Wednesday, October 23, 2013

My dissertation: Overview

My dissertation is about the epistemology of metaphysics.

So, what's epistemology?  Epistemology is the study of knowledge, and all other related concepts.  The central question in epistemology is, "What is knowledge?"  Put another way, we can ask, "Under what conditions does an individual know a certain claim?"  Traditionally, philosophers have thought that there were three such conditions that had to be jointly satisfied.  Let's consider whether James knows that p, where 'p' stands for any particular claim, like the claim that Jimi Hendrix was born in Seattle, WA.  Here are the conditions.

1.  Belief
In order for James to know that p, James has to believe that p.  You can't know anything if you don't believe it.

2. Truth
In order for James to know that p, p has to be true.  You can't know something that's false.  For instance, you can't know that Jimi Hendrix played a show at Madison Square Garden in 2011.

3. Justification
In order for James to know that p, James's belief in p has to be justified.  What does this mean?  For a belief to be justified, it has to have an adequate amount of "support."  There are lots of theories about how a belief is supported.  For instance, maybe the belief in question is supported by other beliefs that you have.  An example of this would be a mathematical proof.  Or, maybe the belief is produced by some kind of cognitive process that is deemed reliable.  For instance, most people believe that your physical senses are reliable for the most part, so a belief that comes from the senses would be justified.

Now, there's lots of debate as to whether this is the correct analysis of knowledge.  Lots of people think that this isn't enough, and that we need a few more conditions.  I'm not going to get into all that for know.  The concept that is most pertinent for my project is that of justification.  I'll come back to this in a sec.

Let's move on to metaphysics.  What is metaphysics?  This is a tad bit harder to describe.  Metaphysics is basically the study of reality.  But wait, doesn't science study reality, too?  What's the difference between metaphysics and science?  There are two ways to differentiate between academic subjects.  The first is by their method of inquiry.  What does a subject do to acquire new information?  The most familiar method is the scientific method.  Other disciplines will have their own distinct method.  The second is by subject matter.  This is more familiar to us.  Biology and chemistry share the same method, but differ on the sorts of things that they study.

So, how do metaphysics and science differ?  Depending on who you ask, these subjects can differ in either method, subject matter, or both.  Most agree that metaphysics and science differ with respect to subject matter.  Metaphysics is about aspects of reality that are more general than the sorts of things that science gets into.  For instance, the subject matter of metaphysics includes the nature of causation, properties, sameness and change, laws of nature, existence, time, space, possibility, etc.

Most metaphysicians working in colleges and universities will argue that the methods employed in metaphysics are similar to those employed in science, especially in theoretical physics.  This is an open debate, however.  I'll have something to say about this in my dissertation, but I'll get to it later.

Okay, now that I've said a little bit about what metaphysics and epistemology are, let me get into what my dissertation is about.  Hopefully everything that I've said above made sense.  If not, let me know!

In my dissertation, I will develop a theory of epistemic justification with respect to beliefs about metaphysical claims.

What are metaphysical claims?  Metaphysical claims are those sorts of claims that metaphysicians investigate and debate about.  Here are some examples.

1. The ability to choose freely is incompatible with the claim that all events are caused by past events and the laws of nature.
2. God does not exist.
3.  Past and future events exist in the same way as the present moment exists.
4. Causation isn't "real."  That is, causation is just patterns that we observe.
5. Abstract objects, like numbers, exist, just like concrete objects exist.

I gave a brief explanation above what epistemic justification is all about.  What I'll be doing in my dissertation is coming up with a way of understanding how beliefs about these kinds of claims can be justified, i.e. rationally supported.  What does this theory look like?  I'll get into the different parts of it in later posts.

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