Attractive Definitions

A dictionary’s second definition of metaphysics is the one that pleases me most:

Philosophy, especially in its more abstruse branches.

The corresponding definition of the primary adjectival form, metaphysical, pleases me just as much:

Concerned with abstract thought or subjects, as existence, causality, or truth.

Let me first say I do not like to associate metaphysics or metaphysical with woo-woo thinking. Metaphysics is rooted deeply in philosophical dimensions that can be explored through physics, mathematics, and concepts that exist in harmony with the “hard sciences.”

I like the word “abstruse” because it captures the complexity of the universe. It means hard to understand or recondite, which truly applies to every subject if one is willing to consider all things and all topics carefully. Nothing is as simple as we make it out to be. Simplicity is spectacularly and intricately orchestrated complexity that hides behind a façade of supreme clarity.

Periodically, my mind wanders into metaphysics as it explores concepts of time and chaos theory and the fascinating relationships between mathematics and matter. I do not pretend to understand any of these ideas; but I find them impossibly attractive. In chaos theory, “the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state.” In somewhat simpler terms, an article in American Scientist addresses the issue by explaining a question posed by Edward Lorenz: ““Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?”

Popular misunderstandings of the term notwithstanding, Lorenz did not suggest the correct answer to the questions was “yes.” Instead, he argued (according to American Scientist) for “the idea that some complex dynamical systems exhibit unpredictable behaviors such that small variances in the initial conditions could have profound and widely divergent effects on the system’s outcomes. ” That is, the complexity of the physical world is so great that many of its aspects are unpredictable; that is, minute variations of “input” can result in massive fluctuations in “output.”

The term “initial condition” is used in the explanation of butterfly effect. If butterfly effect is not sufficiently esoteric, try this: “initial condition…is a value of an evolving variable at some point in time designated as the initial time.” The explanation gets increasingly sophisticated as it delves into discussions of variations in discrete time and continuous time, differential equations, closed form solutions, linear and nonlinear systems, etc., etc., etc.

Abstractions are based on understanding of facts or realities. Predictions or forecasts are abstractions.  Lorenz, a meteorologist, argued (I think) that unpredictable behaviors are unpredictable precisely because seemingly minor variations of ambient conditions in weather could have enormous consequences at a later time and place. Mathematics and physics intersect with philosophy and simplicity in ways that are simply stunning in their complexity. Oh, and time. I’ve mused about time many times before, arguing that time is context-dependent. At least time as we non-physicists usually consider it. An Earth-year is vastly different from a Saturn-year. And, therefore, all components of a year (months, days, hours, seconds, etc.) must also be different, yes? Maybe yes, maybe no.

Physicists argue (again, I think) that the speed of light is constant. But is it? How does one accurately measure speed, which is time-dependent, when the duration of time itself may not be consistent? I wonder, sometimes, whether the instruments we use to measure the physical world are adequate to measure the physical world outside our own galaxy.

I do not have sufficient stamina, willpower, intellectual capacity, nor time to learn and process all the information I want to absorb. No one does. In fact, some of the information I wish I knew has absolutely no practical value as far as I can tell. What possible use, for example, might there be for knowing precisely the number of leaves on all the trees on planet Earth? It would be nice to know, though, wouldn’t it? Or the precise number of atoms in the universe? Would it be possible to know the number of atoms, given that nuclear reactions take place with such frequency in stars that counting them would be an impossible task?

Thinking about such monstrously complex ideas, ideas that far surpass my brain’s capacity to understand, helps me leave the problems of this planet and this life far behind me. By examining ideas and asking questions that have no answers, I can lose myself and emerge from the quicksand of day-to-day living. But I always return to the muck, as I am about to do.

In roughly three hours and then some, I will drink mocha-flavored barium and will then drive to Hot Springs for a couple of CT scans. My mind will leave behind the incredibly attractive questions and contemplations about the nature of time and complexity and simplicity. In their place will be worries about what the CT scans might reveal; or answers the scans may not give. I’ll be conscious of people wearing masks and others too self-centered and arrogant to cover their faces. Sleep, sometimes, is the best medicine for malaise. Or exercise. Or something. Oh, well, this was a nice little journey into the metaphysical world. I’m back to the plain old physical world, watching birds flit by my window. That’s not half-bad, either.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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