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A beginner discovers the foundations of reality
on 25 June 2012
As most people who have had discussions about the "deeper questions" with philosophically sophisticated friends can attest, the line "It's a metaphysical issue" rears it head quite often. What does this mean? What is metaphysics, and why is regular science unable to settle these types of questions?
That was the motivation for me getting this book - as a plebe in philosophy, I felt I had to get a grip on this or forever be an embarrassment to my learned friends. Well, no more!
The authors' approach is (perhaps somewhat ironically) to illustrate metaphysics by example. A set of topics that seem reflective of the major issues in the field was selected, and the authors jump in without much ado. It is, to me at least, a real pleasure to see how things that I usually take for granted can be analyzed from a different perspective, often with very confusing and counter-intuitive results!
The issues touched by the book ranges from ontological arguments, personal identity, time and how it relates to space, universals and constitution, to name a few. I don't know if the order of the topics reflect some kind of build-up or increasing knowledge, but it seemed quite arbitrary to me. Which means you can probably read the chapters in any order without missing much. The arguments are well thought out, presented in a style that is accessible to the uninitiated like myself, entertaining and engaging. Both authors are clearly quite familiar with the issues at hand, and will generally make a case for all sides (usually just before squashing it with opposing arguments). For the curious, reference on further reading is provided.
In spite of the informal presentation, the topics at hand can be get complicated. I found that leaving a chapter halfway through in order to finish at a later stage were problematic, as I would forget many of the arguments "in the air" in order to follow the logic until its conclusion. For that reason, I would not recommend this book for commuting read, as the "short bursts" of reading allowed by public transport can be frustrating when trying to understand a bigger argument and the complex issues around it. At least, if you are forced to read in chunks, be ready to rehash some of the ground covered in order to get full value.
An often asked question for a book of this nature is: do I need to understand philosophy in order to read this book? Is it for everyone? Although some of the topics can get a bit hairy, and require some up-front thinking by the reader, my feeling is that, if you are interested in reading about metaphysics, you probably have already considered some of the issues to the point where this book would make sense to you.