Course Code: PHIL-UA 78.

Instructor: Prof. Cian Dorr; office hours Tuesdays and Thursdays 1.45 - 2.30 (2nd floor of philosophy building).

Teaching Assistant: Samuel Lee; office hours TBA.

email for both of us:

Lectures: 12.30 - 1.45, Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Recitations: Friday 11 - 12.15 and 12.30 - 1.45


Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of reality at the most general level. Although it deals with questions about many quite specific phenomena or aspects of reality, the interest of these questions often derives from their relevance to the formulation and evaluation of theories that claim to provide some kind of comprehensive description of reality as a whole. For example, one recently influential picture of reality conceives it as consisting, fundamentally, of a four-dimensional manifold of points distinguished by various physical fields; many of the questions about the passage of time and the nature of change which metaphysicians debate have in common the fact that their answers are potentially relevant to arguing for or against this picture, or precisely articulating it.

This course will be a rigorous introduction to metaphysics from a contemporary point of view. The topics covered may include: physical law and chance; causation; time and change; time travel; necessity and possibility; identity and distinctness; existence; material objects; parts and wholes; properties and other abstract objects; fundamentality and derivativeness. The readings will be by philosophers working in the analytic tradition, mostly writing in the last few decades.


There will be a midterm exam, a final exam, two short writing exercises, and a term paper.

The primary purpose of the final exam is to give you an incentive to go back over the material we have covered over the course of the semester and think things through systematically on your own, revisiting earlier topics with the benefit of the increased understanding of the basic conceptual toolkit of metaphysics which I hope you will have attained by the end of the semester. There are many connections between our topics that will be visible in hindsight, and tracing out these conceptions can help you arrive at a more coherent and worked-out set of answers to some of the hardest and deepest questions there are.

The primary purpose of the midterm exam is to give you a sense of what to expect on the final exam, and to give us a sense for what you have been getting out of the class.

For the midterm and final exams, I will distribute a week in advance a list of questions from which the questions on the exam will be (more or less) randomly selected. The exact numbers will be settled later, but the goal will be to set things up in such a way that you have to be prepared to answer about three-quarters of the questions. For example, I might circulate eight questions in advance and select four of them for the exam, of which you will be required to answer two.

The primary purpose of the term paper is (obviously) to give you a chance to delve more deeply into one topic, integrating ideas from different sources and honing your analytical skills.

The primary purpose of the writing exercise is to help you to understand, and get better at, the kind of writing that will be expected of you in the final paper and in the exams.

People taking their first course in metaphysics often think that it's a good idea to use a lot of fancy jargon words in their writing, perhaps because they think this will help it to be or seem "deep", or because they see such words in use in the readings. In fact this could not be further from the truth. You should aim to keep your language as simple and easy-to-follow as possible. In general you should use less jargon than the authors you are discussing, and when you do use technical or specialised terminology, you should clearly explain it in ordinary language.

Everything will be graded anonymously. When turning in a paper or exam, do not include your name or any identifying information, other than your NYU ID number (8 digits).

Your final grade will be determined as follows:

Participation in discussion 15%
Writing exercise 10%
Midterm exam 10%
Final exam 35%
Term paper 30%

Key dates

1/26 No lecture
2/23 Topics for writing exercise distributed
3/1 Writing exercise due
3/10 or 3/22 Midterm exam
4/21 Topics for term paper distributed
5/3 Term paper due
TBA Final exam


Attendance: You are expected to attend all the lectures and recitations, and to arrive having done the required readings. Missing more than eight classes or recitations without a good excuse will be grounds for failing the course.

Late assignments: If you hand in an assignment late without a valid medical excuse or equivalent, your grade for that assignment will be diminished by a third of a grade per day. So if you hand in your short writing exercise on Friday and it was due on Tuesday, and your grade would have been B+, it will instead be a C+.

Plagiarism: The penalty for plagiarism is failing the course. Plagiarism includes any case where you incorporate someone else's words or ideas into your work in such a way as to make them appear to be your own. In this era when Google is never more than a click away, plagiarism has become more tempting, more common, and easier to detect. Be warned!


Warning: the readings for this course will be quite demanding. There will typically be 30-50 pages per week of material, much of which will require several readings. You will have to do this reading in a timely fashion to prepare for in-class discussion.

The readings will all be available online, either on this NYU Classes site or as external links. Many of the external links will be to sites like JStor which are only accessible from computers on NYU's network. If you are logged on from elsewhere, you can access these sites by using the university's 'ezproxy' system. An easy way to set this up is to go through the 'PhilPapers' database, and I will give PhilPapers links for all the readings.

My esteemed colleague Jim Pryor has written some really helpful guidelines about how to approach reading and writing philosophy papers, which I strongly recommend.

Schedule of readings and topics

Date Topics and readings
1/26 What is metaphysics?
Topic 1: Past, present and future
2/2 Is reality just a four-dimensional manifold? The B-theory of time.
David Lewis, Introduction to Philosophical Papers, vol. 2 (excerpts: 5 pp.)
J. J. C. Smart, 'The Space-Time World', from Philosophy and Scientific Realism (8 pp.)
John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart, 'Time', from The Nature of Existence (23 pp.; for today just look at the first 8 pages).
2/4 Privileging the present time: the A-theory of time.
A.N. Prior, 'The Notion of the Present' (4 pp.)
McTaggart, 'Time', sections 326-333 (4 pp.)
Is everything always identical to something? Eternalism and its competitors.
A.N. Prior, 'Changes in Events and Changes in Things' (13 pp.)
Dean Zimmerman, 'The Privileged Present: Defending an A-theory of Time' (13 pp.)
Daniel Deasy, 'The Moving Spotlight Theory' (16 pp.)
(supp.) Meghan Sullivan, 'The Minimal A-Theory'
More arguments
Mark Richard, 'The Semantics of Tense' (4 pp. excerpt)
Hilary Putnam, 'Time and Physical Geometry (6 pp.)'
Ned Markosian, 'A Defence of Presentism' (32 pp.)
2/23 Fatalism and the open future
Peter van Inwagen, 'Fatalism', from An Essay on Free Will (32 pp.)
2/25 Mid-Term Exam (NB this date is still tentative)
Topic 2: Causal facts
Laws of nature
David Lewis, excerpt from Counterfactuals (2 pp.)
Helen Beebee, 'The Non-Governing Conception of Laws of Nature' (21 pp.)
Tim Maudlin, 'A Modest Proposal Concerning Laws, Counterfactuals, and Explanation' (50 pp. total; read first 18 pp.)
David Lewis, 'Counterfactual Dependence and Time's Arrow' (19 pp.)
Tim Maudlin, 'A Modest Proposal' (finish)
Christopher Hitchcock, 'The Intransitivity of Causation Revealed in Equations and Graphs' (27 pp.)
Background: John Carroll and Ned Markosian, 'Causation', from An Introduction to Metaphysics (24 pp.)
The ability to do otherwise
Peter van Inwagen, 'The Incompatibility of Free Will and Determinism' (14 pp.)
Kadri Vihvelin,
Time travel
David Lewis, 'The Paradoxes of Time Travel' (14 pp.)
Topic 3: Ontology
Are objects just regions of spacetime?
John Hawthorne, 'Three Dimensionalism vs. Four Dimensionalism'
Ontological economy and paraphrase
W. V. Quine, 'On What There Is' (18 pp.)
Peter van Inwagen, 'Existence, Ontological Commitment, and Fictional Entities' (25 pp.)
Supplementary: David Lewis and Stephanie Lewis, 'Holes'
Properties and higher-order quantification
A.N. Prior, Objects of Thought (excerpts).
Composite objects
Gideon Rosen and Cian Dorr, 'Composition as a Fiction', sections 1-8 (27 pp.)
Further reading: Peter van Inwagen, Material Beings (excerpts).
Quantifier variance and the easiness of ontology
Eli Hirsch, 'Against Revisionary Ontology' (24 pp.).
Amie Thomasson, 'The Easy Approach to Ontology' (15 pp.)
Ontology and the fundamental
Cian Dorr, 'There Are No Abstract Objects', sections 1 and 2 (6 pp.)
Kit Fine, 'The Question of Ontology' (20 pp.)