Scientists are metaphysicians, but most don't recognize it.

In eighth grade, I remember taking a class called Earth Science. In ninth grade, I took Biology. In tenth grade, if I remember correctly, it was Chemistry. But nowhere in my science education was a class on metaphysics, or even a conversation about the relationship between science and metaphysics.

What is metaphysics?

Merriam-Webster defines metaphysics as "a division of philosophy that is concerned with the fundamental nature of reality and being and that includes ontology, cosmology, and often epistemology." In other words, metaphysics studies questions such as

  • What is nature of this universe?

  • What am I?

  • How do we know what we know?

At first glance these questions may seem hopelessly abstract or overly-intellectual. But in fact such questions are not born in our intellects; they're merely intellectual formulations of a deeper intuition that there is much more to know. Children have the same intuition, but because it hasn't been formalized, they may express it through art, emotion, stories, silence, or in different words. Thus it often goes unrecognized.

What's the difference between metaphysics and science?

That same intuition is what drives the activity of science, which also seeks to know the nature and behavior of the world around us. Science starts by splitting the world up into two parts - the observer (the scientist) and the observed (an object of study). Metaphysics starts the same way. It splits the world into an observer (the inquirer) and the observed (concepts and perceptions).

So what's the difference between the two? One major difference is that metaphysics doesn't assume that this world of perceptions you and I are experiencing right now (including the perception of these words on this screen) is an external, physical world independent of us. Metaphysics notices that what we call objects are primarily perceptions, only subsequently interpreted as coagulated objects.

The floor beneath you is comprised of the perceptions of sight (flatness and spatial extension), sound (the thud of stamping your feet), and touch (the hardness beneath your feet). If you removed these perceptions, there would be no floor for you to speak of. This is true for every person. We are interfacing with a perceptual world, not an independent, external world.

Similarly, the entire world of apparently independent and external objects may indeed be entirely dependent on the mind, just as we experience in a dream. Metaphysics allows this possibility. Increasingly, science does too. Both neuroscientists and physicists are exploring possibilities such as…

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Anoop Kumar, MD, MM is board certified in Emergency Medicine and holds a Master’s degree in Management with a focus in Health Leadership. He practices in the Washington, DC metro area, where he also leads meditation gatherings for clinicians. He is the author of the book Michelangelo’s Medicine: How redefining the human body will transform health and healthcare. Follow him @DrAnoopKumar.