Tuesday, December 3, 2013

A Growing Understanding

In July, I wrote a post about continuing education options I was considering. Two of those courses are now over and the third will end next week. Here's a bit about the Metaphysics course I took through Oxford's Continuing Education program. I'm proud to say I received credit for my work this term, especially since it was quite hard. I have mixed feelings about the course material and the online format, but I'm glad I took it and would definitely consider taking another. Why? Because I crave perspective. It informs my life, my heart, my point of view, and my writing. Below is the final response essay I wrote for the class. It's a decent sample of my narrative academic style, which I don't have much of on the blog, and it gives an honest account of what I learned.
A Growing Understanding
            Over the course of this term, my understanding of metaphysics has more than undergone a complete change: it has been born. In signing up for the course, I assumed that many areas of the discipline bled into other areas, but I did not know the topics metaphysics covered, to what degree, or that scholarship and major advancements in the field have grown both by layering and by splintering off until incredibly precise arguments and counterarguments have been formed. Just when the reader expects an issue to be settled, another point of view not yet considered will be elaborated on, and therefore another pathway taken.
           Before the term started, I could not have given a definition of metaphysics, listed any of the arguments set forth in any conversations about metaphysical theories, or even mentioned a single name of someone well-known for his (I say ‘his’ because I did not come across the work of females in the field) essays and arguments about metaphysical topics. I will attempt here to summarize a few things I have learned, and I will thread information throughout about the academic and semantic sides of the discipline, which I also had no knowledge of prior to taking this class.
            From the beginning of the course, I established a rough idea of what metaphysics is at a basic level. In my own words, I described it as having to do with being, whereas epistemology has to do with knowing. In other words, if two people discuss what change is, as we did in class, they are discussing what something is, but if one of them questions how the other one can be so sure her definition of change is correct, then they have slipped into an epistemological argument. That is how I kept the two separate and how I will always attempt to simply define metaphysics, which seems appropriate since the arguments we read often defined one idea in contrast to another. In fact many were a direct response to a previous argument, such as the conversation-style arguments of Plato’s dialogs.
            However, things became much more complex from there on out. The language in the readings is dense, often goes in argumentative circles and on tangents in order to catch any objections, and is sometimes slightly antiquated and highly technical. Therefore, a major aspect of learning about metaphysics that I had no expectation of was learning how to read critical work about metaphysics, a skill I am afraid to say I did not come anywhere close to mastering, a deficiency that made the subject inaccessible to me many times.
            That barrier notwithstanding, I did pick up on new ideas and learn the foundations of many metaphysics theories and the arguments used to support them. In response, I was able to begin developing my own questions and begin answering them. For example, in answer to a question asking for a sample of an ontological dispute, I asked: Does a universal, innate knowledge of right and wrong exist? I could not answer the question, of course, but asking the right questions seems to be a major aspect of metaphysical disputes.
            I pondered other things as well, like whether or not the physical properties of something like the pumpkin on my table are actual or are dependent upon the perceiver, in fact, whether existence itself is reliant on perception. I learned what it means to be a hard determinist, which, in my understanding, is not about the fact that one might have freedom in a given moment to choose the red scarf over the blue, but that one does eventually decide, and that the decision is based on a long series of past events along with basic laws that rule the universe. In other discussions, as with the questions about Hume’s causation arguments, I found myself frustrated in feeling something is ultimately true, but not knowing how to prove it with a logical argument or how to counter my critics’ objections. Still, I knew I must find a logical answer and meet my critics, in order to create an answer worth considering. So then, even the experience of struggling to find an answer, and coming up short, was useful.
            Of all the topics discussed, the most affecting and fascinating for me were two. The first was the ‘one over many’ question and the ideas that followed, and the second was the space-time discussion. I never came to a conclusion about the ‘one over many’ question, but I am intrigued with so many of those what questions: what is an individual entity; what makes it what it is; is it a single quality of that entity that gives it a character, or a bundle of qualities; do those qualities belong to that entity, or do they exist somehow outside of the entity? This stuck with me and still has me asking: What am I, what makes me up, and why? Do my characteristics connect me to others with similar characteristics—do my Forms exist if I cease to exist?
            As for the space-time discussion, I have always had a sense that there is more to time than a straight line, and could happily take an entire course on the subject! The concept of the fourth dimension opened my mind considerably, and, more importantly, made absolute sense. Movement through time or space, I learned, may be seen best through the lens of change, which is also the best way to describe how such a young and immature understanding of something I knew little about before has now grown into the first steps of comprehension. In other words, I may still be in the cave, but there is most certainly a loosening in the chains that hold me.