What is metaphysics?

In the very first lecture of my Metaphysics class this semester, I told my students that I have no answer to the question "What is metaphysics?", that I won't give them any definition of "metaphysics" for the simple reason that I don't have one. They seemed surprised. To assure them that I am indeed qualified to teach metaphysics, I told them that I could tell them a lot of things about metaphysics, it's just that I don't think there is a definition of "metaphysics" that would cover all and only views or theories that are considered metaphysics.

My approach in this class is to introduce and discuss some standard metaphysical issues, such as personal identity, free will and determinism, and possibility and necessity, before we talk about what metaphysics is. My hope is that towards the end of the semester they will have a good sense of what metaphysics is without being given a definition of it.


The curse of the silver medal

According to some psychological research, silver medalists in a competition are less happy than bronze medalists; and that is true of even silver medalists in the Olympic Games. If this is a true phenomenon, it cannot be explained simply by the fact that we evaluate ourselves in terms of comparison, for the silver medalist should feel good by comparing himself with the bronze medalist. One plausible explanation is that the silver medalist is influenced by counterfactual thoughts, more specifically, the counterfactual thought that he might have won the gold medal.

But why isn't the counterfactual thought the one that he might have got only the bronze medal? This is, I think, because the silver medalist is compelled by his wish to win the gold medal to focus on it rather than the bronze medal. And wishful thinking may be working here, for the silver medalist may believe that he could easily have won the gold medal ("I was so close", "I was just having bad luck", etc.).

What about the bronze medalist? Why doesn't he feel unhappy because he has not won the silver medal? Unlike the silver medalist, who would still have won a medal, namely, the bronze one, even if he had lost to the bronze medalist, the bronze medalist would have got nothing if he had not performed as well as he did. So, in his case, the most compelling counterfactual thought is the one that he might easily have got nothing.


Aging and dying

If aging is getting older and dying is getting closer to death, then we are aging and dying every day. This is not, however, what people usually mean when they talk about aging and dying as things they fear or worry over. What they mean by "aging" is showing signs of being old. In this sense, you are already old when you are aging; and in the process of aging, you are getting more and more signs of being old, and those signs are getting more and more obvious. What they mean by "dying" is approaching death in such a way that death is imminent and caused by some kind of illness. The final stage of aging overlaps dying, for the end of aging is not just getting very old, but death. (But the final stage of dying does not have to overlap aging, for a person can die young.)

I do not fear death, for I see my death as nothing but the non-existence of me (again). But I fear both aging and dying because I fear physical and mental decline, and fear the pain that is likely to accompany the illness that will be the cause of my death. Because of this fear, I have this irrational inclination to believe that I will not live to an old age. This is, I think, a weak form of wishful thinking.


The philosophical vs the ordinary

If someone points to a wall and asks, "Is this wall really yellow?", a proper answer to such a question would be something like "No, it's not really yellow. Just take off your sunglasses and you'll see" or "Of course, what would you call this color if not yellow?".

The person, however, may be using the exact same words to ask a totally different question, a question to which the above answers would not be acceptable. Suppose you answer, "No, nothing is really yellow, for colors are subjective." He may disagree with you or ask you to clarify what you mean by "subjective", but at least you are giving him the right kind of answer, namely, a philosophical view of the thing in question.

Indeed, if the light is normal, the person is not wearing a pair of sunglasses, the wall is clearly yellow, etc., the question "Is this wall really yellow?" would not make any sense except as a philosophical question. But what does it take for a person to ask such a philosophical question?


Sagan's principle and Hume's insight

"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." Carl Sagan was not the first who said this, but he was the one who made this principle famous. This is a sensible principle, and it seems that most people follow it most of the time. If, for example, you told someone that you had spent a night at Hotel Palomar San Francisco, she would just believe you. But if you told her that you had spent a night in the White House's Lincoln Bedroom, she would not believe you until you showed her some evidence (probably evidence stronger than just a few pictures, which could easily be fakes).

David Hume seems to be referring to the same principle when he remarks that "we readily reject any fact which is unusual and incredible in an ordinary degree". What he says next, however, is truly insightful:

Yet in advancing farther, the mind observes not always the same rule; but when anything is affirmed utterly absurd and miraculous, it rather the more readily admits of such a fact, upon account of that very circumstance, which ought to destroy all its authority. The passion of surprise and wonder, arising from miracles, being an agreeable emotion, gives a sensible tendency towards the belief of those events, from which it is derived. And this goes so far, that even those who cannot enjoy this pleasure immediately, nor can believe those miraculous events, of which they are informed, yet love to partake of the satisfaction at second-hand or by rebound, and place a pride and delight in exciting the admiration of others. ("Of Miracles")

To put Hume's insight in the language of Sagan's principle, many people act as if extra-extraordinary claims require no evidence at all. Let me extend the above example. Yes, if you told someone that you had spent a night in the White House's Lincoln Bedroom, she would not believe you until you showed her some strong evidence. But if you told her that you had spent a night with an angel at the top of a mountain, who demonstrated his power to you to prove that he's really an angel and then revealed some parts of your future to you, she might just believe you (and she might not even have the same religion as yours)!



Nobody likes snobs, but the fact is, most of us are snobbish to some extent. Most of us have the need to feel (or to become) superior in some way, and snobbery is indeed quite effortless. For one thing, it does not take wealth, power, prestige, pedigree, fame, or social status for a person to be snobbish against some other people. No matter what place you occupy, there are people who are "beneath" you. For another, there is the distinction between, as Joseph Epstein puts it, downward-looking snobbery and upward-looking snobbery. If downward-looking snobbery does not work for you, that means upward-looking snobbery is more readily available to you.

Epstein wrote a whole book on snobbery. It's a good read, entertaining and at times insightful. I like the way he defines "snobbery":

For a beginning or working definition, then, I take the snob to be someone out to impress his betters or depress those he takes to be his inferiors, and sometimes both; someone with an exaggerated respect for social position, wealth, and all the accouterments of status; someone who accepts what he reckons to be the world's valuation on people and things, and acts --- sometimes cruelly, sometimes ridiculously --- on that reckoning; someone, finally, whose pride and accomplishment never come from within but always await the approving judgment of others. People not content with their place in the world, not reconciled with themselves, are especially susceptible to snobbery. The problem here is that at one time or another, and in varying degrees, this may well include us all.


Mental reservation

One of the Ten Commandments is "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor" (in the Exodus 20:2–17 and Deuteronomy 5:6–21 versions). Some Christians take it to mean we should never lie. How do they follow this commandment if they understand it this way? If we define "lying" as "saying or writing something that one believes or knows to be false", then it is indeed hard to see how they can follow the commandment (thus understood) all the time.

Just imagine that a little girl, after being teased by some other children as being ugly, asks you, "Am I really that ugly?", and she is in fact very ugly (or at least you do believe that she is very ugly). What would you say? You may try not to answer the question directly by saying something like "Only shallow people pay so much attention to a person's face". But if the girl insists, "Please tell me the truth. Yes or No?" Would you just say "Yes, you are ugly"?

There is a way out. You can try mental reservation. It was invented in the 13th century and further developed in the 17th century by some Catholic priests. The easiest among the techniques is "strict mental reservation": instead of uttering the whole sentence, you utter only part of it and reserve the rest for "mental utterance" (i.e. utter it internally to yourself). According to the doctrine of mental reservation, if the whole sentence is true, you will not be considered by God to be lying even if the part you utter explicitly is false, provided that the false part is uttered for doing good. Applying this to the above example, you could just say to the girl "You are not ugly" and utter internally "if 'ugly' is redefined to mean beautiful". A perfect solution: the girl is happy and you don't have to lie!


The singular "they" again

Here is an example of a bad English sentence Richard Mitchell gives in his highly readable Less Than Words Can Say (which is out of print now):

A Department of Transportation manual suggests that "If a guest becomes intoxicated," you might "take his or her car keys and send them home in a taxi."

The problem Mitchell has in mind is, I suppose, the use of "them" in the sentence (he doesn't say so explicitly in the text). Given the use of "his or her", a simple correction of the mistake is changing "them" to "him or her".

Since many people nowadays use "they" as a gender-neutral singular pronoun, they may consider the original sentence correct. The structure of the sentence, however, makes it more natural to understand the "them" to refer to "his or her car keys". In that case, even if you accept the singular use of "they", the sentence may still sound funny.


Skipping God

This may be surprising to some of my friends and students, but I have decided to delete the topic "God" from my Metaphysics syllabus, at least for next semester. The reason is simple: I am fed up with talking about God. I will replace the topic with "Personal Identity", which is a very interesting one for most students.


"Confused" and "confusing"

When a student does not understand some reading material (or a lecture), it is likely that she will say that the material is confusing. Of course she would also admit that she is confused, but most likely her point is that it is because the material is confusing that she is confused.

Now if the material is in fact confusing, then there is nothing wrong with her saying so, and it is understandable why she is confused. It is possible, however, for the material to be very clear while the student is still confused. She is confused because, say, she is not reading the material carefully enough or because the material is too advanced for her.

From a third person perspective, we can make this distinction: the material is clear, but she is confused. But from the student's first person perspective, such a distinction seems unavailable. It seems incoherent for her to say, "The material is very clear, but I am confused."

Although the student who is confused cannot judge that the material is clear (when it is in fact clear), she can still entertain the possibility that the material is actually clear. If she takes this possibility seriously, then she may find it more appropriate to say "I am confused" without saying "The material is confusing".


God doesn't give a shit

God always gets the credit and never gets the blame. Thank God for the failure of the Underwear Bomber's attempt, but God was not to blame even though he did not stop the September 11th attack. The truth is, if you look at the world, I mean the world as a whole, not just your comfortable little world, the only reasonable conclusion you can draw is, even if God exists, he doesn't give a shit.


Hidden complexity

We all know that the world, particularly when it involves social and institutional activities rather than just movements of physical or biological objects, is highly complex. Politics, financial systems, scientific research, cultural developments, etc. cannot be easily understood because of their complexity. As a matter of fact, however, most mundane aspects of our lives are also very complex; it's just that the complexity is not right in front of us. It usually takes a thinker to notice the complexity, while most people don't think much about things that appear simple (even though they are in fact complex).

I really like the following words by John Searle in his The Construction of Social Reality, which expresses elegantly the point I have just made:

Consider a simple scene like the following. I go into a cafe in Paris and sit in a chair at a table. The waiter comes and I utter a fragment of a French sentence.... The waiter brings the beer and I drink it. I leave some money on the table and leave. An innocent scene, but its metaphysical complexity is truly staggering, and its complexity would have taken Kant's breath away if he had ever bothered to think about such things. Notice that we cannot capture the features of the description I have just given in the language of physics and chemistry.... Notice, furthermore, that the scene as described has a huge, invisible ontology: the waiter did not actually own the beer he gave me, but he is employed by the restaurant, which owned it. The restaurant is required to post a list of the prices of all the boissons, and even if I never see such a list, I am required to pay only the listed price. The owner of the restaurant is licensed by the French government to operate it. As such, he is subject to a thousand rules and regulations I know nothing about. I am entitled to be there in the first place only because I am a citizen of the United States, the bearer of a valid passport, and I have entered France legally... If, after leaving the restaurant, I then go to listen to a lecture or attend a party, the size of the metaphysical burden I am carrying only increases; and one sometimes wonders how anyone can bear it.


Cryonics and love

Imagine cryonics works. After a person "died", her blood is drained and her body frozen until there is a way of making her body function normally again (curing a disease, fixing an organ, etc.). Here is a thought-provoking situation. Suppose your loved one died young, say at the age of thirty. You decide to have her body cryopreserved. Question: Should you continue to live or have your body cryopreserved too?

If you continue to live, you may live a long life. Say you live up to eight-five and then have your body cryopreserved. One day both you and your loved one are revived, but you are already an old man and she is still a young lady. Can you still love each other?

If you choose to have your body cryopreserved immediately, you will miss a lot of things that you will be able to do only with certain people at certain times. Even if there is a guarantee that you and your loved one will live again together someday, isn't that too big a sacrifice?



I have just learned this really long word, "floccinaucinihilipilification", from Julian Barnes's Nothing to Be Frightened Of. The word means the estimation of something as valueless.

Barnes's book, by the way, is a rather good read, serious and funny at the same time. It is Barnes's reflections on death and dying, with a lot of autobiograhpical elements.


Teaching and showmanship

Whenever I am giving a lecture, I have a strong sense of putting on a show. I don't have to force myself to act; it comes naturally. I naturally talk in an enthusiastic and dramatic way; I naturally have all kinds of expressive facial expressions; and I naturally tell jokes and make students laugh. Indeed, for me all this is part of the fun of teaching. How well I performance usually depends on the reactions of my audience, i.e., my students. If I feel that they like my performance, I will perform even better. And I enjoy meeting the challenge of answering students' unexpected questions offhand. Teaching has to have some improvisation elements to be lively and exciting.


Stumbling on happiness

One cannot divine nor forecast the conditions that will make happiness; one only stumbles upon them by chance, in a lucky hour, at the world's end somewhere, and holds fast to the days, as to fortune or fame.

Willa Cather, "le Lavandou"


Tao Te Ching

I am always skeptical about translating the Tao Te Ching. Classical Chinese is very flexible (much more so than modern Chinese), and when the prose of a text is both dense and poetic, like that of the Tao Te Ching, it is impossible to retain most of the possible meanings of the text in a translation. To see this, just look at the following translations of the first two lines of the Tao Te Ching (name of the translator in brackets):

The Tao that can be told of is not the Absolute Tao;
The Names that can be given are not Absolute Names.
(Lin Yutang)

The Way as “way” bespeaks no common lasting Way,
The name as “name” no common lasting name.
(Moss Roberts)

The Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Tao.
The name that can be named is not the enduring and unchanging name.
(James Legge)

To guide what can be guided is not constant guiding.
To name what can be named is not constant naming.
(Chad Hansen)

Ways can be guided; they are not fixed ways.
Names can be named; they are not fixed names.
(Chad Hansen, a different translation)

The problem is not that these are incorrect translations, but that each of them at best captures only one of the possible meanings of the original.



We all have a self-image, and it is in terms of such a self-image that we evaluate how happy our life is. If my self-image is mainly an academic, then how happy I think I am depends on how successful I am as an academic.

Our self-image can be more or less complex. I can, for example, identify myself just as an academic, but I can also identify myself as an academic, a philosopher, a father, a husband, a poet, a writer, and a cook. According to the psychologist Patricia Linville, the more complex a person's self-image is, the less likely that her happiness in life swings up and down when she does well or poorly at some specific thing. This is easy to understand, for if my self-image has many aspects, then even if one aspect is damaged, my self-image as a whole may still be intact, particularly when I am doing well concerning some of the other aspects.

Of course the matter is not that simple, for it is possible for us to have a false self-image.


A damnable doctrine

There is a passage in Darwin's autobiography (or more precisely, autobiographical sketch) that I particularly like. I still remember how moved I was when I first read it long time ago:

But I was very unwilling to give up my belief; I feel sure of this for I can well remember often and often inventing day-dreams of old letters between distinguished Romans and manuscripts being discovered at Pompeji or elsewhere which confirmed in the most striking manner all that was written in the Gospels. But I found it more and more difficult, with free scope given to my imagination, to invent evidence which would suffice to convince me. Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress, and have never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct. I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all of my friends, will be everlasting punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.

I like this passage not only because I agree with what Darwin said, but also because my experience was similar to his. I felt like he was speaking for me too.


The second arrow

I like the Buddhist analogy of the second arrow. The first arrow is the bad thing that happens to you, usually unexpectedly. But a second arrow may follow the first one, making you suffer even more; and the pain caused by the second arrow may last much longer than that of the first.

The second arrow is your awareness of your suffering from the first arrow and your bitterness towards the fact that it has happened to you. So the second arrow is actually shot by yourself. In most cases there is not much you can do to avoid the first arrow, but the second arrow is to a large extent within your control.



I began to have a certain kind of experience when I was still a teenager, which I think can be best described as "the experience of detachment". Sometimes I had the experience almost every day; it felt very strange. I could find no better description of such experience than the following passage in James Joyce's short story "A Painful Case" (in Dubliners):

He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side glances. He had an odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense…. Sometimes he caught himself listening to the sound of his own voice…. he heard the strange impersonal voice which he recognized as his own.

I still experience this, though less often now. When it first happened to me, I had no control of it; it suddenly took place, and suddenly disappeared. Over the years I have learned how to bring it about at will and how to stop it. I wonder how many people have similar experience.