Category: Science



Why can’t people say I’m metasmart or metafast or even, metahungry? Because attaching the prefix “meta” to any of these adjectives would render them unintelligible and ridiculous. This is quite obvious.

Yet, most of us have heard theists talk about metaphysics and heard them use the term to be something opposed to physical reality, as if this makes some kind of sense (Note that the term metaphysics actually carries many meanings — this is the meaning that I am concerned with here) . Although this, as far as I am aware, is not a proper use of the term metaphysics, it has become one of those buzzwords that many people just generally accept without thinking deeply about it.

So, let’s try to break down the word, shall we? The prefix “meta” is usually defined as being “beyond” or “above” or some such preposition. Fine, this makes sense. Physical, in the sense that this is being used in the aforementioned use of “metaphysical”, refers to everything within the known universe — that is, everything that can be examined. Fine, separately, these two words seem to make sense.

However, it doesn’t seem to make sense to put these together. Why? Consider this:

All of our collective knowledge comes from the universe in which we live. Nothing can come from outside our physical reality because that “outside thing” would immediately become inside if we learned about it. It is nonsensical to think of anything beyond our physical world because our physical world is everything we know and everything we can know. Thus, as soon as we utter the word “metaphysical” we have made it physical: the word metaphysical exists within the physical universe since we are discussing it within our universe. Anything that is truly metaphysical (assuming that that’s even possible) would be beyond our ability to consider, let alone talk about!

In this way, the prefix “meta” can be only applied to things that we know the limits of, and know what is on the outside. For example, metaphysics is also used to describe abstract concepts (in this sense, things that we cannot physically touch), such as existence, truth, ethics and so on. This is fine. We have clearly delineated between touchable and untouchable things. Everyone can distinguish the physical and the metaphysical in this instance.

However, when a theist tells you something like “God is metaphysical” or some other nonsense like that, ensure that they explain two things: what does “metaphysical” mean exactly and how could they possibly know that God is metaphysical if they reside within the physical realm. In all likelihood, they will be unable to respond to either question intelligibly — but this is not the purpose, of course. The purpose? Metaconfusion.

Post Script: Another blogger, debilis, has suggested to me that since there are things that are not physical that exist in this universe (such as ideas) then this is evidence that there is something beyond the physical (notice that this still doesn’t indicate that any form of God exists). Yet, careful examination of what I’ve said in this post will reveal a conflation of two concepts of “metaphysical”: one which I think is nonsense, one which makes sense. Yes, there are things that can be sensed and things that cannot be sensed (ie, ideas). This is the acceptable concept of metaphysics. Then there is the this universe verses that which is beyond this universe (Universe meaning everything we know and can know about. In that way, a multiverse would be included in this notion of a universe). This is the unacceptable version.

Here is where I will assert something that may be controversial: ideas are physical things, in the sense that they physically exist within this universe. How? All information is real. All information is not magically floating through the ether. Therefore, it must exist somewhere — and it does. It exists in the neural connections that host the idea in our brains or in the 1s and 0s that host the idea on a hard drive. Although it is hard to imagine information being transformed into raw data of 1s and 0s, we know this to be true. I would contend that the same is true within our brains. It may not be easy, but I think that there is definitely physical locations where the data of any idea is stored in our brains. Ergo, ideas are physical.


Why did I decide to write this blog post? I am not quite sure, precisely. I could say it’s because I’ve read Sam Harris’ book “Free Will” or because I’ve had somewhat recent encounters with people who hold steadfast to the belief that we have free will. However, truthfully, I have no idea why I actually decided to write this. I cannot know this. It came from a part of my brain which I cannot access.

It seems that the default position is to believe in free will. I did until I read Harris’ book. I am sure most people believe in free will. However, there was one scientific study that pushed me away from believing in free will. Apparently, via fMRI machines, subjects are told to raise either their left or right hand, and seconds or milliseconds before they actually raise it, the desire to raise the selected hand is spotted in the subject’s brain. The scientists know which hand the subject will choose before the subject does.

I told this to someone recently (an atheist, so their views weren’t clouded by religion), and he stated something that I didn’t expect. He said that the unconscious part of our mind is a part of us, and therefore, we still retain free will. I didn’t expect this argument, and I hadn’t finished Harris’ book by that point, so I didn’t really know what to say.

However, Harris does deal with this counterargument. Your unconscious brain is not “you” in any sense that we can conceive because your unconscious mind is also doing things like creating red blood cells and making sure your heart beats. We are not in control of these things, in the same way we are not in control of our subconscious thoughts. I could suddenly say, “Putting spaghetti on my head feels strange,” and I’d have no way of accounting for why I didn’t say, “Putting puppies on my head feels strange.”

So why do we do what we do? It’s simply a highly complex amalgamation of our life history, our DNA and our current circumstances. Think about anything you do. Why did you do it?

For example, I drank two espressos today. Why did I do that? Because I’m addicted to coffee.Why am I addicted to coffee? Because it keeps me awake. Why didn’t I drink tea? My experience with tea is that it doesn’t have the same kick as coffee. Why does it give me a kick? Something in human DNA causes me to react in this way to caffeine.

The details of every decision can be explained in every detail ad nauseum. There is no mystical “me” that fits into this equation.

Just because it feels like we are making decisions, doesn’t mean it’s not an illusion.

I am not an expert on this subject, for sure. I am quite a tyro, in fact.

As Michael Shermer states, “Sam Harris has the unique ability to translate difficult subjects into really crystal clear writing”

So, for a better, more in depth understanding of what I’m talking about, check out this speech by Sam Harris:


It is sometimes asserted that you must have faith to believe in science because we don’t have an answer for everything. Well, to an extent this is true. However, it is the best we have. Further, it is by far the best we have.

How do I know this? It’s based on the idea that trustworthiness of an argument comes from how deeply you can question the presuppositions before coming to an “I don’t know” answer. The trustworthiness of science in this regard is always many levels greater than religion. Let’s compare the two. Now, every assertion can have multiple questions, such as “Why is that,” or “How do you know that,” and so on. For the purpose of simplicity, I will only take one route to the foundational presuppositions of each assertion.

Science

Assertion: “Water can be used as a fuel for a power source known as hydrogen power.”

Question: “How do you know this?”

Presupposition: “Because water contains two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen and pure hydrogen can be used as a power source”

Q: “How do you know water has two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen?”

P: “Because the atomic theory has helped us come to this conclusion through many different forms of experimentation.”

Q: “How do you know experimentation will prove something?”

P: “Because this is what the scientific method states.”

Q: “How do you know the scientific method is effective?”

P: “Because it allows us to see repeatable results in experiments.”

Q: “How do you know that repeatable results is a good thing?”

P: “Because it allows us to see order in the universe so that we can understand it.”

Q: “How do you know that seeing order indicates anything?”

P: “Because discovering order allows us to make predictions. If something always happens, we can assume it will happen again and again so long as the variables are the same.”

Q: “How do you know that all experiments thus far have just by chance all worked out the way you expected?”

A: “We don’t know that.”

* I am not a scientist. There may actually be silly mistakes here, and I may have missed possible steps. My main point is to show that there are at least six levels of understanding that science has achieved in this particular case.

Religion

Assertion: “Jesus turned water into wine.”

Question: “How do you know that?”

Presupposition: “Because the Bible says so.”

Question: “How do you know that the Bible is correct?”

Presupposition: “Because God made it.

Question: “How do you know God made it?”

Answer: “We have faith that He made it.”

In this case, there are only two levels of presuppositions. The only evidence provided is the Bible. In the science example, the amount of evidence that has been provided for the six steps I mentioned  is an enormously large amount. It entails all the evidence we have achieved since the beginnings of the scientific method along this particular question’s path.

Further, the depth of research required as one moves up this ladder of knowledge increases dramatically. It requires much more evidence to show that water is two parts hydrogen and one part water than it does to explain why repeatable results are useful.

Biblical study can never go beyond the God question, unfortunately because God is supposedly infinite. He is beyond inquiry. Therefore, the conversation always stops there. This is not an intellectual way to view the world.

The fact is, science is always pushing the boundaries of these levels, in both directions; while religion is stultified.

Of course, the more times you ask, “How do you know that?” kind of questions, as any parent of a 2-year old will know, to more abstract the answer becomes, to the point where it doesn’t really make sense to be asking the question anymore. This happens in the science example above.

I remember a great Louis C.K. skit on this, seen here, where his daughter keeps asking “Why?” and it humorously demonstrates the ridiculousness of this situation. It starts around the 7 minute mark.

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