Philosophy 4321, Spring 2016: Metaphysics

Alexander R. Pruss


Course web page:

Class times: TuTh 12:30-1:45 in MH 110

Instructor office hours: MH 213: Mondays 10:15-11:30 am, Wednesdays 1:30-2:45 pm, or by appointment



            Metaphysics asks two different kinds of questions. One set of problems is more concrete, asking about how certain things really are, on a level that goes beyond what science studies. After a bit of a warm-up exercise in talking about the nature of time, we will examine two such problems: What makes me be me? (Would I survive if my brain were implanted in your skull? Do I have a soul that makes me be me?) What is free will and do we have it?

            The second set of problems is more abstract, and we will look at two such problems. The first of these is the problem of properties. We might say that a leaf and a tractor are both green. What does that mean? Is there such a thing as greenness that the leaf and the tractor are both related to? If so, where is this greenness? (In the leaf? in the tractor? in both? in the mind of God? nowhere?) We will also consider alternate solutions to the problem of what makes different things have the same property. The second problem is that of modality. As far as we know, there are no mountains of gold or square circles in the world. But there is a difference between these two. While there in fact are no mountains of gold, there could be. But square circles are simply impossible. What makes the one possible and the other impossible?

            Finally, we will discuss causation, which connects up the abstract and the concrete problems.

            Much of the course will concern the grand debate between reductionists and anti-reductionists in various areas.  Reductionists account for a puzzling phenomenon, such as consciousness or causation, by saying that instances of that phenomenon are nothing but instances of some less puzzling phenomenon.  Particularly common are naturalistic reductions where the less puzzling phenomenon is one that is accessible to science (e.g., “conscious states are nothing but brain states”), though not all reductions are naturalistic (e.g., “moral duties are nothing but divine commands”).



Š         Some readings will be placed in the library on reserve, and titles/links will be posted at least week ahead of time at


Grading and requirements:

Š         You must write fourteen weekly papers during the course of the semester.  Each paper is 1.5-2 double-spaced typed pages long.  The paper must be handed in at the beginning of class.  Please try to distribute your papers so they’re not mostly on Thursday!

Š         You are required to hand in one paper during each week of classes other than the first.  It is your responsibility to ensure you don’t fall behind.  If you do fall behind, you will be penalized, but please try to catch up as soon as possible.

Š         It is your responsibility to keep track of how many papers you have done.

o        Every paper must contain a numbered argument.  The argument should either be valid—i.e., the conclusion should logically follow from the premises—or else you should explain why it is invalid.

o        If you are an undergraduate student, the first four papers you hand in must do the following: They need to identify a philosophical argument in one of the readings assigned for the class during which the paper is handed in, and carefully explain this argument.  This explanation must be entirely in your own words, and must not include any direct quotations.  You must carefully state all the assumptions in the argument, including any that are implicit and not stated by the author, in such a way that a reader who did not read the paper could understand the argument.  You need to carefully and precisely explain what the conclusion of the argument is.  Finally, you need to explain why this argument may be seen as important (so don’t choose an argument where you can’t answer this part)—what larger philosophical issue would we make progress on if the argument were successful.  The focus of the paper is on the argument.

o        Starting with the fifth paper (this applies from the beginning if you’re a graduate student), the paper topics shift to original philosophical argumentation on your part.  These papers must also closely relate to the reading assigned for the class during which the paper is handed in.  The paper can be one of three types.  Please state at the top of your paper which kind you chose that week.

§         Type I: The paper begins by giving a careful summary of one argument in the reading, and then gives an original argumentative attack on the argument, making clear which assumptions or steps in the argument are being questioned and why.  You are not to attack the conclusion of the paper—only the argument itself.  In your objection to the argument, you must explicitly state whether you are objecting to the argument’s validity or to its soundness or whether you agree that it is sound, but are concerned about some other argumentative fault (such as begging the question).

§         Type II: The paper begins by giving a careful summary of one argument in the reading, as in a Type I paper, and then briefly shows an important weakness in the argument.   The paper then modifies the argument in an original way, improving it in such a way that it avoids the weakness.

§         Type III: The paper describes an important conclusion reached by one of the papers in the reading, and produces an original argument directly for or against that conclusion.  If the original argument makes use of claims that some of our reading argued against, you will need to respond to at least some these objections.  In general, a better Type III paper takes up at least one objection to some point in its argument.

Š         If you never fall behind and you exhibit no failure of academic integrity during the semester, I will (a) drop the two lowest-graded papers when calculating your grade, and (b) count your highest-graded paper at double weight.

Š         Class participation is required and counts towards the grade. 


Academic integrity:

Credible suspicions of lack of academic integrity will be typically reported to the University for further investigation. 

Plagiarism is one of the most serious of the violations of academic integrity and consists in presenting the work or thought of another as one’s own.  If you are using someone else’s literal words, even if only a short phrase of two or three words, you need to put them in quotation marks (or in the case of a longer quote, in block-quote format which is single-spaced and with every line indented on the left) and give the source.  If you are paraphrasing or merely using someone else’s ideas, you still need to give the source explicitly.  The only exception to the last rule is that you do not need to specifically give the source for ideas that you got in my lecture when writing papers for this course.

Plagiarism is not only immoral but foolish.  My default penalty for a failure in academic integrity is an F in the class.  If you just hand in a mediocre but honest paper you will very likely (though I do not make guarantees) get at least a D on the paper, and anyway there are other papers in the course to pull up your average.  And remember that I’ll drop the lowest two grades if you never fall behind.

However, if you confess to plagiarism before I give you any sign of my suspicions (before I email you asking you for sources, before I ask you to meet with me, etc.), I will let you rewrite the paper and not proceed any further beyond the bare report to Baylor required by Baylor rules and a recommendation of no penalty.  (If someone has no sense of shame and uses this as a strategy to get an extension, I may take adverse action.)