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Peter van Inwagen

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Peter van Inwagen

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This book covers the gamut of historical and contemporary arguments of metaphysics, engaging readers through three profound questions: what are the most general features of the world, why is there a world and what is the place of human beings in the world?

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An introductory textbook of geology or tax law or music theory will probably begin with some sort of account of what geology or tax law or music theory is. Perhaps an introduction to almost any subject could be expected to begin with a general account of that subject, with something like a definition. Thus, an introduction to biology might begin with some such words as ‘Biology is the scientific study of living organisms’, and a textbook of sociology might begin by telling its readers that sociology is the study of how people live together. Nothing could be more natural than this, for the first thing the student of any subject wants to know is what that subject is. The need for a definition is especially acute in the case of metaphysics.
Most people have at least an inkling of what ‘geology’ and ‘tax law’ and ‘music theory’ mean, even if they would be hard put to it to provide dictionary-style definitions of these terms. But it is a near certainty that someone who has not actually studied metaphysics—formally, in a course of study at the university level—will have no inkling of what the word ‘metaphysics’ means. It seems obvious, therefore, that an introduction to metaphysics should begin with some sort of definition of metaphysics. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that a definition of metaphysics can convey anything useful.1 The nature of metaphysics is best explained by example. When you have read this book you will have a tolerably good idea of what metaphysics is. But it hardly seems fair to leave the matter there. Anyone who opens a book has the right to some sort of preliminary account of what the book is about. This chapter is an attempt at this kind of account.
When I was introduced to metaphysics as an undergraduate, I was given the following definition: metaphysics is the study of ultimate reality. This still seems to me to be the best definition of metaphysics I have seen. Nevertheless, it is not as helpful and informative a definition as one might hope for. What, one might well ask, is meant by “reality,” and what does the qualification “ultimate” mean? My preliminary account of metaphysics takes the form of an attempt to answer these questions.
We know that appearances can be deceptive. That is, we know that the way things look (or sound or feel or smell or taste) can mislead us about the way those things are. We know that Jane may look healthy and nevertheless be dying. We know that Tom may sound honest and nevertheless be a confidence man. We know that if one has just withdrawn one’s hand from very hot water, a warm object may feel cool to one’s touch. To take a more important example, we know that most educated people in the Middle Ages believed that the earth was at the center of the universe and that the sun and moon and stars and planets were embedded in invisible spheres that revolved around the stationary earth.
Let us concentrate on this last example. Why did the medievals believe this? Well, because that’s how things felt (the earth beneath our feet feels as if it were not moving) and that’s how things looked. Today we know that the astronomical system accepted by the medievals—and by the ancient Greeks from whom the medievals inherited it—is wrong. We know that the medievals, and the Greeks before them, were deceived by appearances. We know that while the solid earth beneath our feet may seem to be stationary, it in fact rotates on its axis once every twenty-four hours. (Of course, we also know that it revolves around the sun, but let’s consider only its rotation on its axis.) Now suppose you were standing on a merry-go-round (in Britain, a roundabout) and were wearing a blindfold. Would you be able to tell whether the merry-go-round was turning or stationary? Certainly you would: passengers on a turning merry-go-round feel vibration and the rush of moving air and, in certain circumstances, a hard-to-describe sort of “pulling.” (This last will be very evident to someone who tries to walk toward or away from the center of a turning merry-go-round.) These effects provide the “cues,” other than visual cues, that we employ in everyday life to tell whether we are undergoing some sort of circular motion. The medievals and the ancient Greeks assumed that because they did not experience these cues when they were standing or walking about on the surface of the earth, the earth was therefore not rotating. Today we can see their mistake. “Passengers” on the earth do not experience vibration because the earth is spinning freely in what is essentially a vacuum. When they move about on the surface of the earth, they do not experience the “pulling” referred to above because this effect, though present, is not sufficiently great to be detected by the unaided human senses. And they do not experience a rush of moving air because the air is carried along with the moving surface of the earth and is thus not moving relative to them.
This example shows that it is sometimes possible to “get behind” the appearances the world presents us with and to discover how things really are: we have discovered that the earth is really rotating, despite the fact that it is apparently stationary.
Let us think for a moment about the two words ‘really’ and ‘apparently’. They have little meaning in isolation from each other. When we say that something is really true, we imply that something else is apparently true. It is hard to imagine anyone saying that two plus two really equals four or that Abraham Lincoln was really a man. The reason is that in neither case is there an opposing “apparently.” Two plus two does not apparently equal three or five, and Lincoln was not apparently a woman or a cat or a Martian.
The nouns ‘appearance’ and ‘reality’ are derived from ‘apparently’ and ‘really’ and are related to each other in the same way. We talk about reality only when there is a misleading appearance to be “got behind” or “seen through”: the reality of the matter is that (despite appearances) the earth rotates on its axis; in reality (and despite appearances) the heavens do not revolve around the earth. But this may suggest that whenever we manage to get behind some misleading appearance, what we find there is something we can call “reality” without any need for qualification. In fact, however, what we find behind appearance is often something that can be called “reality” only in relation to that appearance. What we find behind appearance is often itself an appearance that hides a deeper reality. In the 1920s and 1930s, for example, writers of books on popular science liked to astound their readers by telling them that science had discovered that what people had always thought were solid objects (things like tables and chairs) were in reality “mostly empty space.” And there was certainly a sense in which this was true. At the very time at which the popular-science writers were proclaiming this revelation, however, physicists were beginning to discover that what had been called “empty space” was really very far from empty. In other words, no sooner had people begun to digest the idea that what are normally called solid objects contain a lot of what is normally called empty space than it was discovered that what is normally called empty space is actually very densely populated. This minor episode in the history of thought suggests a general question: Could it be that the reality behind every appearance is itself only a further appearance? If the answer to this question is No, then there is a reality that is not also an appearance. This final or “ultimate” reality is the subject-matter of metaphysics.
If there is no ultimate reality, then metaphysics is a study without a subject-matter. (It would not be the only one. Astrology, for example, is a study without a subject-matter, since the celestial influences on our lives that astrologers claim to study do not, as a matter of fact, exist.) It is, however, hard to see how there could be no ultimate reality. Suppose your friend Jane were to try to tell you that there was no ultimate reality. “It’s all just appearances,” says Jane. “Whenever you think you’ve found reality, what you’ve found is just another appearance. Oh, it may be a deeper appearance, or a less misleading appearance than the one you had before, but it will still be an appearance. And that’s because there isn’t any ultimate reality waiting to be found.”
Let us look carefully at Jane’s statement that there is no ultimate reality. Is this something that is really so or only something that is apparently so? It seems reasonably clear that Jane means to be telling us how things really are. Paradoxically, in telling us that there is no ultimate reality, Jane is telling us that ultimate reality consists of an endless series of appearances. In other words, the statement that there is no ultimate reality is, as we might say, self-refuting because it is a statement about ultimate reality and, if it is true, it is a true statement about ultimate reality. It does not seem to be possible, therefore, to avoid the conclusion that there is an ultimate reality and that metaphysics has a subject-matter. But we must concede that nothing we have said has any tendency to show that metaphysics has much more to say: perhaps nothing can be discovered about ultimate reality beyond the bare fact that there is an ultimate reality.
Metaphysics, then, attempts to get behind appearances and to tell the ultimate truth about things. It will be convenient to have a collective name for “things”—for everything. Let us call “everything” collectively ‘the World’. Since ‘the World’ is a name for everything, the World includes even God (if there is a God). We are therefore using the word in a more inclusive sense than that employed by the religious believer who says, “God created the world.” If we should later decide that there is a God who created everything besides Himself, it will be easy enough to find another word to use as a collective name for everything other than God—‘the universe’, say.
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 questions the answers to which would be the ultimate truth about things? There are, I suggest, 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 having 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?
One way to get a feel for what is meant by a question is to look at possible answers to it. I will lay out two sets of answers to these questions, in the hope that they will make the questions clearer by showing what sorts of statements count as answers to them. The first set of answers, which was most widely accepted in the Middle Ages, is this:
1. The World consists of God and all He has made. God is infinite (that is, He is unlimited in knowledge, power, and goodness) and a spirit (that is, He is not material). He has made both spirits and material things, but all the things he has made are finite or limited. God has always existed, and at a certain moment in the past He first made other things; before that, there had never been anything besides God. God will always exist, and there will always be things He has made.
2. God has to exist, just as two and two must equal four. But nothing else has this feature; everything besides God might not have existed. The things other than God exist only because God (who has the power to do anything) caused them to exist by an act of free will. He could just as well have chosen not to create anything, in which case there would never have been anything besides Himself. Moreover, God not only brought all other things into existence, but He also keeps them in existence at every moment. If God did not at every moment keep the sun and the moon and all other created things in existence, they would immediately cease to exist. Created things no more have the power to keep themselves in existence than stones or lumps of iron have the power to keep themselves suspended in the air.
3. Human beings were created by God to love and serve Him for ever. Thus, each of them has a purpose or function. In the same sense in which it is true of John’s heart that its function is to pump blood, it is true of John that his function is to love and serve God for ever. But, unlike a heart, which has no choice about whether to pump blood, a human being has free will and can refuse to do the thing for which it was made. What we call human history is nothing more than the working out of the consequences of the fact that some people have chosen not to do what they were created to do.
The second set of answers, which was most widely accepted in the nineteenth century, is this:
1. The World consists of matter in motion. There is nothing but matter, which operates according to the strict and invariable laws of physics. Every individual thing is made entirely of matter, and every aspect of its behavior is due to the workings of those laws.
2. Matter has always existed (and there has always been exactly the same amount of it), for matter can be neither created nor destroyed. For this reason, there is no “why” to the existence of the World. Because the World is wholly material, and because matter can be neither created nor destroyed, the World is eternal: it has always existed. The question ‘Why does it exist?’ is a question that can be asked only about a thing that had a beginning. It is a request for information about what caused the thing to come into existence. Since the World is eternal, the question ‘Why does the World exist?’ is meaningless.
3. Human beings are complex configurations of matter. Since the World is eternal, the existence of complex configurations of matter is not surprising, for in an infinite period of time, all possible configurations of matter will come to exist. Human beings are just one of those things that happen from time to time. They serve no purpose, for their existence and their features are as much accidents as the existence and shape of a puddle of spilt milk. Their lives—our lives—have no meaning (beyond such purely subjective meaning as we choose to find in them), and they come to an end with physical death, since there is no soul. The only thing to be said about the place of human beings in the World is that they are—very temporary—parts of it.
These two sets of answers are indeed radically opposed. Nevertheless, they have many common features. For example, each assumes that individual things (things like you and me and Mount Everest) are real. Other sets of answers, however, would deny this assumption, and contend that all individuality is mere appearance, that in reality there are no “separate” objects at all. (Something like this would be said by the adherents of many Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism.) Both sets of answers presuppose the reality of time, but there are those who would say that the separation of events in time (the First and Second World Wars were separated by an interval of twenty years), the “direction” or “orientation” of time (the distinction between past, present, and future), and the seeming movement or “passage” of time are all mere appearance. And there are those who would say something similar about space: that the familiar “here” and “there” of ordinary experience are no more than appearance. Both sets of answers assume the reality of a material world, a world of non-mental objects, but there have been philosophers who have held that nothing exists outside the mind. And, finally, each set of answers—just by being a set of answers—presupposes that our three questions can be answered. As we shall see later in this chapter, however, there are philosophers who would maintain that our three “questions” were not really questions at all, but only strings of words that have the superficial appearance of questions (and, of course, if they are not questions, they do not have answers).
If I am right in supposing that our three questions are the questions the answers to which would be the ultimate truth about the World, we may define metaphysics as the study that proposes answers to these three questions and attempts to choose among the competing sets of answers to them. (This definition is reflected in the structure of the present book: each of the three parts of the book is an investigation of one of the three questions.)
Another sort of aid in understanding what is meant by ‘metaphysics’ is provided by distinguishing metaphysics from the things it might be confused with. First, metaphysics must be distinguished from the most general and all-embracing of the physical sciences: cosmology and the physics of elementary particles. (Cosmology is the part of astronomy that studies the physical universe or “cosmos” as a whole. The physics of elementary particles studies the basic building blocks of the physical universe and the laws by which they interact.) These two fields of study have turned out to be closely connected and have, since the 1960s, produced results that are of the deepest significance for metaphysics. Let us give the name “physical cosmology” to those scientific investigations that intimately involve both cosmology and the physics of elementary particles. Here is an example of the metaphysical significance of physical cosmology. It seems to show that the physical universe had a beginning in time (about 13.7 thousand million years ago)—or at least that it does not have an infinite past throughout which it has been much the same as it is now. If this is correct, all metaphysical speculations that presuppose an infinite past during which the components of a universe much like the present universe have been eternally rearranging themselves—our second set of answers to our three metaphysical questions provides one important example of speculations that make this presupposition—are incorrect. And this by itself is sufficient to show the relevance of physical cosmology to metaphysics.
But if physical cosmology is of the deepest significance for metaphysics, it nevertheless does not and cannot answer all the questions metaphysics poses. For one thing, it cannot answer the question, Why does the World exist? (Or, at least, this seems evident to me. But there are many who hope that some day—perhaps very soon—physical cosmology will answer this question. This is in my view a false hope. We shall consider it in Chapter 7.) Physical cosmology, moreover, does not and cannot tell us whether the physical universe is all there is—whether there is more to the World than the physical universe. Scientists sometimes assert that the World is identical with the physical universe, as a famous astronomer, the late Carl Sagan, did in the opening words of his popular television series Cosmos, but the assertion is a metaphysical, not a scientific, assertion. It is certainly possible to argue that science will someday explain all observable phenomena, and that one should therefore believe that the World is identical with the physical universe, since one should believe that nothing exists beyond those things science postulates in the course of giving its explanations. But this argument is—and any argum...