What makes me ‘Me’? Does God exist? Why should I act morally? Can I trust science? How can I, a physical being, have thoughts and emotions? Should I obey laws I disagree with? Philosophers – both past and present – have offered radically diverging answers to these and the other questions asked in The Open University course A222 - Exploring Philosophy. Guided engagement with this philosophical tradition will provide the platform for you to tackle the big questions of philosophy for yourself.
It is hard to think of anything more basic to our understanding of life than the assumptions we make about the true nature of ourselves, in particular that we in some sense carry on being the same person despite physical and psychological change over time. Could it be a mistake to think like this? Is this notion of a continuous self just an illusion, as Hume suggested? What, if anything, is it that makes Rembrandt, the ageing painter depicted in a late self-portrait, the same person as the young apprentice in early drawings? This isn't a trivial issue. Some real moral differences hinge on the answer we give, as for example, whether war criminals should be punished for crimes committed half a century or more ago. Questions about the nature of the self matter too when considering the possibility of life after death. If something were to survive death, what would it be? It is no longer far-fetched to imagine transferring memories from a dying person to an artificially-created brain, or perhaps to a donor brain. Would the brain with the now-dead person's memories house a person and, if so, would it be the same person as the one whose body died?
Philosophy of religion
Now we turn from the self to God: from questions about personal identity, and what it is to be who one is, to questions about the existence of a supreme being. What do the words ’God‘ and ’religion‘ mean? What it is to ask philosophical questions and offer philosophical arguments, about religion in general and about God in particular? It has been claimed that there can be no arguments when it comes to matters of faith - is this the case? Why – if there is a good and all-powerful God – there is so much evil in the world?
Judgements about what we ought or ought not to do permeate and shape our lives. But what grounds do we have for these judgements? When I am unsure about the moral acceptability of a possible course of action, where should I look to settle the matter? As a moral being, should I be aiming to do whatever brings about the greatest possible amount of happiness in the world? If not, then what? And why should I do the right thing if I would benefit more from doing the wrong thing?
Every day we use expressions such as ‘That’s true!’ or, perhaps irritated by a news report, we exclaim ‘This is just false!’ Sometimes we can’t make up our minds about the truthfulness of a claim because we don’t have good enough reasons either way. When can we say that a claim is true? What reasons do we have to believe which claims are good, and which are not? If I have witnessed something with my own eyes, can I rely on that information to form my beliefs, or should I take account of the fact that my senses are not always reliable? What is the difference between knowledge and mere opinion? We expect nature to show in the future the same regularities that we have observed in the past. But is this expectation rational? Science is widely regarded as the model of knowledge, and yet scientific theories long held as true have turned out to be false. Can we still be certain that current scientific theories are true? Is there one particular method that makes an inquiry scientific?
Philosophy of mind
One important difference between us and inanimate objects is that we have minds while inanimate objects do not. But what are these minds? Are they non-material substances, like souls? Or could it be that having a mind is just a matter of having a brain, a physical object? Descartes’ view is that each of us is a composite of both a non-material mind and a material body and the opposing view is that we are, in essence, just bodies, and that falling in love or being moved by music is just a matter of certain things happening in one's brain. In addition - are our mental lives confined to our brains or do they instead partly reside in the world around us – on the hard drives of our computers, for example? And what should we make of the seemingly intractable nature of consciousness?
What is the relation between ourselves and the states and societies in which we live. It’s commonly thought that we ought to obey the law, vote in elections, or fight for our country if it is under threat. But do we really have such political obligations? What is their source, and when do those obligations cease? Can I just opt out? For that matter, when did I opt in? One answer is that we have obligations only to a just state. But this raises other questions: justice has to do with people getting what they are due, but what, exactly, are people due? Is everyone of equal worth, or do some deserve much more than others? Certainly, some get much more than others. What sort of economic arrangements are fair?
Watch this specially commissioned video by The Open University on 'Political Obligation':