Mind Expanding Ideas of Metaphysics

A Live Chat with Professor David Kyle Johnson, Ph.D.

On January 14, 2016, Professor David Kyle Johnson sat down for a live Q&A session with his fans from across the globe. The chat is over, but the transcript is posted below for you to enjoy.

Photo of Professor David Kyle Johnson
Professor David Kyle Johnson, Ph.D.

JOHNSON: It’s a thrill to have a chance to talk to so many curious minds! Thanks so much for the opportunity. Let’s have a great time!

NANCY: Please just give a good definition of metaphysics; also, compatibilism. Thank you.

JOHNSON: The word metaphysics originally meant “after physics”. It was the book of Aristotle that you were supposed to read after you read his “Physics,” but today the field has expanded greatly and covers many more topics than Aristotle did. There is I would define it as the study of the fundamental nature of reality. The metaphysician wants to know what exists and wants to know what that which exists is like.

As for compatibalism, its name comes from its suggestion that possessing free will is compatible with the universe being deterministic. Some compatablists suggest that we can still “do otherwise” (as libertarians suggest) even in a world that is deterministic, but most compatablists try to redefine free will in order to suggest that we can still have it even if a deterministic world. A simple example are compatablists that suggest our actions are free as long as they spawn from certain aspects

BOB: I thought meta from the Greek means beyond or unknown?

THE GREAT COURSES: Hi Bob – Meta (from the Greek preposition and prefix meta- (μητά-) meaning “after”, or “beyond”) is a prefix used in English to indicate a concept which is an abstraction from another concept, used to complete or add to the latter.

BRAD PURFEERST: The first question needed to be – if you have a soul, what is it?

N: “soul” as in a Cartesian mind/body separation? None of the alternative answers seem especially reasonable; the third one looked like a maybe until I was chased away the reference to COLLECTIVE subconscious …That’s sort of backwards. Tell me what you mean by “soul” and then we can consider whether such a thing exists in some real way, and whether it matters (vs. being, say, epiphenomnal) what, for instance, is the overlap between “soul” and “mind”? Functionally? Temporally? etc.

DEBORAH VERCAMMEN: It seems soul is the part of us that has the ability to feel to be empathic, to find joy, love, pain…to fear death and to have that disconnect is when the mind can do hurtful things without any seeming conscience about those actions.

WHACKSTER: Is metaphysics essentially Platonic in nature, as in his example of Platonic shapes, e.g., material shapes representing idealized forms which exist in another dimension, in a more perfect state?

JOHNSON: What I think you mean to ask if whether or not metaphysics is simply a study of platonic forms. That is a metaphysical topic, but the study of metaphysics has expanded greatly since Plato. I personally find the question of Platonic forms to be the most uninteresting.

RANDALL REED: If the mind and brain are separable, as per Mortimer J. Adler, then does brain injury affect only the brain and not the mind?

JOHNSON: Yes, and that is why we have really good reason for thinking Adler is wrong and the mind and brain are not separate. The history of neuroscience is replete cases of brain injury greatly affecting ones mental capacities (e.g., Phineas Gage).

BRAD PURFEERST: We can intuit that will and consciousness and matter are separate, but they are nonetheless connected.

DEBORAH VERCAMMEN: However, there really appears to be so many people that exist that have no feelings about the actions they take to hurt others and animals. They see to be without conscience.

N: By “brain” do you mean just the wetware, biological implementation in human? Or some physical embodiment, such as a computer underlying (eventual, real) AI?

REEDCOACH: I tend to think there is a “Great Mind” “out there” and available to us. I certainly would not like to try it out right now. Perhaps it may be intuition, metalanguage, meta-communication, etc. ,

NNCYJCK: What do you think of the philosophic idea of determinism? And, if determinism is not true, doesn’t that necessarily mean actions are random?

JOHNSON: Quantum mechanics has shown that determinism is false, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that our actions are random. Even though the Universe itself is not deterministic all the way down to the quantum level, larger objects like our brain still might be. It wouldn’t necessarily entail that our actions are random—there are other conceivable options. That our actions seem to be determined or indeterministic seems to be the most likely two option.

BRAD PURFEERST: The earlier question on Compatibilism was interesting. With Freewill on one end of the continuum and Determinism on the other, reality is probably as synthesis of the two, and in no fixed position.

 JOEDUFFUS: Hi Professor. Does Rawls’s “veil of ignorance” extend to answering questions about meaning and existence too?

JOHNSON: That’s a really good question. I’m not sure how to answer it, except by asking you to imagine what kind of life someone under a veil of ignorance might find meaningful.

BRAD PURFEERST: Perhaps if were to employ Cartesian doubt like Rawl’s veil, it would apply to the ontology you suggest.

 

 

RUSSELLD1254: How do you think the mind is connected to the ability to understand dimensions? Multiple realities?

JOHNSON: In short, I think our minds can conceive of the existence of such things, but we may never be able to truly ever be able to understand what it means for how multiple universes can co-exist on different planes.

BRAD PURFEERST: The mind can concieve of theoretical possibilities because of mathematical extrapolation.

 

 

N: isn’t the mind fundamentally connected to the ability to understand anything? What is there that understands if not the mind?

DEBORAH VERCAMMEN: I agree the mind can understand the statements but to really get to the nitty gritty of how it could work seems to so difficult. Like the chicken and the egg question.

N: and apart from multiple universes and dimensions in the physics sense, they clearly heavily populate SF and other, speculative and philsophical fiction, and the mind of the readers of these fictional works clearly can understand and extend the authors’ suggested possibilities. and apart from multiple universes and dimensions in the physics sense, they clearly heavily populate SF and other, speculative and philsophical fiction, and the mind of the readers of these fictional works clearly can understand and extend the authors’ suggested possibilities

DEBORAH VERCAMMEN: No…just the process of thinking it through…and going around and around…but of course we needed the chicken first….I guess that is what you meant.

Image of Professor David Kyle Johnson on set at The Great Courses
Professor David Kyle Johnson on set at The Great Courses

EDINA MONSOON: How do you feel about the potential new discovery of gravitational waves?

JOHNSON: I haven’t looked into that yet, but I’m always skeptical of at least initially of grandiose claims. One thing to always ask in such circumstances is whether or not the announcement went through a peer review process first, or whether the researchers went directly to the media. I have no idea what the case in this instance.

ROBBIE: I would be careful with this claim for the time being. This is not the first time this claim has been made, and it has never panned out before. The announcement is currently under peer review, so if it holds up, an official announcement should be coming up within the next few months.

GREGG: Just wondering which do you think is more fundamental, epistemology or metaphysics?

JOHNSON: As a pragmatist might say it all depends on what you mean by fundamental. Since epistemology is the study of knowledge and a metaphysician seeks knowledge about het world. You might say that epistemology is more fundamental. On the other hand metaphysics studies the fundamental nature of reality. So it depends on what you mean by fundamental.

BRAD PURFEERST: IMHO, without epistemology there would be no framework for metaphysics to be understood.

GREG: Do the physical sciences require us to view the physical world as deterministic?

JOHNSON: No, because the physical sciences suggest that quantum mechanics is true. That means determinism must necessarily be false. Things happen on the quantum level that are truly random. A related question is whether or not science commits us to believing in naturalism—the idea that nothing beyond the physical world exists, but science does not commit us to that either. Science is merely a method for discovering what is true and does not commit us to or endorse a particular viewpoint.

BRAD PURFEERST: Heisneberg for sure. But I like Lucretius and his atomic “swerve” as an early ancient argument for randomness.

DEBORAH VERCAMMEN: What do you think about prayer? Do we as humans have the ability to connect to each other without it involving any kind of a spiritual being?

 BOB: Do you agree that the mind uses the brain to create itself?

JOHNSON: No, because that seems to involve a causal loop. (M causes B causes M.)The mind can’t use the brain to create itself unless it already exists. I would say that the existence of the mind is a direct result or consequence of consequence of the functioning of one’s brain. If neuroscience has taught us nothing else it has taught us this.

BOB: Which came first. The chicken or the brain?? I think you are taking this too literally. I sense my mind and brain are co-emerging. The brain is like the horse and the mind is like the rider. I sense the axial mode rules. We as beings are always coming to terms with a dynamic flow of factors that are unflding as they will.

Image of Professor Johnson at the legendary Eagle and Child pub, frequent haunt of great thinkers like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien
Professor Johnson at the legendary Eagle and Child pub, frequent haunt of great thinkers like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien

DEBORAH VERCAMMEN: I personally see the brain as the part that can house all that the mind has the ability to learn and to save that information for future use. When the brain becomes damaged by injury or by disease the mind is not very affected and unable to be and do as it had in the past.
I hate not being able to edit my typing…it should read the mind is now very affected.

JOE: If one could imagine a color that one has never seen, does that mean the color exists?

JOHNSON: I believe that empiricists like Locke and Hume would say that such a thing is impossible, but if you did accomplish such a thing I would say that the color exists because it would exist in the same way that all other colors exist. As I point out in The Big Questions color is not a property found in the world. It is only found in the mind. If you were to imagine a non-existent color and could actually picture what it’s like then it would exist like all other colors.

BRAD PURFEERST: Since it is a secondary quality, it would be so purely subjective as to be unprovable, I would imagine.

BOB: Do you think that the unexamined thought is not worth thinking? I am a student of the classical Buddha and modern mindfulness.

JOHNSON: It seems to me that sentiment is right, at least if it means what I think it means: a idea or hypothesis that has not been challenged or questioned—that is merely just assumed—is probably not worth much.

N: In space system engineering, one cannot do an elaborate trade study on every design decision (there are simply far too many, some one makes based on more superficial assumptions, experience, etc.) Likewise with the gazillion thoughts that we need to have to function, it is simply not feasible to examine every one (even apart from the infinite regress issue). That does not mean that all those unexamined thoughts (or thoughts not yet examined) should all be tossed out as junk!

 

 

PATSY STONE: What’s your opinion on the theory of compatibilist and do you feel it can exist alongside quantum physics?

JOHNSON: I think redefining free will as some compatablists suggest is the only way to defined the notion that humans have free will. Unfortunately, I don’t think the compatablists definition is correct. As for it’s compatibility with quantum mechanics, I think that we could be free in compatabalistic sense given the quantum mechanics is true. As long as quantum mechanics doesn’t prevent our actions from sending or being caused by things like rational deliberative processes, the compatablists should have no problems.

RICK CARMICKLE: What are your thoughts on the view that the mind is one nonphysical dimension of the person. A human person is a nonphysical (spiritual) entity that has an essential involvement with a particular physical body. The brain, then—a piece of meat that is of more than usual interest—is one part of the embodied dimension of the human person. The brain is integrated by the mind into one life, along with all of the dimensions of the person.

JOHNSON: I think this view sounds like the “soul hypothesis” and in my view that hypothesis is on very shaky ground.

BRAD PURFEERST: The suggestion here is that the soul is transcendant and probably eternal. That the “self” is the transcendental component of the body that leaves upon death.

ERNESTO: If time travel were possible, would the timeline prevent us from changing events that have happened in the past?

JOHNSON: David Lewis would think so and I think he is right. If you actually travel back to the past “and not nearly an open time line” making the past different than it was would be impossible. Perhaps this is not too surprising since the same thing is true of the future – you can make it different than it is.

BRAD PURFEERST: As far as God existing, I do not think it should be a matter of faith. The Athenians could rationally deduce an architect, a singularity they called “The One”.

 

BRAD PURFEERST: If time travel existed, I would go for the future. I want to find out how this grand social experiment ends!

DILLON HALL: If people don’t have free will and somebody’s doing something wrong like murder, It’s because there’s something wrong with their brain. So if I could fix their brain in order that they don’t do acts that I believe are wrong, what’s to say that I’m right in determining what’s wrong? Couldn’t that turn into the ultimate form of a dogmatic, brainwashing, elitist group?

JOHNSON: You definitely would want to make sure that you knew that the actions “reprogramming” were wrong. As I make clear in the course that is not an easy thing to do. It most certainly would be brainwashing, but whether brainwashing is a bad thing depends very much on whether or not we have free will. If we don’t then we’re all brainwashed by our DNA and environment. In the situation you’ve described you’d just be swapping one brainwashing for another.

 

DEBORAH VERCAMMEN: Do you think we connect to each other with prayer and meditation because of our own quantum physics or because the big Great Mind is involved?

JOHNSON: I wonder whether we do connect with each other in this manner. But if we do, I
would think that there are more than just these two possibilities.

DEBORAH VERCAMMEN: I agree but so many times there does seem to be this direct connection with each other. How it works is the mystery I guess.

BOB LONG: I am 72 years old and retired. What Philosophers and books do you suggest? I am now free and having difficulty coming to terms harvesting my material success. I long to become more philosophical and or spiritual. Does this make sense?

JOHNSON: I could be very self-serving and suggest my courses, but I could also direct you to Julian Baggini’s Whats it all about Philosophy and the Meaning of Life. Also as a great introduction to philosophy there is Ted Schick and Louis Vaughn’s book, Doing Philosophy: An Introduction Through Thought Experiments.

JOHNSON: This was a great set of questions. I saw questions from all over different parts of both my courses. Thanks for your curiosity, joining in and making this a lot of fun!

 

Dr. David Kyle Johnson is Associate Professor of Philosophy at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.
His lecture series, The Big Questions of Philosophy is now available to stream on The Great Courses Plus.