The discipline of philosophy covers the study of everything; from the study of knowledge, art, language, and the very nature of existence, to moral, ethical, and political dilemmas. Stemming from the Greek word philosophia (literally translating as “love of wisdom”), there isn’t much that philosophers haven’t disputed over the years. Despite this, there are many key debates and great philosophical mysteries that remain unsolved—and quite possibly always will. From Descartes’s discussions of knowledge and personhood, to Aristotle’s analysis of the nature of life and death, we’ve listed 5 of the greatest philosophical problems still contested today. What would make your list?
The problem of free will arises when humans reach a stage of self-consciousness about how profoundly the world may influence their behavior, in ways of which they are unaware. The advent of doctrines of “determinism” or “necessity” in the history of ideas is an indication that this higher stage of awareness has been reached. Determinist or necessitarian threats to free will have taken many historical forms—fatalist, theological, physical or scientific, psychological, social, and logical—but there is a core notion running through all forms of determinism that accounts for their importance and longevity. Any event is determined, according to this core notion, if there are conditions (decrees of fate, the foreordaining acts of God, laws of nature) whose occurrence can impact events, i.e. “It must be the case that if these determining conditions jointly obtain, the determined event occurs.” Although this has been greatly debated, there is no common philosophical consensus disproving these concerns.
Formulating and responding to the challenge of scepticism (the view that we can’t know anything) is often taken to be the central problem of epistemology (the study of knowledge). The most prominent starting points for discussions of skepticism are the works of René Descartes and David Hume, although a more general skeptical argument is often seen in Sextus Empiricus’ Outlines of Pyrrhonism (arguing that we should withhold judgment on all matters of fact, because no matter how we reason for a judgment, there is an opposing judgment that we can reason for in a parallel manner). “Know” is the sixth most common verb in English, and although it is often used in sentences such as “I know how to ride a bike” and “I know your friend Jane,” a large chunk of its use is taken up by claims of knowing something to be the case. One worry about skepticism is that, if true, it would require a dramatic revision in the way we think and talk.
What is the relation between ‘my’ mind and body? Many philosophers have held a dualistic view of the relation between mind and body. There have been those (like Descartes) who ascribe mental attributes to spiritual substances which are supposed to be logically independent of anything physical, but inhabit particular bodies. Others, like Thomas Hobbes, have admitted only a duality of properties, ascribing both mental and physical attributes to human bodies. Others have presented an “ultimate category of persons,” differentiating them from physical objects just on the ground that they possess mental as well as physical attributes. If dualism is the best answer, most believe that the most defensible form would be that in which we admit only a duality of properties. Despite this, the problem of showing how these combine to characterize one and the same subject has not yet been adequately solved.
It seems reasonable to say both that a creature dies when its life ceases, and that it dies when it ceases to exist. However, to understand death, we must first grasp how it is related to life and to the persistence of living beings. Here the philosophy of death intersects with the theory of personal identity, but philosophers haven’t yet reached agreement about what it is to be alive. According to Aristotle, something has the property “alive” if it has any of the typical capacities of living things: nutrition, appetite or desire, growth, reproduction, perception, motion, and thought. Nevertheless, non-living devices could hypothetically do many of these things. As for our identity over time, some philosophers have suggested that our persistent conditions are in part determined by our own attitudes, making it (at least theoretically) possible to survive death.
In Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Shylock makes a demand for a pound of his delinquent debtor’s flesh in the name of justice. Until the clever Portia finds a device for voiding the contract, the presumption is that it must be granted. Conceptually, demands of justice are the hardest to outweigh or suspend. But to this day, there is no universally accepted theory of justice. Increasing political and economic interconnectedness (especially with regards to current humanitarian crises) draws much philosophical attention to this notion, asking if claims of justice arise only among those who share membership in a state. Alternately, do they apply among all human beings simply because they are human? Inquiries into “global justice” differ from those into “international justice” precisely by not limiting inquiry to just what states should do. They also question the very moral acceptability of states and explore alternative options.
Featured image credit: Le Penseur (The Thinker) by Auguste Rodin, taken in front of the Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco, California, 2012. Drflet, CC BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.