Exploring Metaphysics

Course No. 4182
Professor David Kyle Johnson, Ph.D., University of Oklahoma
King's College
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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
 |  Average 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 Kyle Johnson

About Your Professor

David Kyle 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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Exploring Metaphysics is rated 3.6 out of 5 by 64.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Highly Engaging I have several of Dr. Johnson's courses and enjoy them all. He is an excellent instructors who makes somewhat difficult material easily accessible. The illustrations and examples that he provides increase interest and clarity and find myself wanting to learn more from him when each concludes. These lectures are a wonderful asset to my collection and I highly recommend his professor.
Date published: 2020-02-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Terrific scope I would give this more than a 5 star rating if that were possible. It covers many, many aspects of the subject, all of them rather thoroughly. I particularly liked his work on quantum mechanics, which doesn't usually get into metaphysics courses. I also was intrigued by his rampant enthusiasm for sweet potato french fries, which I had never heard ot. I'll have to find some!
Date published: 2019-09-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The title matches product conduct The course is an excellent survey of metaphysics. The presenter's pace, tone and occasional digressions added to my enjoyment of the course. If you take the time to read each chapter summary before listening and read a few of his additional reading suggestions your learning experience will be enhanced.
Date published: 2019-09-10
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Physics and Metaphysics This could well be a reasonable alternate title for this course. Dr. Johnson brings in special and general relativity, quantum mechanics, AI, discussions about the nature of light and more to address metaphysical questions that range from “does God exist?” to the possibility that we might not be alive at all, but rather just a collection of 1s and 0s. Or is it the other way around? Plenty of questions and few, if any answers, but a lot about which to think. For sure this is not an easy ride and one where I think that some background in physics will benefit the listener—perhaps even be necessary in order to understand what is going on with the examinations of questions that have been asked for millennia. Probably it is also safe to say that having read what several philosophers have considered as to the nature of reality is also helpful (or even essential) in getting the most from this course. For me the professor’s delivery was good and it was evident that he felt passionate about the material. I think that audio is sufficient for maximum benefit from the course. This is the first course that I have seen (or at least that I can remember having seen) with such a disparity of star awards. As of this writing, the average for the course is 3.5 stars (and almost the same at 3.6 for the secondary awards), but that does not accurately reflect the reviews. There are more that twice as many 5 star awards as there are 1 star awards and more 1 star ones that either 4, 3 or 2 star awards. Even though for me, this is a fine course that made me think, in honesty I can’t say that those reviewers who felt otherwise were wrong (especially after considering the nature of reality). I’d work out the standard deviation of the course awards, but after considering the material presented, I’m too tired to think.
Date published: 2019-06-30
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Horrible I found the presentation style of the professor the worse I have ever encountered, which is so unlike any other course I have bought from the Great Courses, and I bought over 50 courses! This course is difficult to follow not for the content, which anyway is very poorly organized, but for the very irritating style of presentation, pace and overall tone. On top of all of this the professor just can't stop mentioning a potato fries shop which feels like unashamed advertising and is anything but funny and completely irritating.
Date published: 2019-03-21
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Polemics, Badly Reasoned - Should be Zero Stars Riddled with elementary errors and hidden assumptions. However, one of his howler errors led me to an important insight. In one lecture, he asserts that Phineas Gage's personality change after his tragic accident proves that there is no such thing as a soul. The argument seems to be that if there were a soul separate from the physical brain, changing the brain shouldn't affect the person or personality. Of course that argument is not made explicit, because it has enough holes to drive a 2-4-2 locomotive through. In a subsequent lecture, he raises the question regarding a movie that his been distributed on DVD, "where is the movie?" He then answers his own question by saying that there are many copies of the movie, etc. But here's the point I'm interested in: suppose you have a single copy of the movie, and you play it through a DVD with a different codec or a defective codec from the one the DVD is designed for. Probably you'll get nothing. But it is conceivable that you'd get a different, garbled movie. The insight I gained from this (which the professor totally missed) is that this is a possible metaphor for the relationship between the soul/mind and the brain. When the brain is working properly, it can do a faithful job of representing the immaterial mind/soul in this world. But when the brain is not working properly, it cannot, and the result is either "mental disease" or death or "brain death" or some other malfunctioning of the person. The course starts with an elementary and unforgivable error. He denies that there is any evidence the soul exists, using what amounts to a physicalist argument. He shows absolutely zero evidence of understanding that it is precisely the physical world which must be justified, not the mind's existence independent from the physical world. That is, we know by direct experience that mind exists, but only indirect, sensory, experience, that the physical world exists. He seems either totally unaware of this, or perhaps more likely, his modern academic physicalist commitment blinds him to it. For a program that claims to be intro to metaphysics, I'd have to give this zero on a 1 to five scale.
Date published: 2019-01-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from What a fabulous course! Prof. Johnson has an overwhelmingly outstanding command of his subject matter. Even better, he teaches in an agreeable, comfortable conversational style, I loved every minute. I may well, in a few months listen again, expecting then to enjoy the experience as much or more as my just-concluded experience. Bravissimo, Prof. Johnson
Date published: 2019-01-05
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Some interesting information but was disappointed There was a lot of very interesting information, but the lecturer did not present non-materialist views with any objectivity. I get the impression that he is 100% committed to a materialist viewpoint. He takes one definition of the soul and argues against it, but does not consider other definitions with any thoughtfulness. There is a large body of literature with evidence that does not fit the materialist viewpoint which he is either unaware of or choose to not even mention. I found it odd that the lecturer completely dismisses the ideas in the movie "What the Bleep do we know". I felt he could have been more objective and less biased toward this particular world view. He didn't argue against it, but simply dismissed it as nonsense. He also seems to think he knows quantum physics whereas the quantum physicist in the movie does not. His interpretation of Heisenberg's Uncertainty principle was also odd. The inequality says the product of the uncertainty of the location of a particle times the uncertainty of its momentum is less than planck's constant over two pi. While he mentions this correctly once, he several times says that if we know the location we CAN'T know it's momentum. This is simply not correct. The inequality says you can't know either completely accurately, and the more accurate one is known, the less accurately the other will be known.
Date published: 2018-09-08
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