15 Metaphysics – Overview and Coursework

Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that is concerned with questions about the nature and existence of reality. This is expansive field of inquiry encompassing ideas and questions regarding various aspects of reality, for example: minds, physical bodies, space, time, the universe, and causality, to name just a few.

“Backspace” your thoughts briefly to the unit about Epistemology and recall that we considered questions about what can be known. Such questions invite further inquiry about the nature of reality, or what is actually out there to be known. The overall field of Metaphysics is broad. This course focuses on theories and their implications regarding the nature of a person’s reality, as a physical body with a mental life. Topics we will encounter are associated with the sub-branch of Metaphysics, the Philosophy of Mind.


Successful completion of our study of this module will enable you to understand and explain:

  1. The difference between dualism and materialism.
  2. How Descartes’s method of doubt leads him to dualism.
  3. Your opinion on the relationship between mind and body and how the brain figures in it.
  4. The basic problem of free will.
  5. Your opinions on determinism, compatibilism, and libertarianism, in terms of their relationship to free will.


The Course Content for this unit provides the primary reading material, links to any additional assigned reading or viewing resources, and assigned coursework. The unit concludes with a test. Material is presented in these subsections:

4.1 Mind and Body
4.2 Do We Act Freely?

Dates for completing all assigned work are in the Schedule of Work.

Philosophers We Will Meet

In our investigation and readings for Metaphysics, we will encounter the work of these philosophers. You may select a name here to link to a short biography, or you may link to the same information at your first encounter the philosopher’s name in the Course Content sections:

Rene Descartes
Patricia Churchland
Baron D’Holbach
William James
Daniel Dennett

Key Terms

It is important to understand the meaning and use of these terms.

Compatibilism: The view that determinism does not rule out what is meant by free will, even though determinism is real and all events are caused.
Determinism: The view that all things are determined by antecedent (prior) conditions; everything is bound by the laws of cause and effect. Every event, including human actions, is brought about by previous events in accordance with universal causal laws that govern the world.
Dualism: The view that material substance (physical body) and immaterial substance (mind or soul) are two separate aspects of the self.
Eliminative Materialism: The view that people’s common-sense understanding of the mind is false and that certain classes of mental states that most people believe in do not exist.
Functionalism: An approach to the philosophy of mind that analyzes mental states in terms of what they do, rather than of what they are.
Identity Theory: The view that mental states are brain states.
Indeterminism: The view that some events, including human actions, are not necessarily determined by previous events in accordance with universal causal laws.
Libertarianism: The view that humans do have free will and make genuinely free choices, and that when humans make a choice, they could have made an alternate one.
Materialism: The view that only physical things truly exist. Materialists claim (or promise to explain) every apparent instance of a mental phenomenon as a feature of something physical.
Physicalism: The view that everything can be wholly explained in terms of physical properties, states, and events.


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