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We have all pondered seemingly unanswerably but significant questions about our existence - the biggest of all being, "Why are we here?" This course gives you the tools to follow and create logical arguments while exploring famous philosophers' viewpoints on these important questions. Join Plato, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Mill, Marx, and many others in an exploration of fundamental questions.

The Great Courses Signature Collection
1 Season, 35 Episodes
January 6, 2016
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The Big Questions of Philosophy Full Episode Guide

  • Professor Johnson poses the last big question of the course: Can we answer the ultimate question? Draw on the many insights you�۪ve gained from these lectures, together with your experience thinking philosophically, to probe the meaning of life from several points of view.

  • Enter the fray with philosophers John Rawls and Robert Nozick, who reached different conclusions about what would constitute a just society. Begin with a thought experiment based on Christopher Nolan�۪s movie Interstellar, pondering how you might start civilization from scratch in the fairest possible way.

  • Deepen your study of the role of government by examining Mill�۪s arguments in his famous 1859 treatise, On Liberty. Apply his reasoning to three of today�۪s hot-button issues: To what extent should marijuana, gay marriage, and offensive and inflammatory speech be legal?

  • Explore three theories on the proper size of government, focusing on economic regulation and delivery of services. Adam Smith saw a minimal role, Karl Marx envisioned total control, and John Maynard Keynes believed that major government intervention was necessary under certain conditions.

  • Does government arise naturally from a state of anarchy? Does this fact morally justify it? Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean Jacques Rousseau thought so. However, each of these philosophers saw different factors driving individuals to enter into the social contract. Compare their views.

  • This section of the course considers the big question: How should society be organized? Here, perform a thought experiment that casts into doubt the moral justification of government. Then probe more deeply into this view, called philosophical anarchism, which has a spectrum of positions from benign to violent.

  • Wickedness has its rewards, which raises the question: Why bother being good? Explore this issue with Plato, whose dialogue The Republic is a detailed description of a highly regulated, virtuous society. Plato contends that the individual achieves virtue in an analogous way.

  • Take up virtue ethics, which suggests that we should concentrate less on resolving which actions are moral or immoral, and instead focus on cultivating virtue. Explore the complexities of this quest, the need to use practical wisdom, and its ultimate goal of eudaimonia, or well-being.

  • Could the happiness or absence of pain that results from an action define whether it is good? The Greek philosopher Epicurus held this view, which was fine-tuned by utilitarian philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Study objections to this outlook.

  • Turn to the next big question: What is morally right and wrong? Your first step is to inquire what establishes the truth of ethical statements. Look briefly at emotivism, which holds that our emotions tell us what is right. Then focus on divine command theory, which considers God to be the source of moral truth.

  • Push your exploration of the mind even further by looking at functionalism, which suggests that anything that functions like our brain has mentality. The implication is that, in principle, machines can think. Study some responses to this theory, including John Searle�۪s thought experiment called the Chinese Room.

  • Examine three more theories of the mind-property dualism, epiphenomenalism, and eliminative materialism-discovering that each has shortcomings. All of us feel that we have minds, so why is it so difficult to pin down what the mind is? Could the mind be an illusion?

  • The next three lectures address the big question: What is the nature of the mind? Start with the celebrated €œhard problem€ of consciousness: How does the brain produce the mind? Investigate two possible answers and explore why many philosophers consider both to be problematic.

  • Could it be that you are the same person over time because you have the same body over time? Explore the implications of this view, which traces to the Judeo-Christian concept of the resurrection of the body in the afterlife. Consider biological objections.

  • Explore the possibility that personal identity is preserved by memory, as Locke contended, or by psychological continuity. Test these ideas in thought experiments involving the transporter from Star Trek and other intriguing scenarios.

  • Some philosophers, called compatibilists, argue that if we understand free will correctly, the idea that humans are free becomes defensible, leaving room for moral responsibility. Evaluate this stance, and close by considering the consequences of conceding that we don�۪t have free will in the traditional sense.

  • It is one thing for God to grant humans the freedom to do evil, but it�۪s harder to understand the existence of natural evils such as earthquakes and plagues. Evaluate different approaches to this problem, including the suggestion that God exists but didn�۪t create our universe.

  • Begin a series of lectures addressing the next big question: Does God exist? The most popular proofs appeal to God�۪s existence as the best explanation for the universe�۪s existence and nature. In this lecture, test the cosmological and teleological arguments, using the tools of philosophy and the evidence of physics.

  • Given that faith by its nature makes no claim to being logical, can it ever be considered rational? Learn that all of us unconsciously behave as if it is. What are our grounds for doing so, and how does this apply to religious faith? Your inquiry introduces you to famous arguments by Blaise Pascal, William Clifford and William James.

  • Look at the phenomenon of religious experiences, pondering whether such events justify belief. Find that practically all religions have religious experiences, but the beliefs they lead to can be radically different. Can €œfeeling the touch of God,€ like Jules in Pulp Fiction, justify religious belief?

  • In this section, put what you�۪ve learned to work by asking the big question: Can religious belief be justified? Start with Hume�۪s argument that testimony can never justify a belief that a miracle has occurred. Analyze the flaws in Hume�۪s reasoning, and think about whether his conclusion still holds.

  • Address a famous problem concerning the nature of knowledge, posed by contemporary philosopher Edmund Gettier. Use different thought experiments to test the traditional definition of knowledge. Discover firsthand the bafflement and enlightenment that comes from doing philosophy.

  • Put empiricism to the test as the best way to acquire knowledge. Study the ideas of John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume, together with the response of Immanuel Kant, before settling on the most effective route to understanding the world as it is.

  • Having covered ways of gaining evidence and justifying belief in pursuit of knowledge, now ask: Is knowledge really possible? See what Plato had to say. Then delve into Ren© Descartes€™ celebrated struggle with this problem, analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of his position.

  • Now begin a section of the course devoted to the big question: What is knowledge? Start with the problem of defining truth. Investigate three philosophical theories that attempt to pin down this elusive concept: pragmatism, coherentism, and the correspondence theory.

  • Avoiding fallacious reasoning is just the beginning of philosophical thinking. Go deeper by studying the rules of deduction and induction. In the process, learn Aristotle�۪s three axioms of logic, the difference between truth and validity, common mistakes in logical arguments, and why practically all scientific arguments are inductive.

  • Hone your philosophical thinking by identifying the categories of fallacious reasoning that ensnare us all. Investigate examples of gut-thinking, confirmation bias, appealing to ignorance, the correlation fallacy, begging the question, and equivocation. Learn how to check your reasoning for flaws.

  • The first four lectures of the course pose the big question: What is philosophy? Start by exploring the kinds of problems that philosophy addresses, the way philosophy works, and the distinction between philosophy and opinion. Discover that philosophy is arguably the most important pursuit there is.

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