Phil. 125



Philosophy 181

Spring Semester 2014

Prof. Dowden







Catalog description: Metaphysics is a blind alley of thought into which fiends have conspired these many centuries past to lure the human intellect to its destruction. 3 units.

More catalog description: That catalog description above is not exactly what is stated in the catalog, but it is basically correct, isn't it?

The description is someone else's joke. Here is the real catalog description: Examines arguments concerning the nature of reality. Representative topics include: substance, space, time, God, free will, determinism, identity, universals. Emphasis is on contemporary formulations. Prerequisite: 6 units in philosophy or instructor permission. 3 units.

Textbook: An Introduction to Metaphysics by John W. Carroll and Ned Markosian, Cambridge University Press. We will be skipping chapters 2 and 4. Other required reading assignments (and videos) will be available only on the Internet; see below for the Schedule of Topics and Reading Assignments.

Grades: Your grade will be determined by a class presentation, three essays, and a final exam. Your presentation to the class counts for 15%. Each of the first two essays is a set of about three or four essay questions (15% each set). The third is a seven-page essay (25%). The two-hour comprehensive final exam is worth 30%.

essay 1: Thursday, February 20 (wk 4)

essay 2: Thursday, April 3 (wk 9)

essay 3: Thursday, April 24 (wk 12)

final exam: (wk 16)

On the day of your class presentation, you will give a 15 minute presentation on that day's class material, respond to student questions, propose one or more questions for group discussion, and facilitate this discussion for a few minutes. The presentation should be an introduction that explains some of the main points made in one or more of the required readings or viewings for that day. Before 7:00 pm on the night before your presentation, you must email your professor at with a brief outline of your presentation. The outline should list at least six (preferably more) separate phrases or sentences, followed by at least one discussion question that is related to the philosophical material in your presentation and that you plan to ask the class. A sample outline is available in SacCT. Coordinate your presentation with the other student who is speaking during your week so that you don't have too much overlap. Here is the sign-up list that will be distributed on the first day of class. There will be no class on Tuesday April 15 because of the Nammour Symposium.

It is recommended for the third essay that you follow the Department's writing guidelines posted at

Schedule of Topics and Reading Assignments: Click here to see the schedule of weekly topics and reading assignments.

Six units of college philosophy. The prerequisite requirement might be waived if you talk to me about your interests and experience.

This course will presuppose that, from other philosophy courses, you have already learned a few philosophical skills. Specifically, (1) you know how to read a philosophy article [as opposed to, say, a novel], compose a summary or abstract of it, and also extract the author's thesis from that article. A thesis is a sentence or two that states the main point the author is trying to make. (2) You know how to define the key philosophicalterms used in your own writing, and you have some sense of what words need defining and what can be taken for granted by your audience. (3) You know how to detect an argument by analogy even if it doesn't use any form of the word "analogy." (4) You know how to construct a philosophical essay, including writing a draft, revising the draft, using quotations, citing outside sources of ideas, and avoiding plagiarism.

Add-Drop: To add the course, try to do so by  using CMS. If the course is full, but you are a graduating senior this semester and are majoring in philosophy, then contact me before classes begin or mention this on the waiting list on the first day of class.  To drop the course during the first two weeks, use the CMS system. No paperwork is required. After the first two weeks, it is harder to drop, and a departmental form is required: "Petition to Add/Drop After Deadline." As with any university course, make sure you are dropped officially (by CMS or by the instructor or department secretary); don't simply walk away into the ozone or else you will get a "U" grade for the course, which is counted as an "F" in computing your G.P.A. (grade point average).

Goals: At the end of our semester, you can expect to have a good understanding of the difference between metaphysics and other areas of philosophy. You will know about the major metaphysical problems and the variety of their solutions. During our course, you will acquire the ability to read professional-level writing in metaphysics, and to formulate your own metaphysical positions. That is, your goal isn't merely to figure out the position of the author you happen to be reading; it is also to figure out whether you are going to accept that position and why. As a final goal for our course, the assignments are designed in part to improve your writing ability.


Prof. Dowden

Professor: My office is in Mendocino Hall, room 3022, phone 278-7384. My weekly office hours for Spring semester 2014 are Tuesdasy and Thursday 11:45-12:30 and online in SacCT every Wednesday evening 8-10 p.m. Feel free to stop by in person during the Tuesday and Thursday office hours or call at any of those times. If those hours are inconvenient for you, then we can arrange an appointment for an alternative time. Also, you can always send me e-mail any time at

More Description of the Course: Metaphysicians ask fundamental questions concerning the general nature of the world. (1) Are there principles and characteristics that apply to everything? (2) What is ultimately real? Another way to describe a metaphysics course is to say we will study these issues: free will, the nature of consciousness, personal identity, time, space, change, God, infinity, and abstract objects. Our readings will be from the Western philosophical tradition, and most will represent an analytic perspective.

We will study, among other things, the pitfalls of reification, which is the process of regarding something abstract as a material thing. Here is an example.  "The past hit me in the face like a bloody hand," says a hard-boiled buckaroo in a Raymond Chandler novel. But we metaphysicians know the past isn't an object that can do this sort of thing.  We metaphysicians cannot always take literally the musings of a Montana cowboy. When can we take remarks literally? Ah, there's the rub, and it is one goal for our course.

A major area of academic metaphysics is ontology. It is the study of what exists and what doesn't exist.

Does redness exist?
Do possible things exist?
Does the past exist?
Does telepathy exist?
But there are other topics in metaphysics that do not involve ontology directly. Here are some of those topics:
Which organisms have consciousness?
Do people live on after death?
When does a fetus become a person?
Does time emerge from something more basic?
Are free will and determinism compatible?
Why is the universe not empty?
Which theologies are incorrect?
How do mental causes lead to physical effects?
Can a statement about tomorrow be true today?
What is the meaning of life?
Is biology wholly based on physics?
Could a special robot become conscious?

Why are stars so much bigger than people? This is an interesting question. It once was a metaphysical question, but now it is not. The reason is that the question can be answered by science. Actually it has been answered. Science says stars need to be so much bigger in mass than people in order to have sufficient gravitational pressure to ignite the process of thermonuclear fusion that makes them shine.

Some areas of metaphysics have to do with what lies beyond--with what is abstract and perhaps transcendent. Our course is influenced by this vision. But we cannot do metaphysics merely by revealing our vision. A metaphysics should be more than a poetic vision. It should be a theory or a systematic group of basic beliefs backed up by convincing arguments intended to compel assent from any rational thinker. Quite a goal, right?

Our course is not historically oriented. We will not march through the field of metaphysics century by century. Instead, our course is problem-oriented or issue-oriented. We will inquire about specific topics and study them with no particular attention to history except as it enriches the current discussion.

There is an old American Indian proverb that illustrates one of the issues in our course. The proverb goes like this:

Just the other day, I was an Indian
Following a coyote's trail.

If I had gotten a little closer to the Earth
I could have been the coyote
Making the trails.

If I had gotten even closer,
I could have been the Earth
Upon which they walked.

By trading on the imprecision in the word "closer," the proverb makes a point about the way Indians view the universe. The proverb also raises a metaphysical problem that is called the problem of personal identity. To appreciate the problem, consider what it means to say, "I could have been the coyote." Could you really have been a coyote instead of a human being? No, say some critics, because you'd lose your personal identity if you were a coyote. That is, you'd lose what it is that makes you be you. The Princeton University philosopher Saul Kripke said you can't be you unless you have the parents you do have, but because your parents never gave birth to a coyote, it follows that you can't possibly have been a coyote, and so the Indian proverb is incorrect, if it is interpreted literally. There are responses to Kripke that defenders of the proverb might offer as they try to clarify their position, but we won't pursue these now. Instead, let's just note that we have approached some metaphysical material within American Indian folklore by using the tools of the analytical philosopher. By asking, "Could you have been a coyote?" we've asked the kind of question that requires a careful analysis of what is said and meant, before going on to argue about the answer to the question, and this is the mark of analytical philosophy.

Late work, and make-up assignments: If you have a good excuse, late work is accepted with a late penalty of one-third of a letter grade for each day late, counting from the time the assignment is due. If you need to miss an assignment completely, and have a proper and timely excuse [illness, accident], then I will use your final exam grade for the grade on a missed assignment. There are no make-ups.

Computers and cell phones: No photographing or recording during class is allowed without permission of the instructor. During class, turn off your cellphone. Your computers may be used only for note taking, and not for browsing the web, reading emails, or other activities unrelated to the class. If you use a computer during class, then please sit in the back of the room or in a side row so that your monitor won't distract other students.

Disabilities: If you have a documented disability and require accommodation or assistance with assignments, tests, attendance, note taking, etc., please see me early in the semester so that appropriate arrangements can be made to ensure your full participation in class. Also, you are encouraged to contact the Services for Students with Disabilities (Lassen Hall) for additional information regarding services that might be available to you.

A student tutorial on how not to plagiarize is available online from our library at

Food: Please do not eat and drink during class, except for water. You are welcome to leave class (and return) anytime if the need arises.

Background reading: You can find helpful, easy introductions to metaphysics in the book Riddles of Existence: A Guided Tour of Metaphyusics by Earl Conee & Theodore Sider and in the book Metaphysics by Richard Taylor. Another helpful, easier-to-read book is the The Problems of Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, although it emphasizes problems that were central 100 years ago. For a helpful three-page summary of the field of metaphysics, see the article "Metaphysics" in The Shorter Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, by Edward Craig.

Reference works: Two standard reference works for philosophers and philosophy students are The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by William Craig, 1998, and The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Paul Edwards, 1967, plus its 1996 supplement edited by Donald Borchert. They contain short, trustworthy articles on the philosophers, philosophies, and philosophical concepts used in our course. Good online encyclopedias are the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  Other equally good reference works that have shorter entries are the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, edited by Simon Blackburn [it's the shortest and cheapest one in this list], The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, edited by Robert Audi; A Dictionary of Philosophy, edited by Thomas Mautner; and The Shorter Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, by Edward Craig. All the above paper reference books are in the CSUS Library in 2 North (Library Use Only). The philosophy resources of the CSUS Library are accessible at

Study tips
: The single best extra book that covers the material in our course at the same intellectual level is Riddles of Existence by Ted Sider. If you wanted to read more about our course material, I'd recommend your looking at this book.

As you read an article or chapter in a philosophy book, it is helpful first to skim it, that is, glance over it, to get some sense of what’s ahead. Look at how it is organized and what clues, if any, the author provides to signify main ideas. The clues might be in the first or last few sentences, in section titles, and via use of italics and bold face type. Make your own notes as you read. Stop every fifteen minutes to look back over what you’ve read and try to summarize the key ideas for yourself. This periodic pausing and reviewing and looking ahead will help you maintain your concentration, process the information more deeply, and retain it longer. You wouldn't do this if you were reading a novel or story.

Don't forget the bigger picture. Did you notice connections between one article and another, or between the views of one author and those of another? Did you get convinced by what the author said?

Completing a course assignment will require you occasionally to apply your knowledge to new situations not specifically discussed in class or in the books. This ability to use your knowledge in new situations requires study activities different from memorizing. Your primary goal is to improve your philosophical skills, not to memorize information.




Contact me at if you would like more information about our course.

The web address of this page is
updated: Jan. 29, 2014