The Difference Between Physics, Metaphysics, Science, and Pseudoscience
Aristotle described metaphysics as “the book that comes right after the book on physics” or “the first book of philosophy,” the term metaphysics is actually just an English translation of the concept of looking at “what could be” and “what ought to be”. You can read both those books online here: Aristotle’s metaphysics and Aristotle’s physics.
Generally, physics seeks to predict natural phenomena and studies change in the physical universe, metaphysics seeks to answer the more philosophical questions that physics can’t answer, can’t yet answer, or in some cases wouldn’t ask.
Introduction to Metaphysics
TIP: Consider that Descartes titled his major 1641 work on metaphysics Meditations on First Philosophy (in other words, thoughts on metaphysics). Another major work of Descartes, Principles of Philosophy, bridges the gap between physics, discourse on method, and metaphysics, the first philosophy, interweaving the two. In other words, saying metaphysics is analogous to saying “first philosophy,” that which asks the questions that physics can’t or can’t yet answer.
TIP: Metaphysics may include God as a subject, but it is no way restricted to this, nor does every metaphysical branch deal with God. In general you’ll find the Greeks less focused on God and more focused on moral virtue, while you’ll find the European philosophers more interested in theology and ontology in their metaphysical classics.
What is Metaphysics?
Metaphysics is a broad subject that asks philosophical questions about the universe and our place in it, those questions can relate to the arts, the social sciences like psychology, politics, and economics, and even religion (which all have their own branches of philosophy outside metaphysics as well).
In many ways, metaphysics is just another name for philosophy. It is the most major of the major branches of philosophy in this respect.
Metaphysics and Cosmology
Theoretical physics constantly dances back and forth between metaphysics, logic, and experience, constantly dealing with what can be called “synthetic a priori” (propositions not based on experience that can’t be shown to be true by their terms alone).
Leonard Susskind Stanford Cosmology Lecture 1
Theoretical Physics Versus Metaphysics
Metaphysics is distinctly different than theoretical physics, despite being closely linked by cosmology in theme, and despite theoretical physics being “the metaphysics of physics.”
Theoretical physics takes a more mathematical and scientific approach to philosophizing. The intent is to uncover the knowable, rather than to question the unknowable. That line where they both meet, that realm of “synthetic a priori,” is a thing of both physics and metaphysics. Thus it illustrates both the difference and the similarities of the two studies.
Math, including theoretical mathematics, can be applied to philosophy and physics and can relate to metaphysics in similar ways, but it is distinctly different as well.
TIP: Things that are different often get different names… and sometimes two things that are different get the same name. Such is the nature of language. With physics and metaphysics, their similar names speak to the nature of each.
Metaphysics and Other Areas of Philosophy Like Epistemology, Ontology, and Aesthetics
Other areas of philosophical study include epistemology, the study of knowledge and understanding, which looks at “what can we know” and “how do we know it”, ontology which looks at the meaning of being, Aesthetics which is the philosophy of art, and theology which assumes the existence of a higher being by default.
The following video from the Oxford University Department for Continuing Education is a good, but detailed, introduction to metaphysics and epistemology so you can see how they relate to each other and to physics (hint: the standard model is a thing of physics, metaphysics, and epistemology).
Oxford University Department for Continuing education – Metaphysics and Epistemology
Is Metaphysics a Pseudoscience?
Defining pseudoscience can be even harder than metaphysics, but generally they are two VERY different concepts. Metaphysics is philosophy, pseudoscience is junk science. There is most certainly lines where the two cross over (like when philosophical ideas are treated as scientific fact), but otherwise these two concepts are as different as physics and metaphysics themselves.
MIT Godel Escher Bach Lecture 1. This lecture will blow your mind to infinity and beyond, it’s a must watch. It is given at MIT in a METAPHYSICS class. Notice how in metaphysics one is given the freedom to combine theoretical math, theoretical physics, and philosophy. It’s only pseudo- when you present speculation not backed by scientific experiment as fact. This is presented as metaphysics and thus doesn’t break the rule.
Science Versus Pseudoscience
Pseudoscience, which loosely means not backed by the rigorous application of the scientific method, is different than science, which loosely means backed by the rigorous application of the scientific method. Meanwhile, metaphysics is subject to its own set of rules of logic and reason, but by its nature can’t always be subjected to the rigorous application of the scientific method.
With that in mind, pseudoscience, or fake science, doesn’t imply trickery per-say, it more-so implies lack of scientific method. It can include conclusions about the physical universe, behavior, philosophical concepts, and old disproven theories like astrology, aether, and alchemy (just like metaphysics)… but the difference is pseudoscience denotes an attempt to pass this shaky form of metaphysics off as science, where metaphysics is more likely to try to come up with a hypothesis for actual science to test.
There are many ways to define pseudoscience, and sometimes the word “junk science” or “BS”, is used to describe sparse data, bad conclusions, lack of the scientific method, and the general mixing of science, metaphysics, and even theological concepts.
When someone presents metaphysics side-by-side with physics, and they don’t make clear what they are presenting, one can consider it BS, junk science, and/or pseudoscience (as this is partly semantics).
However, metaphysics is at the end of the day a valid and important field of study, while pseudoscience most certainly isn’t.
The metaphysics of today may be the physics of tomorrow, and the theories of today may be the pseudoscience of the future. However, for today, we have to draw a clear distinction “between what we know”, “what we think we know”, and “what we are aware we don’t know”. That is the difference between math and science, and pseudo science and philosophy.
It isn’t that philosophical questions shouldn’t be asked, they should. It is only that when metaphysics is presented as scientific fact, it becomes nearly indistinguishable form the pseudoscience of a snake oil salesperson.
Below we discuss the differences between mathematics, physics, metaphysics, and pseudoscience in more details. First you should watch this overview of Karl Popper and sciences versus pseudoscience (as that will also clarify the difference between physics and metaphysics.
Karl Popper, Science, and Pseudoscience: Crash Course Philosophy #8.
FACT: The word “metaphysics” derives from the Greek words μετά (metá, “beyond”, “upon” or “after”) and φυσικά (physiká, “physics”). The term was used to illustrate Aristotle’s concept which he called “the first philosophy”, or, “the books that come after the [books on] physics”. See a great explainer of metaphysics and Aristotle.
The Difference Between Mathematics, Physics, Metaphysics, and Pseudoscience
Ultimately math, physics, and metaphysics are all ways to study the universe and our place in it. When we adhere to the scientific method and seek to disprove ourselves and learn more, we create science. When we marry our ideas and look for justifications, or we present our findings in a dishonest way, we get pseudoscience.
We can think of the progression from math, to physics, to metaphysics like this:
- Mathematics is a language we use to explain the universe. It includes theoretical math, calculus, geometry, equations, statistics and probabilities, applied mathematics, and even wacky conceptual math that doesn’t always apply to the physical universe directly. Despite its occasional wackiness, we know math “works” because it can be used to accurately explain what is happening in physics 100% of the time, and can be used to predict what will happen consistently. Math is the language used to prove physics on paper and make predictions. Math can also be applied to metaphysics to help explore philosophical questions.
- Physics is a branch of science concerned with the nature of the universe. Theoretical physics uses math to explain and predict natural phenomena; experimental physics tests these theories; applied physics puts them to work in everyday life. Being a field of science, physics-based theories must work 100% of the time to be accepted as “scientific theories” (unlike philosophical theories, or theories in common language). The physical universe can always be explained with math.
- Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy that explores questions beyond the realm of theoretical physics. Who are we? Why are we here? What is the true nature of the universe? Metaphysics can use religion, math, physics, other sciences, and philosophical concepts or techniques to try to peel layers off the onion of understanding. Metaphysics can be rooted in reality, but it’s not limited to “what we know we know”.
How Mathematics Leads to Theories
Energy, mass, the speed of light, the speed of light in a vacuum, and all related concepts, down to the very nature of particles and particle interactions, are rooted in mathematics and theoretical physics and proven with experimental physics. In fact, we know most of what we know about the physical universe from math and experimentation.
Michio Kaku: The Universe in a Nutshell. Ps. This video was made shortly before they found the Higgs Boson. This video gives an overview of physics showing what we can prove with science, and showing how we can use science, math, and philosophical thinking to make predictions like string theory.
Light in a Vacuum Example
Instead of using a true vacuum, we measure light in a vacuum state, which is a quantum state with the lowest possible energy.
Empty space is filled with quantum fields that technically slow down light. However, math tells us what the speed of light would be in a theoretical vacuum, and the predictions we make with experimental physics based on this works. Using experimental physics, we can confirm that our physics-based and math-based theories work.
Theorizing and Testing
When we theorize and predict natural phenomena based on math, we get theoretical physics. When we test theories with experiments and flesh out our models, we get experimental physics. When it works over and over, we get applied physics. The more a theory works, the surer we are. (See Bayesian thinking or read about the nature of ideas for more detail).
It’s important to understand that math and applied physics are accepted as “right” because they work in practice, this gives us well-tested theories and concepts that we can use to connect the dots and theorize on the nature of the universe. Theory can be wrong, but the more it works, the less chance it’ll be “totally wrong”.
The Math Mystery Mathematics in Nature and Universe Space Documentary.
Theorizing Versus Philosophizing
The second we start theorizing based on math, models, and explainers we start walking the line between physics, theoretical physics, and metaphysics. When we step outside the bounds of physics, we need to be aware that we are dipping our toes in metaphysics. Since all physics is based in math, a toe dipped in metaphysics quickly becomes a foot if one isn’t careful. As a teacher, author, or even just an every day theorist, it’s important to remind ourselves and our audience when we are philosophizing, which is used in common language the same way as theorizing, yet holds very different meanings in academia.
Math is an exact language we can use to describe physics. Our models and theories help us to explain and we can use them to describe theoretical physics. When we apply physics or theoretical physics, and our calculations work they become applied physics, and when we use all this to philosophize about what is happening, and that is called metaphysics. Everything beyond what our theories and math show to be true becomes metaphysics. There is a fine line between philosophizing about metaphysics and pseudoscience.
How to Spot the Difference Between Science and Pseudoscience
The easiest way to spot pseudoscience is with critical thinking and a Google search. Pseudoscience implies a person looking for a result and not being willing to test their hypothesis (or, in the case where metaphysics is involved, at least support their argument using logical methods and facts).
If you can’t explain how something works to someone, and answer every question they ask, it’s a red flag. The scientific method is a method of questioning, and this is just as important in metaphysics as it is in physics.
If you get a “red flag”, go to Google and search the concept. For instance Google “everything is energy”. You’ll notice that while it appears true-ish, it’s actually pseudoscience (no wiki, no stack exchange, no .edu, no .gov study).
Now Google, “mass-energy is a fundamental principle of the universe”. Ta-dah’ now we are getting somewhere, notice the .edu’s and Wikipedia articles.
If you don’t see a physics stack exchange, .edu, Wikipedia article, or other authoritative source explaining the math behind your claim, it’s likely metaphysics or pseudoscience (or you just cracked the secrets of the universe, and that deserves, at least, a comment on the web-article you do find).
Science vs. Pseudoscience.
EXAMPLE: In the famed double-slit experiment we can show that light is both a wave and a particle (photon). This dual wave-particle nature is neat and real. It gets wonky when we try to measure it, though, photons appear to know we are watching them. WhatTheBleeP?! Your first thought may be voodoo mind magic, but it’s much more likely our measurement tools are messing with our data. We measure massless quantum particles after all. Learn more about this “observer effect“. When we present pseudo science as science, or metaphysics as science, and we aren’t honest with our reader, we create junk science. Physics and Metaphysics are valid academic studies, but a theory is only as good as the data backing it up.
How To Spot Pseudoscience.
You can see more tips and tricks for spotting pseudoscience here.