Introduction to Metaphysics: A Dialogue (Part Two)
[In her next e-mail, my student detailed three distinct problems in need of clarification, each in its own tidy paragraph; therefore, in this case, for organizational purposes, I will present each problem as a separate point, in sequence, rather than including her complete e-mail and then having to requote the three main paragraphs in detail as preface to my replies.]
It is admirable that they [Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle] realized the importance of invisible but existent things and studied them this deeply, and it is surprising that my question was the one that drove metaphysics in the beginning! It feels like I’ve arrived at a strange place after wandering around here and there. You mentioned “metaphysics studies Being Itself, independently of any specific case or type,” and I wonder, what is Being? Would you please explain about the being, Being, and Beings used in metaphysics? I just remembered you said that they are slightly different.
“Invisible but existent” is a phrase that makes sense in modern, materialistic terms. The word “but” would make very little sense here to a pre-modern thinker, since they generally assumed that the “invisible” things were the truly existent ones, while the visible things were the effects, manifestations, or shadows of the invisible ones.
As for the question “What is Being?” if there were a simple answer to that, there would be no need for metaphysical theory, or for philosophy in general. Life would be very easy if we knew the answer to that!
Everything – literally every thing – exists, or else we cannot say it is a thing. Existence is the basic condition of “thingness,” we might say. That’s so obvious, in fact, that in normal life we never stop to ask what it means to say something “is,” or exists. The philosopher, especially the metaphysician, is the person who stops to ask, “What are we actually saying when we say This is or This is X?” In other words, what does it mean to be? Is being (existence) a specific property of each individual thing? Is it in each thing independently of the mind thinking about that thing, or is “being” a product of our thinking?
Do things exist in the same way that their properties exist? For example, if we see a red apple, in what sense does its “redness” exist? And is it the same sense in which the apple exists? Immediately, in a case like that, we can say that the redness of the apple cannot exist at all if the apple itself does not exist, whereas the apple could still exist if it were not red. Therefore, it seems we can say that red things are “more real” than their redness, since the things can exist without the color, but the color cannot exist without the things. (Hierarchy again.)
As for the difference between Being and beings, the first is the idea or “property” that we find in everything, which we are trying to define when we say, “What is being?” or “What does it mean to exist?” On the other hand, “beings” (plural) refers to the things that exist themselves, rather than to their existence. “Beings exist,” you might say. In other words, all beings have Being. Does that help to show how the two words represent different things?
I was also thinking about your question “what does it mean to ‘be’ or ‘exist’?”, but I don’t know for sure how I can define it. If I use the verb about a person, then it seems to mean “live”; and if I use it about a visible object, then it seems to mean “stand” or “occupy”; but if I use it about an invisible object, then I have no idea how to describe it… Perhaps, the verb “have” can replace “be,” in that “I have a dream” is the same as “A dream is in my mind.” But I doubt that existence is about possession. Then, what about “happen”… Oh, I’m so confused! Does it ever have a clear answer?
Your first point here is very perceptive. Yes, if we are speaking of a living thing, then to say “it exists” suggests that it is living. We might also say that it exists in another sense, of course – as a dead body, a pile of flesh and bones, a collection of atoms, or whatever. But somehow we want to be able to say that for a person to exist as a person, he or she must be alive, since life is essential to being human.
As for the second point, regarding invisible objects, you make a reasonable suggestion, which is that we might use “have” in this case, as in your example, “I have a dream,” meaning the same thing as “A dream is in my mind.” In a way that would be correct, but if we mean the same thing by those two statements (which I think we do), then doesn’t it follow that to say “I have a dream” and “A dream is in my mind” would be the same as saying “A dream is my mind at this moment”?
Let me explain that a little. Your concern about invisible things is that there is no place for them to be, since they are immaterial. So you reasonably assume they are “in” the mind, or the mind “has” them. On the other hand, the mind itself is also an invisible thing, so it is odd to speak of invisible and immaterial things being “in” other invisible or immaterial things, or to speak of one invisible thing “having” another invisible thing. But what if we say, “The mind is the invisible thing”? This would make immaterial things identical to mental objects, thoughts. In some way, the immaterial world would be a world of intellectual objects – ideas, then.
And if we return to the point about the pre-modern, non-materialistic perspective regarding the “invisible” things as the true, or truer, beings, we can see the importance of metaphysics, assuming truth and knowledge are important. If the true world is the intellectual world, the world of thoughts, then which of these thoughts are more essential, or more basic? Just as I said the apple can exist without its redness, but its redness cannot exist without the apple, a similar kind of hierarchy should exist among all thoughts. Which intellectual objects are necessary to the existence of the others, and therefore more essential, or more real?
Seen in this way, metaphysics becomes a search for the absolute foundation or beginning point of all thought. In other words, we always assume we do not really know a subject until we understand its causes and underlying conditions. In the case of thinking, then, we do not really understand the thought process, or its objects – we do not know our own minds — until we understand which ideas cause or condition all the others.
And now, as for St. Thomas Aquinas, I see that everything that exists has an essence and being, but in a separate way, according to him, and he defined God as the substance whose essence is identical to His existence, thereby an eternal being. Reading his philosophy, although I didn’t understand well about an object whose essence is being, it was impressive that he applied philosophy to his religion, since I thought philosophy is based on logic whereas religion is based on faith. In any case, I learned that St. Thomas Aquinas would reply to my question that the separate form is God.
Perhaps you can see the meaning of a substance whose essence is identical to His existence after what we just discussed regarding the hierarchy of thought. As we search for the ideas that are necessary for other thoughts to exist, and realize that knowing these “higher” intellectual beings is necessary for being able to say we truly know anything at all, we find that at the top of the knowledge pyramid, there is Being, existence itself, which is the thing we must assume of absolutely anything else in order to talk about it at all. But if every being “has” being, then there is no highest being, since if every higher being also “has” being, we have to ask, “Has it from where?” And so on, and so on, without any end point. Once again, an infinite regress, which is illogical, because an infinite process has no beginning, which would mean there can be no beings – if the causal relation between higher and lower beings never begins, it can have no products or effects.
That leads to the conclusion that there must be a beginning of the causal process, and this beginning must be a being that does not get its own existence from outside of itself (outside of its essence). Therefore, it must get its existence from within its own essence. Its being is its essence, and only because such a being exists, all other beings (intellectual and material) can exist.
Whether you look at this as a justification for religious belief, as St. Thomas did, or as a purely rational understanding of the origins of thought and reality, as Aristotle did, I think you can see now that the importance of metaphysics explains itself. This is not an abstract or academic curiosity for the metaphysicians. We are looking for the thought that makes all other thought possible, which means the source of all possible knowledge. Without the existence of this being, there is nothing. And without understanding this being, there is no knowledge. It is literally correct to say that everything depends on this. The search for this being’s existence and meaning is therefore the search for wisdom. It is not an exaggeration, then – since as you said, human existence entails living — to say that we are talking about the meaning of life here.