My Book Review of “The Universe as We Find It” by John Heil

Now out with Springer! It’s my book review of The Universe as We Find It, by John Heil!

My review has been online for a good while and getting daily traffic at But more recently, the paperback journal has finally printed.

Heil’s book is available in hardback at Amazon. Heil argues for a certain ontology, or theory of what fundamentally exists. If you think about it, after you say “tables, chairs, students and teachers exist,” you might prefer to say, “furniture and people exist.” The latter is a list of what exists that aims to be both comprehensive and simple. You could push for further comprehensiveness, though, by realizing that basically what exists are material things and maybe minds. Another way to count, though, would be to bring physical and mental things together as “things” or “substances.” If you think, then, that maybe all there is is substances, you might be convinced by many philosophers who think that substances and their properties are ontologically distinct. This is where Heil intervenes.

I wrote:

[According to Heil], there are not substances and properties both. There are propertied substances, separable only in the mind (more about which below). If there are properties then there are substances and if there are substances then there are properties, (p. 12). In other words “[e]very substance is some way or other, every property is a way some substance is,” (p. 12).


Furthermore, substances “are not bare, featureless entities to which properties attach themselves as limpets attach themselves to rocks at the seashore… For a substance to possess a property is for it, the substance, to be a particular way… Substances “are not hidden beneath, or masked by, their properties…A substance is not a faceless entity that combines with properties to form a concrete object,” (p. 285). There is a unique ontological relationship between a property and its substance we might call “bearing” or,going the other way, “being borne.” So, properties and substances go together. They are separable only by an operation of the mind (p. 15).

What’s it mean so say they are separable only by an operation of the mind?

According to Locke’s cognitive procedure of abstraction, or “partial consideration,” we may consider, for example, a thing’s shape while excluding its color or consider its color while excluding its shape, even though nothing with shape is colorless and nothing with color lacks a shape. Partial consideration also allows us to consider a propertied substance as a something that has a property or as a property of a something. For instance, we may consider as separate the really inseparable tomato-which-is-red from the redness-of-the-tomato… Significantly, there exists no such thing as a propertyless substratum, a “bare particular.” Although we can arrive at the conception of a “bare particular” by abstracting the properties away from a substance, this result has no ontological upshot.

(The following consists of text entirely from my review. I’ve just pulled-quoted some parts to make it more interesting to the eye.)

Let me turn now to Heil’s application of his theory to an issue in the philosophy of mind. According to non-reductive physicalism, the mental is not reducible to the
physical. The problem has been that this idea coupled with some plausible physicalist commitments seems to indicate that either the mind is epiphenomenal or indeed
reduces to the body. I wrote:

The most popular expression of this worry is known as the exclusion problem. A mental property that is realized by a physical property or
supervenes on a physical property might seem to be pre-empted by the property realizing it or the property it supervenes on. It will be excluded from having any
causal power if the realizing or subvening physical property is sufficient for its effects and we rule out overdetermination.

The exclusion problem generalizes, Heil says—and many philosophers agree—from mental quasi-properties to all upper-level quasi-properties.

When a tomato is taken to be a complex arrangement of simples, it can start to seem as if the complex arrangement has causal relations to the world that exclude the tomato itself from being causal. In different terms, the just-so arrangement of clay seems to do all the causal work and the statue can do none.

Heil’s theory as described above offers a solution to the exclusion problem in its mental-physical and generalized versions. His first point simply denies the sense of a
real distinction between mentality and physicality, and says that there is thus simply no question either of reduction or non-reduction.

Heil describes this move as one of Wittgensteinian therapy. A wrong kind of thinking has got us into trouble and a right kind of thinking will dissolve the problems. “The mental and the physical are names, not of families of substances and properties, but of ways we have of conceiving, describing, and explaining the universe,” (p. 209). When we think about it with Heil, we see that what we thought was a problem was no problem at all. Of course, that may not be satisfying for philosophers who take the exclusion problem to be genuinely problematic.

Heil’s proposed solution to the generalized exclusion problem is to highlight his claim that there are not multiple levels of reality beyond fundamental substances and
their fundamental properties. Their arrangement into complex entities such as tomatoes and bits of clay and, for that matter, statues, is “no addition of being.”