books book reviews

Metaphysics Books

reviewed by T. Nelson


Metaphysics, 4e

Peter van Inwagen
Westview Press 2015, 342 pages
Reviewed by T. Nelson

A. W. Moore once said that the purpose of metaphysics is to fulfill the function of rectifying bad metaphysics. But there is more to it than that. Metaphysics is something we all practice whether we realize it or not.

We've all seen that annoying bumper sticker that says “Shit happens.” But why, philosophers would ask, does shit happen? Why, indeed, is there any shit at all? Why isn't there just no shit? Stated that way, it may sound silly, but these are profound metaphysical questions that everyone has asked.

Analytic philosophers would ask “What do we mean when we say shit happens?” Ontologists would ask “How does shit have Being?” Phenomenologists would ask “How does ‘happening’ occur?” The subject matter is the same, but the questions are different.*

In this basic undergraduate text, Peter van Inwagen, the guy who wrote the metaphysics page on, explains the metaphysical questions in plain language. It's like having a fellow student explain it to you.

To van Inwagen, philosophy is a collection of logical puzzles. His enthusiasm for them is infectious. The audience, which is beginning philosophy students, won't learn much of the rich and complicated history of who said what, and they won't learn any of the jargon. What they will learn is the ability to reason clearly and think philosophically by watching the pros.

It sounds easy, but it is actually one of the hardest tasks for our minds to master. Even our top philosophers sometimes make reasoning errors. An example he gives is Kant's refutation of Descartes's ontological argument for the existence of God (I am slightly simplifying them here):

Descartes: It is impossible for God not to exist, because God is perfect and existence is a property of perfection.

Kant: Existence is not a property of anything, therefore the argument is invalid. So the good Descartes is wrong.

Modern day: Existence could be a property of perfection, but the argument is still invalid because it is circular. So you are both wrong.

Kant's refutation, according to van Inwagen, was accepted for 200 years before philosophers concluded it was invalid. Part of the problem is our use of language; analytic philosophers have put substantial effort into clarifying our use of language, which may be why they seem obsessed with defining terms and ripping sentences apart.

Traditionally, though, metaphysics draws most of its inspiration from religion. In Part 3, van Inwagen, who is sympathetic to Christianity, goes a little overboard with this, making a big deal of the fine-tuning argument and criticizing Steven Weinberg, the originator of the argument, for rejecting it as evidence of a Designer. But, Weinberg would probably say, we have no idea why the cosmological constant (or most physical constants) have the values they have; thus attributing them to a Designer is a variation of the god of the gaps argument.

One mistake scientists sometimes make is to claim that spontaneous creation of particles in the vacuum is creatio ex nihilo. But as van Inwagen accurately points out, space and time are packed (as Bear Grylls would say) with quantum fields, and spacetime is itself a ‘thing.’ (In fact, some physicists now suggest that space may be a type of quantum entanglement, implying that it is a much more complex ‘thing’ than we previously imagined.)

As far as the most fundamental metaphysical question—why there is something instead of nothing—van Inwagen says metaphysics does not have the answer. Perhaps there is no answer, or perhaps science will find it. If so, metaphysics will have helped us clarify what the original question was, and that is something to be proud of.

nov 23, 2015; updated nov 25, 2015

* Harry G. Frankfurt had a best-selling book on the subject titled On Bullshit.


An Introduction To the Philosophy of Physics: Locality, Fields, Energy, and Mass

Marc Lange
Blackwell 2002, 320 pages
Reviewed by T. Nelson

Way back in grad school my thermodynamics professor once casually mentioned that energy is not quantized. This struck me as odd, since matter certainly is quantized and energy is equivalent to matter. Doesn't that imply, I thought, that matter is not quantized either?

For example, in pair production, where a gamma ray gets changed into an electron and a positron, the products always have the same rest masses regardless of the energy of the incoming photons. If the gamma ray has more energy than needed, the leptons don't get heavier—they get more kinetic energy. This is basic particle physics, but no one knows why. Something strange is going on here.

Then there's the question of electromagnetic fields. Are they real or just mathematical abstractions that make the theory work?

Physicists always tell us not to worry our pretty little heads about such things. It doesn't matter, they say, whether a field is real, and worrying about how something can be a particle and a wave at the same time is not meaningful. It's equivalent to asking what is real, and that is the domain of metaphysics, not science.

But like Marc Lange, many of us went into science to learn about how the world really works. So it was interesting to find these philosophical issues discussed here. Lange is a philosophy professor with a background in physics. The discussion here is, for the most part, pretty low-level, suitable for any reader who has taken a college physics course.

That, however, creates an almost unsurmountable challenge for the author, because the fact is we cannot really know what an electromagnetic field is or how it propagates through space until we know what space is. And so far, we don't. Only recently has physics begun to make progress on this idea.

This new theory, which says (roughly) that space = quantum entanglement, is one of the most exciting ideas to come out of physics in some time. But it requires understanding of advanced topics like AdS (anti-de Sitter space), black hole physics, and conformal field theory—topics that demand much, much higher background than this book assumes. There are several good (and highly technical) books out there on AdS/CFT correspondence, but so far no popular-level books (although, surprisingly, String Theory for Dummies has a pretty good description).

Understanding what spacetime really is will answer the puzzle of pair production, and it's essential for understanding how electromagnetic waves propagate. Philosophizing about it won't help much.

The author makes a reasonable attempt at connecting physics to metaphysics, especially in his chapter with the intriguing title “Quantum Metaphysics,” which assumes a little background in particle physics. But for the most part, the discussion sheds little light on the subject. That's not entirely the author's fault: he was just 14 years too early.

dec 06, 2015


The Evolution of Modern Metaphysics: Making Sense of Things

A. W. Moore
Cambridge, 2012/2013, 668 pages
Reviewed by T. Nelson

In this spectacular history of ideas from Descartes to Deleuze and how they support his view that metaphysics is a respectable branch of philosophy, metaphysician A. W. Moore has written what may be the longest employment cover letter in history. It is his answer to the question “Describe in 314,000 words or less your conception of how philosophers since the 17th century contributed to your field of specialization.”

Philosophy always envied mathematics, which was making dramatic progress at a time when philosophy kept getting bogged down in endless irresolvable controversy. Metaphysics suffered the most, acquiring a reputation as meaningless speculation. Moore quotes Kant: “There was a time when metaphysics was called the queen of all sciences. Now ... the queen proves despised on all sides.” [p.110]

What we might call metaphysical speculation must have seemed like solid reasoning in the religious age, when Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz, who based their ideas on assumed properties of God, created fantastic architectures of possible worlds and populated them with omniscient, contingent, and necessary beings. Leibniz reasoned from the properties of God that we must be in the best of all possible such worlds. But according to Moore, it all went up in flames when Hume and other empiricists argued that ideas must be grounded in empirical fact and not religious belief.

Moore describes each person's ideas impartially and, as far as I can tell, fairly (though I am by no means an expert). From his descriptions it seems clear that it was religion that gave birth to metaphysics, and it was the fall of religion from its throne that produced the crisis of confidence in the 18th century—a crisis from which metaphysics has only recently recovered. Moore, however, sees empiricism, not disenchantment, as the biggest challenge that metaphysics faced, and he barely conceals his impatience with Hume who, he says, threw out the baby with the bathwater:

It takes neither scepticism about Hume's empiricism nor susceptibility to talk of the transcendent to wonder whether there are, in the libraries, untold volumes of metaphysics ... that should be snatched back from the flames.

But after Hume much of philosophy realigned itself closer to science than religion, and asks many of the same questions—how the mind works, how we process ideas, and where the world came from—but from a different viewpoint. Moore wants us to think that metaphysics is the most scientifically oriented branch of philosophy, except that it tries to use reason instead of experiment (though I might add that some philosophers are now doing experiments of their own).

Kant was a giant who provided philosophers with a rich vein of ideas to be mined as a supply of inspiration, allowing, he says, both his followers and those who reacted against him to indulge in the sort of metaphysics [p. 330] that has finally, at long last, become more or less fashionable again.

Throughout the book, Moore tends to adopt the writing style of the philosophers he is discussing: maybe it's just my imagination, but in the chapter on Kant, for example, there seems to be a distinct increase in the length of his sentences. Despite Moore's engaging style, this book is not light reading. Thus it was a bit alarming to see him call Hegel's prose ‘linguistically deranged’ at the start of the Hegel chapter; but in fact Moore's writing becomes clearer, perhaps because Moore finds Hegel's ideas more congenial.

In fact he has strong opinions on all the philosophers. He is downright brutal in his chapter on Frege (yes, Frege) but he praises Hegel and Wittgenstein effusively. There are too many ideas in this book to cover all of them here—even the many footnotes in this 668-page book need to be read—so I'll just focus on the two chapters on Wittgenstein.

Most people probably don't think of Wittgenstein as any more of a metaphysician than Frege. The word ‘metaphysics’ is found only once in his Tractatus, where it's used as a derogatory term. I have always found Wittgenstein's writing to be thoroughly opaque—like a collection of philosophical fortune cookie messages. For example:

It is essential to things that they should be possible constituents of states of affairs. [ 2.011 ]

The world and life are one. [ 5.621 ]

Wittgenstein fortune cookie message

What is this if not metaphysics? Mystical? Check. Inscrutable? Check. Obscure? Check. Each sentence numbered like in the Bible? Check. Well, maybe I'm misunderstanding it.

Evidently I am not, for Moore writes:

It is one thing to stumble into nonsense in trying to articulate one component of a larger, otherwise coherent theory. It is another thing to produce nonsense at almost every turn throughout an entire book. [p.237]

Moore regards the Tractatus as almost pure nonsense, but says it is intended that way as a demonstration on how to do philosophy badly. It succeeds brilliantly at its task, and it is, he says (surprise!), a profoundly metaphysical work. The idea that Tractatus is word salad (p. 584)—nonsense intended to express the ineffable—is, it turns out, an opinion held by many but not all philosophers.

Following this there are chapters on Carnap, Quine, Bergson, Husserl, Heidegger, Deleuze, and others. Moore effectively contrasts their ideas with each other, trying to make the case for an underlying thread of metaphysics in their work. His goal is to show that (1) metaphysics is a respectable branch of philosophy and (2) its goal is to ‘make sense of things,’ which he says is something we all do—or better, ‘make sense of making sense of things.’*

To me, it's philosophers in the mist. But it also has practical value. There are many branches of science in which lack of conceptual clarity is an impediment to progress. Somebody somewhere will have to do some philosopical thinking, even if it means taking the risk of getting metaphysical, to clear it up.

Moore seems to agree with Wittgenstein that philosophy is not a body of knowledge, but a process. If so, we would conclude that wisdom is not something we know, but something we do. That sounds pretty metaphysical to me. But if we say it out loud some smartass would come along and prove that knowing is the same as doing, and we'd be back to square one.

nov 27, 2015; last updated nov 29, 2015

* This implies of course, that writing a book review, in which one tries to make sense of making sense of making sense of things, is indeed the highest form of human endeavor, as I have often maintained.