“Wireless Philosophy,” or Wiphi, is an online project of “open access philosophy” co-created by Yale and MIT that aims to make fundamental philosophical concepts accessible by “making videos that are freely available in a form that is entertaining” to people “with no background in the subject.” To accomplish this goal, they have contracted with an impressive range of professors of philosophy from prestigious universities across the country. Wiphi is still very much a work-in-progress, but they currently feature some interesting introductions to classical philosophical issues. Currently, the site divides into several basic categories like “Critical Thinking,” “Epistemology,” “Metaphysics,” “Ethics,” and “Political Philosophy.” Much of these are still unfinished, but the few videos on the site, such as those related to the problem of free will and the existence of God, provide viewers with much to chew on.
In the video above, MIT philosophy professor Richard Holton explains the basics of the problem of free will. He divides this into two distinct problems: the metaphysical and the epistemological. The first problem states that if the laws of nature are deterministic, everything that will happen is fixed, and there is in fact no free choice (no matter how we feel about it). Holton chooses to focus on the second problem, the problem of foreknowledge. Put simply, if things are determined, then if we know all of the conditions of reality, and have adequate resources, we should be able to predict everything that is going to happen.
Holton leaves aside enormously complicated developments in physics and opts to illustrate the problem with what he calls “a simple device.” In his illustration, one must predict whether a lightbulb will turn on by turning on another lightbulb, part of a system he calls a “frustrator.” In this scenario, even if we have all the knowledge and resources to make perfectly accurate predictions, the problem of “frustrators”—or faulty observers and feedback loops—complicates the situation irrevocably
In the video above, Professor Timothy Yenter describes the Cosmological argument for the existence of God, classically attributed to Aristotle, elaborated by Islamic philosophers and Thomas Aquinas, and taken up in the Enlightenment by Leibniz as the principle of sufficient reason. One of that argument’s premises, that the cosmos (everything that exists) must have a cause, assumes that the causal circumstances we observe within the system, the universe as a whole, must also apply outside of it. Professor Yenter describes this above in terms of the “fallacy of composition,” which occurs when one assumes that the whole has the same properties as its parts. (Such as arguing that since all of your body’s atoms are invisible to the naked eye, your whole body is invisible. Try heading to work naked tomorrow to test this out.)
This brings us to the problem of infinite regress. In the second part of his introduction to the Cosmological Argument—in which he discusses the so-called Modal Argument—Professor Yenter explains the key principle of Ex nihilo nihil fit, or “out of nothing, nothing comes.” This seems like a bedrock metaphysical principle, such that few question it, and it introduces a key distinction between necessary things—which must exist—and contingent things, which could be otherwise. The most important premise in the Modal Argument is that every contingent thing must be caused by something else. If all causes are contingent (which they seem to us to be) they must proceed from a necessary, self-existent thing. Whether that thing has all or any of the properties classically ascribed to the theistic God is another question all together, but Aquinas and the classical Islamic philosophers certainly thought so.
While there may be no philosophical nutcracker large enough to crack these problems, they remain perpetually interesting for many philosophers and scientists, and understanding the basic issues at stake is fundamental to any study of philosophy. In that sense, Wiphi provides a necessary service to those just beginning to wade out into the sea of The Big Questions.