Modern Philosophy or Why There Are No Hats

It will come as no surprise to any of my faithful readers that in September (last block) I took the Modern Philosophy course. A high-paced high-powered analysis of Peter van Inwagen’s book Material Beings, this class combined the best of metaphysics and logic to give me a solid understanding of how modern philosophers tackle questions and provide answers. Given that I intend to attend grad school for philosophy (or computer science, which in my mind are very similar), this was invaluable.

However, even for those not hoping to become a professional philosopher, this course was incredibly relevant. This is because it looked at the question

Under what conditions do many objects compose one object?

Formally, the question is phrased as: “when is it true that ∃y the xs compose y?” (p.30, Material Beings). In other words, when do some things compose something?


It is probably useful to provide an example: it seems clear that you are one thing composed of simples (things with no parts) such as electrons and quarks (according to the standard model of physics). Otherwise it would be incorrect to say something like “I am hungry” or “I had a great day yesterday” because there would be no subject, no I. On the other hand, it seems clear that an electron from my arm, a quark in the sun, and the computer on which I am writing this blog do not compose one thing (even though some Philosophers believe that they do). Thus, the purpose of this class was to figure out under what conditions do some (any) objects compose one thing, and when they do not.

In the class (following van Inwagen’s book) we looked at many possible answers such as contact (things compose one thing if they are in contact), fastening (if they are fastened together), cohesion (if they are glued, for example), and fusion (as in physics). Ultimately, these were all flawed. We also looked at (material) Nihilism (there are no composite objects) and (material) Universalism (every set of simples composes an object). Van Inwagen ultimately rejected these as well (see Material Beings for more detail).

Some notes from a breakout activity in which we summarized one of the chapters in Material Beings.

The answer he arrives at is that only organisms (living things) are composite objects. That is, there are trees and dogs and cats, but no seas or bogs or hats. This is a surprising answer, and yet throughout the book he gives the reader considerable reasons for accepting this claim.

One of the most interesting parts of the course for me was looking at how philosophers use logic to examine arguments. Although I had taken a course at Quest dealing with logic called Logic and Metalogic, in which we examined the nature of logic and computation (one of my favourite courses), Modern Philosophy was the first time I had formally been exposed in a class to philosophers using logic to prove things about stuff other than logic itself. Using formal logic is an incredibly useful approach when dealing with complicated problems, as it allows one to rigorously examine claims for validity and soundness.

The book/course also delved into philosophy of mind, brain transplants, the persistence of identity of time, and both hypothetical and actual biology. This is because philosophy by its nature is interdisciplinary; aiming at ultimate truth, it does not seek to view things from one privileged perspective, but to look at the nature of reality in general. Thus, it both informs and is informed by various disciplines.

It is now a few weeks after this course ended, and I remember it fondly. I enjoyed taking a course that was exploring a clearly defined question. Although some people have the opinion that philosophy is unclear, unfocused, and that there cannot be answers, this is far from the case. Philosophy can seem this way because it is the only discipline that constantly challenges all of its assumptions; biologists tend not to worry about fundamental problems of induction or when the law of the excluded middle holds (or doesn’t), and physicists tend not to worry about what the nature of composition is. This simplifies things quite a bit, as one doesn’t have to worry about the problems hidden in the assumptions. Philosophers, on the other hand, in their relentless pursuit of universal truth, are constantly grappling with fundamental problems and assumptions of this kind. In order to make progress on these questions, they have to clearly define the problem that they are investigating, and their proposed solution(s) to it. This unlimited depth of inquiry makes philosophy unique.

I am grateful that at Quest I have had to take many different courses in different disciplines; it has helped to focus on clarify my own ideas about the world. And yet, even after having been exposed to these different academic pursuits, it is Philosophy, with her relentless pursuit for truth, who has captured my mind and heart. I can see myself changing my views on politics; I can see myself changing my artistic tastes; I can see myself changing my life’s goals; I cannot see myself ceasing to do philosophy.

Sapere aude!

~ Daniel

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