JK Metaphysics, stand back up

‘Cold becomes warm, and warm, cold; wet becomes dry, and dry, wet. It disperses and gathers, it comes and goes. For there could be no harmony without sharps and flats, nor living beings without male and female which are contraries. The parched earth loves the rain, and the high heaven, with moisture laden, loves earthward to fall. In to the same river you could not step twice, for other and still other waters are flowing. The unlike is joined together, and from differences results the most beautiful harmony, and all things take place by strife. That which separates unites with itself. It is a harmony of oppositions, as in the case of the bow and of the lyre.’ ~Heraclitus

This is a response to an earlier (2015) post, in which I expressed frustration with my earlier self, specifically with my earlier self’s obsession with fantastic, consciousness-based takes on what the universe is made up of. At the time, I saw metaphysics as a study separate from practicality, containing ideas that can’t be applied to real life (unless forced by religion). I figured it was a way to ease one’s anxiety about the Great Unknown, and nothing more, and I realized that quantum physics had provided a sufficient explanation, so we could all get by on a rudimentary understanding of particles, chemistry, and biology, and move on to figuring out how to be better people and make a better world.

But what is metaphysics? Metaphysics is basically our beliefs about physics (not necessarily the study of physics, but about ‘nature’ and what existence is). Acknowledging our beliefs about physics is critical because all of our other beliefs are based on them, even if they’re just subconscious. In other words, all our other beliefs are about things that happen within the system of physics. Take an extreme example: a solipsist’s (a real one, not a person just using the word to be edgy) metaphysics says there is only one entity, and that entity is the solipsist. There is no politics or ethics then, because there is no responsibility (to others). What you or I would perceive as an ethical choice is merely an aesthetic choice to them. They’re not doing right or wrong; they’re just spinning a narrative.

So solipsism is a type of extreme substance philosophy. In philosophy, the term ‘substance’ refers to a distinct object with inherent properties. In other words, a substance can be defined without knowing its history or its relation to other substances. Substance philosophy focuses on one thing at a time, emphasizes ‘strength of character’ on the human level, and is the foundation of individualism, so is the foundation of Liberalism and fascism. There are substance-philosophy-based ideas in all of the categories of philosophy (e.g.: virtue ethics, the extreme form in the category of ethics), and they’re all based on a substance- or identity-based metaphysics. If you believe that all things are separate and self-defining, you’ll say stupid shit like, ‘I think, therefore I am.’

The alternative to substance philosophy is process philosophy. Process philosophy is more self-explanatory, especially when mentioned second! Instead of focusing on individual objects and assuming they had distinct properties before interacting with other objects, it focuses on the phenomena or processes that produce and change objects. Agential realism, Deleuzian metaphysics, Marxism, Buddhism (in its weird way), and Stoicism are all examples of process philosophy. Not only are these all more social, but they also do not require some concept of ‘human nature’ at their foundation—they don’t put consciousness at the center of the universe.

So why am I talking about two ways of approaching metaphysics instead of talking about quantum physics? Because quantum physics can be interpreted in different ways. There is a spiritual way, which ignores most of the data and egotistically injects consciousness in to everything. There is a substance-based way, which ignores much of the data and claims a set of particles is the foundation of existence. And there is a process-based way, which acknowledges that those particles are functionally nonexistent unless they are simultaneously acting on each other, or intra-acting. I would argue that the process-based way is the only correct way, but others would argue against me, so we must do philosophy about it. We must engage in metaphysics.

Both the spiritual and ‘secular’ substance views of quantum physics are in fact spiritual, in my view, because they are both essentialistic. In other words, both insist that a thing’s meaning, even the meaning of an electron, is built in to its physical properties. The ‘spirit’ of an electron is its negative charge, one might say, but negative when compared to what? And how can you measure negative charge without introducing an other particle for it to act on, and some apparatus we’ve decided can observe the action? Essentialist thinking tends to project individualist or egotistical human experience on to everything, which means an essentialist’s study of metaphysics already presupposes an essentialist metaphysics—the essentialist is just there to reinforce the subconscious beliefs it already had.

So going in to metaphysics with an open mind is critical. You can’t unlearn what you didn’t know you already believed. Pro-social and pro-ecological ideologies can be difficult to grasp, if you can’t see humans, other animals, and plants as points of intersecting phenomena. Or if history, to you, is just a thing you study, not a thing that happens. Or if you have any intuitions about the permanence of your identity.

All right, so Kant can suck it, Heraclitus and Gautama Buddha solved metaphysics long before (and then the Buddha went off the rails with it by reinjecting representationalism), Spinoza revived the solution for modern times, Niels Bohr proved it, Deleuze turned talking about it in to an art form, Karen Barad expanded Bohr’s proof to intersect with social theory better, and I have now read too many books. Metaphysics, you can sit back down now.

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