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The Big Questions of Philosophy

Learn to think clearly, shun fallacies, and reach your own conclusions as you confront the questions that have puzzled generations of philosophers.
The Big Questions of Philosophy is rated 4.0 out of 5 by 100.
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Rated 1 out of 5 by from Poor lecture. I feel bad for his students According to the lecturer human observation is complete in giving us understanding of how the universe IS/ fundamental truth. The lecture fails to seriously address any counter arguments outside of a dismissive mention. In a sense the idea that everything we observe has independent existence outside of consciousness is literally a leap of faith, because perceiving the world from that point of view is impossible. Now, I know what you're probably thinking: science is based on multiple reproducible observations, right? So if we have a bunch of people observing the same thing, we know it's really there, independent of us, and materialism now has "evidence" for it -- right? Nope. All you've done is create what we might call a social or intersubjective phenomenological construct, which epistemologically speaking is no substitute for being able to make claims about what the universe itself is like outside of human experience. Since no individual person has observed material outside observation itself, it doesn't matter how many people repeat this. It's like multiplying by zero. Also we assume that mind and consciousness is a random manifestation of material. Or even one carefully curated through evolution. Yet there are many qualities of mind that cannot be explained through observation or confirmed. It’s subjective. This is why phycology is such an imperfect science. And it doesn’t address any arguments for why there is anything at all rather than nothing. But according to the lecturer it’s a fact not an assertion that observation and science have explained or are capable of explaining how the universe IS. This fallacy stems from people who are afraid we might not know anything at all so they conflate assertions with absolute truth. This is the opposite of the level of philosophical questioning I was expecting in an expensive lecture.
Date published: 2022-12-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Be Prepared to Think, and to Question! I was drawn to this course principally because I had first watched this professor's intriguing Great Course series on "Sci-Phi" that entertainingly and thoughtfully examined the many ways the best science fiction raised and considered major philosophical questions. The "Big Questions"? Oh, my yes! The only kind of person who might be troubled -- or even offended -- by this course is a person who just "believes what I know, goldarnit it!" and clearly avoids considering any challenges to their own beliefs. (There are times these days when it appears that the number of such persons may be uncomfortably large!) I most enjoyed those sections that pondered "how we know -- or DO we know -- what we know," and the closing lectures on the nature, purpose, and limitations of government. (The latter because I was a state government office-holder for much of my life.) But there were several lectures that left me, in truth, a tad dizzy! What does it mean to be "free"? Do we actually have anything like "free will," or are we just a product of our brains, genes, and environment? What exactly is "personal identity" and can it be preserved? And, if so, how? What really IS "the mind"? Part of or separate from our brain? Depending upon one's point of view, one of the things that I most appreciated about Johnson's methods is that while he raised many, many questions, and shot down quite a few of them, too, he intentionally leaves it up to "us" to weigh the thoughts and evidence presented for, in humbling truth, very few of the "big questions" can be definitively answered. In fact, we may never be able to do so. The only caveat I would raise for persons weighing a decision to purchase this course is to recognize that each lecture will require your full attention -- 'tis probably not a good course to purchase in audio format so that you can listen while you drive to and from work, for example. But then, such important questions should always demand our attention. A riveting, informative, thought-provoking course that is well-taught and spurs one to think more deeply about what we are doing with the only time we can be sure we have!
Date published: 2022-11-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Ginormously Stimulating PLEASE, LET DR. JOHNSON MAKE A COURSE ON MORAL PHILOSOPHY & FILM. Dean Kowalski has written a book on this topic. Also, Michael Schur's recent bestseller "How to be Perfec" (Ethics & the TV series the Good Place) deals with the same topic. I'd love to see Johnson's thorough approach to the same content. Especially, Moral Realism. At any rate, I have watched this course at least a dozen times and it's fun entre into some abtuse material. Perhaps his commitment to naturalism, determinism, and eliminative materialism is a little too confident for my taste. But I love his confident, cogent reasoning even when I do disagree, because it forces me to revise my thinking or think very hard about the fundamental reasons why I don't wish to agree. Ginormously Stimulating!!!
Date published: 2022-10-28
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Bold On the positive side, the instructor boldly delves into the big questions not only of philosophy, but of the human experience. I was never bored, and the breadth and scope of the course was impressive. On the other hand, Wondrium advertises this course as one that will help you think clearly and reach your own conclusions. The fact is, in each lecture the instructor leads you to his own conclusions after dismissing the alternative view points brought up for discussion. Moreover, while I tend to be agnostic about religion, the instructor seems to relish being condescending to Christianity. Specifically, condescending towards the kind of evangelical biblical literalism presumably found in the Oklahoma panhandle. I have watched many of the Teaching Company'courses on religion, and I don't think this instructor is fairly representing the Christianity the Great Courses religious instructors portray. But the moral of the story is it was fun to watch this series and be challenged by a dynamic professor of philosophy.
Date published: 2022-08-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A lot to explore, but in great style! It's been a while since I bought the course, but I had another to finish first. I really enjoyed Prof Johnson's other course (SciPhi) so I decided to give this a go. It was very long, but I spread it out over a few weeks. More Mental Gymnastics. It didn't disappoint. I read a few of others' reviews, and mostly they're positive. I wonder, though, if those who reacted negatively came into this course expecting to confirm their own biases. They accused Dr Johnson of bias, and a couple gave up after a short time into the material because they said the professor was guilty of trying to indoctrinate 'young minds' with his own biased opinions. Hmmm I wonder if maybe the detractors have forgotten that philosophy is something that evolves and others in the past have given their views which can be compared and contrasted with today's philosophical thinking. If those who gave up stopped too early in the course (either because their OWN biases were not reinforced or because they felt that their religious leanings were under threat), they will not have heard the breadth of thinking from the past AND the present. And - to be clear: not everybody has ALL the answers. No human being ever will, unless we evolve some more mentally - which is, IMO, highly unlikely unless the 'ills of this world' are addressed and changed. This is my own view, so don't berate me. I don't take kindly to diatribes from know-it-alls who claim to 'know better'. Everyone will have their views. Some will have read widely, explored courses like this one, and looked at alternative viewpoints. I certainly have. I don't pretend to know all the answers about the meaning of life and everything. I simply continue to live and learn - and I will until the day I die physically, whatever might be waiting after that. And I have my own thoughts and opinions about that, which were totally unswayed by the material presented in this course, although some of it contradicted what I believe and understand from a metaphysical viewpoint. To not continue because my beliefs were being 'affronted' would have been a petulant response. ;-)
Date published: 2022-04-14
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Bias in the Name of Provocativeness This is a great course. It is provocative, which can incentivize people to learn more. But is provocativeness a good enough excuse to not be fair and balanced? It seems to be an excuse for bias.
Date published: 2022-02-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Course and teacher Initially reluctant to order this course, based on some low scoring reviews, but took the chance and very glad I did. It was excellent and enhanced by Prof. Johnson's style and delivery. I fully recommend it to all with inquisitive minds on the subject. I could be wrong but now suspect the negative reviews likely from those who, rather than contemplate with an open mind, simply dismiss any alternative understandings as a affront to their religious views with little need for further consideration.
Date published: 2022-02-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The best course I have ever taken here hands down David Kyle Johnson is excellent. This is basically an epistemology course. A theory of knowledge course. And a critical thinking course. There are other ones on The Great Courses (Wonderium); this is by far the best. Philosophy is very dense and difficult. The professor makes it as easy to understand as possible. And brings in real life example to consolidate the knowledge. Reading through the negative reviews, these seem to be mainly generated by people who were upset or offending when critical thinking is applied to controversial topics like religion, spirituality, or alternative medicine.
Date published: 2021-12-18
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We have all pondered seemingly unanswerable but significant questions about our existence: Why are we here? What is knowledge? Does God exist? There is no better way to study the big questions in philosophy than to compare how the world's greatest minds have analyzed these questions and reasoned out potential solutions. The final step is always deciding for yourself whether you find an explanation convincing.


David K. Johnson

We can always take comfort in the fact that we can find and do embrace answers to metaphysical questions.


King's College

Dr. David Kyle Johnson is Associate Professor of Philosophy at King's College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He earned a master's degree and doctorate in philosophy from the University of Oklahoma.

At Oklahoma, he won the coveted Kenneth Merrill Graduate Teaching Award. In 2011, the American Philosophical Association's committee on public philosophy gave him an award for his ability to make philosophy accessible to the general public.

Professor Johnson regularly teaches classes on metaphysics, philosophy of religion, philosophy of mind, and logic, as well as courses on critical thinking and scientific reasoning. He has published papers on human freedom, the problem of natural evil, the multiverse, the existence of souls, and many related topics in such journals as Religious Studies, Sophia, Philo, Philosophy and Literature, and Think. He also maintains two blogs for Psychology Today.

Professor Johnson also publishes prolifically on the intersection of pop culture and philosophy. One of his books, Inception and Philosophy: Because It's Never Just a Dream, inspired an authors@Google talk with more than half-a-million YouTube views. He also has written numerous articles that explore the relationship between philosophical questions and such pop cultural phenomena as The Hobbit, Doctor Who, Batman, South Park, Johnny Cash, Quentin Tarantino, and Christmas.

By This Professor

The Big Questions of Philosophy
Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy
The Big Questions of Philosophy


How Do We Do Philosophy?

01: How Do We Do Philosophy?

The first four lectures of the course pose the big question: What is philosophy? Start by exploring the kinds of problems that philosophy addresses, the way philosophy works, and the distinction between philosophy and opinion. Discover that philosophy is arguably the most important pursuit there is....

33 min
Why Should We Trust Reason?

02: Why Should We Trust Reason?

Hone your philosophical thinking by identifying the categories of fallacious reasoning that ensnare us all. Investigate examples of gut-thinking, confirmation bias, appealing to ignorance, the correlation fallacy, begging the question, and equivocation. Learn how to check your reasoning for flaws....

31 min
How Do We Reason Carefully?

03: How Do We Reason Carefully?

Avoiding fallacious reasoning is just the beginning of philosophical thinking. Go deeper by studying the rules of deduction and induction. In the process, learn Aristotle's three axioms of logic, the difference between truth and validity, common mistakes in logical arguments, and why practically all scientific arguments are inductive....

31 min
How Do We Find the Best Explanation?

04: How Do We Find the Best Explanation?

Explore the power of abduction, a form of induction also known as inference to the best explanation, that is used not only by philosophers, but also by doctors to make medical diagnoses and scientists to construct theories. Even Sherlock Holmes-the master of deduction-really practiced abductive inference....

33 min
What Is Truth?

05: What Is Truth?

Now begin a section of the course devoted to the big question: What is knowledge? Start with the problem of defining truth. Investigate three philosophical theories that attempt to pin down this elusive concept: pragmatism, coherentism, and the correspondence theory....

30 min
Is Knowledge Possible?

06: Is Knowledge Possible?

Having covered ways of gaining evidence and justifying belief in pursuit of knowledge, now ask: Is knowledge really possible? See what Plato had to say. Then delve into René Descartes' celebrated struggle with this problem, analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of his position....

31 min
What Is the Best Way to Gain Knowledge?

07: What Is the Best Way to Gain Knowledge?

Put empiricism to the test as the best way to acquire knowledge. Study the ideas of John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume, together with the response of Immanuel Kant, before settling on the most effective route to understanding the world as it is....

32 min
Do We Know What Knowledge Is?

08: Do We Know What Knowledge Is?

Address a famous problem concerning the nature of knowledge, posed by contemporary philosopher Edmund Gettier. Use different thought experiments to test the traditional definition of knowledge. Discover firsthand the bafflement and enlightenment that comes from doing philosophy....

32 min
When Can We Trust Testimony?

09: When Can We Trust Testimony?

In this section, put what you've learned to work by asking the big question: Can religious belief be justified? Start with Hume's argument that testimony can never justify a belief that a miracle has occurred. Analyze the flaws in Hume's reasoning, and think about whether his conclusion still holds....

32 min
Can Mystical Experience Justify Belief?

10: Can Mystical Experience Justify Belief?

Look at the phenomenon of religious experiences, pondering whether such events justify belief. Find that practically all religions have religious experiences, but the beliefs they lead to can be radically different. Can "feeling the touch of God," like Jules in Pulp Fiction, justify religious belief? ...

32 min
Is Faith Ever Rational?

11: Is Faith Ever Rational?

Given that faith by its nature makes no claim to being logical, can it ever be considered rational? Learn that all of us unconsciously behave as if it is. What are our grounds for doing so, and how does this apply to religious faith? Your inquiry introduces you to famous arguments by Blaise Pascal, William Clifford and William James....

33 min
Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?

12: Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?

Begin a series of lectures addressing the next big question: Does God exist? The most popular proofs appeal to God's existence as the best explanation for the universe's existence and nature. In this lecture, test the cosmological and teleological arguments, using the tools of philosophy and the evidence of physics....

31 min
What Is God Like?

13: What Is God Like?

Traditionally, if God exists, God is perfect-God is omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent. See how these three attributes are likely inconsistent with each another. Focus in particular on the difficulties with St. Anselm's argument for a perfect God, and look at modern proposals for redefining our conception of God....

31 min
How Could God Allow Moral Evil?

14: How Could God Allow Moral Evil?

Now consider arguments against God's existence, the most common being the problem of evil. Explore various theological solutions that account for why God allows certain evils, like the holocaust. Does God have reasons we cannot understand? Examine the flaws in this argument....

32 min
Why Would God Cause Natural Evil?

15: Why Would God Cause Natural Evil?

It is one thing for God to grant humans the freedom to do evil, but it's harder to understand the existence of natural evils such as earthquakes and plagues. Evaluate different approaches to this problem, including the suggestion that God exists but didn't create our universe....

32 min
Are Freedom and Foreknowledge Compatible?

16: Are Freedom and Foreknowledge Compatible?

Do we have free will? This is your next big question. Begin with a close study of omnitemporalism-the idea that the future already exists and that God necessarily has foreknowledge of it. Taking this view, attempt to make sense of the notion that people have the power to act freely....

32 min
Do Our Souls Make Us Free?

17: Do Our Souls Make Us Free?

Look at the problem of free will from the point of view of the soul, the conjectured seat of mentality that exists apart from the body. Discover that neuroscience suggests that the soul does not exist and also casts doubt on the concept of free will....

33 min
What Does It Mean to Be Free?

18: What Does It Mean to Be Free?

Some philosophers, called compatibilists, argue that if we understand free will correctly, the idea that humans are free becomes defensible, leaving room for moral responsibility. Evaluate this stance, and close by considering the consequences of conceding that we don't have free will in the traditional sense....

32 min
What Preserves Personal Identity?

19: What Preserves Personal Identity?

Spend the next four lectures on the big question: Could there be an afterlife? First, ask what defines a person and how personal identity is preserved over time. Discover that many proposed answers fail, including the notion that personal identity is preserved by the soul....

32 min
Are Persons Mere Minds?

20: Are Persons Mere Minds?

Explore the possibility that personal identity is preserved by memory, as Locke contended, or by psychological continuity. Test these ideas in thought experiments involving the transporter from Star Trek and other intriguing scenarios....

32 min
Are Persons Just Bodies?

21: Are Persons Just Bodies?

Could it be that you are the same person over time because you have the same body over time? Explore the implications of this view, which traces to the Judeo-Christian concept of the resurrection of the body in the afterlife. Consider biological objections....

33 min
Are You Really You?

22: Are You Really You?

Close your inquiry into the afterlife by looking at new ways of defining personhood. According to perdurantism, a person is the sum total of an individual's life experiences and cannot be isolated to a particular time and place. Then question the very concept of a person-a move that may rule out the possibility of an afterlife....

32 min
How Does the Brain Produce the Mind?

23: How Does the Brain Produce the Mind?

The next three lectures address the big question: What is the nature of the mind? Start with the celebrated "hard problem" of consciousness: How does the brain produce the mind? Investigate two possible answers and explore why many philosophers consider both to be problematic....

33 min
What Do Minds Do, If Anything?

24: What Do Minds Do, If Anything?

Examine three more theories of the mind-property dualism, epiphenomenalism, and eliminative materialism-discovering that each has shortcomings. All of us feel that we have minds, so why is it so difficult to pin down what the mind is? Could the mind be an illusion?...

32 min
Could Machines Think?

25: Could Machines Think?

Push your exploration of the mind even further by looking at functionalism, which suggests that anything that functions like our brain has mentality. The implication is that, in principle, machines can think. Study some responses to this theory, including John Searle's thought experiment called the Chinese Room....

33 min
Does God Define the Good?

26: Does God Define the Good?

Turn to the next big question: What is morally right and wrong? Your first step is to inquire what establishes the truth of ethical statements. Look briefly at emotivism, which holds that our emotions tell us what is right. Then focus on divine command theory, which considers God to be the source of moral truth....

31 min
Does Happiness Define the Good?

27: Does Happiness Define the Good?

Could the happiness or absence of pain that results from an action define whether it is good? The Greek philosopher Epicurus held this view, which was fine-tuned by utilitarian philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Study objections to this outlook....

32 min
Does Reason Define the Good?

28: Does Reason Define the Good?

Kant suggested that reason determines what is moral or immoral. Analyze his famous categorical imperative, which is a set of obligatory moral rules guided by reason. See how Kant's rules go far beyond the Golden Rule. Then uncover the shortcomings of the categorical imperative....

32 min
How Ought We to Live?

29: How Ought We to Live?

Take up virtue ethics, which suggests that we should concentrate less on resolving which actions are moral or immoral, and instead focus on cultivating virtue. Explore the complexities of this quest, the need to use practical wisdom, and its ultimate goal of eudaimonia, or well-being....

33 min
Why Bother Being Good?

30: Why Bother Being Good?

Wickedness has its rewards, which raises the question: Why bother being good? Explore this issue with Plato, whose dialogue The Republic is a detailed description of a highly regulated, virtuous society. Plato contends that the individual achieves virtue in an analogous way....

31 min
Should Government Exist?

31: Should Government Exist?

This section of the course considers the big question: How should society be organized? Here, perform a thought experiment that casts into doubt the moral justification of government. Then probe more deeply into this view, called philosophical anarchism, which has a spectrum of positions from benign to violent....

32 min
What Justifies a Government?

32: What Justifies a Government?

Does government arise naturally from a state of anarchy? Does this fact morally justify it? Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean Jacques Rousseau thought so. However, each of these philosophers saw different factors driving individuals to enter into the social contract. Compare their views....

30 min
How Big Should Government Be?

33: How Big Should Government Be?

Explore three theories on the proper size of government, focusing on economic regulation and delivery of services. Adam Smith saw a minimal role, Karl Marx envisioned total control, and John Maynard Keynes believed that major government intervention was necessary under certain conditions....

32 min
What Are the Limits of Liberty?

34: What Are the Limits of Liberty?

Deepen your study of the role of government by examining Mill's arguments in his famous 1859 treatise, On Liberty. Apply his reasoning to three of today's hot-button issues: To what extent should marijuana, gay marriage, and offensive and inflammatory speech be legal?...

32 min
What Makes a Society Fair or Just?

35: What Makes a Society Fair or Just?

Enter the fray with philosophers John Rawls and Robert Nozick, who reached different conclusions about what would constitute a just society. Begin with a thought experiment based on Christopher Nolan's movie Interstellar, pondering how you might start civilization from scratch in the fairest possible way....

32 min
What Is the Meaning of Life?

36: What Is the Meaning of Life?

Professor Johnson poses the last big question of the course: Can we answer the ultimate question? Draw on the many insights you've gained from these lectures, together with your experience thinking philosophically, to probe the meaning of life from several points of view....

35 min