The Principle of Metaphysical Realism

0. This post is the third in a series dedicated to a sustained reading of and commentary upon Aquinas’s Commentary on the Metaphysics of Aristotle. In the immediately previous post, I spelled out and then criticized one of the very first arguments Aquinas put forward in his “Prologue” to the work; in fact, he set forth a statement of one of the argument’s two premises in the prologue’s very first sentence. To here make the long story short, I there declared it evident that the argument is valid, on the one hand, but not evident that the argument is sound; I even went so far as to declare it to be evident that the argument is unsound. I further noted, however, however, that that, by itself, does not entail that its conclusion is false. For the long story, I refer you to the previous post.

Now, the initial impression one might have from a reading of the immediately previous post is that I am writing from a non-Thomistic and non-Aristotelian point of view, or even from an anti-Thomistic and anti-Aristotelian standpoint. In this post and the two immediately following it, then, I want to offer an at least partial response to that impression, before returning to the primary purpose of the series.

The response will first, in this post and the next one, point to some of the fundamental ways in which the philosophical perspective motivating this blog is in agreement with the Aristotelianism of Aristotle and Aquinas. These points of agreement are such, I believe, that the “Aristotelian” of the “neo-Aristotelian” of the tag, “Analyses and Essays from a Neo-Aristotelian Point of View,” at the top of this page is fully justified.

The response will then, in the succeeding post, point to some of the fundamental ways in which this blog’s philosophical perspective is in disagreement with that of Aristotle and Aquinas. These points of disagreement are such that the “neo” in “neo-Aristotelian” is justified. (I’ll note in passing that I adopted the “neo” for lack of a better prefix; “amended Aristotelianism” would have been a more fully descriptive tag, but I find it somehow lacking. I’m open to suggestions.)

1. In the Aristotelian tradition, much is made of the so-called “first principles,” specifically the principle of non-contradiction and the principle of excluded middle, sometimes identified as the principle of excluded third. I’ll take them up in the next post.

It turns out, however, that the principles the tradition has identified as the first principles are not absolutely first, for there is at least one prior to them. That is, the utterly basic, and thus absolutely first, principle of metaphysics is one that I like to identify as the “Principle of Metaphysical Realism.” It is the principle that:

There is at least something.

or that:

At least something exists.

2. There are those who deny it. Take, for one example from twentieth-century popular culture, the Beatles’ song, “Strawberry Fields Forever,” wherein we can hear:

Nothing is real.**

On a somewhat more serious note, there is the thought of the Greek sophist, one Gorgias of Leontini (ca. 483-376 B.C.E.). As reported by Sextus Empiricus (160-210 C. E.) in his Against the Schoolmasters, Gorgias squarely rejected the principle of metaphysical realism in the first of the three headings found in the following:

In what is entitled On the Nonexistent or On Nature he [Gorgias] proposes three successive headings: first and foremost, that nothing exists; second, that even if it exists, it is inapprehensible to man; third, that even if it is apprehensible; still it is without a doubt incapable of being expressed or expressed to the next man.**

Let us agree to call the Gorgias’s denial of the principle of metaphysical realism the thesis of metaphysical nihilism.

3. The falsity of the thesis of ontological nihilism will most likely seem as utterly obvious to you as the truth of the principle of ontological realism did. And you will have guessed, from the use of the words “principle” and “thesis,” which one I hold to be true and which one false. But we should not be quick to simply dismiss the thesis, for there are prominent thinkers today who hold to a doctrine closely akin to that of ontological nihilism. When, for example, we reflect upon the first four words in the title of physicist Lawrence Krauss’s bestselling A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing***, we can see that they announce or entail the following theses.

At one time, there was nothing.

At that time, therefore, there was no cause in existence which could bring things into existence.

At the present time, there are some things in existence and which have come into existence.

At or prior to the present time, therefore, there are or have been some things in existence which have come or came into existence both from nothing and caused by nothing.

4. More than seven centuries ago, however, Aquinas had already offered a reply to Krauss’s thesis. This he does in his statement of the famous third way, i.e., argument for, or (at least attempted) proof of, the existence of God. In the course of the argument, he takes up the supposition that “at some time nothing existed in the world” and its implication.

But if this [that “at some time nothing existed in the world”] were true, then nothing would exist even now. For what does not exist begins to exist only through something that does exist; therefore, if there were no beings, then it was impossible that anything should have begun to exist, and so nothing would exist now—which is obviously false.#

The argument is complex and difficult. Because, however, I am bringing it up simply to document Aquinas’s upholding of the principle of metaphysical realism, I will defer any substantive discussion of the doctrines of causality and of time at work in it to subsequent posts.

5. I trust, then, that any impression that one might have from a reading of the post immediately previous to this one that I am writing from a non-Thomistic and non-Aristotelian point of view, or even from an anti-Thomistic and anti-Aristotelian standpoint, has been at least partially allayed, if only partially; I share with them the affirmation of the principle of metaphysical realism.

Until next time.

Richard

* http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/beatles/strawberryfieldsforever.html.

** Sextus Empiricus, Against the Schoolmasters, vii, 65-87. https://users.wfu.edu/zulick/300/gorgias/negative.html. Accessed July 22, 2017.

*** Lawrence Krauss, A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing (New York: Free Press, 2012).

# I like the ongoing translation of the Summa Theologiae by Alfred J. Freddoso, subject to ongoing revision though it may be. It can be found at https://www3.nd.edu/~afreddos/summa-translation/TOC.htm. The passage quoted above is at https://www3.nd.edu/~afreddos/summa-translation/Part%201/st1-ques02.pdf.

About Rchard E. Hennessey

See above, "About the Author/Editor."
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