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Neuroscience, cognitive science, and computer science are making huge strides in modeling the human brain’s information processing systems, from visual discrimination of faces to the neural circuitry and hormones that control our emotional reactions. But can these disciplines fully explain all aspects of our minds? Can scientific theories explain what it’s like to smell the sea or to taste durian? Can they capture your appreciation of the meaning of a Shakespeare sonnet or the emotional significance of your favorite hip hop song? These questions continue to be hotly contested by both philosophers and scientists. Everyone agrees that human brain states are reliably correlated with our mental states – but are these mental states strictly identical to brain states or just causally produced by them? And just which aspects of our brains are correlated with states like beliefs, desires, emotions or sensations?
In this subject, we examine the most influential philosophical answers to these questions. We start with Descartes’ argument for dualism, which he claims provides indubitable grounds for thinking one’s mind is not identical to any physical object. We then consider why scientifically minded philosophers resisted this picture and their attempts to say exactly which aspects of the physical world constitute a mental state. Is a mind just a disposition to behave in intelligent ways? Is it a functioning human brain? Is it like a computer program? Should our ordinary conception of mental states be rejected as scientifically ill-founded? Is it immune to scientific refutation? In the second half of the semester, we’ll look in more detail at three particular problem cases: (i) the ‘what it’s like’ aspect of our sensory experiences, (ii) our understanding of the contents of our words and thoughts, and (iii) the unity of our own conscious mental lives.
Intended learning outcomes
Students who successfully complete this subject will:
- possess a broad knowledge and understanding of issues in the contemporary philosophy of mind, including an understanding of the major theories minds and mental states including dualism, behaviourism, identity theory, functionalism, eliminativism and interpretivism;
- engage critically with existing philosophical conversations about the nature of mental states and develop the capacity for critical and creative interventions in those discussions;
- discern the relevance of philosophical ideas about minds and mental states for practical and moral quesitons about whether which organisms or artificial systems have minds and are deserving of moral consideration;
- come to appreciate how empirical discoveries in psychology and neuroscience can challenge our common sense understanding of mental states and our ability to know about them;
- appreciate how issues in the philosophy of mind intersect with broader philosophical questions about metaphysics, epistemology, and the philosophy of language;
- demonstrate a high-level of fluency in communication and collaboration skills, including oral and written presentation of arguments and effective work in small and large groups;
- be prepared to engage with the possibility of radical critique of critique of their own suppositions and commitments about the nature of the mental.
Last updated: 4 August 2020