William Hasker is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Huntington College in Indiana. This is short, punchy, to the point.
What is there?” According to an eminent philosopher these simple words suffice to formulate the central question of all metaphysics.’ And his answer is even simpler: “Everything.” Obviously this is correct; whatever there is, is included in “everything,” while whatever doesn’t exist is really “nothing.” But it’s also obvious that both question and answer need much more explanation. So, let’s break the question “What is there?” down into some more specific questions — questions to which metaphysics will try to give detailed answers.
First of all, what is real? We all distinguish between things that are real, that really exist, and things that aren’t real. We can apply this distinction to persons, such as Paul Bunyan and Wyatt Earp; to activities, such as beaming aboard the Starship Enterprise and flying at supersonic speeds from Paris to New York: or to places, such as the land of Narnia and the Grand Duchy of Monaco. The second member of each pair, we say, is real or really exists, while the first member isn’t and doesn’t. Other examples are controversial: Is the Loch Ness monster real or not? And what of the yeti, the abominable snowman of the Himalayas? Some people believe in the reality of one or both of these, while others deny it and still others reserve judgment.
These, however, are still not the sorts of cases to which philosophers apply themselves when they ask what is real. But consider these questions: Is there such a being as God? Is a human being endowed with an immaterial self or “soul” which survives bodily death? Is there such a thing as a person’s performing an act of free choice, an act which is not determined or controlled by anything at all except the person’s own decision? Such questions as these take us right to the heart of metaphysics, and we will be concerned with all of them later in this book.
Second, what is ultimately real? What are the basic constituents of reality? We are familiar with the idea that things can be broken down into their constituents — for instance, a lovely perfume can be analyzed as a mixture of various organic chemicals, and these in turn as combinations of atoms of the various chemical elements, and so on. We tend to feel as we work through such an analysis that we are gaining insight into the real nature of what we are studying, that we are finding out what is “really real” in it. And we could almost define metaphysics by saying that a metaphysician is someone who pushes this kind of question just as far as it can go — to find the “ultimate reals” out of which are constructed perfumes and skyscrapers and planets and social structures and indeed simply everything.
Often this analysis of real things into their constituents is carried on in scientific terms, but a metaphysician may want to ask whether the constituents identified by science are the “ultimate reals,” or whether they can themselves be analyzed in terms of something still more basic. Sometimes what seems to be a strange or even preposterous statement about what is real turns out, when properly understood, to be instead a claim about what is “ultimately real.”
Thus when a philosopher says that physical objects don’t exist, he probably doesn’t mean to say that there are no such things as trees, tables and baseball bats. It’s much more likely that what he means is that the “ultimate constituents” of such objects, what they really consist of, is something very different from physical objects as we ordinarily think of them. Perhaps trees and ball bats are ultimately made up of mental images, thoughts in people’s minds. Of course, this may still strike you as being strange and implausible, but it isn’t so obviously false and absurd its it would be to deny outright the existence of physical objects.
One may also ask whether the constituents identified by science are all of the “ultimate reals” that go to make up something. For instance, a physiologist can give an analysis of visual perception in terms of the focusing of reflected light by the lens of the eye, the reaction to this light by the rods and cones of the retina, the transmission of the visual information through the optic nerve and the processing of this information within the brain. But does this analysis include all of what is involved in seeing something? That is an important — and highly controversial — question of metaphysics.
Throughout these last paragraphs I have been assuming that we can indeed discover what is ultimately real by breaking things down into their constituents. But according to one group of philosophers this approach is fundamentally mistaken. The theory of wholism claims that wholes, complex entities, typically have a reality of their own over and above that of their constituents.
Thus, analysis of a whole into its parts always falsifies its nature by failing to capture this “something more.” According to extreme forms of wholism, the only ultimately correct answer to the question “What is there?” would be “everything.” Any other answer would distort the truth by failing to capture the indissoluble unity of the Real (or, as some would say, of the Absolute). In this book I shall assume that the process of analysis is valid and that we can find out what a thing is by determining what it consists of. But the reader should be aware of the existence of the wholistic viewpoint.
Finally, metaphysics asks, what is man’s place in what is real? Out of all the different sorts of beings in heaven and earth, there is no doubt that we have a very special interest in the creatures we ourselves are, namely, human beings. That concern partly, no doubt, expresses our self-centeredness, and it is tempting to wonder what philosophy would be like if it were written by an ant or an electron.
On the other hand, it just is a fact that in the world as we know it human beings are somewhat unique. Ants and electrons, after all, don’t write philosophy, and this is part and parcel of the reasons why both are several notches below humans in what has been called the “great chain of being.” If, on the other hand, we someday find that there really are extraterrestrial intelligences, their philosophical views will be of the deepest interest.
For the part of the universe we know, however, humans would seem to be either the highest, most complex and elaborate products of nature, or else the visible link between nature and something beyond nature: “mid-way between the brutes and the angels,” as Pascal put it. Which of these is true (or, conceivably, whether both might be true) is clearly a question of great importance.
It will have significance for what we sometimes call the meaning of life, for how we ought to live and for what (if anything) we ought to worship. Not all the questions in this area, to be sure, are questions of metaphysics; some belong to ethics, some to the philosophy of religion and some to still other disciplines. But metaphysical questions — questions about what there is — lie at the very core of these issues. They are among the enduring questions of philosophy because they are among the central –and ultimately inescapable — issues of human life.