Introducing Wireless Philosophy: An Open Access Philosophy Project Created by Yale and MIT

“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.

 Relat­ed Con­tent:

Down­load 90 Free Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es and Start Liv­ing the Exam­ined Life

Lawrence Krauss Explains How You Get ‘A Uni­verse From Noth­ing’

Take First-Class Phi­los­o­phy Lec­tures Any­where with Free Oxford Pod­casts

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.