Ten Philosophical Questions
(With Answers)

Mark Vuletic

Introduction

It's a good idea occasionally 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 may help to highlight possible weaknesses and tensions in your overall view of things, thereby motivating further investigation and critical thought. Here, I discuss briefly, and in no particular order, the ten philosophical questions on which I believe I have spent the most time.

You may notice that I express near certainty about my answers to many of the questions on my list. Don't let that fool you into thinking that I consider those questions no longer worthy of study. My ultimate goal is not mere fixation of belief, but as close proximity as possible to truth. For that goal, I need to continue to reflect critically even on the questions about which I feel most confident. If I ever need to be reminded of this, all I have to do is take note of the fact that there are intelligent people who disagree with me at nearly every point.

I try to be brief up ahead, so 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. In some cases (especially in the appendix), if you are not already familiar with philosophy, you might not even understand the question. In these cases, I generally intend to write a companion article at some point.

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.


The ten questions

1. What are the most fundamental constituents of reality?

What do I think? Whatever our final physical theory says.

How confident am I? Not very confident. If one takes note, for instance, of the diverse interpretations of quantum mechanics and the seemingly subjective criteria that individuals use to select among many of them, it is not clear that even a final physical theory would settle what the most fundamental constituents of reality are. What physics can do, however, is rule out certain candidates: a final physical theory would at least narrow us down to a limited set of interpretations from which to choose.

 

2. Is the mind a material phenomenon?

What do I think? Yes.

How confident am I? Not very confident. When it comes to 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 is compatible with both materialism and epiphenomenalism. If I had to cast a bet right now, though, I would bet on some form of token-token physicalism.

 

3. Are there categorical moral facts?

What do I think? No.

How confident am I? All but certain. The case for some form of error theory seems about as solid to me as anything can be. 

 

4. Is there a god?

What do I think? No.

How confident am I? Anywhere from certain to very confident, depending on the concept of god one has in mind.

For more information: Why atheism?

 

5. What is the solution to the problem of induction?

What do I think? There isn't a solution; we just have to go along with Hume.

How confident am I? 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. Naturally, I nevertheless use induction all the time without the slightest misgivings.

For more information: How do we know anything about the future?

 

6. How does one prove that there is an external world?

What do I think? One can't prove it.

How confident am I? 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 answer probably will 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; for instance, even if we bracket any doubts about the existence of the external world, we're still left with the question of what that world is made of. Likewise, even if we bracket any global doubts about induction, we're still left with the question of exactly what we're allowed to inductively infer from a given set of data. Much of philosophy is done at this level, where we do not so much solve the basic skeptical problems as just set them aside and turn our minds to the numerous problems that still remain. It is at this level that I look to fundamental physics to tell us something about the external world.

For more information: How can we be sure about anything at all?

 

7. Do states have moral authority over their citizens?

What do I think? Only over those citizens who make an uncoerced decision to give that authority to their state, which I think is almost never. 

How confident am I? Very confident. This position seems to be extremely unpopular, but those who reject it generally seem to me to assume such authority rather than to argue for it. It is one thing to say that it is beneficial for states to have some measure of power over their citizens, but another thing entirely to say that this gives states actual moral authority over anyone who has not voluntarily  agreed to it.

 

8. What is the solution to the measurement problem?

What do I think? Hell if I know.

How confident am I? 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?

What do I think? No.

How confident am I? All but certain. I am not even sure I understand how it could have fundamental meaning.

 

10. Do people have free will?

What do I think? No.

How confident am I? All but certain. This is because I define free will in an incompatibilist way, and the libertarian notion of free will is, as far as I can tell, empty. This is an old objection, but it seems to have stood the test of time.

For more information on free will: What are the main positions in the free will debate? and Do we have free will?

 

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). [See What are the main positions in the free will debate? and Do we have free will?]

God: theism or atheism? Atheism; certain to very confident, depending on one's concept of god. [See What is atheism? and Why atheism?]

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? One box; not very confident (strong intuitions, but not much familiarity with the literature).

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'm all over the place.

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.

First published: 2010
Last updated: 10 Feb 2017

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