This book won't make anyone more popular at parties, but it will exercise that mostly underutilized organ that nature took great care to encase in a thick skull. Ultimately, that philosophical subject known as "Metaphysics" will tax the most sharpened of wits because it contains a litany of unanswered questions. Those looking for answers should consult math book teachers' guides. Worse still, most of these questions lead to only more questions. Even seemingly infantile questions such as "what is a table?" or "what is change?" do not have simple non-controversial answers. On closer inspection it turns out that reality contains numerous nearly incomprehensible elements that have dodged inquisitive minds for millennia. And, arguably, throughout those same millennia it has produced just about nothing of indubitable utility. The questions and controversies just keep coming. So why would anyone in their right mind bother with this evasive, frustrating and ancient subject? This is basically what this short book, aptly titled "Metaphysics: A Very Short Introduction," attempts to answer.
In the true spirit of metaphysics each chapter takes the form of a question. So, whether intentionally or not, readers will find themselves asking questions over and over again merely by perusing the book. Even the introduction asks "What is an introduction?" Here a question, there a question, everywhere a question, question. Structurally, the book attempts to make its ominous subject more accessible by "doing" metaphysics rather than merely explaining it right up front. So no turgid delineations of the epochal history of this topic clutter the text - plenty of other books do that. Instead, individual questions and subjects get asked and discussed one by one, beginning with "what is a table?" This unearths the topic of just what comprises an individual object, or a particular, including its properties or qualities. And do objects consist of a substratum or of a bundle of these properties? And where particulars dwell so do universals, as the next chapter "what is a circle?" discusses. The book continues with chapters on parts and wholes, change, causation, the passing of time, personhood, possibility and nothingness. The billion dollar question "what is metaphysics?" doesn't get asked until the final chapter.
Along the way the subject matter remains the focus, not a list of big names, though some of those inevitably appear such as Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Locke, Mill, Wittgenstein, Lewis, Armstrong, Kant and of course Captain Kirk. These names only appear in relation to the ideas outlined in the current chapter. Plus, many "isms" appear, all of which receive clear explanations, such as "reductionism," "emergentism," "holism," "presentism," "eternalism," and others. None of these remain difficult to understand in the context of this introductory book. No prior knowledge required.
Most chapters conclude the same way: inconclusively. Do placebos prove causation? Maybe. Does time flow in a sequence? Probably, but maybe. Does personhood arise from psychological continuity over time? Or should bodily continuity count as well? Do other "possible worlds" exist - really concretely exist, in a David Lewis sense - to account for contingencies? Do negative properties exist? Must they exist? They make for a messy metaphysics, but perhaps reality is messy? As anyone can guess, the words "yes," "no" and "without a doubt" appear very infrequently in this book. Here uncertainties reign.
The final chapter defends metaphysics against the charges of being pointless and unscientific. It truly may seem pointless, even after reading this book. But this bizarre subject can nonetheless has the power to extend one's perspective and to introduce new ways of thinking about the world and reality. And science often does the same thing. But this chapter does state explicitly that metaphysical theories do not stand or fall by observation. This may cause many to pause and wonder: so how does one accept or reject metaphysical theories? The chapter may not answer this understandable question to everyone's satisfaction. One answer provided is "on the basis of reasoning alone," which may furrow some skeptical brows. Though no one should leave this book questioning the value or purpose of metaphysics, this final chapter, in some ways, feels as inconclusive as the rest. Not to mention that some other statements throughout the book may make some wonder what foundation the subject rests on. References to "theories that we hold dear" and chapter six's statement that "many of us don't want our metaphysics to be so dependent on one's point of view. We like to feel that we are dealing with objective, eternal and immutable truths, unaffected by our human perspective on things." What is this "dear" and what are these "wants" and "immutable truths?" These statements raise other intriguing questions, but a book of this length can only skim the surface of such larger background issues.
This tiny book stands as one of the best general introductions on this topic currently available. Anyone can follow its logic, examples and language. It also succeeds in evoking the scintillating mysteries inherent in many metaphysical questions. Many introductions drag the reader through a morass of arguments, counter-arguments and counter-counter-arguments. Professional philosophers need to wade in such waters, of course, but this intimidating method may estrange newcomers to the field. This book allows comprehension of the major issues without drowning itself in arguments, though many do appear. For some, this book may encompass all they ever need to know about metaphysics. Others will get hooked and find themselves rummaging through larger tomes or more detailed introductions. And those already versed in the subject matter may simply find themselves in the presence of a good read. And that's as conclusive a statement as anyone can make about this great introduction. Embrace bewilderment!