Metaphysics: An Introduction and Collection of Resources

This page contains an organized collection of links to beginner friendly videos, podcasts and articles on metaphysics. To get started, simply choose a topic from the list below.

What is Metaphysics?

“[Metaphysics is] most generally, the philosophical investigation of the nature, constitution, and structure of reality. It is broader in scope than science, e.g., physics and even cosmology (the science of the nature, structure, and origin of the universe as a whole), since one of its traditional concerns is the existence of non-physical entities, e.g., God. It is also more fundamental, since it investigates questions science does not address but the answers to which it presupposes. Are there, for instance, physical objects at all, and does every event have a cause?” – Excerpt from The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy edited by Robert Audi.

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Topics

Free Will

“You have a choice before you. Will you continue reading this book? Take your time, make up your mind… OK, time’s up. What is your decision? If you have reached this sentence, your decision must have been yes. Now, think back to your decision. Was it a free decision? Could you have put the book down? Or did you have to keep reading? Of course you could have put the book down; of course your decision was free. We human beings have free will. Not so fast. We human beings are made of matter, tiny particles studied by the sciences. And the sciences, especially physics, discover laws of nature that specify where these particles must move. Given the forces that were acting on the particles, your body had to move the way it did, and so you had to continue to read. How then was your decision free?

This is the problem of free will. It is a tough problem. We all believe that we have free will, and yet scientific laws govern the matter making up our bodies, determining what we will do next. So do we have free will?” – Excerpt from Riddles of Existence: A Guided Tour of Metaphysics by Earl Conee & Theodore Sider.

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Personal Identity

“Suppose you have always wanted to travel to Paris but could never afford the trip from New York. And suppose that now a new company, 15-Minute Travel, is offering to send you with their super-high-tech “transporter” machine. Here’s how the transporter machine works. You step into a  fancy-looking booth in New York and, once you are ready to go, you press a green button marked “Paris”. You are then scanned by a device that records the exact position, nature, and velocity of every subatomic particle in your body. This information – your “personal blueprint” – is then recorded on a zirconium microchip. At the same time, your body is disassembled, and the resulting subatomic particles are rearranged, so that they make up a small quantity of “transport dust” – a dense but compact and virtually undamagable ashlike substance. Next, the transport dust and the zirconium chip are safely sealed inside a small cylinder, like the canisters used by drive-through banks, and the cylinder then travels through a special underground tube, powered by electromagnetic technology, at speeds exceeding 10,000 miles per hour. The cylinder arrives at the company’s terminal in Paris in less than fifteen minutes and, once it is safely ensconced in a booth just like the one in New York, the transport dust is rearranged, in precise accordance with your personal blueprint. You then emerge from the booth in Paris, feeling as if the whole experience has taken no time at all. […]

This example raises several important questions. Here are two of them:

  • (Q1) If 15-Minute Travel’s transporter machine were actual, would it be a good idea to pay the money, step into the booth, and push the button?
  • (Q2) If the machine were real, and if you did step into the booth in New York and push the button, would it be you who came out of the booth in Paris?”

– Excerpt from An Introduction to Metaphysics by John W. Carroll & Ned Markosian.

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Mental and Physical

“Many people think that belief in a soul is old-fashioned and unscientific. Everything else in the world is made of physical matter — different combinations of the same chemical elements. Why shouldn’t we be? Our bodies grow by a complex physical process from the single cell produced by the joining of sperm and egg at conception. Ordinary matter is added gradually in such a way that the cell turns into a baby, with arms, legs, eyes, ears, and a brain, able to move and feel and see, and eventually to talk and think. Some people believe that this complex physical system is sufficient by itself to give rise to mental life. Why shouldn’t it be? Anyway, how can mere philosophical argument show that it isn’t? Philosophy can’t tell us what stars or diamonds are made of, so how can it tell us what people are or aren’t made of? The view that people consist of nothing but physical matter, and that their mental states are physical states of their brains, is called physicalism (or sometimes materialism). Physicalists don’t have a specific theory of what process in the brain can be identified as the experience of tasting chocolate, for instance. But they believe that mental states are just states of the brain, and that there’s no philosophical reason to think they can’t be. The details will have to be discovered by science.” – Excerpt from What Does It All Mean:? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy by Thomas Nagel.

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Time

It is strange to question the nature of time, given how fundamental time is to our experience. As a child I wondered whether fish are conscious of water or whether they experience it unconsciously, as we experience the air we breathe. Time is even more ubiquitous than water or air: every thought and experience takes place in time. Questioning the nature of time can be dizzying. Yet it is worth questioning. The ordinary conception of time, once you start to think about it, seems to make no sense! For we ordinarily conceive of time as being something that moves. ‘Time flows like a river.’ ‘Time marches on.’ ‘Time flies.’ ‘As time goes by.’ ‘The past is gone.’ ‘Time waits for no one.’ ‘Time stood still.’ These cliche’s capture how we tend to think about time. Time moves, and we are caught up in its inexorable flow. The problem with this way of thinking is that time is the standard by which motion is defined; how then could time itself move? This is metaphysics at its best. Look at the world hard enough, and even the most mundane things are revealed as mysterious and wonderful.” – Excerpt from Riddles of Existence: A Guided Tour of Metaphysics by Earl Conee & Theodore Sider:

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Causation

“One problem is a traditional thought that comes from David Hume, whose ideas on causation continue to shape the philosophical debate (A Treatise of Human Nature, Book I, 1739). Hume told us that causal connections were unobservable. We can see one event, such as someone taking a pill, and a second event when they get better, but we never see the causal connection between the two events. How then do we know that the drug caused the recovery? The problem is deeper than merely that I cannot see inside someone’s body (very easily). Even in the simplest case, Hume alleges that we can never see the causal connection. You can see the kick and you can see the ball move, but you cannot see any causation between the kick and the ball moving.

If none of us can see causal connections, why then do we believe that they are real? Hume had a view on this. The main reason why we think that the first event caused the second is that it is part of a pattern. Whenever I have seen someone kick a ball, it has been followed by the ball moving. I am just seeing one event followed by another in each instance; but I also know that whenever I have seen an event of the first kind, it has been followed by an event of the second kind.” – Excerpt from Metaphysics: A Very Short Introduction by Stephen Mumford.

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Possibility and Necessity

“There are several senses of possibility and necessity in which one might be interested. For example, we might ask: Is it possible to build a vehicle that travels faster than the speed of light? Philosophers generally recognize at least two senses of the word ‘possible’ that would give two different answers to this question. One sense is: possible according to the laws of nature, or nomologically possible (from the Latin nomos for law). If the laws of nature don’t rule out that a certain proposition p is the case, then p is nomologically possible. In this sense of ‘possible,’ the answer to our question is ‘no.’ It is not possible to build a vehicle that travels faster than the speed of light. This is something that the laws of nature, Special Relativity in particular, rule out.

On the other hand, there is another sense of ‘possible.’ Here, a proposition is possible just in case it doesn’t itself entail any contradiction. This is what is often called logical possibility. This was the sense of ‘possible’ we used when we defined the notion of deductive validity and said that an argument is valid just in case it is not possible for its premises to all be true while its conclusion is false. It is logically impossible that 2+2=5 or that there are triangles that have four sides. It is logically impossible as well for there to be any round squares, married bachelors, or dogs that are not dogs. In this sense of ‘possible,’ cars traveling faster than the speed of light are possible. Even if such technology is incompatible with the laws of nature, and so physics would have to be different for there to be cars traveling faster than light speed at our world, there is no contradiction contained in the very idea of a car that can travel at superluminal speeds. This is ruled out by the laws of physics, but not by the laws of logic (and meaning).” – Excerpt from Metaphysics: An Introduction by Alyssa Ney.

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Why care about metaphysics?

“But the best reason to care about metaphysics and the rest of philosophy is the Socratic reason mentioned above: intellectual curiosity. If you are the kind of person who wants to know the truth about the world around you, you will want to know, if possible, the truth about freedom, God, morality, time, and all the rest. (You may even want to know the truth about the nature of truth itself—another metaphysical question!) Yes, this is an idealistic motivation. And there is more to life than investigating the truth, and more to investigate than metaphysics. But metaphysical questions are foundational, deep, and profound; and the fact that they’re so difficult can make them even more enticing to a dedicated truth-seeker. Even if you don’t take it as far as Socrates did, staking your very life on getting at the truth, if you care about the truth you may wish to find time in your life to ask the questions of metaphysics, just for their own sake.” – Excerpt from Riddles of Existence: A Guided Tour of Metaphysics by Earl Conee & Theodore Sider.

Further Reading

If you have never studied metaphysics before, the following books are a good place to start:

Miscellaneous Resources

Podcasts


If you are interested in metaphysics, the following pages may also be of interest: