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Exploring Metaphysics

Course No. 4182
Professor David K. Johnson, Ph.D., University of Oklahoma
King's College
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3.6 out of 5
46 Reviews
56% of reviewers would recommend this series
Course No. 4182
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Course Overview

What comes to mind when you hear the word “metaphysics”? Forget the ancient philosophers and ivory tower professors pontificating on irrelevant abstractions. The truth is, while metaphysics is among the oldest strands of philosophical thought—an inquiry into the very nature of reality—metaphysics is also on the cutting edge of today’s scientific discoveries.

Physicist and Great Courses professor Sean Carroll explains the relationship between metaphysics and science this way: “Philosophers are very good at uncovering inconsistencies or mistakes in the kinds of causal heuristic understanding that scientists are often willing to accept. So for a physicist like me, philosophers can be very helpful in explaining what the problems are in our current versions of quantum mechanics, or in the origin of the arrow of time, or the nature of probability, or what counts as an ‘explanation.’”

Metaphysics, then, is an applied philosophy, a tool for thinking through concerns in a wide range of other disciplines, including

  • psychology,
  • neuroscience,
  • theology,
  • artificial intelligence,
  • relativity, and
  • quantum mechanics.

Most forms of structured thinking spring from metaphysics, and metaphysicians still think through the big questions about humans and the universe: the relationship between the mind and the brain, how consciousness emerges from neurochemical processes, the existence of God, human free will, the possibility of time travel, and whether we live in a multiverse or even a computer simulation.

Reflect on these issues and more in Exploring Metaphysics, a mind-bending tour of philosophy applied to the forefront of today’s knowledge. Over the course of 24 fascinating lectures, philosopher David Kyle Johnson, an award-winning scholar and professor at King’s College, takes you on a journey through the limits of today’s knowledge. He identifies our fundamental assumptions about the world—and then proceeds to challenge those assumptions point by point.

By teasing out the logical inconsistencies, paradoxes, and often unsettling implications of what we “know” about ourselves and the world around us, Professor Johnson poses challenging questions and covers a startling range of human inquiry. Exploring Metaphysics doesn’t offer all the answers, but it does ask questions you would be hard pressed to find anywhere else. You’ll be surprised to learn what relativity, quantum mechanics, and neuroscience imply about human free will and that time travel is not as crazy as it sounds.

From Humanity to the Nature of Reality

Forget what you think you know about yourself and your place in the world. Professor Johnson opens the course with three units that will surely alter your view of what it means to be a conscious, free person. Drawing from the realms of psychology, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and philosophy, the first half of the course examines the defining traits of being human.

In the second half of the course, Professor Johnson shifts from the nature of the individual to the nature of the universe. Here metaphysics, science, and theology all intersect. While the scientific method has given us many answers, those answers have also raised a host of new, as yet unanswered questions. These metaphysical questions may seem like science fiction, but they stem from the very concrete world of reality.

Although the subject has ancient roots, the metaphysics you study in this course is far from an esoteric system of thought. Indeed, this material is very much alive today—at the forefront of philosophy, physics, and medical technology. When you complete this course, you will have a much richer perspective on the world around you. Virtually every lecture will challenge some of your bedrock beliefs about yourself and the universe.

About Your Professor

Dr. David Kyle Johnson is Associate Professor of Philosophy at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He earned a master’s degree and doctorate in philosophy from the University of Oklahoma. At Oklahoma, he won the coveted Kenneth Merrill Graduate Teaching Award. In 2011, the American Philosophical Association’s committee on public philosophy gave him an award for his ability to make philosophy accessible to the general public.

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24 lectures
 |  28 minutes each
  • 1
    How to Explore Metaphysics
    Delve into the world of metaphysics, the study of the fundamental nature of reality. This opening lecture introduces you to the realm of unanswered questions and the limits of scientific understanding. While there will be few definitive answers, the goal will be to understand some of the most important questions we can ask as human beings. x
  • 2
    The Mystery of the Mind and the Soul
    How does the brain produce the mind? This question, which philosophers call the “hard problem of consciousness,” is at the heart of the philosophy of mind. Begin this unit with a look at how brain activity translates into mental activity—consciousness—and what role, if any, the soul plays in all of this. x
  • 3
    Identity Theory—Token and Type
    Survey several ways philosophers have attempted to explain the mind through material means. Two kinds of identity theory offer solutions to the problem of consciousness, yet each has difficulty accounting for the seeming distinction between mental activities and the brains that produce them. x
  • 4
    Functionalism and Artificial Intelligence
    This lecture continues to explore identity theory and takes you to the intersection of science and metaphysics. If our brains are functional—in other words, they operate like a computer program—could computers one day possess consciousness? And if we one day construct “minded” androids, what should our relationship with them be? x
  • 5
    Alternative Theories of Mind
    Wrap up your study of the mind with three final theories. Consider whether minds exist at all, reexamine the relationship between physical and mental properties, and explore whether the mind has any causal power at all. x
  • 6
    The Problem of Personal Identity
    Start the next unit by defining the problem of personal identity over time. Imagine yourself at eight years old and how much you’ve changed since then. Are you still one and the same person? What makes that identity consistent? Revisit the idea of the soul as housing for a person’s “essence.” x
  • 7
    Mind, Memory, and Psychological Continuity
    If the soul hypothesis for personal identity isn’t satisfying, turn to memories and psychological continuity. Would your “self” be preserved if your memories and psychology were transported from one body to another? In this lecture, you’ll be surprised by just how many of our intuitions about personal identity seem to conflict. x
  • 8
    Same Body, Same Brain, and Closest Continuer
    Examine some of the physical requirements for maintaining personal identity. Comas, cryogenic freezing, organ transplants, and Star Trek transporters are just some of the many ways our physical identities could be disrupted. Then see how combining the psychological and physical characteristics led Robert Nozick to construct the “closest continuer” view of identity. x
  • 9
    The No-Self Theory and Time Worms
    Ponder two final theories of the self—the possibility that the “self” doesn’t actually exist as a discrete object, and the notion that the “self” exists in four dimensions. Then turn to a host of problems that arise from considering the self across time. x
  • 10
    The Nature of Truth and Time
    In the last lecture, you saw that the “self” might exist in four dimensions across time, which raises questions about the very nature of time. Here, you’ll explore the problem of human freedom and divine foreknowledge. Then you’ll learn about logical propositions and truthmakers, and see what logic implies about free will and the future. x
  • 11
    Libertarian Free Will
    Take a closer look at human freedom, beginning with “libertarian free will,” which requires the possibility of not choosing as one will. Then discover several challenges to human free will: physical determinism, the random indeterminate nature of the quantum world, and the way our brains make decisions. x
  • 12
    Compatibilistic Freedom
    Is it possible that, even if we lack libertarian free will, we are still free in another way? Interrogate the theory of compatibilism, which says that as long as your actions flow out of your wants and desires, then you are acting freely. After exploring the source of our desires, turn to the moral and legal ramifications of a world without free will. x
  • 13
    Causation, Possible Worlds, and Propositions
    Before shifting from the nature of the self to the nature of reality, take a step back to reflect on causation. What does it mean to say one thing “causes” another? Your exploration takes you into the world of modal statements, truthmakers, possible worlds, propositions, and universals. x
  • 14
    God—Definition and Paradox
    Professor Johnson begins his inquiry into the nature of God with definitions: God as an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent being. Consider how this definition may generate paradoxes, including conflicts between perfect power and goodness, perfect knowledge and free will, and the impossibility of being perfectly just and perfectly merciful x
  • 15
    God—The Argument from Existence
    The first of three primary arguments in favor of God’s existence is a purely conceptual, deductive argument. The medieval Benedictine monk Anselm argued that, logically, God must exist in order to fulfill our conception of a perfect being. This argument and its objections have raised numerous questions about the nature of existence and the limits of reason. x
  • 16
    God—The Argument from Cause
    The second argument views God as the original uncaused cause at the beginning of the universe. Here you’ll see that this argument, too, has its flaws that range from the indeterminate—uncaused—nature of the quantum world to the much simpler argument that the universe is simply unexplained. x
  • 17
    God—The Argument from Design
    The final argument for God’s existence views God as a cosmic watchmaker who set the world into motion in such a way that life could emerge. Professor Johnson lays out this theory and explores some of its many challenges, including the idea that the universe is not all that fine-tuned and that there may be more than one way to build a universe. x
  • 18
    From Spinning Buckets to Special Relativity
    Transition from the nature of God to the nature of reality. After investigating whether space and time are actual substances or merely relational, Professor Johnson delves into special relativity and explains the counterintuitive implications that the constant speed of light has for speed, motion, length, and time. x
  • 19
    From General Relativity to Space-Time
    Professor Johnson continues his analysis of relativity, this time taking gravity and acceleration into account. See what astrophysicists mean by the curvature of space-time and what it implies about gravity and the very fabric of the universe. Finally, reflect on what space-time implies for human free will. x
  • 20
    Black Holes, Wormholes, and Time Travel
    Revisit the intersection between science and metaphysics. General relativity suggests the universe is a giant block of space-time, so does that mean time travel is possible? Examine the feasibility of traveling to the past or the future, and consider the paradoxes that might result. x
  • 21
    Quantum Mechanics and Wave-Particle Duality
    Enter the wild world of quantum mechanics. After an overview about probability, your study of atomic theory begins with the randomness of radioactive decay, which is undetermined and uncaused. Then shift your attention to the dual nature of light as both a wave and a series of particles. x
  • 22
    Quantum Mechanics, Spin, and Spooky Action
    Continue your study of the quantum world with a look at Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which implies a particle’s properties—such as location, momentum, and spin—are indeterminate until someone measures them. This phenomenon has several strange, inexplicable implications—like Schrödinger’s cat. x
  • 23
    Quantum Mechanics, God, and the Multiverse
    Find out how scientists have attempted to answer the questions raised by quantum mechanics. One possibility is that there are multiple universes that exist simultaneously in a fifth dimension. You’ll discover that this theory goes a long way toward explaining reality without violating the laws of physics. x
  • 24
    Do We Live in a Computer Simulation?
    There are still many unknowns about the nature of reality. In this last lecture, you’ll be startled to find out just how likely it is that we live in some sort of computer-simulated world. Professor Johnson walks you through the argument and its implications before summing up what you’ve learned—and what questions still exist. x

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Your professor

David K. Johnson

About Your Professor

David K. Johnson, Ph.D., University of Oklahoma
King's College
Dr. David Kyle Johnson is Associate Professor of Philosophy at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He earned a master’s degree and doctorate in philosophy from the University of Oklahoma. At Oklahoma, he won the coveted Kenneth Merrill Graduate Teaching Award. In 2011, the American Philosophical Association’s committee on public philosophy gave him an award for his ability to make philosophy accessible...
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Reviews

Exploring Metaphysics is rated 3.6 out of 5 by 46.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Knowledgeable instructor I am well pleased with the Metaphysics course so far. The instructor does a fabulous job and I hope to see him on other courses.
Date published: 2017-03-23
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Suffers From Scientism Of the three courses I recently had the pleasure of listening to on consciousness while on vacation, this was the most disappointing. The speaker had a great and engaging voice which made the audio format fine for the material. The discussion of future time and the potential predictability of some future events somehow proving that all future events are preordained missed some logical step for me. Likewise the entire discussion on free will was rather weak, in my opinion. Be aware that this professor chooses only the most materialistic interpretations of quantum physics and presents them as the only reasonable ones, in spite of many internationally known physicists presenting very different interpretations over the past century. Glibly dismissing all of them was really missing the point in favor of his materialistic deterministic worldview that really sits quite nicely in a 19th Century model of physics. I would note that his insistence that brain function is primary and that it explains everything in conscious awareness is a major leap of faith. The brain sciences are nowhere nearly as sophisticated or as complete as he suggests. I can state this clearly as I am a physician specializing in psychiatry, and we know very little about how the brain is related to consciousness or qualia. The final conclusion that infinitely many infinite universes being created every millisecond is a better explanation of the quantum wave collapse than consciousness collapsing the wave function is utterly unpalatable. The final solution he provides is that the best explanation of the quantum weirdness is that we all live in the midst of a computer simulation! Perhaps we can't disprove that notion, but as he pointed out throughout each of the other lecture someone making that claim is the one to actually bear the burden of proof. Perhaps a better explanation is that science isn't yet complete, and maybe consciousness has something more to offer in the mix. Still a fun course to listen to. I just wouldn't base my worldview on the conclusions reached.
Date published: 2016-12-28
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Porely Organized Later on in the course, the Professor admits that Quantum Physics trumps traditional logic. For example, something can be both true and false (on and off, 1 and 0). So, in my opinion, the course should have acknowledged this in the beginning and used to correct the historical approach that the Professor used to organize his lectures. Also, the lecture series suffered from not offering a video option. A Professor's body language goes a long way towards keeping a listeners interest and providing understanding of difficult concepts.
Date published: 2016-07-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from excellent course I enjoyed this course and can recommend it to anyone who is interested in the subject. The audio-only format seems to be fine. (The video vs audio-only choice can be non-obvious – some history courses that you might think are OK for audio-only have stunningly good graphics.) Professor Johnson goes over various proofs for the existence of God, and emphasizes that we should not commit what has sometimes been called the fallacy fallacy – just because an argument is fallacious does not mean the conclusion must be false. With respect to the possible existence of a creator, the last lecture provides a new possibility – we are living in a computer simulation. Of course no one actually believes that, but the logic is well thought out. Heaven forbid I should tell you how to study, but the questions at the end of each lecture are an important part of the learning process, and force active participation. In particular the last question for the last lecture is: “How comfortable are you with sacrificing certainty and knowledge for wisdom and understanding? Do you find yourself wanting to ascribe to a particular metaphysical view, or are you comfortable just saying “I don’t know”?” One result of taking this course is that when metaphysical questions do come up, I am more at ease thinking that if brilliant people cannot agree, why should I have an opinion?
Date published: 2016-06-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from
Date published: 2016-06-03
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Intriguing Content; Presentation Not So Good Some very intriguing mysteries are discussed: • Philosophy of mind (theories around the relationship between the brain and the mind) • Identifying personal identity • The existence of free will • The existence of God • The nature of time • The origin of our universe • Do multi-verses exist • The nature of reality itself But I was left feeling like the professor’s style just didn’t help make this course “pop”. It was like he was rushing through a lot of the topics/theories without taking the time to either provide more explanations/examples or let them sink in before he was off to the next topic. He also seemed to “push” his own beliefs/theories to the point of almost over-arguing. You could tell which ones he didn’t believe in because he would start off saying “there are many problems with this…” and then proceed to go through the reasons (without explaining rebuttals), and end up with some mind twisting explanation as to why “logic” dictates it must be wrong. But I am not an experienced philosopher so for all I know he may be using all of the tenants of the discipline appropriately in proving theories! Content good; Presentation not so good; But I would still consider this a solid course and worth listening to if you are interested in exploring the nature of beings and of reality itself. The content was arranged in a cohesive manner and the end of the last lecture nicely summarized all of the topics and conclusions. Pluses: • Engaging discussion on these topics: o Discussion on Philosophy of Mind: theories around the relationship between the brain and the mind, where does mind exist, and whether we can build computers to become “minded” with consciousness (and how we should relate to them if we can) o The problem of identifying personal identity: if our bodies are physically changing every so many years (cells replacing themselves), our personalities changing, and in some cases we lose our memories through amnesia then are you the same person (as a unique identity) you were 30 years ago? Different interpretations on how identity is considered preserved in various science fiction-type thought experiments and scenarios are debated o A being (think the traditional concept of God) having the qualities of omnipotence (all powerful), omniscience (all knowing), and omnibenevolence (all morally good) poses logical contradictions and incompatibilities in and of the qualities themselves o The professor’s arguments against the Cosmological and Teleological arguments for God’s existence (the existence of the world and the design of it, respectively) provide an interesting perspective of the debate regardless of where you come down on the belief Minuses: • The professor provided good thought-provoking thought experiments to consider the above topics but his teaching style didn’t help some of the discussion to sink in; For example there are times he talks too fast when I’d hope for a slowdown and further explanation of a theory • While the professor provides interesting arguments against the existence of the soul and of God it feels like he is steering too much (perhaps feeling a need to over-argue?) vs. allowing the listener to decide for themselves
Date published: 2016-02-26
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Have not receive purchase
Date published: 2016-01-22
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Sorry It Wasted Any of My Time At All I thought this course was laughable. This professor may well believe everything he has to say, but he is certainly not the last word on everything. He presumes things about his audience that I personally wasn't prepared for. He assumes we all consider the "soul" (mind, by my definition) to be made up of a substance required by natural law to follow the same laws of physics as any other physical object (but he has not ever heard of ether, which does, nor consciousness, which does not). I am not interested in his favorite fast food chain or his favorite fast foods, so why did I buy this? I want to criticize more than the first two disks, but I found his very vocal tone generally unpleasant. I would hardly put up with this kind of assault on the senses if it hadn't cost me money.
Date published: 2016-01-01
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