Philosophy 2B: What Is There?

You are, it seems, surrounded by things. Computers, tables, chairs, and other people. Coffee cups, books, socks, and shoes. You sit on things. You see or hear things. You buy thingsIt likely seems obvious that all these things must be there for you to interact with them in these and many other ways. All these things obviously exist. In general, we might think it’s obvious which things exist and which things don’t. Tables and chairs exist. Santa and the Easter Bunny don’t.

 But making an uncontroversial list of all the things that exist would be difficult. Some things are clearly controversial. Do you have a soul? Is there a God? Many further things are puzzling. Do things like holes or missed opportunities go on our list?  What about features of things? Do redness and intelligence get added? And what about events? Does the Battle of Waterloo or your first kiss go on the list of things which exist?

 We might think that everyday mid-size objects, like chairs, exist if anything does, but after a bit of head-scratching, even they become puzzling. Do chairs exist over and above the material they are made from? If we have wood, steel, metal, and all the other things that chairs can be made from on our list, should we also include chairs? And can’t we just keep asking this question? Aren’t wood and steal also made from something else? Maybe the only thing we should have on our list is atoms, quarks, or strings—or whatever physics tells us is the most basic thing.

 So, what is there? What should go on our list of things which exist? Do computers and cups, holes and battles, people and places all really exist? Does God and intelligence? How can we tell?

 While some questions about existence may not seem very important, some clearly are. If there is a God, it may be in your best interest to believe that they exist. And vice versa. If the future (already) exists, that may raise questions about whether we are truly free to act as we choose. If science isn’t the final authority about what exists, then how else can we tell? But if it is, then what’s the point of metaphysics?

 In this course, we will begin to consider core philosophical issues concerning the nature of reality. We will explore core questions in formal logic, metaphysics, philosophy of religion, and philosophy of science, focussing on the questions of what kinds of things can be said to exist.

Course convener: Dr Chris Lindsay
Semester: 2
Lecture hour: 2-3, Monday - Thursday
Seminars/Collaborative Classes: see MyCampus
Lecture venue: See MyCampus

Teaching resources for this course, including lecture notes and exercises, can be found on the Philosophy Moodle site

Further course information

Course Structure

The course is divided into four sections. Each section of the course will address a key philosophical question.

 In the first section of the course, we ask: How do we think formally about existence? Logic provides uniquely useful tools for clarifying and regimenting our thinking about existence. In this section of the course, you will develop your skills working with formal systems and tools for thinking about things and their features.

 In the second section of the course, we ask: What exists? Which things are there? In this section of the course, you will hone your skills in determining the fundamental nature of reality by looking at particular puzzling cases. You will consider some particular things that we seem to talk about as if they exist—like holes, causes, and virtual objects—and try to determine whether they really do. 

 In the third section of the course we ask: Is there a God? Should you believe that God does or doesn’t exist? On what basis? In this section of the course, you’ll consider arguments for and against God’s existence and whether religious beliefs should be based on evidence.

 In the final section of the course, we ask: Does science reveal everything. We might think that science explains everything about the nature of reality. But what is science and how does it explain? In this section of the course, you’ll consider the nature of science, including its explanations, laws, and limits.