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November 12, 2018

English has appropriated many words from other languages. The term, science, comes from the Latin word, scientia, meaning knowledge, and many scientific terms derive from Latin and Greek words. From Greek we have such things as electron, derived from the Greek word for amber (elektron, ηλεκτρον). The electron was named for amber because of amber's propensity for developing an electrostatic charge when rubbed. I wrote about amber and triboelectricity in a previous article (Triboelectric Generators, February 8, 2016).

Ortho-, meta-, and para-, are three Greek prefixes that are well known to organic chemists, since they are used in the naming of arene substitution patterns in aromatic hydrocarbon molecules (see figure). The prefix, ortho-, comes from the Greek adjective, orthos (,ορθος), meaning straight, true, correct, regular."[1] The prefix, meta-, comes from the Greek preposition, meta (μετα), meaning among other things, after, next after, and behind,[2] while the prefix, para-, from the Greek preposition, para (παρα), means against and contrary to.[3] You can see how the chemical prefixes relate to these words.

arene substitution patterns, ortho-, meta-, and para- on a benzene ring

arene substitution patterns, ortho-, meta-, and para- on a benzene ring. These prefixes derive from Greek words for regular, next after, and contrary to. (Created using Inkscape)

The meta- that most physicists and engineers know is the different sense of the prefix as used to define such things as metamaterials. The meaning of meta- in that case is beyond or transcending. This definition also applied to the "meta" in metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that looks at issues beyond physics, such as prime causes and purposes, including the essence and qualities of things. Metaphysics tries to understand existence and its qualities of cause and effect, space and time, change and possibility. Some important subfields of metaphysics are as follow:

Ontology. Ontology concerns itself with the nature of existence and reality, such as what entities exist, or may exist, their differences and similarities, and their relationship to each other.

Teleology. Teleology attempts to explain why something exists; that is, what its purpose might be. The word derives from telos (purpose) and logos (explanation). What's most interesting about teleology is that it considers that things might have an intrinsic purpose that does not depend on what humans might think. A simple example of this is the idea that the purpose of a seed is to make its plant, but scientists might argue that discussing the purpose of seeds is not useful. A seed is just a component in a biological process. Things just follow the laws of nature, but that brings up the question of why those laws exist.

Philosophical Cosmology. Philosophical cosmology, as distinct from physical cosmology, is the study of the conceptual foundation of the universe. It includes the question that's always bothered me, the ultimate existential question of why anything should exist, as well as the companion question of whether the universe has a purpose. It also considers man's place in the universe. This includes the interesting idea that the universe might be designed to evolve in a particular, fixed path, so that free will is just an illusion.

Cosmological models through the ages

Cosmological models through the ages. Left, the Earth, carried by elephants on a giant turtle, a Hindu model of the universe. Middle, Atlas holding the Earth on his shoulders. Right, A medieval pilgrim crossing the sphere of the fixed stars. (Left image, an illustration from Popular Science Monthly, volume 10, 1876, via Wikimedia Commons. Middle image, a Mosaic in a subway station, Detail of a photo by K.A. Stepanov, via Wikimedia Commons. Right, a wood engraving from Camille Flammarion's L'Atmosphere: Météorologie Populaire (Paris, 1888), p. 163, via Wikimedia Commons.)

While physics endeavors to explain the universe by devising laws that have a capacity for prediction (although the idea of quantum uncertainty makes these predictions less certain than the clockwork universe of classical physics), metaphysics offers a different type of explanation. Instead of "how," it asks "why?" Since humans are supposedly smarter than a bag of rocks (except, however, when the rocks are computer chips), it should be possible for us to get some understanding of what everything is about by thinking about things. That determination to attain truth through logical reasoning has persisted since the time of Aristotle (384 BC-322 BC).

Metaphysical ideas have influenced science in many ways. Questioning the centrality of humans in the universe led to the Copernican Revolution. Einstein and others were so opposed to the idea that nature was not deterministic that they sought an alternative hidden-variable theory that would complete quantum mechanics. Einstein famously said that "God does not play dice," and he was especially troubled by the "spooky action at a distance" of quantum entanglement. As Einstein wrote in a March 3, 1947, letter to Max Born,
"I am quite convinced that someone will eventually come up with a theory whose objects, connected by laws, are not probabilities but considered facts, as used to be taken for granted until quite recently."[4]

Karl Svozil of the Institute for Theoretical Physics of the Vienna University of Technology (Vienna, Austria) has recently published a paper on arXiv that summarizes the metaphysics behind some current problems in science.[5] These include the idea that we might be living in a computer simulation, the possibility that computing machines may become conscious and have an intelligence that's superior to humans, and the possibility of extraterrestrial life and intelligence. There is also the enigma of existence, which I mentioned earlier, and it appears that science is not capable of answering the ultimate existential question.

As Svozil writes, science has traumatized humanity in various humiliations, such as demoting the Earth from the center of the universe; and, through Darwinian evolution, showing that man is just another member of the continuum of plants and animals. However, science has more than compensated by enhancement of individual dignity and liberating us from multiple fears. Still, Svozil writes, "... I shall mention a few humiliations which are yet to come, and can be expected during our pursuit further down the scientific lane."[5]

Aristarchus of Samos calculation of the Earth-Sun distance (astronomical unit)

While Copernicus gets all the credit for heliocentrism, Aristarchus of Samos (310 BC - c. 230 BC) was the first to have proposed a heliocentric system. Aristarchus went as far as to estimate the distance of the Earth to the Sun as 10,000 Earth radii. This is about half its actual value.

(From a 10th century copy of Aristarchus of Samos's 2nd century BC calculations of the relative sizes of the Sun, Moon and the Earth, via Wikimedia Commons)

One of these humiliations is the idea that we might be living in a virtual reality, a computer simulation of the universe, or our local part of it. Our consciousness is just part of a computer running in a higher realm. To add insult to injury, this computer simulation might have been created for a trivial purpose, such as marketing.[5] The first explication of this idea is contained in a 2003 paper by Nick Bostrom, a professor of philosophy at the University of Oxford (Oxford, UK).[6]

The central tenet of this theory is that computing power will increase enormously in the future, and this would allow a simulation of conscious beings. The argument is made that if this scenario is possible, then many such simulations would be run simultaneously, and it's more likely than not that we are in one such simulation. Other possibilities are that advanced civilizations of the sort that could run such simulations are not possible, or such civilizations would have no interest in simulating a primitive culture such as our own.[7] A corollary principle is that our descendants will almost certainly never run such a simulation unless we are objects in a simulation.[7]

The idea that machines might appear to be as intelligent as humans has existed since the time of Alan Turing (1912-1954) when computers were just a collection of relays and whirring motors. Turing's eponymous Turing test is a test of whether a machine appears to be human. Imitation is one thing, but can computers achieve consciousness? As Turing later wrote, "Once the machine thinking method had started, it would not take long to outstrip our feeble powers."[8] What will happen at the crossover between humans and computers being the most intelligent and conscious species on Earth? We might try to use these computing resources while preventing machine consciousness, but that probably isn't possible.

Ever since Enrico Fermi posed the question, "Where is everybody?," we've been wondering why no intelligence has been detected beyond Earth. Making contact with an advanced civilization would indeed be humbling, but being alone in the universe would cause some serious soul-searching. As Svozil writes, we may not be alone, but we've been isolated from a galactic hypercivilization since interaction would be a lose-lose situation.[5] Contamination of human culture by an advanced civilization would cause widespread dissolution of human values and beliefs, while the advanced civilization would suffer from a backflow of individuals from Earth to the advanced population centers which would have negative consequences for the advanced civilization.[5]

Cover of the Fall 1953 issue (September 1, 1953) of Tops in Science Fiction

Science fiction has always examined metaphysical ideas.

It's quite likely that when we're visited by extraterrestrials, these would be intelligent machines and not biological creatures. It appears that even humans are on track to develop conscious machines before interstellar travel.

(Cover of the Fall 1953 issue (September 1, 1953) of Tops in Science Fiction by Frank Kelly Freas (1922-2005), via Wikimedia Commons

In the past, lives were "full of wonders, mysticism and miracles," but those times have passed since scientific explanations are now preferred.[5] Now, when we don't discern a cause for some phenomenon we tend to assume that a cause exists but science hasn't gotten around to finding it. Metaphysics will still motivate scientists to explore certain areas rather than others, as the recent surge in observational astronomy and string theory research has shown.


  1. "ortho-," Definition at the Online Etymology Dictionary.
  2. "meta-," Definition at the Online Etymology Dictionary.
  3. "para-," Definition at the Online Etymology Dictionary.
  4. Max Born, The Born - Einstein Letters, Correspondence between Max & Hedwig Born and Albert Einstein 1916/1955, Irene Born, Trans., The Born Einstein Letters, Macmillan. 1971. p. 158.
  5. Karl Svozil, "Theology and Metaphysics in Sombre, Scientific Times," arXiv, September 14, 2018.
  6. Nick Bostrom, "Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?," Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 211 (2003), pp. 243‐255 (PDF File).
  7. Simulation Argument Website.
  8. A. M. Turing, "Intelligent Machinery, A Heretical Theory," Philosophia Mathematica, vol. 4, no. 3, (September 1, 1996, Posthumous Publication), pp. 256–260, https://doi.org/10.1093/philmat/4.3.256.

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