress in the physical sciences is promising in every sense of the word, our arguments above show only too clearly that we very likely can't form a complete and paradox-free picture of the most fundamental state. All we can do is try out different hypotheses which are based on some presuppositions. And even then, it is likely we will not make any significant progress. This only goes to show that metaphysics is useless. All we can do is focus on practical science and attempt to make the world a better place to live in. However, it is not entirely right to say that metaphysics is useless. I, for instance, want to know about the big picture, instead of just focusing on life on our tiny planet. To quote Schrödinger, "It seems plain and self-evident, yet it needs to be said: the isolated knowledge obtained by a group of specialists in a narrow field has in itself no value whatsoever, but only in its synthesis with all the rest of knowledge and only inasmuch as it really contributes in this synthesis toward answering the demand, 'Who are we?'" Metaphysics attempts to answer the most basic, the most fundamental questions, depending on logic alone. It is, thus, a very important field of study. Although the point of this post was to determine the limits of metaphysics, I do not actually mean that metaphysics is a useless science. If by 'useful' we mean only materialistic uses, then metaphysics is useless, but metaphysics has an intrinsic value.
Allow me a few more comments on consciousness, free will and determinism. The question of free will and determinism will always come up in any fundamental discussion. Before we discuss free will (and determinism), it must be realized that we can't ever say for certainty whether everything is predetermined or free will exists. If indeed our actions are predetermined, our notion of free will may just be an illusion. And in that case we have no way to prove this.
First, we need to understand what consciousness is. I slightly touched upon this in some of my blogs. Consciousness can either be a fundamental property of reality, or an accidental emergence. Maybe reality exists only in our minds. Then, from where did our minds or consciousnesses emerge? We may also assume that consciousness is not fundamental, and it accidentally appeared on our planet due to the combination of certain chemicals and energy, and the world outside exists objectively. Let us assume that the most fundamental state (about which we have been discussing in the previous section) was conscious. Of course, by consciousness here we do not mean anything akin to the human consciousness. We must assume that the most fundamental state was conscious. We must not say that to be conscious, the most fundamental state should fulfill some requirement (like interaction and complexity). We are simply generalizing the concept of consciousness. Human consciousness, thus, can just be a highly evolved and less fundamental variant of the most fundamental consciousness. One may ask why the human consciousness has some special features which were obviously absent in the most fundamental consciousness. This is simply because we live in a highly less fundamental subsystem which has arisen out of the most fundamental system. We have special requirements and we have evolved accordingly. Forget humans. Even most animals possess some qualities which would appear very special compared to the qualities of the most fundamental consciousness. And this shouldn't come as a surprise. It is generally accepted that the ultimate meaning of life is the continuation and evolution of species. But humans do not reproduce the same way animals do. We settle down with one partner (usually) and we are bound by love. This love has no meaning for the survival of an individual, but we have evolved in such a way that we set much store by love. The evolutionary reason for this is that if we go on producing humans infinitely, we will soon reach a point when the population will have increased so much that the average quality of life will have decreased alarmingly. Thus, since we have reached a point where we can't go on reproducing like animals, Nature has developed the necessary feelings and instincts in us. Thus, there is nothing special about human consciousness. We are different from animals, and from the most fundamental consciousness, since we need to be different in order to maintain a good average quality of life. We have developed special qualities in us just to adapt to the changes around us. We are just the slaves of evolution.
Let us return to our discussion about the most fundamental consciousness. We are faced with two options at this point. Either the fundamental consciousness splits itself into many complex and less fundamental consciousnesses, and among the latter group are we, or the fundamental consciousness remains one, and simply creates an illusion of the world we – sorry, I – see around me. I am this fundamental consciousness. I have evolved from that fundamental state to this state. All the other creatures out there are part of the story I am writing for myself. And I myself am the only reader of this story. So is there some purpose to evolution? It seems that it is surely possible that the most fundamental state would try to evolve to such an extent when it can start intelligently searching for its own origins. (It should be noted that if we assume this is the ultimate purpose of the most fundamental system, we need to answer why this is the ultimate purpose, and why there should be any ultimate purpose at all. We do not know whether it is possible to answer these questions satisfactorily.) But if the ultimate purpose of this fundamental consciousness (that is, me) is just to search for the answers to the big questions, then why are there so many unnecessary distractions around me? Maybe it is all part of the story, and maybe there are other factors at play. Maybe unconsciously I don’t want to know the ultimate answers, and these distractions are my unconscious attempts to slow down my progress. Or maybe the story needs to be complex so that I survive long enough to find the answers. Let me elaborate on this last point. It is easier to collapse a simple system than a complex one. So if I need to survive a long time to find out my answers, I need to make myself as complex, and as difficult to collapse as possible. Evolution is like a vicious cycle. Evolution will try out the complex paths, if that grants me better chances of survival. But then, what was the need of developing a complex biological body which is bound to succumb to death? Again, this may all be part of the story, my unconscious attempts to slow down my progress. If we accept the above argument, then clearly free will exists. I have an ultimate purpose, but I do not need to follow a particular and predetermined way to achieve my goal. In fact, I can even unconsciously slow down my own progress. And if we assume that there is no ultimate purpose, even then free will may exist. We must conclude that we are not yet in a position where we can say whether the existence of free will will even matter to us, leave alone whether free will exists.
According to science, macro-determinism is true. We talk about free will only because we like to place ourselves above the laws of nature, but ultimately our brains mostly operate unconsciously and although it seems we had a choice to do otherwise, we actually didn't. But at the microscopic level, there is no determinism. Everything is random and probabilistic. Or, as Dan Barker says in Free Will Explained, let's call this micro-determinism. He says, "Science seems to show that macro-determinism is unavoidable. You really could not have 'done otherwise'. Some experiments appear to demonstrate that your decisions are made before you are consciously aware of them... Therefore, according to science, you don't have free will... Here is the centerpiece of my argument: Free will exists, or not, depending on the frame of reference... We individual human beings are indeed the result of pre-determined evolutionary processes, but we are also part of a society that transcends ourselves... The feeling of free will is built on an absence. I think it comes from the absence of an ability to know the future... The only reason we argue about free will is because we want the objects of our judgement to deserve the judgement... Free will is not a scientific truth. It is a social truth... it is not something we have, it is something we experience..." I can't say I agree with Barker on all the points, but I admit there is something in his argument. It is definitely a new way of looking at free will.
There has been a long debate between those who support free will and those who support determinism. The supporters of free will suggest that there is no determinism and the future is not predetermined. But this is a very delicate point. Kaku says in The Future Of The Mind, "Ultimately, I think free will probably does exist, but it is not the free will envisioned by rugged individuals who claim they are complete masters of their fate. The brain is influenced by thousands of unconscious factors that predispose us to make certain choices ahead of time, even if we think we made them ourselves. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we are actors in a film that can be rewound anytime. The end of the movie hasn’t been written yet, so strict determinism is destroyed by a subtle combination of quantum effects and chaos theory. In the end, we are still masters of our destiny."