Tuesday, 2 January 2018

The difference between science and metaphysics

Think of a computer game. In order to play a 3D game proficiently, we need to know how the game environment changes when the character moves and behaves in particular ways. The character you control who presses buttons in the game environment will cause certain things to happen in that environment. Shooting at certain spots will cause other things, such as "killing" a bot. And so on and so forth.

One can become extremely proficient at a game. Yet, at the same time, one might know absolutely nothing about what makes the game possible to exist in the first place, and why the game environment changes in the characteristic way it does. In other words, one might know nothing
about CPU's, RAM, or anything else about the underlying machinery of the computer, even though one might be better at the game than anyone else.

I submit that our science, together with the technology it has spawned, is analogical to playing a computer game proficiently.  I submit, that is, that science deals exclusively with the patterns discerned in reality and how the world changes with particular actions on our parts. Similar to the game, science tells us absolutely nothing about the underlying machinery of reality. Science tells us nothing about how or why the world exists at all and why it has the particular physical laws it does. That is what metaphysics deals with.

It might be thought that the existence of forces like gravity refutes this.  Objects fall to the ground because the force of gravity compels objects to fall down.  On this view, gravitation, electromagnetism, the strong and weak nuclear forces, are intrinsic to reality and make reality behave as it does. 

But how do we know this?  We can observe an object falling, but we never observe the gravitational force that allegedly causes it to fall.  Or we never observe the warping of space-time that allegedly causes it to fall (indeed, what could a warping of space-time possibly mean?)

Consider the Earth as it orbits the Sun.  It is considered that the Earth is compelled to follow a circular path around the sun due to gravitational force.  If the force were to suddenly disappear, then the Earth would travel in a straight line at uniform velocity.   Now, why is it the case that motion in a straight line is considered to be natural motion with no forces requiring an object to move in such a manner, but circular motion is considered unnatural with a force required to constrain an object to follow such a path?  I suggest because it's simpler to think of reality in that way. 

At the end of the day, all we know about the world comes from our senses; mainly from our visual qualia.  Science is in the business of describing the patterns in our visual qualia.  In physics we find that mathematical equations, such as Newton's equation (
F = G(m1m2)/R2), describe the falling process.  But these equations are all we need from a scientific perspective.  Postulating such forces like gravity might make it easier to derive such equations, but they are not strictly necessary.

Note I am not saying that forces like gravity do not exist.  They might exist (although I don't think they do), but if they do that is part of the underlying machinery of reality, and hence comes under the purview of metaphysics.

Think back to our computer game. One's character can jump up and down. Why does the character fall back down to the ground? Because of gravity? Obviously not! The game operates according to its software instructions.

Now, let's consider our physical reality and why objects fall.  It might, as mainstream opinion holds, be due to some force intrinsic to reality. Or it might be because we're living in a kind of virtual reality created by beings existing "outside" of our reality, and the falling down process is just the way our reality is programmed.  Or it might be (to give my own personal opinion) that the explanation resides in the fact that reality is infused with teleology or entelechy, and that our scientific laws simply describes such innate propensities. But the point is that this is a metaphysical issue, not an empirical or scientific one.

Science is not in the business of providing literal explanations, rather it is merely in the business of describing reality. To suppose one can use physics to explain why reality exists at all, or why reality is described by the laws we find, is to misunderstand the legitimate scope of science.  For genuine explanations we have to look to metaphysics.

Similar posts by me:

Do scientific explanations actually explain?
What philosophical questions does science answer?
Is Reality real?
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