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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Absolutely brilliant, relatively flawed, 11 Jan 2008
This review is from: The Possibility of Metaphysics: Substance, Identity, and Time (Paperback)
In his introductory chapter to The Possibility of Metaphysics Professor E.J. Lowe, who was my tutor in logic and metaphysics at the University of Durham, supports the view that metaphysics is `the systematic study of the most fundamental structure of reality' and maintains that metaphysics is not only possible but that it enables us to achieve reasonable answers to questions that are `more fundamental than any that can be addressed by empirical science'. This sounds to me very much like that advertisement for a well known lager, which claimed that it reached parts that other beers could not reach.

It was Bertrand Russell who said that, under the coherence theory of truth, a fairy story can be true provided it is coherent. Unfortunately there are parts of this book which are not coherent and there are arguments in it which beg the question and are contradictory. While the writing is crystal clear and the scholarship superb, close reading reveals fundamental flaws.

To get the most out of this book, one has to lay aside one's `natural light of the mind', as Spinoza called it, and approach metaphysics as a game of semantics with vastly complicated rules. At times I wondered whether Lowe really believes the claims that he makes. As far as I can gather, he believes in substance pluralism, namely that two or more substances actually exist and are absolutely separate one from another (- this in spite of the revelations of relativity, field theory and quantum mechanics). Never mind: the game must go on. In the chapter on categories and kinds, entities are broken down into universals, particulars, kinds, abstracta, non-substances, substances, cavities, surfaces, events, stuffs, organisms, and artefacts. It is difficult to take this sort of neo-scholastic ontology with a straight face - but then this is, after all, only a game.

There are many small holes that one could pick in this book. I shall content myself with one fairly large one. It concerns persistence of identity over time, or diachronic identity.

The problem of the persistence of identity over time is sometimes introduced in the form of the question: `Because there must be some intrinsic non-relational properties, how can an individual thing change those properties over time and yet remain the same individual thing?' For example: how can a tomato that is red today be the same tomato that was green yesterday? In The Possibility of Metaphysics, Lowe discusses three approaches to this problem, which I shall outline below.

The first approach, which Lowe refers to as the `property instantiation` approach, suggests that over time an individual thing (a tomato for example) `endures' as a succession of instantiations or `instant-examples' of its individual tomato-hood. As Lowe puts it, `what supposedly makes it the case that the tomato now sitting on the table is the same tomato as the tomato sitting on the table five minutes ago is that there is a spatio-temporally continuous sequence of place-times stretching from the place-time occupied by the tomato five minutes ago to the place-time occupied by the tomato on the table now.' This approach suggests that we can assert something like, `the tomato is green-today.'

The second approach Lowe refers to as the `temporal parts` approach. In this view, the talk is of the `time slices' or temporal parts of a tomato, that `perdures', so that a criterion of identity for tomatoes will be `framed in terms of spatio-temporal-cum-causal conditions on sets or sequences of such temporal parts'. In this case we assert something like `the tomato-today is green.'

Lowe points out that grammatical analysis reveals that both of these approaches are at least semantically unsound in that use of expressions like `green-today' or `the tomato-today' are meaningless. The only sound grammatical construction is where the subject (`the tomato'), the adverbial modifier (`today') and the predicate (`is green') are kept apart and not run together. But these two approaches can also be claimed to be metaphysically unsound if your ontology does not admit of `spatial parts'` or `temporal parts'.

The third approach, which Professor Lowe favours, is the Substantial Constituents Approach: `According to this approach, then, what underpins the persistence of something like a tomato is, quite simply, the persistence of its component parts--and by these I mean its `spatial parts' in our first sense of the term (that is, things such as the seeds and skin of a tomato).' But Lowe excludes what he calls its `ancestral' parts--its molecules, atoms, electrons, quarks etc.

There are three important flaws in Lowe's argument:

1. In saying that the persistence of component parts underpins the persistence of the tomato, Lowe uses the same term in the definiens as in the definiendum - an inexcusable mistake for a logician.
2. Because the concept of persistence is bound up with diachronic identity, for which we are seeking criteria, the approach begs the question.
3. The distinction between spatial parts and ancestral parts is illegitimate. It is a fact that molecules and atoms occupy space. What if the tomato were to be irradiated by a radio-active source? Would the tomato retain its identity after irradiation?

Lowe concludes his section on the substantial constituents approach with a metaphysical speculation: `A clear consequence of the substantial constituent parts approach, however, is its commitment to the existence of ungrounded identities at the base of the hierarchy of composition--and on this issue the approach does take an a priori stance. Some thing or things--be it primitive hyle or quarks--must simply persist, without more ado, and in this all higher-level material persistence must ultimately be grounded.'

This conclusion is clearly contradictory: material persistence cannot - even in a counterfactual world - be grounded in what is not grounded.

Lowe has situated the appreciation. His substance pluralism, together with his assumption that absolute identity exists and can be defined, have led him to this contradiction - one that in turn calls in question the validity of his claim that metaphysics is possible and enables us to achieve reasonable answers to questions that are more fundamental than any that can be addressed by empirical science.
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