Metaphysics: A Very Short Introduction by Stephen Mumford
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Metaphysics is a subject that gets complicated quickly. Like physics, it covers a wide swath of territory –many of the most fundamental questions of the universe — but (unlike physics) it doesn’t hold much promise of zeroing in on definitive answers. There’s just reasoning that is closer or farther from reflecting reality. Mumford makes a sound decision to avoid the usual approach of starting with a mile-high overview of the subject, probably rightly concluding that it would become an indecipherable mess quickly.
Instead, over ten chapters, Mumford starts with the simplest questions asked in metaphysics [relatively speaking] and proceeds to incrementally move toward the more complicated ones. In Chapter 1, he asks, “What is a table?” There’s nothing particularly crucial about a table. It’s just an item that is tangible, without a lot moving parts / complexity, and – thus — is the kind of thing that few people would discount as being real. However, even here at the shallow end of the pool, questions pile up about what even such a simple item really is, and under what circumstances it can be said to continue to be that thing. [e.g. One gets into Theseus’s ship kind of questions – i.e. if one replaces all the individual parts of a table to what degree does it remain the same object.]
Chapter 2 shifts from what the first chapter called “particulars” to what are herein called properties. [e.g. The redness of a fire engine. The roundness of a racetrack.] Are properties real? Could you take them away from a particular? If you could, what – if anything – would it be that remained. Chapter 3’s question is, “Are wholes just the sum of their parts?” In the case of the aforementioned table, this question might seem a lot easier to answer than if the object in question is oneself. We all intuitively feel that we are more than the sum of our bones, and skin, brain, etc. But are we? Even if a child’s toy blocks are nothing more than the summed blocks, might not a human being or a dog be vastly more.
I will propose that chapters four through six are closely related (though no such division is made by the book’s table of contents.) All of the questions addressed by these chapters hinge on our experience of time, and none of them would be questions if we didn’t experience one thing after another. Chapter four explores the nature of change. Chapter five is about cause and effect. The subject of cause raises all sorts of interesting questions because we often see examples of caused effects, but we also seem to read cause and effect into situations in which they don’t really exist. (e.g. The often-sited error of mistaking correlation for causation.) Chapter six takes on the subject of time directly. There are many different theories of time. With respect to metaphysic’s most basic question of “what is real?” one quickly comes up against different hypotheses. Some think only the present is real. Some believe the past and present are real, but the future couldn’t possibly be. Still others think the whole experience of time is an illusion.
Chapter seven gets into the metaphysical question that is both most intimately interesting and among the most challenging, and that is, “What is a person?” This is interesting in that we all tend to feel we know what a person is, at least one feels that one knows what one is, but views abound – from the Buddhist notion that the self is an illusion to various religious approaches proposing we are fundamentally a soul or spirit, to materialist interpretations that suggest – in all likelihood – we are the sum of our parts and their activities.
Chapters eight and nine retreat once more from tangibles to ask what is the nature of a possibility (ch. 8) and whether nothing can actually be thought of as a thing [and what the ramifications are of doing so] (ch. 9.) Both of these cases are interesting because they have no simple answer and in different cases different answers suggest themselves as truer. When a possibility is of high probability it may seem sound to treat it as if it were a [potential] reality, but following that reasoning toward the lowest probability happenings quickly results in absurdities.
The final chapter gets around to the overarching question of what metaphysics is, but it also deals with the question of whether metaphysics is relevant. Some say metaphysics amounts to little more than mental masturbation. Others feel that science has replaced metaphysics in all the important ways and more.
The book has a “further reading” section at the end. There are a few graphics throughout the text, but the book is primarily textual.
I found this book to be quite useful. I think the author took a smart approach with its organization and does a good job of avoiding getting lost in the weeds (which is a perennial risk in these types of works.) Mumford uses pop culture references and the like when they make approachable examples, and — in general — does a good job of keeping an eye on readability. If you’re looking for an introduction to metaphysics, this volume is worth checking out.
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