TTC – The Big Questions of Philosophy
We have all pondered seemingly unanswerably but significant questions about our existence—the biggest of all being, “Why are we here?” Philosophy has developed over millennia to help us grapple with these essential intangibles. There is no better way to study the big questions in philosophy than to compare how the world’s greatest minds have analyzed these questions, defined the terms, and then reasoned out potential solutions. Once you’ve compared the arguments, the final step is always deciding for yourself whether you find an explanation convincing.
This course gives you the tools to follow and create logical arguments while exploring famous philosophers’ viewpoints on these important questions. Although progress has been made toward answers, brilliant thinkers have continued to wrestle with many big questions that inspire thoughtful people everywhere. These questions include:
- What is knowledge?
- Can religious belief be justified?
- Does God exist?
- What is the nature of the mind?
- Do humans have free will?
- What is morally right and wrong?
- How should society be organized?
The philosophers who have confronted these mysteries include Plato, St. Anselm, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Mill, Smith, Marx, Rawls, and Nozick, among many others. And while it is easy to think of philosophy as a catalogue of great names such as these, it is really a collection of big questions and the arguments that try to answer them.
The Big Questions of Philosophy is your chance to engage in this intellectually exciting pursuit as you address issues that have preoccupied great minds for millennia. Your guide is philosopher David Kyle Johnson, an award-winning teacher and nationally recognized scholar, author, speaker, and blogger, who is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at King’s College in Pennsylvania.
An ideal entry point into this vital subject, The Big Questions of Philosophy gives you direct contact with classic problems that philosophers have grappled with over the centuries. Along the way, you meet scores of key figures, both ancient and modern. In addition, the course’s broad scope, wealth of examples, and many comparative arguments will appeal to those more experienced in philosophy—including those who already know the difference between abduction and deduction, between Occam’s Razor and Pascal’s Wager.
A Modern-Day Socrates
In 36 mesmerizing half-hour lectures that will challenge your old assumptions and recharge your current thinking, Professor Johnson plays a role much like Socrates in Plato’s dialogues. He is good-natured, lucid, and dogged in his search for the truth. You start each lecture with a question that is often transparently simple, but that grows increasingly subtle and complex as you consider and object to possible solutions. Professor Johnson’s approach is surprisingly entertaining and easy to follow as you wade through philosophical issues such as these:
- Miracles: Could an eyewitness report ever justify the belief that a miracle had occurred? You learn that the laws of reasoning place miracles outside the bounds of verifiable knowledge. Miracles can never be established as matters of fact and can only be accepted as matters of faith.
- Free will: Do we really have a choice in what we do? Theologically, free will seems impossible if God knows the future. Philosophically, it’s impossible in both a deterministic and an indeterministic universe. And biologically, free will seems incompatible with our understanding of neuroscience.
- The self: What makes you the same person today that you were in the past? The challenge of answering this question, which bears on everything from legal culpability to the prospect of an afterlife, inspired Professor Johnson to major in philosophy as an undergraduate.
- Thinking machines: Can machines think? Philosopher John Searle proposed a thought experiment which suggests that computers can simulate thinking, but without understanding. This “Chinese Room” argument became one of the most heated philosophical discussions of recent times.
Think Like a Philosopher
How are these issues decided? In the first four lectures of The Big Questions of Philosophy, you learn the tools of philosophical analysis. Contrary to popular belief, philosophy is not just “a matter of opinion.” It is the systematic quest to discover truth and reject falsehood, for which a number of powerful principles and techniques have evolved over the centuries, among them:
- Truth is not relative: A belief is true if it matches the way the world is. If two people disagree, it can’t be that both are right—that what each believes is “true for them.” To prevail in a debate, an opinion must be informed by the relevant facts and based on sound reasoning.
- Aristotelian logic: The traditional route to sound reasoning is Aristotelian logic, which stresses deduction as the only way to achieve knowledge that is mathematically certain. Less certain but very powerful is inductive reasoning, which is used in fields such as science.
- Abduction: A form of inductive reasoning, abduction appeals to criteria such as simplicity, testability, and conservatism. In other words, a hypothesis should be preferred if it is simpler than other explanations, can be tested, and doesn’t contradict established knowledge.
- Fallacious reasoning: To be avoided at all costs, fallacious reasoning comes in many forms and is unfortunately very common. One example is “mystery therefore magic”—when the inability to prove that something has a natural explanation is given as grounds for a supernatural explanation.
Indeed, these guidelines lead to fruitful results not just in philosophy, but also in every sphere of life. Whether you are puzzling over politics, investments, a new purchase, a career move, or any important decision, it is indispensable to think critically and reason from valid principles.
Philosophy Is All Around You
Socrates found grist for his philosophical discussions in the everyday life of Athens in the fifth century B.C. Similarly, Professor Johnson takes many of his examples from the world around us, including popular culture. These situations show that philosophical problems are everywhere and that our intuitions about what seems right can help guide us toward answers to the big questions:
- Skepticism: Descartes’ struggle with skepticism led him to a single, indubitable truth, “I think, therefore I am.” Movies such as The Matrix and Inception push skepticism even farther, questioning the boundary between dreaming and reality and throwing into doubt the prospect of ever acquiring knowledge.
- Knowledge: Plato’s definition of knowledge—”justified true belief”—has been tested in innumerable thought experiments that show we can have good evidence for a true belief but still lack knowledge. Johnson considers several such “Gettier problems,” including one involving the U.S. Open Tennis Championship.
- Personal identity: The teleportation machine in Star Trek is an endless source of thought experiments involving personal identity. Discover intriguing answers to scenarios in which the transporter splits, duplicates, fuses, and otherwise transforms the persons who enter it.
- Meaning: Philosophy is popularly thought to deal with the meaning of life—and indeed it does. Professor Johnson closes the course by seeking a genuine solution to the famous problem in Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, concerning “the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything.”
Illuminate Life’s Greatest Mysteries
Given the longevity of these big questions, it should be no surprise that many controversies are far from settled. In fact, by the end of the course you may be even less sure of the right answers to some of the questions than you were at the beginning. But being a philosopher means constantly testing your views—giving a reasoned defense if you believe you are right and modifying your ideas when you realize you are wrong.
You will experience this cycle many times with The Big Questions of Philosophy. You’ll discover that great thinkers before you have offered convincing answers to hard questions, philosophers after them have made equally persuasive objections, and then still others have refined the debate even further—causing the issue to come into sharper and sharper focus. Professor Johnson offers this illuminating simile: “Thinking philosophically is like having a powerful flashlight that you can shine into the darkness that seems to surround life’s greatest mysteries—a flashlight that can reveal the answers to the big questions, and one you can use to find your way forward.”