Mark I. Vuletic
It's a good idea, from time to time, to take stock of which philosophical questions matter most to you, what you think about them, and how confident you feel about your thoughts about them. If nothing else, doing so helps to highlight possible tensions in one's overall perspective, thereby motivating further critical thought. Here, I have considered the ten philosophical questions (in no particular order) that I believe I have spent the most time on from all the way back when I first dipped my toes into the field, even before I became a philosophy major.
You may notice that there are many questions about which I feel near certainty; but don't let that fool you into thinking that I consider those questions settled, and no longer worthy of study. My ultimate goal, after all, is not mere fixation belief, but proximity to truth—for that goal, the questions about which I feel confident require as much continued critical sifting as the questions about which I do not. If I ever need a reminder, all I have to do is take note of the fact that there are intelligent people who disagree with me on every point.
I should also just note that my purpose here is to be as brief as possible. There are a lot of nuances that I run over completely in my answers; where there are distinctions to be made that lead to very different answers, I try crudely to strike the average.
I encourage you to make your own list, too, or compare your answers against mine. If you would like to see what I think about the three questions I think non-philosophers are most concerned with, I have written about that elsewhere, too.
The ten questions
1. What are the most fundamental constituents of reality?
My answer: Whatever our final physical theory says.
My degree of confidence: Not very confident. Especially when one looks at the diverse interpretations of quantum mechanics and the seemingly subjective criteria that individuals use to select among them, it is not clear that even a final physical theory would settle what the most fundamental constituents of reality are. What physical theory can at least do, however, is rule out certain candidates: a final theory would at least give us a limited set of possibilities to choose from.
2. Is the mind a material phenomenon?
My answer: Yes.
My degree of confidence: Not very confident; in terms of explaining what minds are, nothing in philosophy of mind makes any sense to me. It is clear enough that minds are dependent on matter, but this doesn't choose between, for instance, materialism and epiphenomenalism. If I had to cast a bet right now, though, I would cast it with some form of token-token physicalism.
3. Are there categorical moral facts?
My answer: No.
My degree of confidence: All but certain. The case for error theory seems about as solid as anything can be.
4. Is there a god?
My answer: No.
My degree of confidence: All but certain. I go into this question in more detail in the link above.
5. What is the solution to the problem of induction?
My answer: There isn't one; we just have to go along with Hume.
My degree of confidence: Very confident. This is one of the first philosophical problems I ever encountered. As with most classic questions in epistemology, I have never seen anyone come close to answering it. Equally naturally, I nevertheless use induction all the time without the slightest misgivings.
6. How does one prove that there is an external world?
My answer: One can't.
My degree of confidence: Very confident. Ditto my comments on the problem of induction. Naturally, however, I take representative realism as a basic working framework in my day-to-day life. This may cast my answer to the first question in new light. At the most fundamental level, I take the basic skeptical problems of philosophy very seriously, and think that most cannot be resolved. However, as Hume pointed out, it is impossible to keep one's thoughts at this fundamental level for very long: as soon as one's thoughts drift from concerted focus on philosophy, one finds oneself implicitly dismissing the basic skeptical problems. Yet, even then we find that we are left with plenty of problems: even, for instance, if we bracket any doubts about the existence of the external world, we still have to wonder what that world is made of. Much of philosophy simply is done at that level, where the basic skeptical problems are not so much solved as set aside and the mind turns to the numerous problems that still remain. It is at that level that I look to fundamental physics to tell us something about the external world.
7. Do states have moral authority over their citizens?
My answer: Barring an explicit contract, no.
My degree of confidence: Very confident. This position seems to be extremely unpopular, but those who disagree generally seem to me to assume such authority rather than to argue for it. It is one thing to say that it is good for states to have some measure of power over their citizens, but another thing entirely to say that states have actual moral authority even over those who do not recognize this good.
8. What is the solution to the measurement problem?
My answer: Hell if I know.
My degree of confidence: I am absolutely positive that I have no idea. I have written an entire dissertation explaining that I have no idea what the solution to the measurement problem is. Well, ok, it did a little bit more than that, but it did that, too.
9. Does life have any fundamental meaning?
My answer: No.
My degree of confidence: All but certain. I am not even sure I understand how it could have fundamental meaning.
10. Do people have free will?
My answer: No.
My degree of confidence: All but certain. This, because I define free will in the incompatibilist way, and the libertarian notion of free will is, as far as I can tell, empty. This is an old objection, but it has stood the test of time.
Appendix: The PhilPapers survey
The PhilPapers survey asks many more questions than I have considered above, so I'm putting my responses in this appendix, because I'm interested in collating what I think. Again, making such a list is not an argument for anything, but it may reveal tensions or weak points that one would otherwise gloss over.
A priori knowledge: yes or no? Yes; very confident. (But only for some analytic propositions. A priori synthetic propositions are a different matter entirely. Assuming the analytic-synthetic distinction is real...)
Abstract objects: Platonism or nominalism? Nominalism; not very confident. (It intuitively seems right, but I am not well-versed in the literature on this question.)
Aesthetic value: objective or subjective? Subjective; all but certain.
Analytic-synthetic distinction: yes or no? Yes; not very confident.
Epistemic justification: internalism or externalism? Internalism; not very confident.
External world: idealism, skepticism, or non-skeptical realism? Skepticism; all but certain (except this really puts me in the minority, so it gives me a meta-uncertainty—I feel a significant worry that I have missed something, but I have no idea what it could be).
Free will: compatibilism, libertarianism, or no free will? No free will; all but certain (except I rate my difference of opinion with compatibilists to be a purely semantic matter of no real importance).
God: theism or atheism? Atheism; all but certain.
Knowledge claims: contextualism, relativism, or invariantism? Contextualism or invariantism; all but certain (between the two, I have no opinion at all).
Moral motivation: internalism or externalism? Internalism; not very confident.
Newcomb's problem: one box or two boxes? No opinion.
Normative ethics: deontology, consequentialism, or virtue ethics? A mix of deontology and consequentialism, but strongly favoring consequentialism; not very confident.
Perceptual experience: disjunctivism, qualia theory, representationalism, or sense-datum theory? Representationalism; not very confident.
Personal identity: biological view, psychological view, or further-fact view? Biological view; not very confident.
Politics: communitarianism, egalitarianism, or libertarianism? Philosophical anarchism; all but certain. In practice, I have no idea.
Proper names: Fregean or Millian? No opinion.
Science: scientific realism or scientific anti-realism? Scientific realism; not very certain.
Teletransporter (new matter): survival or death? Death; all but certain.
Time: A-theory or B-theory? B-theory; not very confident.
Trolley problem (five straight ahead, one on side track, turn requires switching): switch or don't switch? Switch; all but certain.
Truth: correspondence, deflationary, or epistemic? Correspondence; all but certain.
Zombies: inconceivable, conceivable but not metaphysically possible, or metaphysically possible? Conceivable but not metaphysically possible; not very confident.
Last updated: 17 Nov 2014
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