Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Metaphysics Syllabus, Fall 2010

Course: Metaphysics - 48775 - HPHI 475B - 01

Web page:

Email group that students must sign up for:
Day, Time and Place: MWF, 10-10:50; Sale 110

Instructor: Dr. Nathan Nobis; ;

Office: Philosophy & Religion Department, Sale Hall 113

Office Hours: 9:30-9:45 AM MWF, 2-3 MWF and by appointment


This is a course on issues in contemporary analytic metaphysics. An upper-level course, Metaphysics is designed for students who have already taken philosophy courses and are familiar with philosophical methodology (e.g., deductive and inductive argumentation, conceptual analysis, and theory assessment using counterexample).

Metaphysics is central to philosophy, since almost all philosophical views presuppose some metaphysical claims. Although it is difficult to state precisely the subject matter of metaphysics, mainstream academic metaphysicians seek reasoned answers to our most fundamental questions about reality that seem unanswerable by scientific methods. Because these questions are so basic, metaphysics is about as abstract as thinking gets. Metaphysical questions include these:

  • Why does anything exist?
  • Does God exist?
  • Can two different objects share, or exist at, the same location?
  • Is there anything more to a human person than the brain and nervous system?
  • What makes me the same person now that I was when I was younger? How is that you are the same individual you were last week, or when you were 10 (or 5, or 1, or birth, or before..?), given all the changes that have occurred to you? What makes a person the same person over time, despite such drastic changes?
  • It seems that everything that happens has a cause (whether we know what it is or not). But if everything is caused, and so our actions are caused, can we have free will? What is it have free will?
  • What is time like? Could we travel through time?
  • Are there any general properties, sharable by more than one thing at a single time, or are there only particular things?

We will discuss these topics (and other metaphysical issues), but our greatest emphasis will be on metaphysical questions concerning (1) personal identity and (2) free will and moral responsibility.

Our primary tasks will be to set up each issue carefully, to consider arguments for some leading views with respect to each issue, and to assess those arguments and views by considering objections to them. Although we will often gain clarity about the strengths and weaknesses of various arguments and theories, we will rarely find any substantive metaphysical view to be established. The difficulty of establishing answers to metaphysical questions is due largely to the fact that plausible answers almost always conflict with some intuitive, common-sense view. Nevertheless, the serious and thoughtful student will be rewarded with an understanding of the assets and liabilities of various metaphysical views.


1. Riddles of Existence by Ted Sider and Earl Conee (Oxford). The first chapter is available here:

2. A Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality by John Perry (Hackett)

3. Personal Identity and Ethics: A Brief Introduction, by David Shoemaker (Broadview)

4. A number of articles from philosophical journals online that must be downloaded, printed and brought to class. Links will be provided by the blog and the email group.


  • State and explain some leading metaphysical theories and arguments.
  • Illustrate the assets and liabilities of some leading metaphysical theories and arguments.
  • Evaluate the plausibility of some leading metaphysical theories and arguments.
  • Write a thoughtful, concise argumentative paper that exhibits the rhetorical and explanatory standards of contemporary analytic philosophy.


Writings About the Readings: Summaries, Outlines, Presentations, Identifying the Arguments writings, Discussion Questions: a variety of written assignments to help encourage that students do the reading and be prepared for discussion of the readings, by any means necessary. These written assignments will be at least once a week, often twice, and will not be accepted late. Students who do not have their homework might not be allowed to participate in class, will be asked to leave and that day will count as an absence (see below). Reading and class preparation is important!!

40% of total grade.

Midterm Exam – during regular midterm exam time. Study questions will be provided.

20% of total grade

Final Paper and presentation of paper to class: an ideal paper will involve finding an article mentioned, but not discussed in detail, in the readings and writing a paper where the argument is summarized and critically responded to. Approximately 8 pages or 2000-2500 words.

20% of total grade

Participation (presentations; leading discussion, commentary presented on another students’ paper)

20% of total grade

Attendance and Punctuality

Variable; see below


Class attendance is required for all Morehouse College courses. Each student is allowed four absences in this course. In addition, two latenesses will count as one absence. Students who are late are responsible for informing the instructor at the end of the class period that they are present, otherwise they may be recorded as absent. Excuses for absences should be submitted no later than two weeks from occurrence. Students who accumulate more than four officially unexcused absences may have their course grade lowered. Daily attendance will be recorded. Each student should keep a record of his or her absences. Students who miss exams or quizzes due to unexcused absences will not be allowed to make them up. Students who fail to submit any written work on the due dates, without official excuse, may be penalized. Students who take a trip that is officially sponsored (and therefore excused) by the College must inform the instructor prior to the trip to discuss how their class work can be made up. Students should make a point of informing the instructor of any required special accommodation.

Accommodation for Students with Disabilities: In accordance with Title 5, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Acts of 1990, reasonable accommodation will be provided to any student who has followed Morehouse College procedures. To begin the process, please contact The Learning Center at the beginning of the semester. Once the need for accommodations has been officially established, the student should consult with the instructor to insure that the student’s needs may be met as effectively as possible.


The tentative order of readings is below, although some chapters in the Riddles book might be skipped. The exact schedule of readings will be announced in class; our rate of progress depends on the nature of our discussions.

Additional materials and assignments will be announced or given out in class. Since this class will be conducted in seminar style using the Socratic Method, discussion, workshops and student presentations, specific reading assignment dates will be adjusted throughout the semester to allow for discussion of issues that may take more class time. If you have any questions about your reading assignment, please do not hesitate to ask the instructor for clarification. Please bring your books to class since we will read important passages together and sometimes read selections that were not included in that day’s assignment.

A Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality, by John Perry (Hackett)

We will read and discuss this short book the 2nd week of class.




We will omit the Riddles chapter on God. Interested students are encouraged to read it and take Philosophy of Religion.



  • We will also read a number of philosophical journal articles on the topics of free will, moral responsibility and determinism.





Personal Identity and Ethics: A Brief Introduction, by David Shoemaker (Broadview)

Part A: Personal Identity and Self-Regarding Ethics
Chapter One: Personal Identity and Immortality
Chapter Two: Personal Identity, Rational Anticipation, and Self-Concern
Chapter Three: Alternative Approaches

Part B: Personal Identity and Other-Regarding Ethics
Chapter Four: Moral Issues at the Beginning of Life, Part I: Killing
Chapter Five: Moral Issues at the Beginning of Life, Part II: Creation
Chapter Six: Moral Issues at the End of Life
Chapter Seven: Personal Identity and Moral Responsibility
Chapter Eight: Personal Identity and Ethical Theory

Conclusion: Notes on Method

Note: A syllabus is not a contract, but rather a guide to course procedures. The instructor reserves the right to alter the course requirements and/or assignments based on new materials, class discussions, or other legitimate pedagogical objectives.

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