Metaphysics (Greek words meta = after/beyond and physics = nature) is a branch of philosophy concerned with the study of "first principles" and "being" (ontology).

Metaphysics as a discipline was a central part of academic inquiry and scholarly education since before the age in which Aristotle coined the word. Long considered "the Queen of Sciences", its issues were considered no less important than the other main formal subjects of physical science, medicine, mathematics, poetics and music. Since the Age of Reason, problems that were not originally considered metaphysical have been added to metaphysics. Other problems that were considered metaphysical problems for centuries are now typically relegated to their own separate subheadings in philosophy, such as philosophy of religion, philosophy of mind, philosophy of perception, philosophy of language, and philosophy of science. In rare cases subjects of metaphysical research have been found to be entirely physical and natural, thus making them part of physics.

A somewhat informal way of considering metaphysics, particularly in its more modern applications such as the "philosophy of ..." subheadings cited above, is to say that it is "thinking about thinking." A major concern of metaphysics is a study of the thought process itself: how we perceive, how we reason, how we communicate, how we speculate, and so on. The subject matter is usually abstract, and, it might be said, concerns itself with how we deal with such abstractions.

What might be called the core metaphysical problems would be the ones which have always been considered metaphysical. What most of such problems have in common is that they are the problems of ontology, "the science of being qua being".

In modern times, the meaning of the word metaphysics has become confused by popular significations that are really unrelated to metaphysics or ontology per se, viz. esotericism and occultism. Esotericism and occultism, in their many forms, are not so much concerned with inquiries into first principles or the nature of being, though they do tend to proceed on the metaphysical assumption that all being is "one".



The origin of the word 'metaphysics'

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle produced a number of works which together were called the Physics. In an early edition, the works of Aristotle were organized in such a way that another set of works was placed right after the Physics. These books seemed to concern a basic, fundamental area of philosophical inquiry, which Aristotle himself called "first philosophy". So early Aristotelian scholars called those books τὰ μετὰ τὰ φυσικά βιβλια, "ta meta ta physika biblia", which means "the books that come after the (books about) physics." That is one theory of the origin of the word 'metaphysics' (in Greek, μεταφυσικά).

Etymologically speaking, metaphysics is the subject of those books by Aristotle which were called, collectively, the Metaphysics. But the actual subject matter in the book, are on the topic of things that underlie the physical—"beyond" the physical, so to speak—therefore fitting the word in two ways.

The Metaphysics was divided into three parts, now regarded as the traditional branches of Western metaphysics, called (1) ontology, (2) theology and (3) universal science. There were also some smaller, perhaps tangential matters: a philosophical lexicon, an attempt to define philosophy in general and several extracts from the Physics repeated verbatim.

  • Ontology is the study of existence; it has been traditionally defined as 'the science of being qua being'.
  • Theology means, here, the study of God (or the gods) and of questions about the divine.
  • Universal science is supposed to be the study of so-called first principles, which underlie all other inquiries; an example of such a principle is the law of non-contradiction: A = A, A not = B, Not both A and B. In other words, the elementary laws of logic as Aristotle knew them.

Universal science or first philosophy treats of "being qua being" — that is, what is basic to all science before one adds the particular details of any one science. This includes topics like causality, substance, species and elements. It also includes topics like relationship, interaction, finitude and a theoretically boundless infinity.



It is sometimes difficult to understand what the issues even are in metaphysics. It might help to begin with a fairly simple example that will help to introduce the problems of metaphysics.

Imagine now that we are in a room, and in the middle of the room there is a table, and in the middle of the table there is a big, fresh, juicy, red apple. We can ask many metaphysical questions about this apple. This will, hopefully, help us understand better what metaphysics is.

The apple is an excellent example of a physical object: one can pick it up, throw it around, eat it, and so on. It occupies space and time and has a variety of properties. Suppose we ask: what are physical objects? This might seem like the sort of question to which one cannot give an answer ("What is, what is?"). What could one possibly use to explain what physical objects are? But philosophers actually do try to give some general sorts of accounts of what they are. They ask: Are physical objects just bundles of their properties? Or are they substances which have those properties? That is called the problem of substance or objecthood.

Here is another sort of question. We said that the apple has properties, like being red, being big, being juicy. How are properties different from objects? Notice, we say that things like apples have properties like redness. But apples and redness are different sorts of items, of things, of entities. One can pick up and touch an apple, but cannot pick up and touch redness, except perhaps in the sense that you can pick up and touch red things. So how can we best think about what properties are? This is one of the central questions in what is known as the problem of universals.

Here is another question about what physical objects are: when in general can we say that physical objects come into being and when they cease to exist? Surely the apple can change in many ways without ceasing to exist. It could get brown and rotten but it would still be an apple. But if someone ate it, it would not just have changed; it would no longer exist. So there are some metaphysical questions to be answered about the notions of identity, or being the same thing over time, and change. (See Also: identity and change)

This apple exists in space (it sits on a table in a room) and in time (it was not on the table a week ago and it will not be on the table a week from now). But what does this talk of space and time mean? Can we say, for example, that space is like an invisible three-dimensional grid in which the apple is located? Suppose the apple, and every other physical object in the universe, were to be entirely removed from existence: then would space, that "invisible grid," still exist? Some people say not—they say that without physical objects, space would not exist, because space is the framework in which we understand how physical objects are related to each other. There are many other metaphysical questions to ask about space and time.

There are some other very different sorts of problems in metaphysics. The apple is one sort of thing; now if Sally is in the room, and we say Sally has a mind, we are surely going to say that Sally's mind is a different sort of thing from the apple (if it is a sort of thing at all). I might say that my mind is immaterial, but the apple is a material object, (although there is much disagreement amongst philosophers about the metaphysical status of minds). Moreover, it sounds a little strange to say that Sally's mind is located in any particular place; maybe we could say it is somewhere in the room; but the apple is obviously located in a particular place, namely on the middle of the table. It seems clear that minds are fundamentally different from physical bodies. But if so, how can something mental, like a decision to eat, cause a physical event to occur, like biting down on the apple? How are the mind and body causally interconnected if they are two totally different sorts of things? This is called the mind-body problem, which is now typically relegated to a philosophical subdiscipline called philosophy of mind. The mind-body problem is sometimes still considered part of metaphysics, however, perhaps the most profound problem belonging to this branch is the question of consciousness. No discipline has yet been able to explain fully what consciousness is or how it works.



Metaphysics has been attacked, at different times in history, as being futile and overly vague. Lord Byron often mocked the subject in his works. David Hume and Immanuel Kant both prescribed a limited role to the subject and argued against knowledge progressing beyond the world of our representations (except, in the case of Kant, to knowledge that the noumena exist). A.J. Ayer is famous for leading a "revolt against metaphysics", where he claimed that its propositions were meaningless. Martin Heidegger often criticised metaphysics, yet he dealt with questions that many would consider to be metaphysical. British universities became less concerned with the area for much of the 20th century but it has seen a reemergence in recent times amongst philosophy departments.

A more nuanced view is that metaphysical statements are not meaningless statements, but rather that they are generally not fallible, testable or provable statements. That is to say, there is no valid set of empirical observations nor a valid set of logical arguments which could definitively prove metaphysical statements to be true or false. Hence, a metaphysical statement usually implies a belief about the world or about the universe which may seem reasonable but is ultimately not provable. That belief could be changed in a non-arbitrary way, based on experience or argument, yet there exists no evidence or argument so compelling that it could rationally force a change in that belief, in the sense of definitely proving it false. Yet this does not mean that science can be altogether freed from metaphysical assumptions or beliefs, since scientific thought is based on axiomatic systems, which by definition operate with unprovable assumptions. One reason for that is that, typically, there are always more theories, than valid data that could corroborate or falsify those theories (Cf. also Stefan Amsterdamski's reflections on this topic). But whereas the metaphysician is likely to say, "this is how it is", the physician (i.e. natural scientist) is likely to say, "this is how it is, though I could be proven wrong".


Metaphysical subdisciplines


Metaphysical topics and problems


Metaphysical jargon




See also



  • Lowe, E. J. (2002). A survey of metaphysics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Loux, M. J. (2002). Metaphysics: A contemporary introduction (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.
  • Kim, J. and Ernest Sosa Ed. (1999). Metaphysics:An Anthology. Blackwell Philosophy Anthologies.
  • Kim, J. and Ernest Sosa, Ed. (2000). A Companion to Metaphysics. Malden Massachusetts, Blackwell, Publishers.
  • Fillmore, Charles (1931, 17th printing July 2000). Metaphysical Bible Dictionary. Unity Village, Missouri: Unity House. ISBN 0-871-59067-0

External links

Universal science

Universal Science is a branch of Metaphysics. Originally, the idea of Universal Science comes from Plato's system of idealism, as Plato formulated using the teachings of Socrates.

External sources

Heading 6, Philosophy as the Theological Science

'see index for more information'


This article discusses ontology in philosophy. For the term in computer science, see ontology (computer science).

In philosophy, ontology (from the Greek ὄν, genitive ὄντος: being (part. of εἶναι: to be) and -λογία: writing about, study of) is the most fundamental branch of metaphysics. It studies being or existence and their basic categories and relationships, to determine what entities and what types of entities exist. Ontology thus has strong implications for conceptions of reality.

Some philosophers, notably of the Platonic school, contend that all nouns refer to entities. Other philosophers contend that some nouns do not name entities but provide a kind of shorthand way of referring to a collection (of either objects or events). In this latter view, mind, instead of referring to an entity, refers to a collection of mental events experienced by a person; society refers to a collection of persons with some shared characteristics, and geometry refers to a collection of a specific kind of intellectual activity. Any ontology must give an account of which words refer to entities, which do not, why, and what categories result. When one applies this process to nouns such as electrons, energy, contract, happiness, time, truth, causality, and god, ontology becomes fundamental to many branches of philosophy.



Some basic questions

Ontology has one basic question: "What actually exists?" Different philosophers provide different answers to this question.

One common approach is to divide the extant entities into groups called "categories". However, these lists of categories are also quite different from one another. It is in this later sense that ontology is applied to such fields as theology, library science and artificial intelligence.

Further examples of ontological questions include:

  • What is existence?
  • Is existence a property?
  • Why does something exist rather than nothing?
  • What constitutes the identity of an object?
  • What is a physical object?
  • What features are the essential, as opposed to merely accidental, attributes of a given object?
  • Can one give an account of what it means to say that a physical object exists?
  • What are an object's properties or relations and how are they related to the object itself?
  • When does an object go out of existence, as opposed to merely changing?


Quintessential ontological concepts include:


Early history of ontology

The concept of ontology is generally thought to have originated in early Greece and occupied Plato and Aristotle. Since the word is of Greek origin its current meaning and application are certainly sourced from Greek culture. Aristotle described ontology as "the science of being qua being". The word 'qua' means 'in the capacity of'. According to this theory, then, ontology is the science of being inasmuch as it is being, or the study of beings insofar as they exist. Take anything you can find in the world, and look at it, not as a puppy or a slice of pizza or a folding chair or a president, but just as something that is. More precisely, ontology concerns determining what categories of being are fundamental and asks whether, and in what sense, the items in those categories can be said to "be".

Prior to Greek philosophy these questions were debated in ancient India by many philosophers and thinkers. The names of a few of these have come down to us today. The most notable secular philosophers are Raja (King) Janaka and Rajamuni (Royal Sage) Kapila. Kapila's Samkhya philosophy asked and answers many ontological questions posed by the Greek philosophers. The most distinguishing fact concerning Kapila's ontology is that it is entirely secular in nature.


Subject, relationship, object

"What exists", "What is", "What am I", "What is describing this to me", all exemplify questions about being, and highlight the most basic problems in ontology: finding a subject, a relationship, and an object to talk about. During the Enlightenment the view of René Descartes that "cogito ergo sum" ("I think therefore I am") had generally prevailed, although Descartes himself did not believe the question worthy of any deep investigation. However, Descartes was very religious in his philosophy, and indeed argued that "cogito ergo sum" proved the existence of God. Later theorists would note the existence of the "Cartesian Other" — asking "who is reading that sentence about thinking and being?" — and generally concluded that it must be God.

This answer, however, became increasingly unsatisfactory in the 20th century as the philosophy of mathematics and the philosophy of science and even particle physics explored some of the most fundamental barriers to knowledge about being. Sociological theorists, most notably George Herbert Mead and Erving Goffman, saw the Cartesian Other as a "Generalized Other," the imaginary audience that individuals use when thinking about the self. The Cartesian Other was also used by Freud, who saw the superego as an abstract regulatory force.


Body and environment

Schools of subjectivism, objectivism and relativism existed at various times in the 20th century, and the postmodernists and body philosophers tried to reframe all these questions in terms of bodies taking some specific action in an environment. This relied to a great degree on insights derived from scientific research into animals taking instinctive action in natural and artificial settings — as studied by biology, ecology, and cognitive science.

The processes by which bodies related to environments became of great concern, and the idea of being itself became difficult to really define. What did people mean when they said "A is B", "A must be B", "A was B"...? Some linguists advocated dropping the verb "to be" from the English language, leaving "E Prime", supposedly less prone to bad abstractions. Others, mostly philosophers, tried to dig into the word and its usage. Heidegger attempted to distinguish being and existence.



Existentialism regards being as a fundamental central concept. It is anything that can be said to 'be' in various senses of the word 'be'. The verb to be has many different meanings and can therefore be rather ambiguous. Because "to be" has so many different meanings, there are, accordingly, many different ways of being.


Social science

Social scientists adopt one of four main ontological approaches: realism (the idea that facts are out there just waiting to be discovered), empiricism (the idea that we can observe the world and evaluate those observations in relation to facts), positivism (which focuses on the observations themselves, attentive more to claims about facts than to facts themselves), and post-modernism (which holds that facts are fluid and elusive, so that we should focus only on our observational claims).


Prominent ontologists


See also


External links

Philosophy of perception

The philosophy of perception concerns how mental processes and symbols depend on the world internal and external to the perceiver.




Our perception of the external world begins with the senses, which lead us to generate empirical concepts representing the world around us, within a mental framework relating new concepts to preexisting ones. Because perception leads to an individual's impression of the world, its study may be important for those interested in better understanding communication, self, id, ego — even reality.

While René Descartes concluded that the question "Do I exist?" can only be answered in the affirmative (cogito ergo sum), Freudian psychology suggests that self-perception is an illusion of the ego, and cannot be trusted to decide what is in fact real. Such questions are continuously reanimated, as each generation grapples with the nature of existence from within the human condition. The questions remain: Do our perceptions allow us to experience the world as it "really is?" Can we ever know another point of view in the way we know our own?


Categories of perception

We can categorize perception as internal or external.

  • Internal perception (proprioception) tells us what's going on in our bodies. We can sense where our limbs are, whether we're sitting or standing; we can also sense whether we are hungry, or tired, and so forth.
  • External or Sensory perception (exteroception), tells us about the world outside our bodies. Using our senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste, we discover colors, sounds, textures, etc. of the world at large. There is a growing body of knowledge of the mechanics of sensory processes in cognitive psychology.

The philosophy of perception is mainly concerned with exteroception. When philosophers use the word perception they usually mean exteroception, and the word is used in that sense everywhere .


Scientific accounts of perception

The science of perception is concerned with how events are observed and interpreted. An event may be the occurrence of an object at some distance from an observer. According to the scientific account this object will reflect light from the sun in all directions. Some of this reflected light from a particular, unique point on the object will fall all over the corneas of the eyes and the combined cornea/lens system of the eyes will divert the light to two points, one on each retina. The pattern of points of light on each retina forms an image. This process also occurs in the case of silouettes where the pattern of absence of points of light forms an image. The overall effect is to encode position data on a stream of photons and to transfer this encoding onto a pattern on the retinas. The patterns on the retinas are the only optical images found in perception, prior to the retinas light is arranged as a fog of photons going in all directions.

The images on the two retinas are slightly different and the disparity between the electrical outputs from these is resolved either at the level of the lateral geniculate nucleus or in a part of the visual cortex called 'V1'. The resolved data is further processed in the visual cortex where some areas have relatively more specialised functions, for instance area V5 is involved in the modelling of motion and V4 in adding colour. The resulting single image that subjects report as their experience is called a 'percept'. Studies involving rapidly changing scenes show that the percept derives from numerous processes that each involve time delays (see Moutoussis and Zeki (1997)).

Recent fMRI studies show that dreams, imaginings and perceptions of similar things such as faces are accompanied by activity in many of the same areas of brain. It seems that imagery that originates from the senses and internally generated imagery may have a shared ontology at higher levels of cortical processing.

If an object is also a source of sound this is transmitted as pressure waves that are sensed by the cochlear in the ear. If the observer is blindfolded it is difficult to locate the exact source of sound waves, if the blindfold is removed the sound can usually be located at the source. The data from the eyes and the ears is combined to form a 'bound' percept. The problem of how the bound percept is produced is known as the binding problem and is the subject of considerable study. The binding problem is also a question of how different aspects of a single sense (say, color and contour in vision) are bound to the same object when they are processed by spatially different areas of the brain.


Philosophical ideas about perception

The most common theory of perception is naïve realism in which people believe that what they perceive is things in themselves. Children develop this theory as a working hypothesis of how to deal with the world. Many people who have not studied biology carry this theory into adult life and regard their perception to be the world itself rather than a pattern that overlays the form of the world. Thomas Reid took this theory a step further, he realised that sensation was composed of a set of data transfers but declared that these were in some way transparent so that there is a direct connection between perception and the world. This idea is called Direct Realism. Direct Realism has become popular in recent years with the rise of postmodernism and Behaviourism. Direct Realism does not clearly specify the nature of the bit of the world that is an object in perception, especially in cases where the object is something like a silhouette.

The succession of data transfers that are involved in perception suggests that somewhere in the brain there is a final set of activity, called sense data, that is the substrate of the percept. Perception would then be some form of brain activity and somehow the brain would be able to perceive itself. This concept is known as indirect realism. In Indirect Realism it is held that we can only be aware of external objects by being aware of representations of objects. This idea was held by John Locke and Immanuel Kant. The common argument against indirect realism, used by Gilbert Ryle amongst others, is that it implies a homunculus or Ryle's regress where it appears as if the mind is seeing the mind in an endless loop. This argument assumes that perception is entirely due to data transfer and classical information processing. This assumption is highly contentious (see strong AI) and the argument can be avoided by proposing that the percept is a phenomenon that does not depend wholly upon the transfer and rearrangement of data.

Direct realism and indirect realism are known as 'realist' theories of perception because they hold that there is a world external to the mind. Direct realism holds that the representation of an object is located next to, or is even part of, the actual physical object whereas indirect realism holds that the representation of an object is brain activity. Direct realism proposes some as yet unknown direct connection between external representations and the mind whilst indirect realism requires some feature of modern physics to create a phenomenon that avoids infinite regress. Indirect realism is consistent with experiences such as:

binding, dreams, imaginings, hallucinations, illusions, the resolution of binocular rivalry, the resolution of multistable perception, the modelling of motion that allows us to watch TV, the sensations that result from direct brain stimulation, the update of the mental image by saccades of the eyes and the referral of events backwards in time

whereas direct realism argues either that these experiences do not occur or avoids the problem by defining perception as only those experiences that are consistent with direct realism.

Apart from the realist theories of perception there are also anti-realist theories. There are two varieties of anti-realism: Idealism and Skepticism. Idealism holds that we can only be aware of mental things whereas skepticism holds that because we never perceive external objects directly we can never know for certain whether they exist. One of the most influential proponents of idealism was George Berkeley who maintained that everything was mind or dependent upon mind. Berkeley's idealism has two main strands, phenomenalism in which physical events are viewed as a special kind of mental event and subjective idealism. David Hume is probably the most influential proponent of skepticism.

The philosophy of perception is very closely related to a branch of philosophy known as epistemology, the theory of knowledge, and many of the ideas presented above are also discussed under this heading.


Cognitive processing and epiphenomenalism

Perception is sometimes referred to as a cognitive process in which information processing is used to transfer information from the world into the brain and mind where it is further processed and related to other information. Some philosophers and psychologists propose that this processing gives rise to particular mental states (cognitivism) whilst others envisage a direct path back into the external world in the form of action (radical behaviourism).

Many eminent behaviourists such as John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner have proposed that perception acts largely as a process between a stimulus and a response but despite this have noted that Ryle's "ghost in the machine" of the brain still seems to exist. As Skinner wrote:

"The objection to inner states is not that they do not exist, but that they are not relevant in a functional analysis" Skinner 1953.

This view, in which experience is thought to be an incidental by-product of information processing, is known as epiphenomenalism.


Perceptual space

Another aspect of perception that is common to both realists and anti-realists is the idea of mental or perceptual space. David Hume considers this at some length and concludes that things appear extended because they have the attributes of colour and solidity. A popular modern philosophical view is that the brain cannot contain images so our sense of space must be due to the actual space occupied by physical things. However, as Rene Descartes noticed, perceptual space has a projective geometry, things within it appear as if they are viewed from a point and are not simply objects arranged in 3D. Mathematicians now know of many types of projective geometry such as complex Minkowski space that might describe the layout of things in perception (see Peters (2000)). It is also known that many parts of the brain contain patterns of electrical activity that correspond closely to the layout of the retinal image (this is known as retinotopy). There are indeed images in the brain but how or whether these become conscious experience is a mystery (see McGinn (1995)).


See also


Further reading

Philosophy of religion

Philosophy of religion is the rational study of the meaning and justification of fundamental religious claims, particularly about the nature and existence of God (or gods, or the divine).



Philosophy of religion as a part of metaphysics

Philosophy of religion has classically been regarded as a part of metaphysics. In Aristotle's, Metaphysics, he described first causes as one of the subjects of his investigation. For Aristotle, God was the first cause: the unmoved mover. This later came to be called natural theology by rationalist philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries. Today, philosophers have adopted the term 'philosophy of religion' for the subject, and typically it is regarded as a separate field of specialization, though it is also still treated by some, particularly Catholic philosophers, as a part of metaphysics.

It should be clear why considerations of the divine have been regarded as metaphysical. God is usually conceived to be in a distinct category of being; a being different from those of the rest of the universe. For example, God in some traditions is conceived as not having a body. Metaphysics, and in particular ontology, is concerned with the most basic categories of existence, those things that cannot be explained with reference to any other type of existence. Thus one might argue that the very notion of God (or gods, or the divine) cannot be reduced to human concepts of mind or body; God is a sui generis entity.

However, the philosophy of religion has concerned itself with more than just metaphysical questions. In fact the subject has long involved important questions in areas such as epistemology, philosophy of language, philosophical logic, and moral philosophy.


Questions asked in philosophy of religion

One might think that philosophy of religion would be an inquiry into the foundations of religions (as Philosophy X is typically an inquiry into the foundations of X). However, philosophy of religion is predominantly an inquiry into the nature of God and religious belief (not religions per se). Thus, two of the main questions in the field are:

  1. What is God?
  2. Are there any good reasons to think that God does or does not exist?

Still, there are other questions studied in the philosophy of religion. For example: What, if anything, would give us good reason to believe that a miracle has occurred? What is the relationship between faith and reason? What is the relationship between morality and religion? What is the status of religious language? Does petitionary prayer (sometimes still called impetratory prayer) make sense?


What is God?

The question "What is God?" is sometimes also phrased as "What is the meaning of the word 'God'?" Most philosophers expect some sort of definition as an answer to this question, but they are not content simply to describe the way the word is used: they want to know the essence of what it means to be God. Western philosophers typically concern themselves with the God of monotheistic religions (see the nature of God in Western theology), but discussions also concern themselves with other conceptions of the divine.

Indeed, before attempting a definition of a term it is essential to know what sense of the term is to be defined. In this case, this is particularly important because there are a number of widely different senses of the word 'God.' So before we try to answer the question "What is God?" by giving a definition, first we must get clear on which conception of God we are trying to define. Since this article is on "philosophy of religion" it is important to keep to the canon of this area of philosophy. For whatever reasons, the Western, monotheistic conception of God (discussed below) has been the primary target of investigation in philosophy of religion. (One likely reason as to why the Western conception of God is dominant in the canon of philosophy of religion is that philosophy of religion is primarily an area of analytic philosophy, which is primarily Western.) Among those people who believe in supernatural beings, some believe there is just one God (monotheism; see also monotheistic religion), while others, such as Hindus, believe in many different deities (polytheism; see also polytheistic religion) while maintaining that all are manifestations of one God. Ayyavazhi asserts a concept Ekam, a state of ultimate oneness of 'all that exists' as the ultimate and the foremost. Buddhists generally do not believe in a creator God similar to that of the Abrahamic religions, but direct attention to a state of called Nirvana.

Within these two broad categories (monotheism and polytheism) there is a wide variety of possible beliefs, although there are relatively few popular ways of believing. For example, among the monotheists there have been those who believe that the one God is like a watchmaker who wound up the universe and now does not intervene in the universe at all; this view is deism. By contrast, the view that God continues to be active in the universe is called theism. (Note that 'theism' is here used as a narrow and rather technical term, not as a broader term as it is below. For full discussion of these distinct meanings, refer to the article Theism.)


Monotheistic definitions

Monotheism is the view that only one God exists (as opposed to multiple gods). In Western (Christian) thought, God is traditionally described as a being that possesses at least three necessary properties: omniscience (all-knowing), omnipotence (all-powerful), and omnibenevolence (supremely good). In other words, God knows everything, has the power to do anything, and is perfectly good. Many other properties (e.g., omnipresence) have been alleged to be necessary properties of a god; however, these are the three most uncontroversial and dominant in Christian tradition. By contrast, Monism is the view that all is of one essential essence, substance or energy. Monistic theism, a variant of both monism and monotheism, views God as both immanent and transcendent. Both are dominant themes in Hinduism.

Even once the word "God" is defined in a monotheistic sense, there are still many difficult questions to be asked about what this means. For example, what does it mean for something to be created? How can something be "all-powerful"?


Polytheistic definitions

The distinguishing characteristic of polytheism is its belief in more than one god(dess). There can be as few as two (such as a classical Western understanding of Zoroastrian dualism) or an innumerably large amount, as in Hinduism (as the Western world perceives it). There are many varieties of polytheism; they all accept that many gods exist, but differ in their responses to that belief. Henotheists for example, worship only one of the many gods, either because it is held to be more powerful or worthy of worship than the others. Ayyavazhi for example, accepts almost all polytheistic (gods) in Hinduism. But in Kali Yukam all gets unified into Ayya Vaikundar for destroying the Kaliyan. (some Christian sects take this view of the Trinity, holding that only God the Father should be worshipped, Jesus and the Holy Spirit being distinct and lesser gods), or because it is associated with their own group, culture, state, etc. (ancient judaism is sometimes interrpreted in this way). The distinction isn't a clear one, of course, as most people consider their own culture superior to others, and this will also apply to their culture's God. Kathenotheists have similar beliefs, but worship a different god at different times or places.


Pantheistic definitions

Pantheists assert that God is himself (or itself) the natural universe. The most famous Western pantheist is Baruch Spinoza, though the precise characterisation of his views is complex.

Panentheism is a variation of pantheism which holds that the physical universe is part of God, but that God is more than this. While pantheism can be summed up by "God is the world and the world is God", panentheism can be summed up as "The world is God, but God is more than the world".


Rationality of belief

See main article: Existence of God


The second question, "Do we have any good reason to think that God does (or does not) exist?", is equally important in the philosophy of religion. There are four main positions with regard to the existence of God that one might take:

  1. Theism - the belief that God exists.
  2. Weak atheism - the lack of belief in any deity.
  3. Strong atheism - the belief that no deity exists.
  4. Agnosticism - the belief that the existence or non-existence of God is not known or cannot be known.

The majority of philosophy of religion involves determining which of these positions is most rational to take. However, this assumes that the existence of God can be debated and proved or disproved.


Natural theology

The attempt to provide proofs or arguments for the existence of God is known as natural theology or the natural theistic project. Natural theology, then, is the attempt to justify belief in God by independent grounds. There is plenty of philosophical literature on faith (especially fideism) and other subjects generally considered to be outside the realm of natural theology. However, throughout much of philosophy of religion is the assumption of natural theology (i.e., that the existence of God can be proved or disproved).

The philosopher, Alvin Plantinga, is one prominent Christian apologist who has effectively abandoned the tradition of natural theology. Instead of attempting to prove the existence of God, Plantinga has shifted his focus to justifying belief in God (that is, those who believe in God, for whatever reasons, are rational in doing so) through Reformed epistemology.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have all developed religious world views based on, or incorporating, philosophical investigation. There are separate entries on Jewish philosophy, Christian philosophy, and Islamic philosophy.


Major philosophers of religion


See also


External links


Theology is reasoned discourse concerning God (Greek θεος, theos, "God", + λογος, logos, "word" or "reason").

It can also refer to the study of other religious topics.

A theologian is a person learned in theology.

Albert the Great, patron saint of Christian Theologians
Albert the Great, patron saint of Christian Theologians



History of the term

The word "Theology" is derived from Hellenistic Greek, but its meaning has changed significantly through its use in the European Christian thought of the Middle ages and Enlightenment

The term theologia is used in Classical Greek literature, with the meaning "discourse on the gods or cosmology" (see Lidell and Scott's Greek-English Lexicon for references).

Since the authority of Hellenistic city states was partly based on religious observance, those who first sought to ask difficult questions about the gods were often viewed as heretics, or in the language of the day "atheists". Socrates is famous for having been condemned to death for teaching youths atheism (though in fact he had not). Plato, his pupil, wrote several discourses on the gods, though his doctrine of forms and emanations would be more significant for later Theology.

Aristotle divided theoretical philosophy into mathematice, phusike and theologike, with the latter corresponding roughly to metaphysics, which for Aristotle included discussion of the nature of the divine. The term has since been appropriated by a number of Eastern and Western religious traditions.

Drawing on Greek sources, the Latin writer Varro influentially distinguished three forms of such discourse: mythical (concerning the myths of the Greek gods), rational (philosophical analysis of the gods and of cosmology) and civil (concerning the rites and duties of public religious observance).

Christian writers, working within the Hellenistic mould, began to use the term to describe their studies. It appears once in some biblical manuscripts, in the heading to the book of Revelation: apokalupsis ioannou tou theologou, "the revelation of John the theologos". There, however, we are probably dealing with a slightly different sense of the root logos, to mean not "rational discourse" but "word" or "message": ho theologos here is probably meant to tell us that the author of Revelation has presented God's revealed messages – words of God, logoi tou theou – not that he was a "theologian" in the modern English sense of the word.

Other Christian writers used the term with several different ranges of meaning.

  1. Some Latin authors, such as Tertullian and Augustine followed Varro's threefold usage, described above.
  2. In patristic Greek sources, theologia could refer narrowly to the discussion of the nature and attributes of God.
  3. In other patristic Greek sources, theologia could also refer narrowly to the discussion of the attribution of divine nature to Jesus. (It is in this sense that Gregory Nazianzus was nicknamed "the theologian": he was a staunch defender of the divinity of Christ.)
  4. In medieval Greek and Latin sources, theologia (in the sense of "an account or record of the ways of God") could refer simply to the Bible.
  5. In scholastic Latin sources, the term came to denote the rational study of the doctrines of the Christian religion, or (more precisely) the academic discipline which investigated the coherence and implications of the language and claims of the Bible and of the theological tradition (the latter often as represented in Peter Lombard's Sentences, a book of extracts from the Church Fathers).

It is the last of these senses which lies behind most modern uses (though the second is also found in some academic and ecclesiastical contexts), and while the term "theology" can refer to any discussion of the nature of God or the gods, or indeed the discussion of any religious topic, it is also regularly used to denote the academic study (in Universities, seminaries and elsewhere) of the doctrines of Christianity, or of any other religion, or of the relationships and contrasts between various different religions, although the latter is a field more usually termed "comparative religion."


History of theology

Main article: History of theology

Theology and religions other than Christianity

In academic theological circles, there is some debate as to whether theology is an activity peculiar to the Christian religion. If so we should distinguish Christian Theology from others. It is seen by some to be a term only appropriate to the study of a deity (a theos) within a presupposed belief in the ability to speak and reason about the subject (in logia) - and so to be less appropriate in religious contexts which are organized differently (i.e. religions without a deity, or which deny that such subjects can be studied logically).

Averroes, like many important Muslims who wrote about God, is not usually associated with "Theology"
Averroes, like many important Muslims who wrote about God, is not usually associated with "Theology"

For example, some academic courses on Buddhism which are dedicated to the rational investigation of a Buddhist understanding of the world prefer the designation Buddhist philosophy to the term Buddhist theology, since Buddhism lacks the same conception of a theos. The same might be said of Hinduism which has many devas (deities). See for example, Vaishnava Theology, Advaita Vedanta and Krishnology.

Moreover, the application of the term Theology to religions similar to Christianity can be misleading. in Islam, theological discussion which parallels Christian theological discussion has been a minor and even slightly disreputable activity, named "Kalam"; the Islamic analogue of Christian theological discussion would more properly be the investigation and elaboration of Islamic law, or "Fiqh".

In Judaism the historical absence of political authority has meant that most theological reflection has happened within the context of the Jewish community and synagogue, rather than within specialised academic institutions. Nevertheless Jewish Theology has been historically very active and highly significant for Christian and Islamic Theology. Once again, the Jewish analogue of Christian theological discussion would more properly be Rabbinical discussion of Jewish law and Jewish Biblical commentaries.


Theology and the Academy

Theology has a significantly problematic relationship to Academia that is not shared by any other subject. Most universities founded before the modern era grew out of the church schools and monastic institutions of Western Europe during the High Middle Ages (e.g. University of Bologna, Paris University and Oxford University). They were founded to train young men to serve the church in Theology and Law (often Church or Canon Law). At such Universities Theological study was incomplete with Theological practice, including preaching, prayer and the Mass. Ancient Universities still maintain some of these links (e.g. having Chapels and Chaplains) and are more likely to teach Theology than other institutions.

During the High Middle Ages theology was therefore the main subject at universities, being named "The Queen of the Sciences" alongside the Trivium and Quadrivium that young men were expected to study. This meant that the other subjects (including Philosophy) existed primarily to help with theological thought.

With the Enlightenment universities began to change, teaching a wide range of subjects, especially in Germany, and from a Humanistic perspective. Theology was no longer the principle subject and Universities existed for many purposes, not only to train Clergy for established churches. Theology thus became unusual as the only subject to maintain a confessional basis in otherwise secular establishments.

As a result theology is often distinguished from many other established Academic disciplines that cover the same subject area. Those who contend it is different claim it is distinguished by its viewpoint (it is studied from within a faith, rather than from without) and its practical involvement (theology cannot be truly studied or understood without a practical faith). Many of the early Church Fathers described the theologian as a person who "truly prays.". Non-religious theologians often disagree with these viewpoints, arguing that the term theology covers the study of religion or peoples' beliefs about God, rather than God himself. They also argue that human reason alone is sufficient to understand such subjects and that prayer and worship are not necessary.

Nevertheless theology should be distinguished from the following disciplines;

Comparative religion/Religious studies

Philosophy of Religion

The History of Religions

Psychology of Religion

Sociology of Religion

All of these approach religion with humanistic presuppositions and assume a uniformity in religious faith and experience, unlike most theology.


Theological studies in different institutions

In Europe, the traditional places for the study of theology have been universities and seminaries. Typically the protestant state churches have trained their ministers in universities while the Catholic church has used seminaries. However, the secularization of European states has closed down the theological faculties in many countries while the Catholic church has increased the academical level of its priests by founding a number of pontifical universities. However, at least Finland and Sweden have state universities with faculties of theology training Lutheran priests as well as teachers and scholars of religion. As study of theology in these countries includes a strong (Christian) humanist content, graduates of theology who do not wish to embark on clerical career may find work also in marketing, business or administration, although this is frowned upon by many.

In the United States, study of theology does not enjoy state endorsement due to the nature of the United States Constitution. Theological studies (often called Biblical studies) take place in a large number of universities, the academic level of which may vary considerably. The academic freedom of thought in many of these institutions may not reach the level of the faculties of theology in European state universities. Theologians ending up with view deemed "heretical" by the denomination upholding the institution may find themselves out of work.


Divisions of theology

Theology can be divided up in any number of ways. Many of these divisions have originated in the study of the Christian religion, although some have been adapted and extended to apply to other religions, or to the study of multiple religions.

In many Christian seminaries, the four Great Departments of Theology are: 1. Exegetical Theology; 2. Historical Theology; 3. Systematic Theology; and 4. Practical Theology.

The four departments can usefully be subdivided in the following way:

1. Exegetical Theology: a) Biblical Studies (analysis of the contents of Scripture); b) Biblical Introduction (inquiry into the origins of the Bible); c) Canonics (inquiry into how the different books of the Bible came to be collected together); d) Biblical Theology (inquiry into how divine revelation progressed over the course of the Bible).

2. Historical Theology (study of how Christian theology develops over time): a) The Patristic Period (which can be subdivided into i. the Ante-Nicene Fathers; ii. the Nicene Fathers; and iii. the Post-Nicene Fathers); b) the Middle Ages; c) the Reformation and Counter-Reformation; d) the Modern Period.

3. Systematic Theology: a) the Existence of God; b) the Attributes of God; c) the Trinity; d) Christology; e) Creation; f) Providence; g) Doctrine of Man (theological anthropolgy); h) Soteriology; i) Justification; j) Sanctification; k) Eschatology and the Afterlife.

(though note: subdivisions in the area of Systematic Theology are probably more apt to vary across differeng theologies than in the other 3 types of theology)

4. Practical Theology: a) Moral Theology (Christian Ethics and Casuistry); b) Ecclesiology; c) Pastoral Theology (including i. Liturgics; ii. Homiletics; iii. Christian Education; iv. Christian Counselling) ; d) Missiology.

Theology can also be divided up into :

Academic subdisciplines;

Topic (or by 'Loci');

  • Angelology (less common than it used to be) - angels, the unseen world
  • Bibliology (a less common term than most of the others) - the Bible, the nature and means of its inspiration, etc.; hermeneutics is the study of proper biblical interpretation (exegesis).
  • Christology (normally only in Christianity) - Jesus Christ, the nature of Christ, the relationship between the divine and human in Christ
  • Covenant theology, an interpretive grid that understands God's plans in the Old and New Testaments as being a result of God's covenant with his chosen people. This movement is an alternative to Dispensationalism. (Covenant theology is one way to approach the subdiscipline of Biblical Theology.)
  • Demonology (much less common than it used to be) - Satan, demons, evil spirits
  • Dispensational Theology - an interpretative grid that views God's relationship with the created order as passing through successive "dispensations", in each of which the covenants of the previous one(s) may no longer be valid. (Dispensationalism is one way to approach the subdiscipline of Biblical Theology.)
  • Ecclesiology - the church
  • Eschatology - literally, the study of 'last things' or 'ultimate things'. Covers subjects such as death and the afterlife, the end of history, the end of the world, the last judgment, the nature of hope and progress, etc.
  • Harmatiology (often considered under 'soteriology') - sin
  • Missiology (often a subsection of ecclesiology) - missions, evangelism, etc.
  • Soteriology - the nature and means of salvation
  • Theodicy - Attempts at reconciling the existence of all the evil and suffering in the world with the nature and power of the God or gods of the religion
  • Theological anthropology - nature of human being, formerly known as the Doctrine of Man.
  • Theology Proper - God or the divine: attributes, nature, and relation to the world. Often includes discussion of Creation and providence. See the nature of God in Western theology.
  • Pneumatology - the Holy Spirit or divine Spirit; sometimes also 'geist' as in Hegelianism and other philosophico-theological systems;


  • Apophatic theology (or negative theology; sometimes contrasted with "cataphatic theology") - the discussion of what God is not, or the investigation of how language about God breaks down
  • dialectical theology
  • Natural theology - the discussion of those aspects of theology that can be investigated without the help of revelation, scriptures or tradition (sometimes contrasted with "positive theology") - the discussion of those aspects of theology




  • "Theology is the effort to explain the unknowable in terms of the not worth knowing." - H. L. Mencken
  • "An authentic theology will not allow man to be obsessed with himself." - Thomas F. Torrance in Reality and Scientific Theology
  • "Theology announces not just what the Bible says but what it means." - J. Kenneth Grider in A Wesleyan-Holiness Theology (Kansas City: Beacon Hill, 1994), p. 19.
  • "Theologians, they don't know nothin' bout my soul." - Wilco, "Theologians", A Ghost Is Born.

See also


External links

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Philosophy of mind

Philosophy of mind is the philosophical study of the nature of the mind, mental events, mental functions, mental properties, and consciousness. These areas give rise to some very difficult problems and there are many different opinions as to their solutions. But the central issue which overwhelmingly dominates the interest of practitioners of the philosophy of mind is the so-called mind-body problem. It is therefore appropriate to begin our discussion with a brief description of this perennial issue.
Phrenology attempted to correlate mental functions with specific parts of the brain
Phrenology attempted to correlate mental functions with specific parts of the brain



The Mind-Body Problem

The mind-body problem is essentially the problem of explaining the relationship between minds, or mental processes, and bodily states or processes. It is evident to all of us, for example, that our perceptual experiences depend on stimuli which arrive at our various sensory organs from the external world and that these stimuli affect changes in the states of our brain, ultimately causing us to feel a sensation which may be pleasant or unpleasant. It also seems obvious that someone's desire for a slice of pizza will cause him to move his body in a certain manner in a certain direction until he obtains what he is seeking. But how is it possible that conscious experiences can arise out of an inert lump of gray matter endowed with electrochemical properties? How does someone's desire cause that individual's neurons to fire and his muscles to contract in exactly the right manner? These are some of the essential puzzles that have confronted philosophers of mind at least from the time of René Descartes.[1]


Dualist solutions to the Mind-Body Problem

Main article: Dualism (philosophy of mind)

Dualism is a set of views about the relationship between mind and matter, which begins with the claim that mental phenomena are, in some respects, non-physical.

The first manifestations of mind-body dualism probably go back thousands of years, to the time when man first began to speculate about the existence of an incorporeal soul (or spirit) which bore the faculties of intelligence and wisdom. We first encounter similar ideas in Western philosophy with the writings of Plato and Aristotle, who maintained, for different reasons, that man's "intelligence" (a faculty of the mind or soul) could not be identified with, or explained in terms of, his physical body. [2]

However, the best-known version of dualism is due to René Descartes (1641), and holds that the mind is a non-physical substance. Descartes was the first to clearly identify the mind with consciousness and self-awareness and to distinguish this from the brain, which was the seat of intelligence. Hence, he was the first to formulate the mind-body problem in the form in which it still exists today. [3]


Arguments for dualism

The main argument in favor of dualism is simply that it appeals to the common-sense intuition of the vast majority of non-philosophically-trained people. If asked what the mind is, the average person will usually respond by identifying it with their self, their personality, their soul, or some other such vague entity, and they will almost certainly deny that the mind simply is the brain or vice-versa, finding the idea that there is just one ontological entity at play to be too mechanistic or simply unintelligible.

Another very important, more modern, argument in favor of dualism consists in the idea that the mental and the physical seem to have quite different and perhaps irreconcilable properties. Mental events have a certain subjective quality to them, whereas physical events obviously do not. For example, what does a burned finger feel like? What does blue sky look like? What does nice music sound like? Philosophers of mind call the subjective aspects of mental events qualia (or raw feels). There is something that it is like to feel pain, to see a familiar shade of blue, and so on; there are qualia involved in these mental events. And the claim is that qualia seem particularly difficult to reduce to anything physical.


Interaction dualism

portrait of René Descartes by Frans Hals (1648)
portrait of René Descartes by Frans Hals (1648)

Interactionist dualism, or simply interactionism, is the particular form of dualism first espoused by Descartes in the Meditations. In the 20th century, its major defenders have been Karl Popper and John Eccles.[4] It is the view that mental states, such as beliefs and desires, causally interact with physical states. Descartes' famous argument for this position can be summarized as follows: I have a clear and distinct idea of my mind as a thinking thing which has no spatial extension (i.e., it cannot be measured in terms of length, weight, height, and so on) and I also have a clear and distinct idea of my body as something that is spatially extended, subject to quantification and not able to think. Since Leibniz' law of the identity of indiscernibles says that for any individual entities x and y and for all intrinsic properties F, if x has the property F if and only if y also has the property F, then x and y are identical, it follows that mind and body are not identical because they have radically different properties, according to Descartes.

At the same time, however, it is clear that my mental states (desires, beliefs, etc.) have causal effects on my body and vice-versa: a child touches a hot stove (physical event) which causes pain (mental event) and makes him yell (physical event) which provokes a sense of fear and protectiveness in the mother (mental event) and so on. Descartes' argument obviously depends on the crucial premise that what I believe to be "clear and distinct" ideas in my mind are necessarily true. This idea is rejected by most modern philosophers.


Other forms of dualism

Other important forms of dualism which arose as reactions to, or attempts to salvage, the Cartesian version are:

1) Psycho-physical parallelism, or simply parallelism, is the view that mind and body, while being two distinct substances, do not causally influence one another, but run along parallel paths (mind events causally interact with mind events and brain events causally interact with brain events) and only seem to influence each other. This view was most prominently defended by Gottfried Leibniz who held that God had arranged things in advance so that minds and bodies would be in harmony with each other. This is known as the doctrine of pre-established harmony. [5]

 Portrait of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz by Bernhard Christoph Francke (circa 1700)
Portrait of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz by Bernhard Christoph Francke (circa 1700)

2) Occasionalism is the view espoused by Nicholas Malebranche which asserts that all supposedly causal relations between physical events or between physical and mental events are not really causal at all. While body and mind are still different substances on this view, causes (whether mental or physical) are related to their effects by an act of God's intervention on each specific occasion.

3) Epiphenomenalism is a doctrine first formulated by Thomas Henry Huxley. Fundamentally, it consists in the view that mental phenomena are causally inefficacious. Physical events can cause other physical events and physical events can cause mental events, but mental events cannot cause anything, since they are just causally inert by-products (i.e. epiphenomena) of the physical world. The view has been defended most strongly in recent times by Frank Jackson. [6]

4) Property dualism asserts that when matter is organized in the appropriate way (i.e. in the way that living human bodies are organized), mental properties emerge. Hence, it is a sub-branch of emergent materialism. These emergent properties have an independent ontological status and cannot be reduced to, or explained in terms of, the physical substrate from which they emerge. This position is espoused by David Chalmers and has undergone something of a renaissance in recent years.[7]


Monist solutions to the Mind-Body Problem

Monism states, in contrast to dualism, that there is only one fundamental substance. Today nearly all forms of monism are physicalistic. Physicalistic monism asserts that the only existing substance is physical, in some sense of that term to be clarified by our best science. However, a variety of formulations are possible. Another form of monism, which is more of historical interest, is that which states that the only existing substance is mental. Such idealistic monism is very uncommon in modern times. A third possibility is to accept the existence of a basic substance which is neither physical nor mental. The mental and physical would both be properties of this neutral substance. Such a position was adopted by Baruch Spinoza and popularized by Ernst Haeckel in the 19th century. This neutral monism, as it is called, resembles property dualism. In the following discussion, only physicalistic monisms are considered.



Main article: Behaviorism

Behaviorism dominated philosophy of mind for much of the 20th century, especially the first half. In psychology, behaviorism developed as a reaction to the inadequacies of introspectionism. Introspective reports on one's own interior mental life are not subject to careful examination for accuracy and are not generalizable. Without generalizability and the possibility of third-person examination, the behaviorists argued, science is simply not possible. The way out for psychology was to eliminate the idea of an interior mental life altogether and focus instead on the description of observable behavior.

Parallel to these developments in psychology, a philosophical behaviorism (sometimes called logical behaviorism) was developed. This is characterized by a strong verificationism, which generally considers unverifiable statements about interior mental life senseless. But what are mental states if they are not interior states on which one can make introspective reports? The answer of the behaviorist is that mental states are just descriptions of behavior and/or dispositions to behave.

Philosophical behaviorism is considered by most modern philosophers of mind to be outdated. Apart from other problems, behaviorism implausibly maintains, for example, that someone is talking about behavior if she reports that she has a wracking headache.


Identity theory

Main article: Type physicalism

Type physicalism (or type-identity theory) was developed by John Smart[8] and Ullin Place[9] as a direct reaction to the failure of behaviorism. These philosophers reasoned that, if mental states are something material, but not behavior, then mental states are probably identical to internal states of the brain. In very simplified terms: a mental state M is nothing other than brain state B. The mental state "desire for a cup of coffee" would thus be nothing more than the " firing of certain neurons in certain brain regions".

The Identity theory gained its appeal in the context of increasing nonscientific knowledge. Today, sophisticated imaging procedures, such as fMRI (above), furnish ever more knowledge about the workings of the brain
The Identity theory gained its appeal in the context of increasing nonscientific knowledge. Today, sophisticated imaging procedures, such as fMRI (above), furnish ever more knowledge about the workings of the brain

Despite a certain initial plausibility, the identity theory faces at least one heavy challenge in the form of the thesis of multiple realizability, which was first formulated by Hilary Putnam.[10] It seems clear that not only humans, but also amphibians or Martians, for example, can experience pain. On the other hand, it seems very improbable that all of these diverse organisms with the same pain are in the same brain identical brain state. If this is not the case however, then the pain cannot be identical to a certain brain state. Thus the identity theory is empirically unfounded.

But even if this is the case, it does not follow that identity theories of all types must be abandoned. According to token identity theories, the fact that a certain brain state is connected with only one "mental" state of a person does not have to mean that there is an absolute correlation between types of mental states and types of brain state. Despite the problems faced by the type identity theory, there is a renewed interest in it these days, primarily due to the influence of Jaegwon Kim.



Main article: Functionalism (philosophy of mind)

Functionalism was formulated by Hilary Putnam and Jerry Fodor as a reaction to the inadequacies of the identity theory. [11] Putnam and Fodor saw mental states in terms of an empirical computational theory of the mind. At about the same time or slightly after, D.M. Armstrong and David Lewis formulated a version of functionalism which analyzed the mental concepts of folk psychology in terms of functional roles. Finally, Wittgenstein's idea of meaning as use led to a version of functionalism as a theory of meaning, further developed by Peter Sellars and Gilbert Harman.

What all these different varieties of functionalism share in common is the thesis that mental states are essentially characterized by their causal relations with other mental states and with sensory inputs and behavioral outputs. That is, functionalism quantifies over, or abstracts away from, the details of the physical implementation of a mental state by characterizing it in terms of non-mental functional properties. For example, a kidney is characterized scientifically by its functional role in filtering blood and maintaining certain chemical balances. From this point of view, it does not really matter whether the kidney be made up of organic tissue, plastic nanotubes or silicon chips: it is the role that it plays and its relations to other organs that define it as a kidney.


Nonreductive physicalism

Many philosophers hold firmly to two essential convictions with regard to mind-body relations:

1. Physicalism is true and mental states must be physical states.

2. All reductionist proposals are unsatisfactory: mental states cannot be reduced to behavior, brain states or functional states.

Hence, the question arises whether there can still be a non-reductive physicalism. Donald Davidson's anomalous monism[12] is an attempt to formulate such a physicalism.

The idea is often formulated in terms of the thesis of supervenience: mental states supervene on physical states, but are not reducible to them. "Supervenience" therefore describes a functional dependence: there can be no change in the mental without some change in the physical.


Eliminative materialism

Main article: Eliminative materialism

If one is a materialist but believes that all reductive efforts have failed and that a non-reductive materialism is incoherent, then one can adopt a final, more radical position: eliminative materialism. Eliminative materialists maintain that mental states are fictitious entities introduced by everyday "folk psychology". Should "folk psychology", which eliminativists view as a quasi-scientific theory, be proven wrong in the course of scientific development, then we must also abolish all of the entities postulated by it. Eliminativists such as Patricia[13] and Paul Churchland[14] often invoke the fate of other, erroneous popular theories which have arisen in the course of history. For example, the belief in witchcraft turned out to be wrong and the consequence is that most people no longer believe in the existence of witches.


Linguistic Criticism of the Mind-Body Problem

Each attempt to answer the mind-body problem encounters substantial problems. Some philosophers argue that this is because there is an underlying conceptual confusion. Such philosophers reject the mind-body problem as an illusory problem. Such a position is represented in analytic philosophy these days, for the most part, by the followers of Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Wittgensteinian tradition of linguistic criticism.[15] The exponents of this position explain that it is an error to ask how mental and biological states fit together. Rather it should simply be accepted that humans can be described in different ways - for instance, in a mental and in a biological vocabulary. Illusory problems arise if one tries to describe the one in terms of the other's vocabulary or if the mental vocabulary is used in the wrong contexts. This is the case for instance, if one searches for mental states of the brain. The brain is simply the wrong context for the use of mental vocabulary - the search for mental states of the brain is therefore a category error or a pure conceptual confusion.

Today, such a position is often adopted by interpreters of Wittgenstein such as Peter Hacker.[16] However, Hilary Putnam, the inventor of functionalism, has also adopted the position that the mind-body problem is an illusory problem which should be dissolved according to the manner of Wittgenstein. [17]


Naturalism and its problems

The thesis of physicalism is that the mind is part of the material (or physical) world. Such a position faces the fundamental problem that the mind has certain properties that no material thing possesses. Physicalism must therefore explain how it is possible that these properties can emerge from a material thing nevertheless. The project of providing such an explanation is often referred to as the "naturalization of the mental." What are the crucial problems that this project must attempt to resolve? The most well-known are probably the following two:



Main article: Qualia

Many mental states have the property of being experienced subjectively in different ways by different individuals.[18] For example, it is obviously characteristic of the mental state of pain that it hurts. Moreover, your sensation of pain may not be identical with mine, since we have no way of measuring how much something hurts or describing exactly how it feels to hurt. Where does such an experience (qualia) come from? Nothing indicates that a neural or functional state can be accompanied by such a pain experience. Often the point is formulated as follows: the existence of cerebral events, in and of themselves, cannot explain why they are accompanied by these corresponding qualitative experiences. Why do many cerebral processes occur with an accompanying experiential aspect in consciousness? It seems impossible to explain.

Yet it also seems to many that science will eventually have to explain such experiences. This follows from the logic of reductive explanations. If I try to explain a phenomenon reductively (e.g., water), I also have to explain why the phenomenon has all of the properties that it has (e.g., fluidity, transparency). In the case of mental states, this means that there needs to be an explanation of why they have the property of being experienced in a certain way.



John Searle - one of the most influential philosophers of mind (Berkeley 2002)
John Searle - one of the most influential philosophers of mind (Berkeley 2002)

Intentionality [19][20][21]is the capacity of mental states to be directed towards (about) or be in relation with something in the external world. This property of mental states entails that they have contents and semantic referents and can therefore be assigned truth values. When one tries to reduce these states to natural processes there arises a problem: natural processes are not true or false, they simply happen. It would not make any sense to say that a natural process is true or false. But mental ideas or judgments are true or false, so how then can mental states (ideas or judgements) be natural processes? The possibility of assigning semantic value to ideas must mean that such ideas are about facts. Thus, for example, the idea that Herodotus was an historian refers to Herodotus and to the fact that he was an historian. If the fact is true, then the idea is true; otherwise, it is false. But where does this relation come from? In the brain, there are only electrochemical processes and these seem not to have anything to do with Herodotus.


Philosophy of mind and science

Humans are corporeal beings and, as such, they are subject to examination and description by the natural sciences. Since mental processes are not independent of bodily processes, the descriptions that the natural sciences furnish of humans beings play an important role in the philosophy of mind. There are many scientific disciplines that study processes related to the mental. The list of such sciences includes: biology, computer science, cognitive science, cybernetics, linguistics, medicine, pharmacology, psychology, etc..



The theoretical background of biology, as is the case with modern natural sciences in general, is fundamentally materialistic. The objects of study are are, in the first place, physical processes, which are considered to be the foundations of mental activity and behavior. The increasing success of biology in the explanation of mental phenomena can be seen by the absence of any empirical refutation of its fundamental presupposition: "there can be no change in the mental states of a person without a change in brain states."

Within the field of neurobiology, there are many subdisciplines which are concerned with the relations between mental and physical states and processes:

The methodological breakthroughs of the neurosciences, in particular the introduction of high-tech neuroimaging procedures, has propelled scientists toward the elaboration of increasingly ambitious research programs: one of the main goals is to describe and comprehend the neural processes which correspond to mental functions (see: neural correlate). A very small number of neurobiologists, such as Emil du Bois-Reymond and John Eccles have denied the possibility of a "reduction" of mental phenomena to cerebral processes, partly for religious reasons. However, the contemporary neurobiologist and philosopher Gerhard Roth continues to defend a form of "non-reductive materialism." [22]


Computer Science

Computer science concerns itself with the automatic processing of information (or at least with physical systems of symbols to which information is assigned) by means of such things as computers. From the beginning, computer programmers have been able to develop programs which permit computers to carry out tasks for which organic beings need a mind. A simple example is multiplication. But it is clear that computers do not use a mind to multiply. Could they, someday, come to have what we call a mind? This question has been propelled into the forefront of much philosophical debate because of investigations in the field of artificial intelligence ("AI").

Within AI, it is common to distinguish between a modest research program and a more ambitious one: this distinction was coined by John Searle in terms of a weak AI and a strong AI. The exclusive objective of "weak AI", according to Searle, is the successful simulation of mental states, with no attempt to make computers become conscious or aware, etc.. The objective of strong AI, on the contrary, is a computer with consciousness similar to that of human beings. The program of strong AI goes back to one of the pioneers of computation Alan Turing. As an answer to the question "Can computers think?", he formulated the famous Turing test.[23] Turing believed that a computer could be said to "think" when, if placed in a room by itself next to another room which contained a human being and with the same questions being asked of both the computer and the human being by a third party human being, the computer's responses turned out be to indistinguishable from those of the human. The Turing test has received many criticisms, among which the most famous is probably the Chinese room thought experiment formulated by Searle. [24]

The question about the possible sensitivity (qualia) of computers or robots still remains open. However, at this point in time, most computer scientists are not very optimistic. Some computer scientists believe that the specialty of AI can still make new contributions to the resolution of the mind-body problem. They suggest that based on the reciprocal influences between software and hardware that takes place in all computers, it is possible that someday theories can be discovered that help us to understand the reciprocal influences between the human mind and the brain.



Psychology is the science that investigates mental states directly. It uses generally empirical methods to investigate concrete mental states like joy, fear or obsessions. Psychology investigates the laws that bind these mental states to each other or with inputs and outputs to the human organism.

An example of this is the psychology of perception. Scientists working in this field have discovered general principles of the perception of forms. A law of the psychology of forms says that objects that move in the same direction are perceived as related to each other. This law describes a relation between visual input and mental perceptual states. However, it does not suggest anything about the nature of perceptual states. The laws discovered by psychology are compatible with all the answers to the mind-body problem already described.


Philosophy of mind in the continental tradition

Most of the discussion in this article has focused on the predominant school (or style) of philosophy in modern Western culture, usually called analytic philosophy (sometimes also inaccurately described as Anglo-American philosophy). Other schools of thought exist, however, which are sometimes (also misleadingly) subsumed under the broad label of continental philosophy. In any case, the various schools that fall under this label (phenomenology, existentialism, etc.) tend to differ from the analytic school in that they focus less on language and logical analysis and more on directly understanding human existence and experience. With reference specifically to the discussion of the mind, this tends to translate into attempts to grasp the concepts of thought and perceptual experience in some direct sense that does not involve the analysis of linguistic forms.

In Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's Phenomenology of Mind, Hegel discusses three distinct types of mind: the subjective mind, the mind of an individual; the objective mind, the mind of society and of the State; and the Absolute mind, a unity of all concepts.[25]

In modern times, the two main schools that have developed in response or opposition to this Hegelian tradition are Phenomenology and Existentialism. Phenomenology, founded by Edmund Husserl, focuses on the contents of the human mind (see noema) and how phenomenological processes shape our experiences. [26] Existentialism, a school of thought led by Jean-Paul Sartre, focuses on the content of experiences and how the mind deals with such experiences.

An important, though not very well-known, example of a philosopher of mind and cognitive scientist who tries to synthesize ideas from both traditions is Ron McClamrock. Borrowing from Herbert Simon and also influenced by the ideas of existential phenomenologists such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Martin Heidegger, McClamrock suggests that man's condition of being-in-the-world ("Da Sein") makes it impossible for him to understand himself by abstracting away from it and examining it as if it were a detached experimental object of which he himself is not an integral part. [27]


Consequences of Philosophy of Mind

There are countless subjects that are affected by the ideas developed in the philosophy of mind. Clear examples of this are the nature of death and its definitive character, the nature of emotion, of perception and of memory. Questions about what a person is and in what her identity consists also have much to do with the philosophy of mind. There are two subjects that, in connection with the philosophy of the mind, have aroused special attention: free will and the self.


Free will

In the context of the philosophy of mind, the question about the freedom of the will takes on a renewed intensity. This is certainly the case, at least, for materialistic determinists. According to this position, natural laws completely determine the course of the material world. Mental states, and therefore the will as well, would be material states. So human behavior and decisions would be completely determined by natural laws. Some take this argumentation a step further: people cannot determine by themselves what they want and what they do. Consequently, they are not free.

Immanuel Kant rejected determinism and defended free will
Immanuel Kant rejected determinism and defended free will

This argumentation is rejected, on the one hand, by the compatibilists. Those who adopt this position suggest that the question "Are we free?" can only be answered once we have determined what the term "free" means. The opposite of "free" is not "caused" but "compelled" or "coerced". It is not appropriate to identify freedom with indetermination. A free act is one where the agent could have done otherwise if she had chosen otherwise. In this sense a person can be free even though determinism is true. The most important compatibilist in the history of the philosophy was David Hume. Nowadays, this position is defended, for example, by Daniel Dennett.[28]

On the other hand, there are also many incompatibilists who reject the argument because they believe that the will is free in a stronger sense called originationism. These philosophers affirm that the course of the world is not completely determined by natural laws: the will at least does not have to be and, therefore, it is potentially free. The most prominent incompatibilist in the history of philosophy was Immanuel Kant.[29] Critics of this position accuse the incompatibilists of using an incoherent concept of freedom. They argue as follows: if our will is not determined by anything, then we desire what we desire by pure chance. And if what we desire is purely accidental, we are not free. So if our will is not determined by anything, we are not free.


The self

The philosophy of mind also has important consequences for the concept of self. If by "self" or "I" one refers to an essential, immutable nucleus of the person, most modern philosophers of mind will affirm that no such thing exists. The idea of a self as an immutable essential nucleus arises from the Christian idea of an immaterial soul. Such an idea is unacceptable to most contemporary philosophers, due to their physicalistic orientations. However, in the light of empirical results from developmental psychology, developmental biology and the neurosciences, the idea of an essential constant material nucleus - located, for example, in an single, unchanging area of the brain - seems reasonable.

In view of this problem, some philosophers affirm that we should abandon the idea of a self. But this is a minority position. More common is the view that we should redefine the concept: by "self" we would not be referring to some immutable and essential nucleus, but to something that is in permanent change. A well-known defender of this position is Daniel Dennett. It is surprising to see how the reflections of modern philosophy of mind agree on this point with the traditional perspective of some non-European philosophies such as Buddhism.


See also

  • For more information and links about topics discussed in the article, see: Portal:Mind and Brain
  • For more information about scientific research related to topics discussed in the article, see: Cognitive science


The structure and some of the contents of this article are borrowed from the German language wikipedia article.

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