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Some philosophical ideas about the essence of reality can't be studied empirically, but they have been investigated and debated throughout time.
Dave Burbank
Dave Burbank

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Commenting on the types of questions metaphysics deals with, such as free will, causation, the characteristics of objects through time, "Metaphysicians think about weird, abstract stuff."
Dave Burbank
Dave Burbank

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Karen Bennett is passionate about metaphysics. "Finally, someone was addressing these questions that would keep me up at night."
Dave Burbank
Dave Burbank

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Describing ideas in her book, Making Things Up, "We talk about building all the time. This talk of certain things happening or existing or obtaining because of or in virtue of other things is everywhere."
Beatrice Jin; Dave Burbank
Beatrice Jin; Dave Burbank

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"Philosophy teaches really solid critical thinking and reading skills, and the ability to identify the structure of an argument and to assess that argument. Our undergraduate majors can go off and do everything."
Dave Burbank
Dave Burbank

What is Metaphysics?

by Caitlin Hayes

If you go to the metaphysics section of a chain bookstore, you’re likely to find books about the supernatural. “Energy fields, vortexes, and talking to dead people,” says Karen Bennett, Philosophy. Academic metaphysics is very different.

The origin story of metaphysics in philosophy is that after Aristotle wrote the Physics, a foundational text in western philosophy and science, he wrote another influential book that he never titled. Scholars of Aristotle later referred to it as the book that came after the Physics—or Metaphysics. “So very roughly, metaphysics looks at ideas in the ballpark of stuff Aristotle wrote in that book,” Bennett says.

This includes big, abstract questions about the nature of reality that can’t be fully answered or investigated empirically: questions about whether or not we have free will and the nature of consciousness; about how objects or people persist through time. Are we the same people as we were as babies? Is a table the same if you inscribe your name into its surface? And what about causation, which is so central to our thinking, on what terms does one event cause another? Even if no ghosts are involved, “Metaphysicians think about weird, abstract stuff,” Bennett says.

Abstract questions like these are what Bennett, now a leading metaphysician, fell in love with when she first encountered philosophy in college. “It was finally—someone was addressing these questions that would keep me up at night,” she says. “I just loved it.”

Making Things Up

“A big part of what metaphysics does is investigate the toolbox,” Bennett says. “People help themselves to notions like causation or talk of similarity or talk of something happening in virtue of something else happening, but what does that really mean?”

A theme that has emerged in Bennett’s research is trying to understand the relationship between different levels of reality—between part and whole, for instance, or how the features of parts account for the features of the whole. “Here’s this table,” Bennett begins to explain, placing her hands flat on the table’s surface. “This table has parts. It has a top, it has legs, and those parts have parts. Eventually it’s particles, and then it’s even weirder stuff below that. And I’m interested in thinking about the relations between these levels of reality, whereby you get these higher level or less fundamental things out of more fundamental things.”

In her book, Making Things Up (Oxford University Press, 2017), Bennett calls the relationship between these levels of reality building relations. She says the reason these kinds of descriptions, where one phenomenon is described as giving rise to another, are worth sussing out is because they are everywhere. They show up in how we understand many aspects of reality—how a sentence has meaning from its constituent words, how a thought or intent arises from biological phenomena, or how a moral judgment is made from features of a situation, and many more.

“We talk about building all the time,” Bennett says. “This talk of certain things happening or existing or obtaining because of or in virtue of other things is everywhere. And I think it’s important to try to unpack what’s going on there. What are we even saying when we say this thing exists because these other things exist?”

In her book, Bennett identifies many kinds of building relations and articulates features they all share. She takes up the philosophically much-debated nature of causation and argues that causation, the idea that one thing happens because of another, is not unlike the relation between a table and its parts.

“Philosophers have tended to talk about these relations as being synchronic, atemporal. The table is solid because of the features of its parts, which obtains at an instant,” Bennett says. “And they have argued causation is different because causation happens over time. If I throw a rock and break a window, there’s an event and then a bunch of intermediate events, the rock sailing through the air, and then this event of the window breaking. It takes place over an interval of time.”

“The ideal norm in our field is a kind of constructive, non-hostile raising of objections. And you as a philosopher and a thinker often have to revise in light of those discussions.”

The fact that the table is solid in virtue of the relations among constituent atoms is not exactly atemporal, Bennett argues. The solidness of the table doesn’t happen instantly. “It’s really just this simplistic philosophical myth to be thinking as though many of these relations obtain instantly,” she says.

Bennett uses these building relations to define what it means for something to be fundamental, or more fundamental than something else. She discusses a number of possibilities but argues that the patterns in building relations account for what makes something more or less fundamental. “Like the reason the table is less fundamental than the little particles zipping around is precisely the fact that the table is built from those particles,” Bennett says.

This leads her to argue for an expanded definition of metaphysics itself, which is often described as the study of the fundamental nature of reality, or fundamental being. “There’s a famous phrase from a philosopher, William van Orman Quine, about having a taste for desert landscapes. Some philosophers want to make do with as few entities and things as they can. So they say that there isn’t really a table here. All there is are the bits,” Bennett says.

She disagrees, arguing that the nature of reality and inquiries into that reality must include the nonfundamental, the built things. “And there are various nonfundamental things that are perfectly good topics for metaphysical inquiry,” she says.

The Rigor of Philosophy

Humanities can seem uncollaborative compared to the sciences, with individual scholars often writing books and articles with only one name across the top. However, in many humanities fields, philosophy included, there’s an infrastructure of rigorous give-and-take between colleagues before work sees publication.

In philosophy, it’s generally expected that scholars will present work-in-progress at talks or conferences. They present their work for an hour and then field questions for another hour. These are not soft-ball questions. “The ideal norm in our field is a kind of constructive, non-hostile raising of objections,” Bennett says. “And you as a philosopher and a thinker often have to revise in light of those discussions.”

Philosophy is known for this kind of rigorous debate, and it’s one of the things Bennett values about the field. It’s also one of the reasons philosophy majors are so versatile. “Philosophy teaches really solid critical thinking and reading skills, and the ability to identify the structure of an argument and to assess that argument,” Bennett says. “Our undergraduate majors can go off and do everything.”