metaphysics on a napkin

At a holiday family gathering, I found myself in drunken dialogue with my significant other’s mother’s best friend’s daughter’s husband, trying to explain my philosophy of the universe. I did a pretty good job.

Since it is so rare that I successfully explain my metaphysics in a way that can fit between re-fills of Veuve Clicquot, I thought it might be nice to jot it down and share it. Naturally, this summary assumes a lot of the reader, takes a lot of “givens” for granted, and glosses over a lot of potential problems. But for what it’s worth, this is my metaphysics in a nutshell, the “can you write it on a champagne-soaked napkin, please?” edition:

1. Although the universe, X, has objective (observer-independent) existence, any statement describing any aspect of the universe, f(X) is subjective and observer-dependent. It is a construction by the observer and therefore is determined by the structure of the observer as an organism, which includes but isn’t limited to those aspects of its structure that express its genetics and biology, its memory and physiological development, its preferences and culture. Observation is a fundamental part of the process of living, that is: the act of living is one and the same with the act of creating meaning.

2. For any given set of observational data E, there are an infinite number of semantically and conceptually distinct explanations that can account for that set of data. When you devise an experiment that discerns between two alternative theories, what you are really doing is creating a boundary that divides the space of explanations. Unfortunately, when you find the results of that experiment, you can exclude an infinite number of views of the universe (on one side of the boundary) but there will always still be an infinite number of views of the universe left.

3. The fact that there is no singular “correct” theory in my metaphysics means that the purpose of theorizing is to find the “best fit” for a given context. Freed from the need to find “the truth”, we are left with looking for what is “useful”: in the moment, for a purpose, given the context.

This also, incidentally, is more or less how real people act in the world. When it is useful for us to think of photons are particles, we treat them as particles. When it is useful to think of them as waves, we think of them are waves. We don’t stress over the fact that photons are NEITHER particles NOR waves, but something entirely different that we can’t quite imagine that has the properties of both (sometimes). We simply use the theory that we need at the moment.

This is also what we do on a macro, psychological, and social level, as well. We treat our partners as our friends, our idols, our masters, and our students… in different situations. Each of these is a mental “frame” that we have constructed (just as “particle” and “wave” are mental frames) and we move seamlessly between them, not worrying about which one our partner “really” is because we know that the frames are our observation, our interpretation, not the “nature of the world”. Our partner isn’t “actually” any of these things, or is “actually” all of these things. The notion of conferring “actuality” in an objective way on our mental constructs is, itself, nonsensical; this is true no less of constructs like “chair” and “atom” and “planet” than it is of constructs like “king” or “country” or “lover”.

….as you can probably tell, I am a lot of fun at parties.