Metaphysics is a misunderstood word

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I noticed that people have very different notions of metaphysics. Even among the physicists the connotations of metaphysics vary widely.

Let’s start with the literal meaning of metaphysics. The word meta usually means an abstraction from another concept that completes or adds to it. In the literal sense, metaphysics can be understood as the abstract aspects of physics pertaining to the essence of physics.

Since physics is nothing but a collection of models of phenomena some would argue that metaphysics is ‘model of a model’ or ‘theory of a theory.’ For example we have a theory called Quantum Mechanics in physics. Physicists call their mature models theories because “theory” sounds better than “model” but they understand clearly that a theory is a mental model of physical reality. I sometimes use the word phenomena to refer to physical reality. In my terminology physical reality and phenomena are synonymous. What is the ‘model of a model’ of Quantum Mechanics? This is a serious question studied in the academic field called Metaphysics of Physics. I will have a separate post on the Metaphysics of Physics.

You would think that all physicists are aware of the academic field called Metaphysics of Physics. No. Majority of physicists do not know that there is such an academic field. The ones who know are very antagonistic. Some physicists see the philosophers of science in general and the academicians who study the metaphysics of physics in particular as nuisance. In my opinion, this shows an insecurity regarding the superficiality of some physics theories.

Even though the word metaphysics has “physics” in it, the academic definition of metaphysics is very different. Metaphysics is the philosophical study of the real. Metaphysics is about ontology. There is a good definition of ontology in Wikipedia:

“Ontology is the philosophical study of the nature of being, becoming, existence, or reality, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations. Traditionally listed as a part of the major branch of philosophy known as metaphysics, ontology deals with questions concerning what entities exist or can be said to exist, and how such entities can be grouped, related within a hierarchy, and subdivided according to similarities and differences.”

The real is known as Haq in Sufism and as Yah in Kabbalah. The real is known as Saguna Brahma in Tantra Yoga. In the terminology of the Soul Monism the real is referred to as Reality (“R” is capitalized). The academics study the real using the intellectual faculty of the human mind. They call this field metaphysics.

Mystics, sufis, spiritual aspirants of all traditions try to attain the cosmic life of the real using the intuitional faculty of the human mind. They usually call their effort as spiritual practice (sadhana) not metaphysics but somehow the general public confuse the two distinct paths and refer to the spiritual practice as metaphysics. Clearly, spiritual practice is not metaphysics. In spiritual practice we use intuition; in metaphysics we use intellect.

There is confusion between metaphysics and religion as well. Metaphysics is an academic (intellectual) effort. Religion is more about moral philosophy and social justice and social norms. There is very little spiritual philosophy and absolutely no metaphysics in religion. People sometimes refer to angels as metaphysical beings. I suppose, by “metaphysical” they mean “beyond physical reality.” My point is that religion does not try to understand the true nature of angels. Religion just talks about them. In metaphysics there is always an intellectual effort.

Metaphysics is not to be confused with spiritual philosophy either. The statements of spiritual philosophy are derived from the common expressions of the spiritual experiences humans have been having for thousands of years. In spiritual philosophy intuition is more important than intellect but intellect and logic are not ignored. Spiritual philosophy is a rational approach. Spiritual philosophy is also a synthetic approach. Spiritual philosophers blend their intuitive understanding of spirituality with that of others. Metaphysics is a purely intellectual path. Spiritual philosophy is derived from spiritual practice. Spiritual philosophy blends the intellectual and the intuitive approaches.

In the past I talked about Intuitional Science as a branch of metaphysics. I envisioned Intuitional Science as quantitative metaphysics or metaphysics employing mathematical language. Intuitional Science tries as much as possible to produce representations or models of Reality with sufficient explanatory and predictive power. We are aiming for a new field better than metaphysics in terms of explanatory and predictive power.

If you are curious, I can tell you that the word “metaphysics” appears in only 1 or 2 places in the writings of Shrii Shrii Anandamurti (a huge collection of discourses numbering in thousands). In one, he says “It seems philosophy has lost its way in a labyrinth of metaphysics. ” This summarizes his attitude towards the intellectual approach to the Cosmic Mystery. He taught us that the spiritual practice (intuitive approach combined with devotion to God, ideation on God, and practices involving Divine Love) is the only approach that brings us closer to God.

I love physics. I love metaphysics. I also love spiritual philosophy. I am aware of the importance of spiritual practice. I am also fully aware of the fact that the intellectual approach is not going to take me closer to the Divine Center but I still follow the intellectual path as well as the spiritual path. God gave us intellect. We have to use it. God gave us intuition. We have to use intuition too. God promised us re-union if we do spiritual practice. So, we meditate… This is the Cosmic Play full of puzzles and contradictions.

In the essay titled “On Receptivity” I said that spiritual philosophy is for those of us who are on a journey from intellect to heart. When we reach home we will not need the vehicle of spiritual philosophy anymore.


About Suresh Emre

I have worked as a physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and the Superconducting Super Collider Laboratory. I am a volunteer for the Renaissance Universal movement. My main goal is to inspire the reader to engage in Self-discovery and expansion of consciousness.
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