Ten Philosophical Questions


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 on nearly every point.

Because I try to keep my answers short, I run over many nuances. Where there are distinctions to be made that lead to very different answers, I try crudely to strike an average among them. In some cases (especially in the appendix), you may find the question itself difficult to understand without a background in philosophy; for these cases, I hope eventually to write companion articles.

I encourage you to make your own list 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 seems unlikely 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 depend on matter, but this is compatible with both materialism and epiphenomenalism. If I had to cast a bet right now, I would wager on some form of token-token physicalism.

3. Are there categorical moral facts?

What do I think? No.

How confident am I? Very confident. Nothing I have experienced would be better explained by positing categorical moral facts than by simply by noting the subjective attitudes that people definitely have. I don’t perceive categorical moral facts directly, I don’t need them to make sense of the emotions I feel when I think about various acts, I don’t need them to make sense of other people’s emotions when they do the same, I don’t need them to account for other people’s beliefs about categorical moral facts they purport to directly perceive, and I don’t need them to make sense of the moral language we ordinarily use.

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. When it comes to notions of god that are incoherent or nebulous, I am as certain as I can be that there are no such things. For other notions of god, the more such gods supposedly interact or have interacted with the world, the more clear it is that they do not exist. When it comes to coherent notions of gods who either do not interact at all with the world or do so in a way that cannot be distinguished from natural activity, I am confident they do not exist for the same reason no one believes gravity on Earth is caused by the undetectable powers of undetectable leprechauns, even though such an idea is coherent.

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 don’t think anyone has 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? If the question is meant literally, then—given my answer to question 3—my answer has to be no. However, if I take the question in a non-literal sense (so that it is asking about my attitude toward the relationship between states and their citizens), I would say (continuing to use the language of the question) that states have moral authority only over those citizens who make an uncoerced decision to give that authority to their state, but that I think such decisions almost never occur.

How confident am I? Very confident. This position seems to be extremely unpopular among political philosophers, 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 this arrangement.

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. My doctoral dissertation was all about how I have no idea what the solution to the measurement problem is. Well, it went over a little more than that, but that was one of the places it ended up.

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.

For more information: See the third section of The Top Three Philosophical Questions.

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 for some analytic propositions. No for synthetic propositions. I am relatively confident about this, but would like to feel more confident about my grasp of criticisms of the analytic-synthetic distinction, since they may have an impact here.
  • Abstract objects: Platonism or nominalism? Nominalism. I have very strong intuitions here, but would like to be better-versed in the literature.
  • Aesthetic value: objective or subjective? Subjective; all but certain.
  • Analytic-synthetic distinction: yes or no? Yes; not as confident about this as I would like to be.
  • Epistemic justification: internalism or externalism? Internalism; not very confident.
  • External world: idealism, skepticism, or non-skeptical realism? Skepticism; all but certain.
  • Free will: compatibilism, libertarianism, or no free will? Not libertarianism; all but certain. I take the choice between compatibilism and “no free will” to be a purely semantic matter of no real importance, though my own word usage inclines heavily toward “no free will.” [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? Not relativism; all but certain. I have no opinion at all between contextualism and invariantism.
  • Moral motivation: internalism or externalism? Internalism; fairly confident.
  • Newcomb’s problem: one box or two boxes? If the predictor is stipulated to know what you will do, then one box. If the predictor is stipulated only to have always made a correct prediction in the past, then I’m really not sure at all. I have very strong intuitions about the first variation of the problem, but I am not familiar enough with the literature to be confident that my intuitions are right.
  • 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, actually, and I am all but certain. In practice, though, I’m all over the place.
  • Proper names: Fregean or Millian? No opinion.
  • Science: scientific realism or scientific anti-realism? Scientific realism. I am not very confident at all about scientific realism, but think all of the positions on science that I take seriously are much closer to the realist end of the spectrum than to the anti-realist end.
  • 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? If the question is what one ought to do, I don’t think there’s any literal matter of fact about this. If the question is what I would like people to do, then I would like them to switch.
  • 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.