What there is

There is a branch of philosophy, called 'metaphysics', that is concerned with the general structure of reality: what it is made up of, and why it is this way rather than another.

What sorts of things are there in the world? It's not quite clear, to begin with, that 'thing' is even the right word; certainly there are those familiar
physical items around us, such as tables and trees, and they quite naturally fall under that label. But what about cultural items, like stories and songs? And when we look into our inner lives, aren't there also such psychological items as memories and moods, or, on the more complex side, logical reasoning or angry resentment? And what about rather abstract kinds of things? Take numbers, nation states, or natural laws. Are these all real? What does it mean if we count such different things as numbers and trees into one and the same category, that of the real? (Note how by now we've come to use the term 'thing' very broadly.)

And do we also include what we can't observe, but might postulate in order to explain phenomena? Evolutionary processes, elementary particles — in what sense can these be taken to be real? One could well make the case that they must count at least in
some sense, since much of our account of the rest of reality hangs upon them; and don't we make a difference still between those postulated entities that we do accept (like electrons, for instance) and those we don't (like ether)?

From this latter case, we can also see something like a criterion emerge for what counts as real and what doesn't: at least as long as we talk about things which we have to assume for their explanatory value, that very explanatory value accounts for why we think they are part of reality. Indeed, an influential line of thought sees practical and explanatory value as the prime indicator of reality. (The idea here is that in the long run, nothing could have that sort of value if it wasn't really there.)

In more ordinary contexts, we can distinguish between objects which are artificially made, with some purpose, and those which are already there, which we just find in our encounters with the world around us. We can distinguish between the natural and the artificial; this includes a recognition, and perhaps, in fact, an appreciation of what's man-made. (Making this distinction requires not just an idea of the value that is in something man-made, i.e. the life time of effort spent on it, but also an idea of what it would mean, or what it did mean, to someone to produce the thing in question.) And as with theoretical items, artifacts seem to owe at least some of their reality to that practical (or perhaps in some instances, aesthetic) value that comes from being purposefully made.

In some sense or other, things fill up our world. I've used some made-up categories to group them together (with categories like 'physical', 'cultural', 'psychological', 'abstract' and 'theoretical', 'natural' and 'artificial'). And groupings such as these come easily from the way we use language to refer to them. But does that fact reflect a real structure, one within reality itself, or is it just a matter of convenience for our practical purposes, and arbitrary? Are some of these categorizations better, more natural, more adequate than others? And if they are, what makes them so?

Moreover, we have still just looked at
things (and their categories). But is it actually correct to assume that reality primarily consists of things? Doesn't it also include facts, such as that it is raining here and now? And what about mere possibilities (which aren't the case, but might have been, such as that there's a rainbow over there)? Perhaps, as some insist, once we've admitted facts and possibilities, there's actually no need anymore to reserve a section for things, for things are already included in the totality of facts (facts always cover one or more things, as we know them, but they are more comprehensive, since they account for relations between things as well).

It's a wide field, and we can get carried away quickly into regions quite abstract and general. Why do we ask questions about these matters? It's not only for practical purposes; though it's partly that: categorizations and generalizations come in useful in science and technology (they enable explanation and prediction for many kinds of phenomena), so it should be of some use to look at how and wyh we build concepts, and categorize them. Nor is it just for inspiration or edification; though in part it's that as well: we inquire into what there is, into why there is anything at all in the world, into what makes everything move in order to learn about our place in all this, to get a sense of our own relative importance. Having a glance at the whole of reality is a way of breaking free from reactive mode, from being controlled by local influences and circumstances. In this it's similar to looking at the whole of one's life, which brings a similar correction of perspective.

Perhaps the most important motive, however, for asking these questions is to get more clear about the foundation of our ethics. Ultimately, what we want to know is how we should live — and no one can live a good life who gets out of touch with reality. For our way of living, and our goal of forming a good character, we are looking for a firm and reliable grounding in an account of the world as a whole, of nature and society, and our place in them, both as an individual and all together. Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.