Introduction to Philosophy: The Nature of Reality

This course is an introductory survey of some of the chief problems in metaphysics. It is topic-oriented rather than history-oriented. This emphasis means we will often consider problems independently of their historical context. Hopefully, what is lost by way of historical grounding will be balanced by a gain in interest in the issues themselves. Due to time constraints, the course must also focus on a limited subset of philosophical problems. We will spend most of our time on what are arguably the really big problems of philosophical metaphysics: God, Causation, the Mind-Body Problem, Personal Identity, Free Will, and Time.

Along with serving as an introduction to some philosophical puzzles, the course also hopes to develop and foster good argumentative skills and critical thinking on the part of the student. Combined with the fact that philosophical texts are frequently difficult for beginning students, this makes the course relatively challenging for an introductory course. But for those with a speculative turn of mind, it should be fun.

Course Materials

Course materials such as lecture notes, handouts, etc will be made available as they will be used in class.

Paper prompt:

Information concerning plagiarism and guides on how to write a smashing philosophy paper can be found in the sidebar of the top page of the teaching section. The leaflet concerning plagiarism is absolutely mandatory reading.

Study guide for the midterm and final exams:

The following materials are mandatory for this course:

  • Textbook: Earl Conee and Theodore Sider, Riddles of Existence: A Guided Tour of Metaphysics. The book is available at the Price Center bookstore.
  • You will also need to purchase an i>clicker, the student response system used in this class. These 'clickers' are also available at the Price Center bookstore. In order to receive credit, students must register their clickers at the i>clickers website within the first week of class. For more information, visit the media services information page. As of January 2015, i>clicker charges for the registration of used clickers (registration of new clickers is still free of charge).
  • A number of readings for this course are available from e-reserves: Link to this course's e-reserves page (password for access is 'cw14')

Additional Readings and Materials

Note: These additional materials will not be tested in exams. They serve to give you some background or to offer some additional food for thought.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) is an excellent source for academically serious, yet relatively accessible survey articles on many, many topics in philosophy. You may also wish to consult the following SEP article as background reading for this course.



The mind-body problem:

Free will:


There are numerous online papers and internet sites dedicated to the topics discussed in this class. I will not even attempt to give a complete list. Here are some highlights:

A relatively new, but outstanding, source of very accessible material to many issues covered in this class are the Philosophy Bites podcasts of top philosophers interviewed by David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton. They are absolutely free. So next time you ride to school, make sure to upload some of them beforehand to your iPod! Relevant for this class are for example:

Grading Comments

Paper: It turns out that the Monday sections had a mean 3 points below those of the Wednesday sections. To correct for that, those in the Monday sections who submitted a paper will receive 3 extra points (but no more than 20 points in total). After this correction, the class average was 13.61, with a standard deviation of 3.9. Here is a list of common reasons why people lost points:

  • There were many formatting problems. Margins should be 1 inch, and there should be no extra space between paragraphs.
  • Podcasts and webpages are generally not peer-reviewed sources, and they should not be used as references (the SEP is the obvious exception).
  • When explaining the main argument that the paper will consider, that argument must be spelled out in specific detail. When considering objections to that argument, explain why they are objections. That is, which specific part of the argument do they disagree with?
  • Objections involve more than just saying "the argument claims X, but some might disagree." An objection provides a good reason to believe Y.
  • Similarly, when evaluating an objection's success, some good reason must be given to accept or reject the objection. If you accept the objection, why can't the original argument adequately respond? If you disagree with the objection, where does it go wrong?
  • There was a general tendency to be too quick with the central expository part of the paper, i.e. the argument that was implicitly or explicitly asked about in the prompt. For example, you can't write a great paper on the free will defense without first spelling out the deductive and inductive problems of evil in their specific details. You can't write a great paper on Hume's challenges to the design argument without giving some attention to the design argument itself. In these two prompts, the expository requirement is implied; in others, it was more explicit, such as the one on the design argument itself and the one on the fine-tuning argument. Any time you're asked to describe challenges to an argument, you should start by presenting the argument as accurately and clearly as possible. Only then can you talk about challenges to it.
  • On the critical evaluation side, there was a general tendency to plow through a large number of possible challenges or objections to the main argument without spelling them out in enough detail. It's better, other things being equal, to present a smaller number of objections, each of which is explained clearly and whose relation to the main argument is made explicit.

Midterm Exam: The class average was 14.74, with a rather large standard deviation of 4.98. Although the effort on this exam was generally admirable, and TAs could see people racking their brains to demonstrate their understanding of the relevant concepts and arguments, many points were still lost. Here is a list of common reasons why people lost points:

  • Many responses did not answer all parts of the question. Particularly common culprits were: evaluating whether the inverted spectrum objection succeeds, identifying possible limitations of the free will response, or explaining Dennett's evolutionary account of the self, describing Searle's argument, and evaluating the 'duplication problem' for the spatiotemporal continuity theory.
  • When giving objections based on cases, responses often did not go beyond describing the case. They would, for example, just describe the worlds with X-particles and Y-fields, or two billiard balls interacting, or the Chinese room, or a personal fission story. But they would not explain the argument built on these thought experiments.
  • A common mistake was the use of instantaneous cloning as a duplication problem for the spatiotemporal theory of personal identity. It isn't, despite what you might initially think. A molecule-for-molecule duplicate of your body isn't spatiotemporally continuous with any part of your body, because at the moment of its creation, it occupies a different space. I think most theories of personal identity want to rule out the possibility that the clone is identical to you, and the spatiotemporal theory certainly does. A lot of people used this kind of instantaneous cloning example. Another mistake on the personal identity long answer question was to talk about the psychological theory instead of the spatiotemporal theory.
  • The example of human selves having flexible boundaries (so as to include, for example, our cars) is not an example of a difference between human selves and other selves. Dennett gives this as an example of a similarity---compare the shells of hermit crabs or the dams of beavers.
  • Multiple realization is the thesis that a particular mental state can be implemented in many different physical systems. It is not dissociative identity disorder (formerly known as multiple personality disorder), wherein one person has two or more identities or personalities.
  • Also, people often didn't clearly or completely describe the inverted spectrum setup and very commonly didn't make an explicit point about why it's supposed to be an objection to functionalism.
  • A common mistake on the short answer question about Hume was to just describe Hume's positive account of causation rather than being specific about his objections to the rationalist account, which need to be at least mentioned before you can say anything about his positive account. His objections motivate and inform his positive account and they're an important part of his overall critique of rationalism about causation. Hume criticized the rationalist conception on two fronts. First, there is nothing illogical about the laws of nature being broken, so (based on his empiricism), causation can't be known a priori. Moreover, there is (he claims) no observable evidence of a necessary connection, so causation can't be known a posteriori. Those are the only two options, so the rationalists are wrong to think that causation is a necessary connection.
  • For the most part, people did really well with the Chinese Room Argument. Where those answers usually faltered (if they did) was in their critical evaluation of it, which was often too vague or too quick. People also generally did a good job with Dennett, though some answers were too fast in presenting the specific details of his account before moving on to an analysis of the similarities/differences between humans and other types of selves.
  • Finally, people generally answered the short answer question about the free will defense well. People seemed to have a good grasp of the problem of evil, how the free will defense purports to solve it, and what some possible limitations of the defense might be.

Final Exam: The class average was 18.9, with a rather large standard deviation of 5.2. I have applied the curve and entered everybody's final grade for the course. Those who signed the waiver on the back of the exam can get their exam back from the accessible deposit below the faculty mailboxes on the 7th floor of the HSS tower. The others will have to contact me to get their exam back.

It was a pleasure teaching you, all the best for your future!