Aristotle – a man celebrated as one of history’s great thinkers – expends a surprising amount of effort trying to understand how water and wine can combine to make watered-down wine. Nowadays most of us can tell some rudimentary story about what’s going on in terms of water and wine molecules becoming interspersed. But the question is so pressing for Aristotle, not because the vintners of Stagirus were particularly dodgy, but because there are no molecules in his worldview. The starting point of his investigation is the world as it presents itself to us in our everyday experience – a world where there are no water and wine molecules but just water, wine, trees, houses, cats and dogs.
Scientific investigation has given us a way to go beyond the common-sense conceptual scheme that Aristotle is working with. We now appreciate that, although we’re disposed to experience a world of medium-sized solid objects, this is just an accident of the way we’re put together. This is just the human perspective on the world – one of many possible perspectives, many of them unimaginable to us. Scientific investigation allows us to move away from this limited perspective and take a more objective standpoint. It allows us to reveal the true natures of the things we encounter in the world, which may be very different from the way we think about them in everyday life. We can realise that the medium-sized objects we come across every day – like people, tables and glasses of wine – are really collections of particles.
The boost to our understanding of the world that has resulted from adopting a more objective perspective can only be a good thing. But some metaphysicians have gotten carried away with this idea that we can move away from our common-sense conception of the world. We’re so used to being told that the fundamental reality that is being investigated by physicists is completely different to our everyday conceptions that we’ve got it into our heads that our common-sense conceptual scheme isn’t much more than an illusion that we should revise when scientists or metaphysicians find out what the world is really like.
Many modern metaphysicians are gripped by the idea that our everyday thought is a poor guide reality, and the once widespread philosophical practice of investigating our common-sense concepts has become particularly unfashionable. If we want to investigate the nature of something like causation, they claim, we shouldn’t look at our concept of causation. The way we think about causation is irrelevant to what causation actually is, since our everyday thinking is so disconnected from the true nature of reality. If we’re doing metaphysics, we want to find out about mind-independent reality – so we should turn our investigation towards the world itself rather than our everyday thought about the world.
Imagine – these metaphysicians might say – that we had a completely different way of experiencing the world, that we lacked the capacity to make the distinction between objects and instead experience the world as a continuous amorphous lump. We’d be unable to make a distinction between a person and the floor she is standing on, and we’d only see one continuous thing. But this wouldn’t change the way reality actually is. There would still be the same particles in the same arrangement.
This is right, of course. A change in our conceptual scheme wouldn’t make a difference to mind-independent reality. But this idea misses the reason our common-sense conceptual scheme is important. If we experienced the world as a continuous amorphous lump, this wouldn’t change reality. But it would change the questions we could ask about reality, and the answers we could give.
We need to investigate our everyday thought in order to understand both the questions we ask and the answers we give about mind-independent reality. If we’re asking metaphysical questions about what exists in the world, it perhaps isn’t helpful to analyse our concepts of water, wine and trees. But it is helpful to analyse our concept of what an object is, and what it is for there to be one thing rather than two things. Concepts like these are at the centre of our everyday thought and are fundamental to the way we experience the world. No matter how removed from everyday life the questions we are asking, they will of necessity be underpinned by these ways of thinking.
We know that Aristotle was mistaken in thinking that our everyday concepts reflect the true nature of the world. But we need to remember that in science and metaphysics we’re not investigating the world from a perspectiveless standpoint – we’re humans struggling to understand reality from our limited perspective. And if we’re going to understand reality we need to understand the questions that we’re asking, by paying attention to the central concepts that underpin our experience of the world.