#3 Problems of Philosophy

Gideon Rosen, Ph.D. joined the Department of Philosophy at Princeton University in 1993, having taught previously at the University of Michigan. His areas of research include metaphysics, epistemology and moral philosophy. He is the author (with John Burgess) of A Subject With No Object (Oxford, 1997) and co-editor of The Norton Introduction to Philosophy (Norton 2015). From 2006 to 2014, Rosen served as chair of Princeton's Council of the Humanities.  He is currently chair of the Department of Philosophy and director of the Program in Linguistics.

December 12, 2018 - 9:00 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.

Gideon Rosen, Ph.D., Department of Philosophy

Philosophy has a long and fascinating history. But contemporary philosophy is not mainly the study of great figures of the past. It is a living enterprise aimed at solving a range of distinctively philosophical problems.  The aim of this seminar is to give participants a sense of what contemporary philosophy is like. 

The focus will be on two central problems: the problem of personal identity and the free will problem.   The first arises from the manifest fact that people persist through change.  You exist now, but you also existed 10 years ago. And yet the atoms that composed you then have been scattered to the winds, and the thoughts and feelings that filled your mind have been replaced by new thoughts and feelings. If we suppose that whenever a thing persists there must be some kernel that persists unchanged, we will be tempted to posit an unchanging immaterial soul.  We will discuss this idea, but the main focus will be theories according to which human beings are animals made of purely physical bits and pieces.  The challenge is to say what makes it the case that some person who will exist in the future will be you.  As we will see, we approach this question by investigating often bizarre hypothetical cases. (Would you survive ‘teletransportation’?) Reflection on this methodology will prompt a general question about philosophy: How can armchair reflection tell us anything about the real world?

The second question — the free will question — is more familiar.  When you make an ordinary choice it seems to you that your decision was not settled in advance.  And yet your choices don’t feel random or uncaused either: they seem to flow from you.  The first challenge is to say what this could possibly mean.  The second is to say whether it is true. Science tells us that we are collections of subatomic particles governed by strict physical laws.  Those laws may be deterministic, or they may allow for randomness.  But at the fundamental level, those are the only two possibilities.  It is therefore totally unclear whether free will is possible. Our aim will be to assess this disturbing argument and to explore its implications for human life.