Is Idealist Metaphysics the Culprit of Pseudo-science?

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From 19th century (when the movement of promoting science around the world was at its peak) to the beginning of 21st century, scholars from the academia of philosophy and professionals from the scientific community launched a century long attack on what they called the metaphysical idealism or idealist metaphysics, and during that anti-metaphysics movement metaphysics was often portrayed as the culprit of the so-called pseudo-science that is basically referred to things that violate the known scientific principles by claiming non-physical causes for physical changes.

This is a sad story, typical of the blind side of human nature, since it was the initiator of Metaphysics, Aristotle, who first worked towards distinguishing possible and impossible causes for physical movements when others were still taking things like fire as element and psychological or numerological power to be the cause for natural changes.

The reason for us now to be able to easily identify what might not cause physical movements is that we have the modern science, through which it is very convenient for us to know that things like numbers or forms cannot bring about a product in natural ways; but without the groundbreaking work of Aristotle, we might not even have had the science that would make the effort of discernment trivial, which is not something impossible considering that the confusion about the substantial and non-substantial causes lasted for millenniums in most part of the world until the so-called western science was introduced around the world.

There are two basic characteristics of the modern science, which are: 1) it is based on experimentation and mathematical formulation; 2) it is constructed on the concepts of mass and energy, which do not change during transactions.

These two characteristics of modern science could be clearly linked to Aristotle’s obsession of basing cause-seeking on unchangeable things (which was one charge against him in the anti-metaphysics movement), instead of volatile things. This is because what was considered by Aristotle as substantial and unchangeable are obviously better candidates for experimentation and mathematical formulation than things like fire, numbers, abstract Forms and Ideas, or even psychological power, which could not be tested in natural ways even today.

Because of the above mentioned logical connection, we could conclude that Aristotle’s work on metaphysics should have greatly helped the commencement of modern science during its conception phase and the growth of modern science during its later development phase, and lacking that kind of theoretical foundation might be the fundamental reason why the modern science did not first appear in China or India or anywhere else in the world, but came into life in the west first.

However, instead of being given the credit, metaphysics was defamed as the culprit of things that were deemed as pseudo-science or anti-science. Of course, this satirical farce must have not happened randomly, but for reasons. Among all the possible reasons, closely related to the current discussion in this writing we could see at least these two:

1) Metaphysics does contain some contents that are not scientifically correct when examined from the modern scientific point of view, and those contents could become or have actually already become the source of certain theories of pseudo-science or anti-science;

2) Those that attacked metaphysics did not understand Aristotle’s motive and logic to start his study of metaphysics and thus did not know the real value or meaning of metaphysical studies.

The above first reason is understandable, but if not because of the second reason, that first reason should not have even become a reason for the radical attack on metaphysics. However, the second reason itself is very puzzling: how could professionals, especially professional philosophers, not know the work of Aristotle? Then how could any professional philosophers in 19th century pass the examinations of philosophy class when they were students of philosophy if they did not know the work of Aristotle? But on the other hand, it might surprise many to find out that incapability of comprehending classic works of philosophy is a common thing now in the academia of philosophy; hence, it might not be too surprising, if the above mentioned second reason was in turn because those academics never read the book Metaphysics of Aristotle, or never really understood the book if they did read it in the classroom.

Final Words

Before ending this writing, it might be needed to point out that after we entered the 21st century, the public perception concerning nonphysical causes including psychological power or even numerological power has changed to certain degree in contrast to what the mainstream felt about those things in the so-called scientific revolution. However, either would any possible real meanings of any nonphysical causes be at a different level from what is concerned by the modern science, or would their grasp fundamentally benefit from scientific knowledge or the science-based technological means; thus, any possible future enlightenment of the so-called nonphysical causes would not diminish the position of Aristotle’s work on metaphysics in the foundation of modern science.

By the way, when those attackers welded idealist and metaphysics together or welded metaphysical and idealism together, I am not sure if they knew how much Aristotle was against the idea of treating Idea (for which the idealism was originally referring to) as the first cause. Lastly, Aristotle never denied the changing and moving nature of the universe as those who attacked metaphysics accused in the past.

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Rongqing Dai, Ph.D.

Rongqing Dai is an author who comes from a science and engineering background with a Ph.D. from McGill University. For the past decade, I have been devoted to philosophically bent fiction and nonfiction writing to explore the dynamic logic behind the cultural, economic, and political happenings around the world. Currently I am in the transition from my science and engineering background to the philosophically bent literature writing career.

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