Chemistry, biology, geology, and astronomy are special fascinations with the details of our environment, but metaphysics is fascination with the whole thing. I find it almost impossible to imagine a sensitive human being bereft of metaphysical wonder, a person who does not have that marvelous urge to ask a question that cannot quite be formulated. If, as we have been arguing, the only real atom—as de Chardin put it—is the universe, and the only real thing is everything, then what is it? Yet the moment I have asked this question, I must question the question. What sort of answer could such a question have? Ordinarily, one answers the question “What is it?” by putting the designated thing or event into a class—animal, vegetable, or mineral, solid, liquid, or gas, running, jumping, or walking. But what class will fit everything? What can possibly be said about everything? To define is to limit, to set boundaries, to compare and to contrast, and for this reason the universe, the all, seems to defy definition. At this point, the mind runs into an apparently absolute limitation, and one may well argue that it is therefore a misuse of the mind to ask such a question. Just as no one in his senses would look for the morning news in a dictionary, no one should use speaking and thinking to find out what cannot be spoken or thought. Logically, then, the question, “What is everything?” has no meaning, even though it seems to be profound. As Wittgenstein suggested, people who ask such questions may have a disorder of the intellect which can be cured by philosophical therapy. To “do philosophy,” as he put it, is to think about thinking in such a way that we can distinguish real thinking from nonsense.

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A quote saved on Dec. 30, 2015.


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