I bet you have noticed that recent outburst of metaphysics tagging by Anixx. Unfortunately the tag lacks description. What does 'metaphysics' tag mean? Does it have the same meaning as 'metamathematics'?

Actually I feel a bit uncomfortable about it, I want a clarification on its purposes and why do we need it.

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    $\begingroup$ I felt very tempted to take it away from some questions tagged with it, since I thought "metaphysics" means "not real physics, rather philosophy" or something like that. I think the questions tagged with it are about real serious physics and not some crazy fringe stuff ... But honestly, I do not know what "metaphysics" really means, I just have a very bad feeling about it from remembering it mentioned in certain contexts ... $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Aug 29 '12 at 12:14
  • $\begingroup$ @Dilaton I did not tag questions which I believe being non-phylosophical questions. Can you give an example of a question which you believe has been tagged erroneously? $\endgroup$ – Anixx Aug 30 '12 at 12:58
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    $\begingroup$ @Anixx metaphysics is concerned with that beyond the physical world and therefore isn't physical. So when you tag questions here as being metaphysical, either they need to be closed, or your tagging is wrong. $\endgroup$ – Larry Harson Aug 30 '12 at 17:11
  • $\begingroup$ @Larry Harson well may be they need to be closed. But they are not yet. $\endgroup$ – Anixx Aug 30 '12 at 18:02
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    $\begingroup$ @Anixx Why cant you just accept that questions about fundamental physics are allowed here ? If you dont like it to see them you can ignore the corresponding tags but please let people alone who are interested in these topics and dont try to chase them away from physics SE ! $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Aug 30 '12 at 18:26
  • $\begingroup$ @Dilaton, you are wrong, I do not want any of these questions removed. $\endgroup$ – Anixx Aug 30 '12 at 18:43
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    $\begingroup$ @Dilaton it's obvious that Anixx is trying to be helpful in retagging questions so people can search for questions on metaphysics and isn't trying "to chase them away from physics SE". The issue is whether tagging questions as metaphysics is useful here. $\endgroup$ – John McAndrew Aug 30 '12 at 23:01
  • $\begingroup$ Perhaps this tag could be split into "fringe-physics" and "philosophy"? $\endgroup$ – spraff Sep 4 '12 at 17:24

My default thought would be that means "off topic for this site." I would say the best thing to do is review the questions that have been assigned that tag and in each case, either remove the tag or close the question. I'll take a look at the list of questions later.

  • $\begingroup$ ...and could or should "metaphysics" then be removed from the tag list? $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Aug 29 '12 at 15:17
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    $\begingroup$ @Dilaton it will automatically disappear about 24 hours after it gets removed from all questions. Of course there's nothing preventing someone from creating it again, unless we ask the devs to blacklist it, but they don't like to do that if it's not really necessary. It's an option we can consider. $\endgroup$ – David Z Aug 29 '12 at 17:40
  • $\begingroup$ @Dilaton why you removed the tag from all questions? $\endgroup$ – Anixx Aug 30 '12 at 12:53
  • $\begingroup$ I hope you managed to review the questions before Dilaton removed the tags. Can you please tell us the results and whether the questions were kept or removed. It they were kept, I suggest to restore the tag for better categorization. $\endgroup$ – Anixx Aug 30 '12 at 13:00
  • $\begingroup$ @Anixx If the metaphysics tag is just used for the purpose you say, it is not bad. But I fear that it can be abused to inappropriately "discredit" legitimate fundamental physics questions. Too often I have seen the term "metaphysics" being thrown as an insult at serious fundamental physics as a whole (or parts of it) in horrible and abominable discussions in blogs, below online physics news articles, etc ... :-( $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Aug 30 '12 at 14:09
  • $\begingroup$ @Dilaton can you please give an example of a question which I tagged you think, mistakingly and which is not related to metaphysics in your opinion? $\endgroup$ – Anixx Aug 30 '12 at 14:10
  • $\begingroup$ @David Zaslavsky what is your attitude regarding questions concerning anthropic principle? Strictly speaking anthropic principle is not a subject of science because science is what can be studied with scientific method (which at least requires repeatability). And anthropic principle cannot. But it already became part of the the physical discourse and I think that people in Phylosophy.SE hardly can answer any anthropic principle-related questions. Unfortunately Phil.SE has been hijacked by poeple who want only questions of their own interest. $\endgroup$ – Anixx Aug 30 '12 at 15:18
  • $\begingroup$ This is certainly physics and NOT philosophy or metaphysics: physics.stackexchange.com/questions/30989/… $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Aug 30 '12 at 17:03
  • $\begingroup$ ... the same goes for this physics.stackexchange.com/questions/10361/…. About these two I am 200 % sure that they are NOT (just) philosophy or metaphysics. $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Aug 30 '12 at 17:09
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    $\begingroup$ I did skim over the list of metaphysics-tagged questions, and nothing I saw changed the opinion I express in my answer: that the metaphysics tag should not exist on this site. Thanks @Dilaton for taking care of that. $\endgroup$ – David Z Aug 30 '12 at 17:39
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    $\begingroup$ @Anixx I would probably consider most questions about the anthropic principle to be off topic. Perhaps questions about its application to physical theories (e.g. asking whether it can be shown that a particular theory only allows one set of conditions that support complex structures) could be on topic, but I'm not sure... that might be a discussion to have in another meta question. $\endgroup$ – David Z Aug 30 '12 at 17:49
  • $\begingroup$ @Dilaton, the both questions are about anthropic principle, which cannot be verifyed with scientific method. Thus the questions are metaphysical. $\endgroup$ – Anixx Aug 30 '12 at 18:10
  • $\begingroup$ @David Zaslavsky so the off-topic questions should be deleted. As long as they are here they should be properly tagged. Dilaton did not remove the questions, he just removed the correctly assigned tag. $\endgroup$ – Anixx Aug 30 '12 at 18:11
  • $\begingroup$ Hi David, good to see you :-). I think questions about the anthropic principle as applied in string theory are certainly on topic here. Is not even a (physics!) research program going on with the aim to investigate the landscape, etc ? And fundamental physics questions about topics the Milner Prize is targeted at (such as cosmology, quantum gravity, particle physics generally, beyond the standard model physics, etc) are certainly on topic here too ...? $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Aug 30 '12 at 18:21
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    $\begingroup$ I think for borderline questions which can potentially not be addressed (in the near enough future) by existing (non crazy or fringe) theories the on/off topic should be decided from case to case. But no metaphysics tag is needed for this. $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Aug 30 '12 at 18:51

The wikipedia says of metaphysics

Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world [...]

which does not sound promising in terms of being on-topic. That said a little later it clarifies things a bit with

The metaphysician attempts to clarify the fundamental notions by which people understand the world, e.g., existence, objects and their properties, space and time, cause and effect, and possibility. A central branch of metaphysics is ontology, the investigation into the basic categories of being and how they relate to each other. Another central branch of metaphysics is cosmology, the study of the totality of all phenomena within the universe.

which appears to lay claim to some areas of physics.

All that said, my observation is that mostly questions in metaphysics do not have answers, rather they are invitations to discuss. Discussions are not what we do here.

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    $\begingroup$ What wikipedia says here is wrong, cosmology is NOT metaphysics. Maybe it once was but today it is serious and perfectly valid physics ! $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Aug 29 '12 at 16:09
  • $\begingroup$ @Dilaton Well, presumably the philosophers are still puzzling over "What came before the big bang?" type questions. $\endgroup$ – dmckee --- ex-moderator kitten Aug 29 '12 at 16:10
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, but cosmology is not only about what comes BEFORE the big bang, it is about the whole evolutions of the universe including for example the present slow inflation that is experimentally observed and lead to the last year's physics Nobel. So I think saying that the whole cosmology business is metaphysics and thererfor off topic is a much too strong statement I think ... It belongs to fundamental physics. $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Aug 29 '12 at 16:18
  • $\begingroup$ "So I think saying that the whole cosmology business is metaphysics " As far as I know nobody is saying anything like that. I am saying that metaphysics can be off topic and that where it is on-topic it is usually still not suitable for the site. $\endgroup$ – dmckee --- ex-moderator kitten Aug 29 '12 at 16:44
  • $\begingroup$ English words can have more than one valid meaning. I don't actually know much about the history of the word. Scanning through the wikipedia on "cosmology" suggests that the use as a philosophical concern is at least as old as the way we (that is physicist) use the word. I don't think that we get to lay exclusive claim to it. $\endgroup$ – dmckee --- ex-moderator kitten Aug 29 '12 at 16:44
  • $\begingroup$ Ok that might be right with the different meanings of the word, I am not a native English speaker :-). But as everybody probably knows, I'm just worried a bit about perfectly valid and mainstream fundamental physics questions being closed (as off topic) for no good reason. If philosophers start to jump on fundamental physics questions, it would probably be enough to remove the off topic discussions and answers, such that real serious physicists still have a chance to put down good answers. I hate it to see questions about topics the Milner Prize is targeted at being closed ... $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Aug 29 '12 at 17:00
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    $\begingroup$ Within the context of this site, I would agree that cosmology should not be considered a branch of metaphysics (in other words, for our purposes, I think "cosmology" should be limited to the meaning Dilaton said, namely the evolution of the universe). $\endgroup$ – David Z Aug 29 '12 at 17:40
  • $\begingroup$ @Dilaton I did not tag all cosmology questions with metaphysics tag. For example, questions about inflation or dark matter are not metaphysics definitely. What I tagged were questions related to antropic principle and related fine tuning, unltimate cause of the universe existence, whether time ever started or was infinite, whether observer is needed for things to exist and so on. $\endgroup$ – Anixx Aug 30 '12 at 13:05
  • $\begingroup$ For example, Dilaton removed the tag from question "Are there any theories that explain the very beginning of absolutely everything?" physics.stackexchange.com/q/31321 How can he explain that? I think it is not a physical question but as long as it is not removed it should be properly tagged. $\endgroup$ – Anixx Aug 30 '12 at 13:13
  • $\begingroup$ @Anixx There are brane cosmology models that contain multiple or recurring "big bangs" etc, so such questions as the one you linket too, are attacked by physicists. BTW I just removed the tag form every question because I think it is not needed to flag questions as off topic. Concerning some questions I agree with you that they are too far out laying ... $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Aug 30 '12 at 13:27
  • $\begingroup$ @Dilaton No, the question about very beginning of absolutely everything is not a question about Big Bang (and the author clearly stated that). That's why it is not physical question and has nothing to do with "recurring big bangs" theories. $\endgroup$ – Anixx Aug 30 '12 at 13:32
  • $\begingroup$ @Anixx Aah ok I see, about that one I rather agree then ... $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Aug 30 '12 at 13:45
  • $\begingroup$ Consider another question physics.stackexchange.com/q/12807 which asks "Does the Universe as a whole need a cause to exist at all?". This is again philosophy. That's why I am asking for an example of a question that you think, a purely physical question that was tagged mistakingly. $\endgroup$ – Anixx Aug 30 '12 at 14:05
  • $\begingroup$ @Anixx I think physics.stackexchange.com/q/17056 is not pure philosophy, there seem to be people who try to reformulate what can observe without using time, in QG it can be asked if it is quantized, etc ... David should have a better overview about such topics than I have :-/. And the anthropic principle (or reasoning) unfurtunately seems to be a quite important part of ST at present, so these questions are examples too. $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Aug 30 '12 at 14:31
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    $\begingroup$ I'll note that progress in physics over the yeas has moved things from the philosophical realm of metaphysics into the falsifiable realm of cosmology in the past, but I am with Anixx here. Just because something might be subject to good physics in the future doesn't mean that it is not philosophy now. A side effect of this is that physicist should feel free to peak into philosophy from time to time. $\endgroup$ – dmckee --- ex-moderator kitten Aug 30 '12 at 15:14

Here is how metaphysiscs is defined in Metaphysics texbook by Peter van Inwagen (2009):

   Metaphysics attempts to tell the ultimate truth about the World, about
everything. But what is it we want to know about the World? What are the ques-
tions whose answers would be the ultimate truth about things? There are, I sug-
gest, three such questions:

1. What are the most general features of the World, and what sorts of things
   does it contain? What is the World like?
2. Why does a World exist—and, more specifically, why is there a World hav-
   ing the features and the content described in the answer to Question 1?
3. What is our place in the World? How do we human beings fit into it?

That's why I tagged those questions that asked,

  • What the cause the world exists and could it be different, what features of the world necessary.

  • Questions related to Anthropic principle, whether observer is needed for things to exist

  • Questions related to when was the beginning of time or whether time axis infinite.

Many of these questions are not physics, but since they were not deleted they should be properly tagged. It should be noted that metaphysics questions are not very welcome in Phylosophy.SE by their community and they often advise to ask in Physics.SE for a reason unknown to me.

I wonder why all those tags were removed. Please restore them.

  • $\begingroup$ I think the metaphysics tag is not needed just to say that a question is off topic, there is the possibility casting flags etc ... I partily agree with what you say. But even though I do not like the anthropic principle, it unfortunately could nevertheless be what is needed to explain why the universe has the properties observed, if every other (physical or mathematical) method to better localize our point in the landscape fails. Since serious physicist work with the anthropic reasoning, I would NOT flag all questions about it as off topic per default ... $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Aug 30 '12 at 13:18
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    $\begingroup$ The same holds for other very fundamental physics questions that CAN now be seriously attacked by theoretical physicists today. In my opinion it is wrong to say they are off topic by default, just because philosophers used to think about them first for historical reasons, if the methods to address them applying (admittedly very mathematical...) physics exist now. $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Aug 30 '12 at 13:24
  • $\begingroup$ @Dilaton, Anthropic principle (for instance) IS metaphysics. I believe that anthropic principle is philosophy. But as long as questions about anthropic principle are allowed here, they should be properly tagged. Unfortunately, Phylosophy.SE community is too weak to answer such questions. $\endgroup$ – Anixx Aug 30 '12 at 13:28
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    $\begingroup$ Peter van Inwagen is a philosopher, not a physicist. $\endgroup$ – Larry Harson Aug 30 '12 at 17:17
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    $\begingroup$ Good point Larry. That should be noted from the start. $\endgroup$ – Yrogirg Aug 30 '12 at 17:18
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, he is philosopher, that's why he wrote a textbook about metaphysics. $\endgroup$ – Anixx Aug 30 '12 at 18:03
  • $\begingroup$ What's the point in downvoting? You do not agree with something? $\endgroup$ – Anixx Aug 30 '12 at 18:04
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    $\begingroup$ @Anixx So you want the philosophers to tell the physicists what is physics and what not? This is interesting... And yes, downvotes here on meta mean disagreement and they do not remove any reputation. $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Aug 30 '12 at 18:42
  • $\begingroup$ @Dilaton yes, indeed it is philosophy that defines what scientific method is. Scientific method itself is developed as part of epistemology en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistemology $\endgroup$ – Anixx Aug 30 '12 at 18:46

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