Know Your Metaphysics

Ahmed Afzaal

What is metaphysics and why should I care?

Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy that seeks to describe the world at the most general level. By its very nature, metaphysics has to function at a high level of abstraction, just like mathematics. This can make it seem as if metaphysical concerns and inquiries were completely disconnected from real life and practical matters. But that is a misconception.

All organized knowledge needs a metaphysical foundation to stand upon. Take away that foundation, and the entire edifice of knowledge comes crashing down. Every worldview presupposes a metaphysical scheme, and so does every natural or applied science. The scientific enterprise cannot proceed without taking for granted numerous assumptions, none of which can be justified through the scientific method. For instance, a practicing scientist has to assume that scientific knowledge is worth pursuing, but this is a normative statement about values and can never be scientifically demonstrated. The same is true for the assumption that only certain types of data are relevant for science, or that the phenomena which can be quantified are more important than the phenomenon which cannot be quantified, or that it is possible to have knowledge that is free of all presuppositions. All of these are metaphysical propositions.

Why does metaphysics matter for planetary limits?

Much of our ecological predicament is the product of a particular way of being, sometimes called “modernity.” This way of being includes modern science, modern technology, and modern capitalism, among other things, all of which derive their legitimacy from a particular metaphysical scheme.

As a full-fledged, systematic philosophy, the metaphysics that grounds the modern way of being was first articulated by the French thinker Rene Descartes. In a nutshell, Cartesian metaphysics consists of the following general principles: (1) mind and matter are two completely different substances, (2) subjectivity is unique to humans, (3) we can know the natural world objectively because we stand apart from it, (4) there is no final causation in the natural world and therefore no intrinsic purpose or meaning, (5) everything in the world, with the exception of the human mind, is fully determined by efficient causes; (6) the only value of the natural world comes from its utility to the human subject.

Regardless of whether or not we consciously hold these beliefs, they remain the fundamental assumptions that ultimately justify the modern worldview and the modern way of being. We cannot grasp the root causes of our ecological predicament without appreciating the ubiquitous influence of Cartesian metaphysics.

But can’t we fix the ecological crisis by changing government policies?

No. The kind of changes we need aren’t even imaginable within the dominant metaphysics.

Is it possible to replace Cartesian metaphysics with something better? 

Yes. But it’ll take a lot of effort.

Does that mean we have to build a new metaphysics from scratch? 

No. Alternatives to Cartesian metaphysics already exist. Probably our best option is Process Philosophy, as developed by Alfred North Whitehead.

Will a better metaphysics be enough to fix the ecological crisis? 

No. But it is a necessary condition for any significant progress.

Ahmed Afzaal is an associate professor of religion at Concordia College, in Moorhead, Minnesota, USA

Planetary Boundaries

Janet Stephenson

When we’re in new territory we often have to coin new words. ‘Planetary boundaries’ is a recent term that describes the biophysical and biochemical systems that keep Earth in the state that has enabled humans to emerge and thrive. We haven’t had to think about this before – it has just been a given. It isn’t any longer.

The idea of planetary boundaries was first introduced by Johan Rockström, WIll Steffan and others in 2009. They proposed nine quantitative aspects that together strongly influence the integrity of Earth’s biophysical functioning.  The ‘boundaries’ idea refers to points beyond which the biophysical systems would be so seriously altered that Earth could no longer be considered a ‘safe operating space’ for humanity. 

In 2009, they concluded that three boundaries (climate change, the rate of biodiversity loss, and the rate of interference with the nitrogen cycle) had been transgressed.  

The most recent (2023) paper is, to put it frankly, terrifying.  The figure below, from the paper, shows that six of the nine boundaries have now been transgressed (and are worsening), and two more boundaries are closer to transgression. For some of the measures, we are now in highly risky territory, as shown in the figure from the 2023 paper below.  And because Earth’s processes all interact, when one system starts to struggle, it affects others, with unknown consequences.

Current status of control variables for all nine planetary boundaries, from Richarson et al. 2023

Planetary boundaries are just one way of presenting humanity’s current predicament. They are useful to convey a stark message about some of the physical impacts of modernity, but don’t tell us everything. There are many other aspects to planetary limits which we will discuss in later blogs. But even just this figure is enough to show us that humans are destroying the natural systems that their lives and livelihoods depend on.

Janet Stephenson is a research professor in social sciences and sustainability at the University of Otago, New Zealand

The Energy Spike

Tom Murphy

The world a person is born into is taken to be normal, no matter how aberrant it might be through a wider historical lens.  Our present age is exceedingly atypical in numerous ways.  Energy, in particular, is an important example, as it provides the means to carry out a host of other atypical activities.

Until very recently, humans got energy from the food they ate, wood they burned, and animals they harnessed.  A smattering of sunlight, water, and wind supplemented these primary forms, but the overall story was a low-energy existence, by today’s standards.  Then fossil fuels came onto the scene and energy use exploded in a hockey stick (exponential) fashion.  But we know that the fossil fuels are finite, and that a substantial fraction of the provision is already gone.  Plotted over civilization-relevant timescales, our energy use looks like this:

It’s a very narrow, momentary phenomenon upon which we are precariously perched (yellow star).  We may not know the details yet of the decline (when it starts and how fast), but we do know that the area under the curve (total resource) is finite—so we do not have the freedom to draw it in any way that we wish.

This fossil fuel spike made possible the industrial revolution, large-scale agriculture, exponential human population growth, high technology, and other features of modernity.  For instance, because we use methane to create fertilizer, and petroleum to carry out industrial agriculture, we would certainly not have 8 billion people on the planet without fossil fuels.  What happens when they inevitably are no longer available?

The most important and correct response is: we don’t know! We might imagine replacement with renewable energy, but we have never built solar panels, wind turbines, hydroelectric dams, or nuclear plants (not renewable) without significant inputs from fossil fuels—the burning of which produces the high temperatures needed for processing concrete, steel, and other materials in a way that is not available using electricity from renewables.

Even if technical hurdles are mastered, the extreme cost to ecological health and biodiversity—caused simply by our access to large amounts of energy so that we might clear forests, plant crops, mine materials, and generally expand the human enterprise—argues that maintaining a profligate energy profile may not be in our own long-term best interests. The human enterprise cannot withstand ecological collapse.  We need to be careful not to saw off the branch we stand on.  Our chainsaw running out of gas may save us, in fact.

The main point is to recognize how unusual this moment is, and that extrapolating our recent trajectory is likely to be a poor guide to the future.  We might not know how we will live beyond the fossil spike, but it is more likely to be unrecognizable than familiar.

Tom Murphy is a professor emeritus of physics at UC San Diego, USA