Metaphysics: Introduction
Van Inwagen (Peter)
Source: Van Inwagen (Peter) - Metaphysics, Chapter 1
Paper - Abstract

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  1. A very gentle introduction to what “metaphysics” is: according to PvI: “the study of ultimate reality”. What are “reality” and “ultimate”. The difference between appearance and reality. Example of the earth – appearing to be stationary, but not being so in reality. Second example of solid objects being “mostly empty space”, but then “empty space” – the quantum vacuum – being “very densely populated”.
  2. So, is there a (nested) appearance behind every reality, or does the regression stop somewhere? Then, if there is a reality that is not also an appearance, then this ultimate reality is the subject-matter of metaphysics. Otherwise (like astrology) it has no subject matter. But PvI finds this hard to imagine1.
  3. PvI argues that it is incoherent to claim there is no ultimate reality because then “ultimate reality” would just be the fact that there is an endless sequence of appearances, and the belief is self-defeating2.
  4. PvI is quick to point out (effectively) the distinction between metaphysics and epistemology; while he has shown (to his satisfaction) that there is an ultimate reality – so metaphysics does have a subject-matter – this says nothing about whether we can know what that ultimate reality is.
  5. PvI’s term for this ultimate reality is “the World3”, the totality of “things” (including God, if there is one). He will use another term – “the universe” (say) for what exists outside of God.
  6. PvI has three main questions, which he takes to be the fundamental questions of metaphysics, and which are addressed in the book’s three Parts:-
    • Q1: What is the World like?
    • Q2: Why does the World exist?
    • Q3: What is the place of human beings in the World?
  7. To get a handle on what is meant by these questions, PvI devotes a couple of pages outlining a couple of straw-man4 answers.
  8. The Medieval View:
    • A1: The World consists of an eternal and immaterial God – unlimited in knowledge, power and goodness – and what he has made – both spirits and material things, which are limited, and were made by God sometime in the past, though there will always be things made by God.
    • A2: God necessarily exists, but everything else is contingent, made by his free choice, and is sustained in existence by him.
    • A3: Human beings were created by God with the function to love and serve him forever, though they have free choice whether they fulfil it. Human history reflects this failure of function.
  9. The Nineteenth-Century View:
    • A1: The World consists of matter – all that exists – in motion according to invariable laws of physics.
    • A2: Since matter is neither created nor destroyed, the World has always existed and is eternal. Questions of why the World exists are meaningless, as such causal questions only apply to things with a beginning.
    • A3: Human beings are just complex configurations of matter, with no purpose, whose existence is unsurprising in a World of infinite duration. Our lives have no non-subjective meaning, and – in the absence of souls – cease at physical death.
  10. Despite these answers being radically opposed, they share various assumptions:-
    • Individual things exist – other views deny these “appearances”.
    • Time is real; others deny the passage of time and the use of “before” and “after”.
    • The same for space.
    • The material world is real, rather than existing only in the mind.
    • By answering the questions, they are taken not to be meaningless pseudo-questions5.
  11. Metaphysics must not be confused with other disciplines, especially:-
    • Fundamental physics: what PvI calls “physical cosmology” and which includes both cosmology and particle physics. This has a deep significance for metaphysics as if (for instance) the current theory that the physical universe came into existence 14 bn years ago, then any metaphysical speculation relying on infinite past time cannot be correct. However, PvI thinks it’s a false hope that physical cosmology can answer Q2, and will address the matter in "Van Inwagen (Peter) - Necessary Being: The Cosmological Argument". Also, Carl Sagan’s assertion that the physical universe is “all there is” – even if arguable, as it might be – is a metaphysical not a scientific claim.
    • Sacred or revealed theology: Natural theology partly overlaps with metaphysics, but the revealed theology of those Abrahamic religions that take God to be a “conscious purposive being who acts in history” is effectively an empirical matter, though the supposedly revealed truths are partly metaphysical in character.
  12. While both physical cosmology and revealed theology have metaphysical implications, their usage by metaphysicians differs:-
    • There ought not to be – though there might be (for political reasons) – more than one physical cosmology – but there is more than one (so-called) revealed theology.
    • There is a respected body of opinion that doubts there is any such thing as “revealed theology”, especially as there is little agreement across religions, while the same is not true of physical cosmology6. However, PvI notes that “respected opinion” doesn’t speak with one voice, either, so must sometimes be in error. Yet – even though he himself believes that there has been a (Christian) divine revelation, and that it has profound metaphysical implications – he will only appeal to physical cosmology and never to revealed theology as he doesn’t want to alienate his readership and speak only to Christians7.
  13. Metaphysics must also be distinguished from other branches of philosophy, though it is involved throughout philosophy. PvI gives the example of the attribution in ethics of the property being evil: this is a non-material property – if it exists – and, if so, the World in some sense contains non-physical things and must be more than “matter in motion”.
  14. PvI lists and briefly introduces the other branches of philosophy, other than Metaphysics and Ethics: Epistemology; Logic; Aesthetics; and8 various “Philosophies of X”, where X is Mind, Politics, Science, Mathematics, Language, Religion, History, Law, … All have important metaphysical consequences, so are not wholly distinct from metaphysics.
  15. Metaphysics differs from non-philosophical subjects in that there are no established facts to be learned, though in a footnote PvI points out that there are – he claims metaphysical facts that can be known. But they are not “established” in the sense of scientific facts. PvI thinks that his argument for the existence of ultimate reality is sound, but still thinks it is not intellectually perverse to resist it in the way it is to join the Flat Earth Society.
  16. To clarify, PvI points out that there are lots of historical facts about the metaphysical views of famous or esteemed philosophers, but they will rarely be mentioned in this book. In a footnote he points out that lack of facts does not equate to lack of consequences – good or bad.
  17. So, why is there no philosophical – and in particular, metaphysical – information? This is almost definitive of philosophy, for if a branch were suddenly to start to yield information, it would cease to be a branch of philosophy and would migrate to become a science – as with “natural philosophy” becoming physics, or Logic migrating to pure mathematics.
  18. So, why have a few former branches of philosophy made the successful transition out of the subject, but others not? PvI thinks this an interesting philosophical question – indeed, a metaphilosophical question – which (therefore) may have no uncontroversial answer. Possibilities:-
    • Stupidity: Despite some scientists’ suspicions, the reason for the lack of progress cannot be the stupidity of the professionals (a) statistically, and (b) by counter-example. Descartes and Leibniz were geniuses whose invention of analytic geometry and calculus, respectively, were of lasting benefit to maths + science, yet their philosophical contributions, while equally influential, have not stood the test of time and are now just part of the “history of philosophy”.
    • Meaninglessness: The logical positivists thought that metaphysical questions just had the form of questions, but were in fact meaningless; consequently, being only pseudo-questions, they had no answers. Sadly, Logical Positivism is itself a metaphysical position, and has been consigned to the history of philosophy, along with other attempts to diagnose the ills of metaphysics.
    • Beyond our ken: Maybe the human mind just isn’t up to it? This was Kant’s position – in the sense that (PvI says that) he thought that while they are meaningful, they result in contradictions9 if beings who form internal representations of the world try to answer them. PvI claims that any being that seeks knowledge – even of mundane matters like perception10 – has to form internal representations – and this would rule out any being – apart from maybe God – from being able to answer metaphysical questions.
    • Specifically human cognitive deficiencies: We might take a less radical view than Kant’s and say that it’s a cognitive deficit to specific to human beings, that evolutionary11 cognitive psychology might explain. PvI suggests that just as human acrobats use facilities “designed” for other purposes to do badly what apes do better without training, the same might be true of metaphysics. He alludes to Dr. Johnson’s remark – of a capacity12 like that of a dog walking on its hind legs – “it’s not well done, but you are surprised to find it done at all”.
    This final suggestion is PvI’s preferred explanation, but he admits that – while the lack of metaphysical “results” is incontrovertible – the “human cognitive deficit” explanation is “just more philosophy”.
  19. The bottom line is that a rebellious student of metaphysics – as distinct from a student of the “history of ideas13” (or physics, say) – isn’t simply wrong when he disagrees with the experts as there is no established body of facts to be wrong about.
  20. PvI gives the example of belief in immortal souls, which PvI happens NOT to believe in:-
    • A student should not be impressed by ridicule, which is not a reasonable counter-argument.
    • Nor is the non-existence of immortal souls an established fact – something that all educated14 people believe. Highly educated people have believed all sorts of rot15.
    • An argument may be given – involving various terms, distinctions and scientific facts. Then, a rebel may contest the facts, or the value of the terminology, or the form of the argument.
    • But even if a rebel can see no obvious flaw in the argument, she’s still within her rights to stick to her beliefs – at least for the time being. She may suppose that if the argument was unanswerable, all professional philosophers would accept it – yet (one may suspect) they don’t. The nay-sayers may not know all the arguments in favour of immortal souls – even experts don’t know everything about their area of expertise – or may not present them in their strongest form. Or you may simply take the line that you’re at a disadvantage – being less experienced as a debater – and that it’s adversarial skill rather than the truth of the matter that is winning out.
  21. PvI’s style in the rest of the book will be to work out and defend various metaphysical positions that he takes to be true. But no-one need feel constrained to accept them, for the reasons given above. Other equally well-qualified philosophers will reject them.
  22. We need to know PvI’s biases. He alludes to Bradley – in the form16 “metaphysics is the finding of bad reasons for what one was going to believe anyway”. He acknowledges that some philosophers have been convinced by metaphysical arguments to change their views, and some metaphysicians have had good reasons for their beliefs. But PvI admits that he’d carry on with some of his beliefs whatever the metaphysical arguments against them.
  23. So, PvI admits that his core metaphysical beliefs are pretty well summed up by the “medieval view” given above in answer to the three questions – and these are firm convictions rather than tentative views. While he has tried to be fair to opposing views, he has probably not succeeded.
  24. Whatever the authors of rival books may say they will also have “non-negotiable” views, even if dressed up in argumentative form that implies they started from an unbiased position.
  25. PvI thinks that there are many factors besides evidence and argument that form people’s views. He lists some17:-
    • Religion or anti-religion,
    • Loyalty to, or antipathy towards, political or social groups,
    • Desire for emotional comfort or the respect of one’s peers,
    • Desire to shock, or be thought original,
    • Desire to be in a position to force one’s opinions on others,
    • Desire to form part of a mutual admiration society that makes fun of outsiders,
    • Desire to be part of a small enlightened group struggling against the superstitions of the masses.
  26. PvI makes an important point, to the effect that there’s an ambiguity about “caring about the answer to a question”:-
    • Firstly, one might just want to know the right answer: such persons will be moved by evidence and argument.
    • Alternatively, one might want one’s preferred answer to be right: this probably applies to most who go to the trouble to write books, and these authors are most likely biased in (some of) the ways listed above.
  27. The same is sociologically true of scientists as much as philosophers, yet ultimately such biases in scientists are exposed by the recalcitrance of observational data. Unfortunately, the same correctives are not available in metaphysics. No data in the World will decide between competing metaphysical theories.
  28. PvI has a footnote to the effect that this is just what Kant and the logical positivists were complaining about – or at least he says that it would be a “very attractive position” to take it that a theory is “valueless” (if not “meaningless”) if it makes no predictions that can be put to experimental test. But, he thinks that all efforts to make such a position precise18 are “just more philosophy”.
  29. Further Reading:-

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: This – like much else in this book – including the ToC and the focus on “Necessary Being” – is rather tendentious and betrays PvI’s Christian leanings.

Footnote 2: Footnote 3: Footnote 4: I assume he doesn’t think these are the only alternatives.

Footnote 5: Some metaphysicians might take the view that Q2 is a pseudo-question, while the other two are fine.

Footnote 6: Footnote 7: So, this is a different sort of book to "Hasker (William) - Metaphysics: Constructing a World View", which is intended to prop up a Christian worldview.

Footnote 8:
  1. For some reason, he doesn’t mention:-
    • The topics in the history of philosophy (eg. Greek, Modern, … philosophy) or
    • Of individuals (eg. Kant, Wittgenstein, … ) or
    • Those outside the European or Analytic traditions (eg. Indian Philosophy, Continental philosophy, …)
  2. My diagnosis of this dereliction is that PvI is after metaphysical truth and – while no doubt all sorts of truths may arise in the study of these disciplines, it’s a bit by the by and introductory / motivational.
Footnote 9: Footnote 10: Footnote 12: PvI is reticent about the context, which is of women’s preaching – see Link.

Footnote 13: PvI notes that there is also license to disagree about the interpretation of an extinct philosopher’s works.

Footnote 14: Footnote 15: Footnote 16: See Wikiquote: F. H. Bradley for the accurate quotation.

Footnote 17: Footnote 18: Footnote 19: And presumably superseded by Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Footnote 20:

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2020

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