Fields of research are driven by fundamental problems. Biology, for instance, explores the characteristics of life. Philosophy aims at the most fundamental problems: The nature reality (metaphysics), what is knowledge (epistemology), the roots of morality (ethics), the relationship between humans and nature (philosophical anthropology.) Philosophy has evolved over the last 2500 years, and some of these questions have become separate fields of research, like physics, psychology, or political science. It has become difficult for philosophers to stay up to date with scientific research, and to integrate it back into their own discipline. Is philosophy still a relevant discipline, and what are the questions that cannot be answered by traditional scientific methods? What are some of the major problems in philosophy today?
I have compiled a list of six major problems. I have left out some important questions, for instance the demarcation problem (what distinguishes science from non-science), or questions about the nature of God or the Absolute. A more complete list of typical philosophical problems can be found here.
- The nature of consciousness
Problem: Explaining subjective experiences arising from objective physical processes in the brain is challenging because it is unclear how mental states can be reduced to or explained by purely physical processes. This problem is fundamental because it addresses the nature of our subjective experience and the mind-body relationship.
David Chalmers argues that consciousness is a fundamental aspect of reality that cannot be reduced to physical processes.
Thomas Nagel contends that objective, scientific descriptions of the world cannot fully account for the subjective aspect of experience.
Daniel Dennett advocates for a functionalist approach, arguing that consciousness can be explained in terms of information processing and mental representations.
John Searle emphasizes the importance of biological processes in understanding consciousness, proposing the concept of "biological naturalism."
Books: "The Conscious Mind" (Chalmers, 1996), "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" (Nagel, 1974), "Consciousness Explained" (Dennett, 1991), "The Rediscovery of the Mind" (Searle, 1992).
Debates: The hard problem of consciousness, the explanatory gap, panpsychism, physicalism, dualism, and the nature of qualia.
One possible approach is adopting a form of physicalism, which posits that mental states, including consciousness, can be reduced to or explained by physical processes in the brain. This perspective is supported by advances in neuroscience, which have revealed correlations between neural activity and conscious experience.
Another approach is to view consciousness as an emergent property, with a psycho-physical parallelism. One can also follow in the footsteps of Spinoza and adopt a form of monism: one underlying reality manifests simultaneously as a physical and a psychological dimension.
- Free will and determinism
Problem: The challenge lies in reconciling our subjective experience of agency and choice with the deterministic nature of physical laws. This issue is fundamental because it relates to our understanding of moral responsibility and human agency.
Thomas Hobbes and David Hume argue for compatibilism, the view that free will and determinism can coexist.
Immanuel Kant defends a form of libertarianism, positing that humans have genuine freedom in the realm of practical reason.
Harry Frankfurt introduces the concept of second-order volitions to argue for a compatibilist account of free will.
Peter van Inwagen advocates for incompatibilism, arguing that free will and determinism cannot coexist.
Books: "An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding" (Hume, 1748), "Critique of Pure Reason" (Kant, 1781), "Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility" (Frankfurt, 1969), "An Essay on Free Will" (van Inwagen, 1983).
Debates: Compatibilism vs. incompatibilism, libertarianism, hard determinism, and the implications for moral responsibility.
A compatibilist approach could be taken, which argues that free will and determinism can coexist. This perspective maintains that even in a deterministic world, humans can still make choices based on their desires, intentions, and beliefs, allowing for moral responsibility and agency.
The universe can be deterministic, even if there is no strict causality to quantum processes. The future can be determined, even if we have the ability to choose in the present.
- Knowledge and skepticism
Problem: Investigating the nature, scope, and limits of human knowledge raises questions about the justification of beliefs, the nature of evidence, and the problem of skepticism. This issue is fundamental because it addresses the foundations of knowledge and our ability to gain understanding of the world.
René Descartes advocates for foundationalism, suggesting that knowledge must be built on certain foundational beliefs.
David Hume and Immanuel Kant engage with skepticism, exploring the limits of human understanding and the possibility of certain knowledge.
Edmund Gettier challenges the traditional definition of knowledge as justified true belief, introducing the Gettier problem.
Hilary Putnam defends a form of externalism, arguing that knowledge depends on factors outside the individual's conscious awareness.
Books: "Meditations on First Philosophy" (Descartes, 1641), "An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding" (Hume, 1748), "Critique of Pure Reason" (Kant, 1781), "Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?" (Gettier, 1963), "Brains in a Vat" (Putnam, 1981).
Debates: Foundationalism vs. coherentism, internalism vs. externalism, the Gettier problem, and responses to skepticism.
A potential response to skepticism is adopting a form of fallibilism, which acknowledges that while absolute certainty may be unattainable, we can still acquire reliable knowledge through empirical observation, rational inquiry, and the scientific method. This approach recognizes the limitations of human knowledge while still valuing the pursuit of understanding.
- The basis of morality
Problem: Understanding the foundations of moral principles and the nature of moral values is important for guiding human action and evaluating moral judgments. This problem is fundamental because it concerns the nature of right and wrong, good and evil, and the basis of moral responsibility.
Immanuel Kant advocates for deontological ethics, emphasizing the importance of duty and moral principles.
Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill defend consequentialism, particularly utilitarianism, which focuses on maximizing overall happiness or well-being.
Aristotle champions virtue ethics, arguing that moral character and virtues are central to ethical behavior.
Friedrich Nietzsche critiques traditional moral values and argues for a revaluation of values based on individual creativity and self-overcoming.
Books: "Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals" (Kant, 1785), "An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation" (Bentham, 1789), "Utilitarianism" (Mill, 1863), "Nicomachean Ethics" (Aristotle, 4th century BCE), "Beyond Good and Evil" (Nietzsche, 1886).
Debates: Consequentialism, deontology, virtue ethics, moral realism, moral anti-realism, and metaethics.
One possible answer is to adopt a pluralistic ethical theory, which combines elements of consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics. This approach acknowledges that different ethical perspectives can be valuable in different situations and that moral reasoning should take into account consequences, principles, and virtues.
- Personal identity and the self
Problem: Determining the criteria for personal identity and understanding the nature of the self involves exploring what makes someone the same person despite changes in their physical and mental states. This issue is fundamental because it relates to our understanding of personal continuity, ethics, and the nature of the self. The problem was already formulated clearly in ancient philosophy, see the "Ship of Theseus" thought experiment.
John Locke emphasizes the importance of memory and psychological continuity in personal identity.
David Hume argues that there is no enduring self, only a bundle of perceptions and experiences.
Derek Parfit defends a psychological continuity view, suggesting that personal identity is a matter of degree and connectedness.
Thomas Reid and Bernard Williams criticize reductionist accounts of personal identity, emphasizing the importance of bodily continuity and first-person perspectives.
Books: "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding" (Locke, 1689), "A Treatise of Human Nature" (Hume, 1739-40), "Reasons and Persons" (Parfit, 1984), "Of Mr. Locke's Account of Our Personal Identity" (Reid, 1785), "The Self and the Future" (Williams, 1970
Debates: Psychological continuity, memory, bodily continuity, the persistence question, and the implications for ethics and metaphysics.
A psychological continuity view could be taken, which emphasizes the importance of mental states, memories, and relationships in determining personal identity. This perspective accounts for changes in physical and mental states over time while still recognizing the connectedness of a person's experiences and memories.
- The problem of induction
Problem: Justifying inductive reasoning, which involves drawing general conclusions from specific observations, is challenging because it is based on the assumption that the future will resemble the past. Is there a deductive proof of inductive reasoning? This problem is fundamental because it concerns the reliability of scientific knowledge and our ability to predict future events based on past experiences. More information can be found here.
David Hume famously argues that inductive reasoning cannot be rationally justified and exposes the problem of induction.
Karl Popper proposes falsificationism, suggesting that scientific knowledge advances by disproving hypotheses rather than confirming them through induction.
Nelson Goodman introduces the "grue-bleen" problem, further complicating the problem of induction by questioning the validity of our inductive generalizations.
Rudolf Carnap develops a logical framework to address the problem of induction, emphasizing the importance of probability and Bayesian reasoning.
W.V.O. Quine challenges the distinction between analytic and synthetic statements, which has implications for the problem of induction and the nature of scientific theories.
Books: "An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding" (Hume, 1748), "The Logic of Scientific Discovery" (Popper, 1959), "Fact, Fiction, and Forecast" (Goodman, 1955), "The Continuum of Inductive Methods" (Carnap, 1952), "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" (Quine, 1951).
Debates: The problem of justifying induction, the grue-bleen problem, falsificationism, Bayesianism, and the reliability of scientific knowledge.
An approach to this problem could involve embracing Bayesian epistemology, which emphasizes the importance of probability and updating beliefs in light of new evidence. This perspective acknowledges the limitations of inductive reasoning while still valuing its role in scientific inquiry and everyday reasoning.
It's important to note that these are just some of the potential answers to these philosophical problems, and there is no consensus on the "correct" solutions.