Posts Tagged ‘Philosophy’

Condensed Thoughts

1) According to one thinker, the best evidence we have that our current understanding of space and matter are incomplete is the existence of consciousness. Consciousness is somehow non-spatial yet it must be contained in space (unless we propose that it exists is some other dimension). Contrary to current thought then, perhaps consciousness is not non-spatial. We only think that it is because our current understanding of space is incomplete. Matter is also a problem. Somehow matter has the power to produce consciousness: it has certain conscious-causing properties. But we haven’t the slightest idea how this is possible. Hearts and kidneys are also organs that are made up of cellular material but they don’t produce consciousness. Only brains, as far as we know, have this power. But brains are just as material as anything else. So we must not fully understand what matter is if our current understanding of it cannot explain how it has this power.

2) “Certainty” seems to have at least two meanings: one psychological and one philosophical. In some contexts certainty is but a mere psychological state, one that bears no relation to what one knows or a thing’s truth-value. For instance, two thinkers can be equally certain about mutually exclusive claims (the sun will rise tomorrow vs. two suns will rise tomorrow). Here certainty is just a confidence level in the truth of some claim. One can be more or less certain.

Certainty also plays a role in some theories of knowledge. These theories hold that knowledge can be obtained if and only if there are arguments that logically rule out all possible alternatives except one. On this account, certainty about some proposition is just another way of saying that that proposition cannot possibly be false. If some proposition cannot be false, then one is certain about the truth of that proposition. And on some accounts, only if one is certain can one have knowledge. Here certainty cannot be more or less. Having certainty is just being able to logically rule out all the alternatives.

3) One of the reasons why I cannot frequently watch and listen to political media is because at least ninety percent of what is said is spent attacking or defending against the outrageous claims made by others from across the spectrum. This is how it goes. Mike makes some overly harsh or unjustified claim. Rather than ignoring the claim, Rachel from the rival news organization feels compelled to comment on it–most likely because it serves as an easy target and thus as easy political points by straw-manning the opposition–but possibly because she wants to stand up for what she sees as the morally right thing to do. Twenty minutes of that particular show is then spent on demonstrating the obvious falsity or inappropriateness of said claim (which usually involves hiring a guest commentator to help further spell out the obvious). Mike has a few ways he could respond: by (1)  rescinding or apologizing for his claim, (2)  clarifying his claim, or (3) ignoring Rachel’s comments entirely, awaiting for the day when Rachel (or someone of her political party) makes an outrageous claim for him to trash. Usually the last option is taken.

Given that there are a limited number of profit-producing news stories–and given that the political media is now a ferocious animal that never sleeps–the resort to this pattern of commenting on the outrageous is  more than frequent. What else, after all, could they focus on? Well, lots of things. But again, those things don’t earn them ratings. So the political media ends up propagating the same vicious cycle, the result being that political discussion becomes linked in the minds of the ordinary viewer with something akin to religious warfare.


Rant of the Moment: War and Taxes

11/13/2010 1 comment

I don’t always have an essays worth of thoughts on a particular topic. Even if I do, I don’t always have the time or effort to write long, thought-out, sometimes drawn-out essays. Sometimes this is due to laziness and sometimes this is due to the fact that I would rather write short soundbites about multiple topics than a long exposé on one. The rant of the moment serves that purpose. I call it a “rant” because I plan on focusing my attention on arguments or positions that annoy me or that I think are wrong or misguided in some way and because the briefness of these comments will not usually allow for comprehensive analysis. Whether or not this will actually end up being a weekly thing, a monthly thing, or a one-time thing, remains to be seen. So let me begin with:

1) The War Tax: why exactly is there no war tax in the United States? What is a war tax? It is as it sounds: a tax that is placed upon the people of a particular society when they are at war. The purpose of a war tax is, I would argue, threefold. First, to pay for the war. Wars cost billions of dollars in today’s currency and the money needs to come from somewhere. To be sure, some of the taxpayer dollars already goes to pay for military research, personnel, and so on. But that money is meant to cover the cost of a standing army at peacetime. The second purpose for a war tax is a matter of civil responsibility: a tax will ensure that the entire society plays its part in the war. Wars are fought by countries–or so one would think–not by distant so-called “volunteer” armies. This leads to the third reason: complacency. It becomes too easy for the citizens of a nation to not only start a war but let it drag on indefinitely if the war has no tangible influence on their lives (out of sight, out of mind). This is a recipe for mass injustice. I suspect that the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would either never have started or would have already seen their end if a war tax would have been in place. At the very least, there would certainly be a much greater call, from both sides of the political spectrum, to end these wars and a much greater hesitancy when contemplating new ones. My proposal: 10% increase to all income taxes during wartime (and perhaps an increase in or implementation of a federal sales tax) .

2) While I’m on the topic, let me address one more issue relating to the military. As insinuated above, is there, and has there ever been, such a thing as a volunteer military? We certainly like to think so. It makes us feel good when we think those killed and those injured in war were not coerced into serving but acted freely. But how free is it when the majority of those serving are from poor backgrounds? How free is it when someone sees military service as their only legitimate chance at a college education? Why aren’t the rich, preppy Harvard graduates signing up? If it was truly voluntary, shouldn’t we expect a roughly equal demographic distribution?

3) Why does it seem that when the public hears the word “philosophy” they either hear Socrates, Nietzsche, or Ayn Rand? WTF? I like Socrates, but guess what, he wrote nothing. Nietzsche seems to be talking nonsense most the time. And while I don’t know much about Rand (other than her atheistic libertarianism and the mysterious linkage between her and Objectivism, which seems to me to break down to views accepted and made famous by those long before her) I will bow to the satirical, yet very insightful Philosophical Lexicon: 

rand, n. An angry tirade occasioned by mistaking philosophical disagreement for a personal attack and/or evidence of unspeakable moral corruption. “When I questioned his second premise, he flew into a rand.” Also, to attack or stigmatise through a rand. “When I defended socialised medicine, I was randed as a communist.”

4) I recently learned that Sam Harris, famed atheist author, released a book entitled The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. Without having read the book, but having read about it, I want to make a few tentative comments. First, I am a big fan of making philosophy accessible to the masses, so I praise Harris for that. Second, and less praiseworthy, the moment I read the subtitle, an uncontrollable “ugh” or more like a “guh” came out. Why do these atheistic thinkers have to be so scientistic, by which I mean an adherence to the idea that all phenomena are reducible to science? Two problems immediately stand out (and have always stood out since this type of project was attempted). (1) Science can’t answer why one ought to act morally in the first place, but perhaps even more importantly (2) it can’t, by itself, determine the moral worth of an action (it can’t determine the rightness or wrongness of any given action). From my understanding, Harris is a utilitarian, which helps him address (2). But even then it’s not science that determines human values but science + utilitarianism (an ethical theory that is itself not grounded in science).

Consider the following scenario: a young woman was kidnapped and tortured by some monstrous villain last week. Fortunately, she was saved recently and is now in the hospital just about to undergo physical and psychological examination. Now, I think we can agree that the villain’s actions were evil, immoral, wrong,  morally impermissible, and so on. But how can we tell? Well, let’s bring in the scientists. They examine her. They determine that while undergoing torture she was in immense physical pain. They also determine that she is likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder. So was the villain’s action wrong? Yes, they say. So no need for the  moralists to come in? Not at all. Bedazzled by their confidence, I pose to them the following question: You were able to determine, by knowledge of what happened, that she underwent immense physical and emotional pain, but where in your analysis was the wrongness? I then go on to explain to them the Is-Ought Problem, about how empirical facts are not sufficient in determining the rightness or wrongness of an action. I then ask them one more question: why did you think the villain had committed a wrong action? Well, they say, because he harmed her and its wrong to harm someone in that way. Their response was rather vague but I left it at that.

So what did these scientists mean by saying that it was wrong to harm someone in that way? Being scientists who enjoy quantification, I suspect that they meant that the villainous actions were wrong because they caused the women immense pain and suffering. And when you act in such a way so as to create more pain than pleasure (or happiness or desire-satisfaction), you act wrongly. But they could have meant something else. They could have meant that  the young woman’s rights were violated and that, in itself, is what made the action wrong. Or perhaps they were focusing less on what happened to the woman and more on the negative character of the villain: his actions were wrong because they were produced by a malevolent character. Or perhaps they had more than one of these responses in mind. These responses are all derived from moral theories: utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics, respectively. So while science could potentially help determine the moral worth of an action–by measuring pain states for instance–determining which theory is ultimately correct/incorrect or most plausible/implausible does not seem to be within science’s grasp. To think so is to make a categorical mistake. It is to make a false reduction. But ethics is no more reducible to science than history (think World War II) is to quantum mechanics.

There are other types of value as well, like epistemological values and aesthetic values, which certainly can’t be determined by science either. In fact, it has long been argued by some 20th century thinkers that science is guided and even grounded in our values. Reason and observation is not sufficient in determining theory choice, so the argument goes. What ultimately determines theory choice once the data is in is our values, values like simplicity, coherence, and what some have called the elegance or beauty of a theory. It is these values that allow us to choose between two theories that are otherwise consistent with the data.

The Problem of (Divine) Evil

I recently read an article by philosopher David Lewis about the problem of evil that is arguably as creative and insightful as his work in metaphysics and epistemology. The title of the article is Divine Evil and it was published in the book Philosophers Without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life (much preferred to the recent flurry of atheist literature). Here I wish to spell out the arguments that Lewis sets forth in that article, mixing my own comments in throughout.

Evil and Punishment

Traditionally, the problem of evil has focused on moral and natural evil that God fails to prevent. An omnipotent, omniscient, all-benevolent, being could and would prevent creatures from (1) inflicting harm on each other and from (2) non-human harm that results from diseases and natural disasters. But since these evils do exist and are not prevented, God–understood as an omnipotent, omniscient, all-benevolent being–cannot or probably does not exist. This is the traditional argument that has received much attention throughout intellectual history. According to Lewis, there is an aspect of the problem of evil that has been neglected by theologians and philosophers of religion:  the problem of divine evil. This problem relates to the traditional problem of evil in that its focus is on the existence of evil. But instead of questioning why God fails to prevent evil, the problem of divine evil focuses on God himself as an active and direct perpetrator of evil.

For Lewis, God perpetrates evil when he willingly and knowingly condemns people to Hell for eternity, submitting them to an infinite amount of pain and suffering. Because the punishment of Hell is eternal, God inflicts more pain and suffering on one individual than the sum total of pain and suffering induced by the most heinous crimes in the history of humankind. Of course, God doesn’t send just one person to Hell but–according to the scriptures–most people. For Lewis, God appears not as a loving father but as a divine dictator whose evil far surpasses that of the likes of Hitler and Stalin. But perhaps there is a way to save God from this gross comparison. The question is whether or not there is a way to justify eternal damnation.

For starters, it will not suffice to talk about corrective behavioral measures and the hope of change. While human penal systems may occasionally justify their actions by reference to arguments about the success of behavioral reform, the eternal nature of Hell makes this point irrelevant. From what we can gather from scriptural evidence and from traditional church doctrines, Hell (as opposed to something like Purgatory) is not meant as a means for moral cleansing i.e. as a way for us to improve our moral character before being accepted into the presence of God. And since Hell is eternal, it cannot be. Hell allows for no second chances. And thus no consequentialist or forward-looking theory of punishment will help the theist here.

Perhaps Hell can be justified on the grounds that God requires some form of retribution: humans should be punished for their wrongdoing just because wrongdoers morally deserve to be punished regardless of future consequences. But consider again how we go about deliberating about our own penal systems. To the extent that we take seriously retributive theories of punishment, we generally seem to think that justice requires that the punishment be directly proportional to the crime. But what moral crime could merit eternal pain and suffering? The answer is that there is no such crime because only a finite amount of wrongdoing is possible in any given human life and thus, according to a just distribution of punishment, only a finite amount of punishment is permissible. Thus, Hell also fails to be justified on a backward-looking or retributive theory of punishment.

What about free will?

The doctrine of free will has been the theodicy of choice for theists since theodicies were first sought after. Why does God fail to prevent evil? Because moral evil results from our capacity to choose freely. And God thought that a world with free will and the possibility for evil was preferable to a world with neither. Although it is difficult to see how this response could satisfy the existence of natural evil, let us leave that aside. Could the free will response work here in the case of divine evil: perhaps God gives all of us an opportunity to meet the requirements for salvation (whatever they are), ultimately leaving it up to us to choose whether or not we want to accept or reject his offer?

This response is problematic on several levels. First, some theological traditions clearly reject any role that we might play in our own salvation. According to these traditions, God only offers salvation to a select few. Or, to put it differently, he offers it to all, but only opens the hearts and minds of some to accept. Second, it is quite evident that not all of us do in fact get an opportunity to meet the requirements for salvation. Many Christian traditions hold that the belief in or the acceptance of Christ as your savior and Lord are the requirements for salvation. But this means that millions of past and present individuals–due to environmental factors beyond their control–never had and never will have a genuine opportunity to hear, let alone accept, the Gospel. Without this opportunity, free will makes no difference.

Lewis also questions the free will response on the grounds that it presumes that incompatibilist freedom–the sort of freedom that can only exist if determinism is false–is of supreme value. In other words, it presumes that it would have been worse if God set up the causal conditions of the universe in such a way so that all of his creatures would eventually accept his gift. But why think this: why think that incompatibilist freedom is of such value that it is worth the eternal and extraordinary torment of a great many souls? Lewis states,

Imagine two worlds. In one of these, actions are produced by psychological states, themselves caused by prior psychological conditions and by the pressures of the environment, those conditions and environments in turn being caused by earlier circumstances, all in accordance with the conditions philosophers introduce to allow for compatibilist freedom. In the second world, just the same actions are performed, but in accordance with your favorite incompatibilist account. Why should we think of the second world as a great advance on the first? In what, precisely, does its superiority reside? If you are inclined to think, as I do, that there is no superiority to be found…you will think that God could have settled for a world with compatibilist freedom and that he could have set things up so as to keep his creatures out of trouble.

Even if we think that incompatibilist freedom is of supreme value, there still remains a question about why God could not have set up things differently. For example, he could have left incompatibilist freedom intact while going to greater lengths to reveal himself (along with those elusive conditions for salvation). “Assuming we have to make a choice, why must it be made through a glass darkly? Once again, God seems negligent, at best.”

Universal Salvation: limiting and eliminating punishment

Because of the problems relating to eternal damnation, some theists have opted for a different understanding of Hell. Perhaps Hell is not eternal but temporary. Perhaps God induces finite, rather than infinite, pain and suffering, ceasing the torment once the person has converted (seen the error of his ways).

Lewis finds the prospect of limited punishment mysterious for various reasons. First, there is the simple point of saying that God could have saved himself the trouble of limited punishment by setting up the causal conditions of the universe so that resisters didn’t go astray in the first place. Of course, this argument will only be convincing to those who are willing to sacrifice incompatibilist freedom, but again, how valuable is incompatibilist freedom?

Second, why would an omnipotent being have to convert someone through torture rather than, as Lewis suggests, displays of magnificence? Or why not through a rational dialogue? Perhaps such methods will not be guaranteed to convert, but then neither is torture or the threat thereof.

Finally, doesn’t it show a defect in God’s character if he has to stoop to the level of a political or religious dictator by forcing assent via the threat of pain? And how genuine would a conversion under duress even be? Rather than excusing God for perpetrating evil, the idea of limited punishment only serves to show that he does.

The only plausible way then for the theist to save God from perpetrating evil is to adopt some form of universal salvation in which everyone is saved, not because they eventually repent, but because God himself is not “disposed to punish any of his creatures.” But is this a viable option for Christians? Lewis does not think it is.

Christianity, according to both key scriptural passages and tradition, rests upon a redemption of some kind: Christ came down to earth in order to die for the purpose of redeeming us from something. Usually this “something” has been thought to be eternal punishment. But if universalism is true, there is no such thing as that. And if the modified universalism just espoused is true, there is no such thing as limited punishment either. So what exactly did Christ save us from?

Perhaps the answer is this: all of us would have been punished (eternally or temporally) if not for the sacrifice of Christ. But because Christ sacrificed himself, he saved all of us from punishment. In other words, Christ made universalism true. And because God is not disposed to punish his creatures, he willingly sent Christ to die.

But this doesn’t make any sense: if God, in all his goodness, is not disposed to punish his creatures, then there would seemingly be no need for Christ to save them from such a fatal end in the first place. According to the universalist, Christ’s death means that everyone–from the saintliest to the most devilish, from Gandhi to Hitler–is instantly saved. But saved from what? The goodness of God? For Lewis, the universalist does not have a ready response to this, at least not without jettisoning much of scripture and tradition.

The Negative Side of Philosophy

07/16/2010 2 comments

There are many benefits to a philosophical eduction: clear thinking, practical wisdom, even improved virtue. But perhaps the most important benefit is that of freedom, the sort of freedom that results from the elimination of the limits placed on us by our cultural environment. The study of philosophy, probably more so than any other discourse, allows one to transcend his or her culture, on a local and national level. It allows one to step outside one’s immediate placement in a particular society and critique it. But not everything that results from such transcendence is beneficial. Here I wish to spell out the other side of the coin, the not-so-good consequences of a philosophical eduction and the transcendence that it brings.

The more I study philosophy, the more estranged I become from the social values of my culture and the familial values that I grew up with. While many have long noted the benefits of such estrangement–it may allow one to better give an honest and fair critique of one’s own society–there are negative aspects that often go unmentioned. For instance, I no longer share many of the religious, political, or moral beliefs and values of my friends and family. Such estrangement makes it exceedingly more difficult to relate to them and enjoy their company. And while it may be possible to ignore such differences and find common ground, doing so usually leads to shallow and, ultimately, undesirable relationships.

Furthermore, I no longer understand many of my own culture’s values. I do not understand the ambition for monetary riches and upper-class status that drives the often superficial, capitalistic United States. It is no longer a matter of indifference for me that people feel the need to drive luxury vehicles, have the latest house furnishings, own expensive attire, and are embarrassed if seen with something less. Such actions and values appear to me foolish at best, immoral at worst. Such estrangement leaves me feeling like a foreigner in my own country. Such estrangement leaves me cynical.

Moreover, there are certain moral and political problems that I was once naive to that have become impossible to ignore. I am no longer naive to the problems of social and distributive justice: its becomes more and more difficult for me to take seriously the claims that the successful morally deserve their fruits and the unsuccessful deserve their pains (the assumption resting behind that old American dream). But such a view is so ingrained within the American mind that I find myself always at a distance from my country and its most cherished beliefs and values. And insofar as such beliefs and values have gained a foothold in the lives of those who are closest to me, it becomes all the more difficult to maintain a healthy relationship with them. Change, as they say, disrupts relationships. Philosophy (I say) provides the change.

There is also the problem that arises when there exists a gap between one’s own interests and one’s culture’s interests.  To study philosophy is to undertake a topic or set of topics that your culture neither knows about nor cares about. Chess players, poets, and historians will understand this sentiment. Although it was not always like this, philosophy is no longer a primary value in an education. America is the country of business, a subject often at odds with philosophical reflection. This leaves one feeling more and more isolated from other people, more and more distant from the everyday, more and more unable to relate to and partake in those particular actions and belief systems that are deemed appropriate by society. Some of these experiences may be unique to me, but I doubt all of them are.

Categories: Philosophy Tags:

Ask A Philosopher

I recently found a website that allows you to ask a philosophical question and (potentially) get it answered from a professional philosopher. It’s called They get a lot of questions so there’s no guarantee that you will receive a response. I have to admit that I’m sort of jealous for not getting to act as a panelist, but they can’t allow just anyone to respond. And I don’t mind being on the asking side of things. I have already received one response for one of my questions.

Just for fun, here are a few of the questions that have recently interested me and that I have posted:

1) Is there a case to be made for plural voting? In other words, are governments ever justified in giving more votes to some people than others? For instance, I think a good case can be made that those with higher educational status (say, a bachelors degree) should be given more voting power than those of lower educational status assuming that certain conditions maintain (e.g. equal educational opportunity)? This dovetails with a follow up question: what is the current status of such plural voting arguments among philosophers today (are they frequently defended)?

2) I find that a very common discussion that I have with friends and family is about which sport (baseball, football, soccer, etc.) is the “best” or which sport is “better.” As my quotations may indicate, I find this discussion rather fruitless. For instance, I love baseball (watching or playing) but dislike soccer. But I do not know of a way–and am skeptical that there even is a way–to objectively measure the quality of a sport. Although they may share the common, but rather vague and general, attribute “sport,” they nonetheless seem incommensurable with one another. At the same time, I am always wary of becoming a full-blown relativist, no matter the topic. So my question is whether or not there are fruitful ways to have an inner-sports dialogue that attempts to answer the question as to what sport is “better,” “more praiseworthy,” “more sophisticated,” and so on? Or is our conception of what makes a sport good so tied up with our culture and (perhaps) our own athletic abilities that, in this case, we would do well to accept relativism and halt the debate entirely?

3) Do (or should) public figures–professional athletes, politicians, film stars–have a moral obligation to serve as role models for society? Another way to ask this: do public figures have a moral obligation above and beyond that of a non-public figure to act in a morally permissible or morally good way? Take, for instance, the professional athlete who abuses his child or the politician who cheats on his or her spouse. Assuming that such actions are prima facie wrong (leaving aside scenarios in which, say, utilitarianism would morally allow or demand such actions), are there any extra moral obligations that a public figure has–or is there any extra moral weight to their actions–just in virtue of being a public figure?

The question I received an answer to is a rather technical one that probably wouldn’t interest most people, but I’ll post it and the answer anyways:

4) I find that Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is as much a critique of empiricism as it is rationalism. Why then call it the critique of “pure reason” as if the focus of the critique is purely about the rationalist’s favored tool of inquiry?

Response by Thomas Pogge:

I agree that Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is as much a critique of empiricism as it is of rationalism. But the title still makes sense if you understand two things about it. First, the word “Critique” here means not merely criticism but, more broadly, critical examination. The book draws limits to reason in some respects but also vindicates our reason in others. Second, the word “of” here means not only that reason is the object of critical examination, but also that reason is conducting this critical examination. So, in a nutshell, Kant promises in his title a critical self-examination of reason: an examination undertaken by reason of what reason can and cannot do.

Categories: Philosophy Tags:

Justice with Michael Sandel

“When we came together some thirteen weeks ago I spoke of the exhilaration of political philosophy and also of its dangers: about how philosophy works and has always worked by estranging us from the familiar, by unsettling our settled assumptions. And I tried to warn you that once the familiar turns strange, once we begin to reflect on our circumstance, it’s never quite the same again.

Why do these (philosophical) arguments keep going even if they raise questions that are impossible ever finally to solve? The reason is that we live some answer to these questions all the time. In our public life and in our personal lives, philosophy is inescapable even if it sometimes seems impossible.”

— The concluding remarks of Professor Michael Sandel in his lecture course Justice, given at Harvard University and offered freely on the World Wide Web at

What is Metaphysics?

As stated in the About section, one of my favorite areas of study is metaphysics. Many people have as clear an understanding as to what that means as they do philosophy in general, which is to stay they don’t know what it is.

Metaphysics encompasses such a diverse set of topics that it can be difficult to define. In fact, the topics are diverse enough that one would be hard pressed to unify them by listing a series of non-trivial attributes shared by them all. The origin of the word itself gives us no insight as to its meaning. The origin of the word has nothing to do with being “above” or “beyond” the physical, even though it is occasionally understood that way. The origin of the world derives from the title of one of Aristotle’s texts, although he did not use the title himself. Rather, later scholars who read and titled his works did not know what to call the text that followed after his discourse on physics. So they called it Meta-physics or “after physics.”

While medieval philosophy considered metaphysics to be primarily the study of being (ontology), modern and contemporary metaphysics no longer shares this view. In a very broad and general sense, metaphysics can be defined as the search for or study of what is fundamentally true or, as Peter van Inwagen put it, the search for or study of “ultimate reality.” Ultimate reality here is taken to mean the reality that is behind the appearances or behind how the world appears to us as individuals or as humans. Of course, I must add one important caveat. Those philosophers who reject the appearance-reality distinction are understood, in today’s metaphysical parlance, to be proposing a metaphysical theory. Thus, to reject metaphysics or the possibility of metaphysics (as some have done) is now understood as doing metaphysics. Consequently, there are no obvious and uncontroversial definitions of metaphysics: to suggest an answer would be to partake in a metaphysical debate. With that said, here are ten examples of metaphysical topics that are still frequently discussed by philosophers. I will give brief remarks below each topic in an attempt to give a sense of what sort of questions are discussed in that area. Keep in mind that this list is not exhaustive and includes overlap.

1) Free Will and Determinism:

  • Is metaphysical determinism true: are all events (including human thought and action) the result of past events + the uncontrollable physical laws of nature?
  • Does free will exist? Even if determinism is false, that doesn’t logically entail that free will exists. An indeterminate (or random) universe does not appear to be any more accommodating to the thesis of free will than determinism. Which leads to the question…
  • What, after all, is free will? What conditions must hold for me to truly say that my particular action was free?

2) Personal Identity:

  • What makes a person (you) the same person over time? What makes it the case that you are the same person as that person you remember so long ago that went by the same name and was born to the same parents? Does it have to do with the fact that you have a body that is spatially and temporally continuous with that past person? Or perhaps it has to do with the fact that you have a mind or set of psychological traits (including memory) that is continuous with that past person?
  • Is your identity extinguished when your body dies or does it continue to exist? Is resurrection possible? Is immortality possible?

3) Realism vs. Anti-realism:

  • This debate is involved in various fields, from science to ethics to a more strictly metaphysical field. In science, the question revolves around whether or not our scientific theories can be true, especially when they involve unobservables (like electrons). An example of an anti-realist account of science is called Instrumentalism. Instrumentalism says that the value of a scientific theory lies not in whether or not it is true–i.e. corresponds to reality–but whether or not it helps us explain and predict phenomena.
  • In ethics the question is whether or not our ethical statements can be true. Some philosophers have thought that our ethical statements (“stealing is wrong” or “keeping  your promises is praiseworthy”) are nothing more than emotional grunts and groans (or “boos” and “hoorays”) that voice our approval or disapproval of a particular action. But just as grunts and groans cannot be true or false, neither can our ethical statements. For that reason this view has been called emotivism and is an anti-realist view of ethics.
  • In a more strictly metaphysical sense, the realism-anti-realism debate concerns the existence or non-existence of universals (e.g. whiteness). Paper is white and so is glue. They both share the property of being white or “whiteness.” But how do we explain this property agreement? Those who think “whiteness” (or universals) is a real entity that is distinct from the particulars that instantiate whiteness are called realists. Those who deny the existence of universals, instead claiming that properties like “whiteness” are simply convenient ways for us to talk about particulars are called nominalists (nomen is “name” in Latin) or anti-realists.

4) Essential vs. Accidental Properties:

  • The old question of Socrates: what is X (fill in the blank: justice, piety, metaphysics)? In order to define X, you must determine the essential properties of that thing while weeding out the properties that it just happens to have (the accidental or, we might say, irrelevant properties). For instance, to ask what a person is essentially is to ask what a person is after eliminating all contingent properties (like skin color, number of limbs, even the species of the person).
  • Certain philosophers are considered non-essentialists when they deny that certain concepts can be properly (essentially) defined above and beyond conventional usage.

5) Modality: the Necessary vs. the Contingent:

  • What, if anything, is necessarily true in all possible worlds? That is, what, if anything, has to be the case? For instance, is it necessarily true that you had to exist? Or is your existence only contingently true? What about the existence of minds or certain mathematical relations?
  • Does our universe necessarily exist? If not, does something else (God, multiverses) necessarily exist?

6) Truth:

  • What does it mean for something to be true? Many theories have been proposed (truth as correspondence, truth as coherence, pragmatic theories of truth)? Is there a correct theory of truth? If so, what is it (i.e. what is the essence of truth)?

7) The Mind-Body Problem:

  • How do the mental and the physical interact? How does your mind (a mental substance) tell your body (a physical substance) to move?
  • What fundamentally exists: mental phenomena (minds) or physical phenomena (matter-energy)? Or both? In other words, is one reducible to the other (monism) or are they both equally irreducible (dualism)?

8.) The Nature of Objectivity:

  • Discussions about objectivity permeate multiple disciplines, from logic to science to ethics to aesthetics.
  • Are there objective or mind-independent (logical, scientific, ethical) principles or properties? Is human logic/reason or human morality a local phenomena instantiated only in the human species or are they fundamental to how the universe actually functions? Is morality or beauty only in the eye of the beholder? Are the principles that underlie our logic, our science, our ethics, and our views on beauty contingent upon us existing or did they exist prior to our existence and will they continue to exist after we are gone?

9) Time and Space:

  • What is time? Does it exist as a fundamental property of the universe? Or is it an illusion created by our mind interacting with the universe?
  • What is space? How does it relate to time?
  • Is time travel possible?

10) Consciousness:

  • Subsumed under the Mind-Body Problem but a large enough topic in its own right.
  • What is consciousness?
  • Can we account for it in a physicalist theory (a monist theory that says all mental phenomena are reducible to physical properties) of the universe? If so, how?
  • The problem of other minds: are other humans conscious? Are non-human animals conscious? If so, what sort of evidence would count in favor of this hypothesis? If not, what sort the evidence would count against this hypothesis?
  1. Time and space (what are they?; is time travel possible?)