What I learned by reading Collingwood

By Pierre Berrigan

The term «metaphysics» has certainly been badly mistreated in the last few decades (centuries?), and has come to designate the lot of all types of weirdness, off-this-world and wacky ideas. As such, the entire discipline tends to be ridiculed and dismissed by scientists as useless and unintelligible nonsense, the makings of wild and unbridled imaginations, fruitless and endless arguing, akin to enquiries about the afterlife, spiritism, extra sensorial perception, numerology, astrology, the sex of angels and how many of them can fit on the top of a needle.

In my opinion, R.G. Collingwood did a pretty good job at straightening things out in «Essay on Metaphysics» [1], although one can wonder if science (or anyone, for that matter) even bothered to take note. If I have not totally wasted my time reading, what I retain is that metaphysics is the discipline that studies absolute presuppositions through cultures and history.

As defined by Collingwood, absolute presuppositions are concepts that:

Anyone who (still) views metaphysics as the arena of intellectual wanking is probably violating one or many of the above rules that define absolute presuppositions. Endless debates among otherwise intelligent people, that see no possible hope of outcome or settlement, is a good indication that maybe questions are being asked about some absolute presupposition, or that attempts are being made at proving or disproving some absolute presupposition.

Whether scientists like it or not, a set of absolute presuppositions underlie, orient and to some extent govern all science and how science is done. Whatever is their endeavour, enquiry or accomplishment, scientists, consciously or not, whether they will admit it or not, necessarily made a prior assumption of one or its opposite of each absolute presupposition that makes up the set of absolute presuppositions underlying their discipline. Newton’s « Hypotheses non fingo » was hiding a secret mistress.

Although I can in no way pretend to be a metaphysicist myself, what I did next is an attempt at a list of absolute presuppositions that specifically apply to modern physics, and more specifically to cosmology:
1)   Infinity: The universe is spatially and temporally infinite.
2)   Conservation: Matter or energy cannot be created or destroyed.
3)   Isotropy: On a sufficiently large spatial and temporal scale, the universe appears the same at all locations, in all directions, and at all times (cosmological principle).
4)   Causality: every event has a cause.
5)   Rationality: there exists an intrinsic coherence, elegance, logic and purpose in all of nature's processes and entities.
6)   Subjectification: physically real entities are defined by measurements, but measurements alone do not necessarily define physical reality.

Examples of predictions from theories that are widely accepted today as scientifically valid, will show which metaphysical choices underlie modern physics:

There are more examples. But these are sufficient to determine which absolute presuppositions are assumed in modern physics:
1.   Finity: the universe is both spatially and temporally finite. It has a beginning, therefore an age, and a size, i.e.: a spatial limit beyond which nothing exists, not even space, and a temporal limit before which time did not exist.
2.   Non-conservation: matter/energy can spontaneously be created, and can be annihilated.
3.   Anisotropy: the average density of the universe, on very large spatial and temporal scales, varies with time, and is not the same at all distances.
4.   Acausality: events may have no cause.
5.   Absurdity: objects with absurd properties may exist and absurd events may happen in physical reality.
6.   Objectification: whatever can be measured or inferred from measurements is a physical reality.

It is my humble opinion that there is reason to critically examine science's actual metaphysical choices, and ponder on whether or not these choices are commendable, and if the results and implications of said choices are desirable.

There is no getting around the fact that metaphysical choices (assumptions of absolute presuppositions) orient the way science is done. For example, astrophysics are, as I write, looking for new star formation theories and alternate galaxy dynamics (new physics) to explain XMM-2599 [2], because of their prior assumption that durations superior to 13.8 billion years are not permitted. With a metaphysical choice of temporal “Infinity”, the addition of a few trillion years to the “age of the universe” makes the existence of XMM-2599 no longer a mystery. General relativity led to black holes; quantum mechanics led to alternate realities; galaxy rotation curves led to dark matter; supernovae brightness-distance relationships led to accelerated expansion of space and to dark energy; and so on. The mathematical prediction of absurdities or the empirical observation of unexplained phenomena should lead further research in the direction of realistic science, and not towards the objectification of imaginary concepts and the easy way out of “new physics” that have no hope of ever being falsified, such as dark energy, virtual particles, superior dimensions, stretching space, or alternate universes, as if any of these could ever be considered physical realities.

Given these metaphysical choices, scientists nowadays act as if they had lost the ability to distinguish between the absurd and common sense, with blessings from the Copenhagen Interpretation. And as long as such a mentality prevails, physics, and science in general will keep loosing credibility among the general public, now in an increasing struggle (pop-science writers not helping) to make sense out of things that intrinsically don’t (“What was before the Big Bang?”; “What does space expand into?”; “Could the Big Bang be the result of two universes colliding with each other?”). Such a trend can easily be taken to a logical and extremely dangerous outcome: if the rising popularity of flat-earthism can be considered harmless, the anti vaccine movement, on its part, has already made fatal victims, not to mention possible long-term outcomes of climato-scepticism. Believers want to believe. If faith in science is lost, the masses will turn their beliefs towards political or religious precepts, with their irrationality and dogmas, and where history relates massacres by the millions in the name of imaginary authorities.

A critical examination of mainstream physics is more important than it seems!


Pierre Berrigan, B.Sc.
for A Cosmology Group

The author is grateful to Louis Marmet, Bud Rapanault and Glenn Borchardt whose ideas and input were essential to the elaboration of the present article.


[1] Collingwood, R. G. (1940). _An Essay on Metaphysics_. Oxford University Press.

[2] An Extremely Massive Quiescent Galaxy at z=3.493: Evidence of Insufficiently Rapid Quenching Mechanisms in Theoretical Models, arXiv:1910.10158 [astro-ph.GA]

Updated 2020-4-10

© 2020 Pierre Berrigan