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From physics to the metaphysics

Stephen Hawking was perfectly in line with the ancient philosophers when he acknowledged that physics points to the deeper questions of metaphysics. Indeed, when questions stop becoming scientific, they start becoming philosophical. If a yogi floats on air or walks on water, which cannot be explained by the principles of physics, probably we can explain it on the basis of metaphysics. Metaphysics (meta means ‘beyond’) is the study of those things and phenomena that are beyond the physical realm. It is a philosophy that concerns the nature and description of an ultimate reality that stands behind the physical world or the world of appearances.

Metaphysics seeks to answer the more intriguing philosophical questions that physics or in general science can’t answer. While the scientific picture of the real world around us is very deficient and silent in a ghastly way over certain realities of the universe, the metaphysical statements over the issues are complicated and meaningless. They take us nowhere.

All science originated from philosophy. Physics was called natural philosophy until the 19th century, but once it was proven to be correct it was no longer philosophy and became a science. Physics is the science of the natural world, more specifically dealing with the matter, energy, space-time and fundamental forces that govern the physical world. In physics we study a wide range of physical phenomena from subatomic particles to large galaxies of the material universe, and use empirical data and mathematics to find results and conclusions. Physicists have convinced us that leptons and quarks are the fundamental building blocks of matter and that mass, energy and space-time are the only real entities. The scientific method is perhaps one of the most groundbreaking applied disciplines to inquire into the question of what is meaningful and what is not. There is a restriction to data from our universe, and specifically what can be observed and falsified. Physics is also deeply concerned with arriving at knowledge about the ultimate nature of reality. Since we cannot know whether we have discovered everything which would affect our theories of the universe, all such theories are perpetually subject to modification or change.

Mathematics is a language and a tool that we use in physics to explain the universe. Quantum physics is a mathematical description that rules the tiny world of atoms and subatomic particles in our universe. Much of quantum physics is weird, seemingly of a mysterious nature, presenting confusing ideas and violating common sense. Albert Einstein famously attacked quantum mechanics because it implied “spooky action at a distance”.

Despite all this, the most amazing thing about quantum mechanics is that we can use it correctly and productively. It is the most successful theory today. It has been tested many times and in many ways and found to make reliable and precise predictions. Without quantum physics, much of the information technology that we rely on, from microcircuits to lasers, would not exist. Today many scientists argue that metaphysics plays an important role in quantum mechanics at a deeper level; the nature of reality is all mathematical. This could be an example of how metaphysical assumptions can get in the way of our understanding the paradoxical nature of quantum mechanics. But even when quantum mechanics appears a mystical science of metaphysics, it is not metaphysics but productive science.

Despite the dominance of science and technology in the modern world we are still way behind in understanding the ultimate reality of the universe. We don’t know who controls this universe. And if it is god, then who controls god? If god doesn’t need a creator, why does this universe need a creator? What is its origin or source of creation? What is the true nature of the universe? There are so many unresolved issues about the universe and other day-to-day subjects that science can’t answer. What is the meaning and purpose of life? Why are we born? Who are we? Why are we here? Questions about the reality of life, death, soul, spirituality, concept of time and the existence of ghosts have been baffling for the human experience for thousands of years. Even when we try to explain the concept of ‘time’ scientifically in a beautiful way, in the end it turns out to be an abstract concept when we ask questions such as: Is time real? Does time actually exist or is it only an illusion? If it exists, does time flow or lapse or pass? Is the future or the past as real as the present? Did time exist before the beginning of Big Bang? Thus, time becomes purely metaphysical. Modern science provides us tools that enable us to sharpen these old questions, but it generates new unending arguments.

Subjects such as mysticism, life after death, reincarnation, soul, meditation, spirituality, dreams, extrasensory perception, fairy tales, ghosts and astrology, the nature and origin of reality itself, and the existence of a supreme being, are the subjects that come under metaphysics. Opinions about these metaphysical topics vary widely, since what is being discussed can’t be observed or measured or even truly known to exist. Most of the metaphysical questions are still as far from a final answer as they were when Plato and Aristotle were asking them. It seems metaphysics is just a maze with no end or escape.

Metaphysics now has a reputation for being fanciful and for being ultimately without any meaning. This is not due to the nature of the subject of metaphysics itself but rather due to the failure of philosophers and metaphysicists to solve the fundamental problem of metaphysics. The metaphysical statement usually implies an idea about the world or the universe, which may seem reasonable but is ultimately not empirically verifiable, testable or provable. With each passing day there is a growing list of mysteries.

Many scholars and teachers are excited about metaphysics. Many have a metaphysical bent of mind and remain engrossed in discussions. Some of them have put their careers at stake. They downplay the excitement of present-day research, science and technology and denounce the developed countries. When we ask them why Muslims are lagging behind in science and why we have few Nobel laureates, they quickly retort with answers such as, ‘Nobel prizes don’t gauge the real intellect’, ‘all the world is metaphysical’, ‘who knows who is the real winner’, and ‘Nobel prizes are small things’. On the other side, these people have a very good worldly life. They are married, have found good jobs, sent their children to good schools and are benefiting from science and technology.

Worldly life is also important. As Muslims we have to protect our planet, serve mankind, seek knowledge, compete with others and promote goodness. We are not here to destroy the world, earn haram or perform bad service to humanity. Excelling in scientific knowledge is an obligation and honour for a Muslim. In this direction, we should put our best efforts in the most productive way to help mankind and not pull things out of thin air and talk about vague subjects that ultimately take us nowhere.

Every advancement in science has changed the human perspective. Of course science is something that has developed and evolved fully, but is always developing. And as it advances we may some day solve the mysteries of the world. Science has real-world application and we cannot denounce it. It has a huge role to play in our development and the very survival of humankind in both the near and distant future.

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2021 10:22:31 AM |

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