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

  • This world we experience may be a hallucination.
  • The most scrupulous scientist may still be involuntarily and dramatically altering the results of an experiment merely by choosing to studying it.
  • The universe is a mental phenomenon, not a physical thing.

Science is a process within metaphysics

But there's a greater point here: What we call science has always been a process within metaphysics. Once we make the metaphysical assumption that I, as an inquirer, can objectively study a world that is external to me, we have laid the metaphysical foundation for what we call science. When we further build the processes of hypothesizing, observing, and experimenting with those observations upon that foundation, we have begun the process we call science. All this is  metaphysics, called by a different name.

Today it is fashionable to say that science and metaphysics are independent fields. Part of this is because of the desire of some scientists and philosophers to be uniquely influential. Some within each group want to be seen as the ones who are really asking and answering the important questions. Both are doing important work.

We are all undeclared metaphysicians

It just so happens that most of our society has been unwittingly caught up in the materialist philosophical world-view that most scientists share. Many if not most scientists themselves do not realize that they are operating in the field of metaphysics, having unwittingly absorbed a particular metaphysical platform from those they looked up to.

The success of science has made it easy to forget that science has all along been a branch of metaphysics. Ironically, it is that very success that is bringing science home to appreciate its roots once more. Neuroscience and physics in particular are leading the charge in reuniting the child with its parent.

Scientists are metaphysicians. We all are. It's time we recognize it within ourselves, in our classrooms and universities, and in popular culture. As we do, we will give ourselves permission to explore what was considered "the other guy's territory", and our science will evolve. The superimposed divide between the inquirer and the object of inquiry will evaporate. We will see leaps in technology and healing.

This recognition starts with you. Earlier we said that the floor beneath you is a assemblage of perceptions. So too is your body. Now look more closely - even your personal thoughts and inner private world is a series of subtle perceptions. You are a metaphysician.

Now one final question. What is it that is aware of even this metaphysician?

Related article: Why do most scientists not consider the primacy of consciousness?

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.