There are three main branches of Western Philosophy: Metaphysics, Epistemology, and Moral Philosophy. Let’s look at one interesting problem posed in each.
Problem 1: Metaphysics – Persistence
Metaphysics is the study of being or existence. Commonly asked questions include:
- What is existence?
- What kinds of things are there? (e.g. material vs immaterial; particulars vs. universals)?
- Does god exist?
- How can we explain persistence?
Theseus is traveling on his ship from point A to point B. He encounters some difficult weather and is forced to replace every single part of his boat. The question is, “Is the boat at the end the same boat which began the journey?”
If yes, there must be some immaterial form or substance that the boat possesses or it must be an immaterial “bundle” of properties rather than one thing. If not, why not? It’s tempting to say that it is different because all of the pieces were changed, however, the human body completely replaces itself every 7-10 years, but we’re the same people even though all of our cells have been replaced. . . .right?
Problem 2: Epistemology – Justified True Belief
Epistemology is the study of knowledge. Common questions include:
- What is knowledge?
- When I say that I “know something,” what does that mean?
- Are there limits to what we can know?
- How do our answers to these questions affect our answers to other questions?
You are driving into a new town, see cows in a field, and make the judgment, “There are cows in that field.” This belief is true and you are justified in believing it, after all, you are perceiving cows in the field. You are in possession of justified, true belief (JTB), what many consider to be knowledge. Congratulations, you know nothing!
For, unbenounced to you, you are perceiving cardboard cut-outs of cows with real cows standing behind each one. You have JTB, but you don’t have knowledge.
This funny yet powerful counter-example shows us that knowledge doesn’t equal JTB. But if knowledge isn’t JTB, what is it? When we say that we “know” something, what are we claiming?
Problem 3: Moral Philosophy – Actions
Common questions in Moral Philosophy include:
- Which actions are morally blameworthy, neutral, or praiseworthy?
- What is “happiness?”
- How can one acquire the virtues?
- What does it mean for humans to “flourish?”
Let’s look at the question of which actions we should take?
- Utilitarianism says we should take actions that bring the most amount of pleasure to the most amount of people while causing the least amount of pain to the least amount of people.
- Deontology says we should follow a strict set of rules.
- Virtue Ethics says that we should make choices in line with what a virtuous person would do (e.g. someone who is courageous, loving, compassionate, etc.).
It is not my intention in this piece to attempt any answers. I hope you enjoy the process of discovering them!
Paul T Johnson
Any of these topics interest you and want to learn more? Here are some places you can start:
Book: William Lawhead, “The Journey of Discovery.”
YouTube: “Philosophies for Life: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Living”
Why start anywhere else? Plato’s “Euthyphro”