What is metaphysics, and why is it important? In his new book, Einar Duenger Bøhn explains how to reflect on the most fundamental things in life.
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Professor Einar Duenger Bøhn is employed at the University of Agder's Department of Religion, Philosophy and History. The book What is Metaphysics, is published by Universitetsforlaget.
Let's start with the most obvious question: What exactly is metaphysics?
“The word itself means «behind physics». I define it as the study of what underlies all reality. How things are structured and how they relate to everything else. Take the table you are sitting at as an example. One metaphysical theory states that the table is a group of particles. Another theory, one of my favorites, is that it consists of information. A third is that the table is God's thoughts. There are many crazy theories about what reality really is”
This sounds like a topic with a long history.
“Yes, it goes as far back as to when people began reflecting on things. Metaphysics as it is studied today can be traced back to the Greeks. Aristotle and Plato, but also the pre-Socratics who lived around the year 500 BC, wondered what was behind it all”
Have we really asked ourselves what a table is for over 2000 years without having gotten to the bottom of it?
“In philosophy, I think of progress in a different way than in, for example, mathematics. In the latter, knowledge can be proven with scientific principles. Philosophy has more to do with clarifying problems so we understand them better. Today we understand much better which theories work and what the problems mean than 2000 years ago. In my opinion, progress is not about finding a final answer”
Does this mean we will never find out what a table really is?
“Some people have read the book and complained that there is no answer in it, but I am not worried. If we have an answer, it is no longer philosophy. To strive for a final answer is to put the cart in front of the horse. This is not how it works in philosophy. The best articles on philosophy are those that pose questions in a different way”
It is challenging to summarise this topic in a book of less than 150 pages. What have you decided to focus on?
“I have chosen to focus on what I think is the most exciting part. The book starts by tackling the most fundamental questions: where does reality comes from? Can it arise from nothing? Then I question how reality is structured and, for example, what a person is. And finally, the most mysterious part: what is consciousness, free will and values. In truth, the book is just Einar's journey in discovering the most fundamental and weird concepts. I want to make people reflect on how strange everything is”
How did you become interested in metaphysics?
“It is the most megalomaniac subject you can study, and I am a megalomaniac. I have always wondered about the big questions. Where do I come from? Yes, from my relatives. Where did they come from? Yes, from apes. But where did the monkeys come from? It never stops. Metaphysics continues to ask questions when everyone else has stopped asking them, and that is what makes it so fun”
Do people dismiss metaphysics as overthinking?
“Many people do, but it is misunderstood scepticism. Many are sceptical of religion and think it is just something made up. But just because something is not tangible and we do not have have a final answer, does not mean that there is nothing to discuss. It just means that it is difficult to know for sure. Thats is why we must work harder to find answers in metaphysics”
That sounds terribly tiring, doesn't it?
“Many are sceptical about metaphysics because it becomes too difficult. It is easier to be sceptical than to try to understand it. Many people also think that metaphysics is just about making things up. But the methods we use are similar to other sciences: one comes up with arguments and finds the best reasons to believe in something. If you believe that reality exists, then you must also believe that there is something fundamental at its core.
We really can’t escape metaphysics, can we?
“It is important for me to explain why metaphysics is present in everything we do. If you are a scientist, you often have an underlying metaphysics that says that everything can be measured, tested, observed and discovered. If you think that everything can be explained by physics, this is your metaphysics. If you believe that humans are just machines, your metaphysics is different from those who believe that everything was created by God. Everyone has a metaphysics. To deny metaphysics is to deny reality”
You write in the book that metaphysics can be used to reveal good, old-fashioned, bullshit.
“You can learn a lot by reflecting on your underlying assumptions. Think, for example, of what gender is. If you have a biological background assumption, you will have a different starting point than if you believe that gender is socially constructed. There are different metaphysics! The same goes for religious or naturalistic worldviews. When you look at metaphysics from afar, you will understand why you think the way you do. And this is why we sometimes misunderstand each other”
OK, that sounds pretty exciting. Do I need any special prerequisites to get started with metaphysics?
“No, it's about preserving the perspective of our inner child and trying to see things in new ways. Metaphysics is not something for people who are very pragmatic. My colleagues who work with artificial intelligence, for example, are very solution-oriented, and for them metaphysics can be a little frustrating. Instead of thinking "we have now obtained the final answer", we should think “we will now try to understand this a little bit better". It is about preserving a childlike gaze and try to see things in new ways”
So I do not have to be super smart?
“That is an advantage, of course”