The Mystery of the Millionaire Metaphysician: Slate republishes one of the greatest magazine stories ever written.

A Strange Philosophical Manuscript. A Secret Benefactor. The Mystery of the Millionaire Metaphysician.

A Strange Philosophical Manuscript. A Secret Benefactor. The Mystery of the Millionaire Metaphysician.

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Feb. 10 2012 3:42 PM

The Mystery of the Millionaire Metaphysician

One of the greatest magazine stories of the past generation, republished in Slate.

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As a work of metaphysics, "Coming to Understanding" picks up where science leaves off. The purview of science is the world of "contingent beings"—things that might not have existed, or might have been otherwise, such as you, me, electrons, mountains, and the law of gravity. Science strives to explain the nature, properties, and causes of these contingent beings, which as a whole make up our physical reality.

But science does not and cannot explain why there are contingent beings in the first place. That is a question for metaphysics: Why do contingent beings exist? Or, put plainly, why is there something rather than nothing?

"Coming to Understanding" aspires to answer this "antique, impassable" question, but first it must rule out three of its "more familiar competitors": theism, Spinozism, and the Many Worlds hypothesis. All of these positions, A.M. Monius feels, share the same basic flaw: Instead of actually explaining the existence of contingent being, they wind up claiming that contingent being is not really contingent but necessary. Contingent being, so construed, is "an illusion and so not there to explain at all."


Theism, for instance, originally argued that contingent being is the result of a necessarily existing God who necessarily creates "the world as it actually is." Voilà: the explanation of contingent being. But as Baruch Spinoza pointed out in his Ethics, theism thereby shows that contingent being is necessary (for it could not have been otherwise). This conclusion was problematic for theism, which intended to distinguish God from physical reality. Spinoza, on the other hand, was willing to bite the heretical bullet, and he accepted the conclusion that God and nature were equivalent and equally necessary.

"Coming to Understanding" deems such a result unacceptable and declares that a satisfactory metaphysics must figure out a way to explain contingent being without explaining it away by necessitating it. The key, the work argues, is to realize that theists, in attempting to overcome Spinoza's challenge, produced an argument of "the right form" but with "the wrong content."

After Spinoza, theists realized that contingent being could remain contingent (and thus distinct from God) if it had been created to serve some purpose.(The fact that a hammer exists for some purpose makes its existence intelligible without making it necessary.) Theism concluded that God's purpose in creating contingent beings was that contingent beings would come to love God, a love that God recognized as a fundamental good. Contingent beings thus exist not necessarily but "because they should, i.e., because it is good that they do."

A.M. Monius believes that theism made subtle but important mistakes with this argument, and "Coming to Understanding" presumes to salvage the theistic explanation by correcting for its flaws through a series of intricate arguments. "Coming to Understanding" proposes replacing the theists' God with reality as a whole, or Being. It also advocates replacing God's personal intention (that contingent beings come to love God) with an impersonal, fundamental good (that contingent beings come to understand the form of Being). Having made these substitutions, A.M. Monius reaches the following conclusion: "Contingent being exists for the sake of the coming to understanding of the form of Being Itself by contingent being." In other words, "the central theme of the whole drama of reality" is that beings like you and me and A.M. Monius come to understand the purpose and structure of reality.

And as it happens, the purpose and structure of reality are precisely what A.M. Monius has on offer. In sophisticated detail, the last two-thirds of "Coming to Understanding" are devoted to a discussion of categories similar to Aristotle's, such as the Universal, the Particular, the Spatio-temporal, and the Cognizable. A.M. Monius believes that these categories demarcate the fundamental types of Being and—in light of their interrelations—suggest the purpose of contingent being.

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Given this glimpse into the mind of A.M. Monius, what might an investigator infer about the author? First, consider the ambition and bravado with which A.M. Monius attempts to revamp metaphysics in a mere sixty pages. This is no meek, closeted egghead but rather a poised and confident builder of worlds. "Whoever wrote this," Dancy says with some admiration, "speaks with an authority that you have to earn, normally."

The overarching conclusion of "Coming to Understanding" also betrays a touch of egotism, for the argument is stunningly self-important in its implications: The meaning of life is, in effect, to come to understand the message of "Coming to Understanding." And yet there are signs of self-perspective as well: "Perhaps in this task mistakes will be made," A.M. Monius muses before exposing the structure of Being, "but at least it is the right task."

Many reviewers point out in addition that "Coming to Understanding" bears the telltale marks of an amateur's effort. Though many of the philosophers were genuinely impressed with features of A.M. Monius's argument, they are not under the illusion that it is a great work of philosophy—or even, most reviewers felt, one that meets professional standards.

"It's what you would expect from an intelligent amateur," says Sider, "someone who does not have any training in speculative metaphysics but who is very smart." The argument, he adds, includes "a common pattern of non sequiturs that you get beaten out of you as a graduate student."

Bencivenga complains in his review that there is feeble hand waving at critical junctures in the argument. For instance, the impersonal purpose, or fundamental good, that A.M. Monius believes makes reality intelligible is "just a name for a mystery," Bencivenga explains, "which itself calls for a solution." A major problem that struck Sider was the manuscript's failure to address "the typical, atheistic, materialist response to this sort of argument." Namely, if everything must have an explanation, then everything—including the coming to understanding of Being—must have an explanation. Something is going to have to remain unexplained. So, Sider asks, "why not just be content with the mundane, materialist description of the world, rather than bringing in God or Coming to Understanding or whatever you like?"

* * *

Despite their criticisms, most of the academic reviewers were predisposed to appreciate this sort of metaphysical speculation. Many of them first learned of the A.M. Monius Institute from Zimmerman, whom they know from an annual conference he founded called Metaphysical Mayhem (originally Mighty Midwestern Meta physical Mayhem). "Zimmerman and Sider"—a fellow Mayhemite—"are probably the two best people in the world under the age of forty working primarily in metaphysics," says Ted Warfield.