Big, meaty questions, those we tend to associate with metaphysics, inhabit the intellectual ecosystem like slaughtered prey on the plains. Once the lions of science take them down, carrion seekers—religion vultures, philosophy maggots—take over to see that the bones are picked clean, and whenever we gnaw at them, we could be said to be doing philosophy, at least in some way. Not all philosophers concern themselves with what “it” and “mean” mean when we say “What does it mean?” but those who devote careers to these questions tend to be philosophers.
Before the Continental/Analytic divide, Leibniz, who has since become a major figure for thinkers on both sides of the aisle, asked “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, which the Continental Heidegger called “the only genuine philosophical question.” Later, Wittgenstein, a hero of the Analytic school, pointed out that just because a sentence can work grammatically doesn’t mean it has any real content. The Why Something question would, in all likelihood, be one of those topics that he would have us pass over in silence.
And yet, Nozick, another major figure of the Analytic tradition, seemed to have missed the memo about what not to talk about, because in his later work Philosophical Explanations he discusses just about everything. He is best known for contributing one of the two major works of 20th century political philosophy, but in Explanations he shows that epistemology, ethics, free will, and metaphysics are on his radar as well. Like a 20th century Aristotle, his interests in this book cover just about every field of inquiry (except aesthetics—unlike Plato’s most famous student, which is fine with me because I never much liked the Poetics anyway).
It is this last topic that drew me to this work of his, because in trying to account for the diversity of the world he appeals not to staid questions of universals or forms or types and tokens but to an all-embracing notion he calls the principle of fecundity. Like David Lewis’s modal realism, it is an attempt to reframe the question of why is the world the way it is when it could have been any number of others ways. His approach, like Lewis’s, is a kind of maximalism in which all possible worlds exist and all are equally real.
As an Analytic philosopher to the core, he cannot quite make peace with the idea of “brute facts,” those final givens beyond which we simply cannot explain or understand anything further. (When a child asks why he shouldn’t put his hand on a flame and you explain that it will burn him, and then he asks why and you explain that skin is destroyed by fire, and then he asks why and you say “Just because,” you’ve reached a brute fact threshold. (A scientist could come in and explain more, but even she will reach a point at which she will have to concede and say “Just because.” Those are the brutest facts of all.) Unwilling to accept a theological argument, and frustrated with circular arguments or any definition that uses the terms of the thing being defined, he proposes the fecundity principle as a way to, as his one-time undergraduate student Brian Greene once put it, “defang the question.” Nozick therefore places himself in a long and distinguished line of philosophers who solve the problem by restating it. If “this” world is no more significant than any other, you can’t even call it “this” world at all.
If this sounds less than satisfying to you, that’s ok. Unlike Heidegger, who said the question hadn’t been properly asked until he came along, or Wittgenstein, who doubted whether it was a question at all, Nozick seems to imply that the question can be resolved but that it is just not all that pressing. At the end of his chapter on metaphysics, he admits that “we need not resolve the question; it suffices to consider, elaborate, and keep track of the hypotheses.”
OK, I can live with that. Nozick arrives at a well-defended, if not earth-shattering, conclusion that for now the best he can do is fine-tune this central question of metaphysics and suggest a path forward.
But then things get weird. And not just weird but kind of gross. Ever fearful of infinite regress, he rejects the possibility that the universe could be its own explanation; this is derived from the self-evident notion that you cannot include the word for a thing in its definition without lapsing into tautological absurdity. This strikes me as a perfectly sound, perhaps even essential, bit of reasoning. It falls short, however, when trying to take on the Big Questions, especially when the “what” is as hard to define as the “why.” Trying to clarify the link between the two is an even more convoluted endeavor. Nozick’s strategy is to do something very un-Analytic: He appeals to mysticism, specifically that of the Hatha Yoga practitioner. (This book was published in 1981, when, I suppose, yoga hadn’t quite become assimilated into the mainstream to the extent it has today.) He devotes a footnote at the end of the chapter on metaphysics entirely to yoga in which he refines and to some extent undercuts the already limited credence he gives to the mystic’s privileged insight into the Why-Something question:
The practitioner of Hatha Yoga develops extraordinary suppleness and physical capabilities, and the yoga manuals are explicitly dark and mysterious about some of the practices. …[The practitioner is] warned to keep some things very secret and to do them only in private.
Then Nozick launches a barrage of questions, sounding like an interrogator pounding the table, demanding answers:
What are the yoga manuals keeping hidden, which the practitioner is expected to come to himself? What does the cutting of the fraenum linguae aid [the flap of skin attaching the tongue to the bottom of the mouth]? What nectar is brought upwards and drunk? What is the mouth of the well of nectar over which the tongue is placed and what ambrosia is drunk daily?
What, indeed? If you want the truth and think you can handle the truth, Nozick has it for you: “I conjecture that one of the acts the (male) yogis perform…is auto-fellatio.”
I’m going to let that sink in for a minute.
OK. Now you may be asking what such a conjecture is doing in a philosophical treatise. (I know I did.) Well, Nozick points out, this image of self-gratification is reminiscent of the ouroboros, the snake eating its own tail, a symbol of creation as an act of self-consumption. Of course, under even the slightest scrutiny the metaphors fall apart: Fellatio, auto- or otherwise, doesn’t lead to procreation, and the snake is eating, not stimulating, its tail and not its genitals. (There's also nothing in the ouroboros that leads us to believe it is necessarily male.) So chill out Bob, you pervert.
Still, there is something to this, if only for the flexibility Nozick demonstrates by his willingness to stretch the austere logic of analytic philosophy—rather than looking for ways to obviate metaphysical inquiry entirely like, say, Wittgenstein. You may think his reasoning and/or his conclusions are profound, ridiculous, or both (as is my impression), but wherever you stand about this as a philosophical insight, I think one thing is clear: Nozick shows that however you look at them, Big Questions can be a mouthful.