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?

It is not easy to say what metaphysics is. Ancient and Medieval philosophers might have said that metaphysics was, like chemistry or astrology, to be defined by its subject matter: metaphysics was the “science” that studied “being as such” or “the first causes of things” or “things that do not change”. It is no longer possible to define metaphysics that way…. There are many philosophical problems that are now considered to be metaphysical problems (or at least partly metaphysical problems) that are in no way related to first causes or unchanging things—the problem of free will, for example, or the problem of the mental and the physical….

We shall see that the central problems of metaphysics were significantly more unified in the Ancient and Medieval eras. Which raises a question—is there any common feature that unites the problems of contemporary metaphysics? – Excerpt from the Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy article on Metaphysics by Peter van Inwagen and Meghan Sullivan.

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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

There is no single problem of personal identity, but rather a wide range of questions that are at best loosely connected. Here are the most familiar:

Who am I? Outside of philosophy, ‘personal identity’ usually refers to certain properties to which a person feels a special sense of attachment or ownership. Someone’s personal identity in this sense consists of those features she takes to “define her as a person” or “make her the person she is”. (The precise meaning of these phrases is hard to pin down.) It may be, for instance, that being a philosopher and loving music belong to my identity, whereas being a man and living in Yorkshire do not….

Personhood. What is it to be a person? What is necessary, and what suffices, for something to count as a person, as opposed to a nonperson? What have people got that nonpeople haven’t got? More specifically, we can ask at what point in one’s development from a fertilized egg there comes to be a person, or what it would take for a chimpanzee or a Martian or an electronic computer to be a person, if they could ever be….

Persistence. What does it take for a person to persist from one time to another—to continue existing rather than cease to exist? What sorts of adventures is it possible, in the broadest sense of the word ‘possible’, for you to survive, and what sort of event would necessarily bring your existence to an end? – Excerpt from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Personal Identity by Eric T. Olson.

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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

Despite 2,500 years of investigation into the nature of time, there are many unresolved issues. Here is a list of those issues, in no particular order: •What time actually is; •Whether time exists when nothing is changing; •What kinds of time travel are possible; •Why time has an arrow; •Whether the future and past are as real as the present… •Whether there was time before the beginning of our big bang… •How time is related to mind… •Why our universe has time instead of no time; •Whether the concept of time is objective; and •Whether time is an illusion. – Excerpt from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Time by Bradley Dowden.

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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

Most of us also believe that things, as a whole, needn’t have been just as they are. Rather, things might have been different in countless ways, both trivial and profound. History, from the very beginning, could have unfolded quite other than it did in fact: The matter constituting a distant star might never have organized well enough to give light; species that survived might just as well have died off; battles won might have been lost; children born might never have been conceived and children never conceived might otherwise have been born….

The idea of possible worlds is evocative and appealing. However, possible worlds failed to gain any real traction among philosophers until the 1960s when they were invoked to provide the conceptual underpinnings of some powerful developments in modal logic. Only then did questions of their nature become a matter of the highest philosophical importance. – Excerpt from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Possible Worlds by Christopher Menzel.

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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: