The Problem With Metaphysics

Perhaps you’ve heard the story, recounted here by Stephen Hawking:

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s tortoises all the way down!”

The old lady might have meant it literally, but unless NASA is very good a Photoshop, we have evidence which shows otherwise. The story is relevant though for its great metaphor of the infinite regress problem of the ‘unmoved mover.’

That what now? The unmoved mover was a concept first put forth by Aristotle for whatever it was that started the universe. Incorporating what we have learned since Aristotle, it would be something like, ‘The thing that caused the Big Bang.’

I call it a thing, because we don’t know what it was (or even if it was). Some people might say it was God, but this does not solve anything. Actually it raises even more questions about the nature of God and well, what caused God? All you’ve done is push the same problem back another step.

But if there was something prior to the Big Bang, perhaps it still exists as a reality that still surrounds our own universe. This reality is the next turtle down, if you will. Not just the bigger picture, but the biggest picture. Enter metaphysics, which Wikipedia gives the general definition as the search for What is ultimately there? and What is it like? Literally it translates to “beyond physics.”

This is the question of the fundamental nature of reality: the bottom turtle. This is the heart of existence, of all space and time. Unplug from the Matrix and experience real life. It certainly sounds intriguing. And don’t tell me it doesn’t sound scientific, this is beyond science!

There’s only one problem: You’ll never get there.

If you haven’t seen The Matrix, you should probably change that. But in two sentences, it is the story of the handful of humans who realize that their entire world, their very existence, is played out within a computer simulation. And it is only when they realize this and unplug themselves from the Matrix that they begin to live in the ‘real world.’

Their escape from the Matrix turns them into fugitives and they spend a lot of the movie fighting to survive. But had they time to stop and think, how long would it have taken before they started to question the realness of the ‘real world’ which they now lived in? How did they know that they had reached the bottom turtle? Was it possible they were still in the Matrix that contained the Matrix?

You see, it’s not only turtles all the way down, it’s turtles all the way up too. You have no way of knowing where you are at on the scale, but regardless you will never get to the bottom. This is the infinite regress problem, after all. You can always add one more reality.

Now I’m not saying we exist within the bottom turtle, if I had to bet I would say that we are not. But the bottom turtle, the fundamental nature of reality, is not better than any other reality. Sure it sounds great, and it feels like we’re giving up if we stop trying to get there. But if getting to the bottom of the rabbit hole (or turtle hole) is the only thing that’s going to make you happy, you will never get there. There is probably a much greater chance you will go fruit loops trying to find it.

Better, I think, to put that inquisitiveness towards the world we are in now. After all, we will never know if we have reached the next level until we truly understand our own.