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Meta-physics

Most people would agree that we have a much greater supply of physicists in the world than meta-physicists – or metaphysicians, as they’re usually called. (That is, if one has any idea at all what a meta-physicist is.)

“Metaphysics” relates to the written works of Aristotle. Sometimes “meta” is taken to mean “after,” since his book Metaphysics follows the one called Physics. Alternatively, “meta” can be construed as “beyond,” in the sense of what lies beyond Physics.

In Aristotle’s day, Physics referred more to what we today understand as Science – the study and seeking understanding of the entire physical, material world.

Modern philosophers and scientists tend to extol the discipline and purity of science and scientific methodology, sometimes to the extreme of denying that there is meaning, sense or value to anything that cannot be measured or detected by our senses.

Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1988 series of ten one-hour films, The Decalogue, originally commissioned for Polish TV, tells a series of modern stories loosely based on the Ten Commandments. The first is about a university professor who trusts the reliability of the computer and teaches his young son how to use it.

The boy wants to try out his new pair of ice skates. Having checked scientific data on the computer about freezing and thawing rates based on recent local temperatures, the father judges that the ice on the river is thick enough for safety – but the ice breaks and the boy drowns.

The film dramatically suggests that measured data about the physical world and scientific conclusions can fail us – that fate, as Kieslowski calls it, is an important part of life. As Shakespeare says it: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Interestingly, scientific theories sometimes go far beyond immediately measurable data, the normal boundaries of science.

For example, the “big bang” hypothesis – that the entire universe and everything in it has resulted from a primeval explosion of proto-matter and energy – is widely accepted, even though it is not proven and belies common sense.

Like the big bang, other theoretical constructs such as black matter or the indeterminacy of the nature of subatomic “particles,” help scientists bring order to and make sense of known data – even though they involve insights and leaps of thought that in classic terminology “go beyond,” that are metaphysical.

One of these leaps unknown, ignored or rejected by most modern scientists, was that of the famous Jesuit paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. He felt that random mutation and natural selection alone cannot explain the development of the universe, especially of living beings and humankind.

The only way he could make sense of the nature of the world and the direction of life was his insight that there is an “interiority” to inanimate and animate beings, a spiritual component. For him, evolution embraces the growth of this spiritual component; all creation tends toward an ultimate point of spiritual development and convergence – in religious terms, the reign of God.

Meta-physicists have keen insights into the nature of the universe; believers do, too.

Msgr. Archimandrite Robert L. Stern

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