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Philosophy of Mind: Brains, Consciousness, and Thinking Machines

Philosophy of Mind: Brains, Consciousness, and Thinking Machines

Professor Patrick Grim Ph.D.
State University of New York, Stony Brook
Course No.  4278
Course No.  4278
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  31 minutes per lecture

Nothing in the universe is more mysterious than the inner workings of the human mind. The attempt to understand consciousness is the ultimate imperative in philosophical thought and stems from the ancient Greek aphorism, "know thyself." A simple statement, it nevertheless has vast ramifications for how we understand not only ourselves, but also the people around us.

  • Do other people have a mind like yours and, if so, how do you know?
  • Is your mind something distinct from your body, or do ordinary physiological processes produce minds?
  • Can a machine have a mind?
  • What is consciousness?
  • Do you have free will?
  • Is everything you are now experiencing actually happening, or is that an elaborate illusion created by the mind?
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Nothing in the universe is more mysterious than the inner workings of the human mind. The attempt to understand consciousness is the ultimate imperative in philosophical thought and stems from the ancient Greek aphorism, "know thyself." A simple statement, it nevertheless has vast ramifications for how we understand not only ourselves, but also the people around us.

  • Do other people have a mind like yours and, if so, how do you know?
  • Is your mind something distinct from your body, or do ordinary physiological processes produce minds?
  • Can a machine have a mind?
  • What is consciousness?
  • Do you have free will?
  • Is everything you are now experiencing actually happening, or is that an elaborate illusion created by the mind?

The mind reels at such questions! But philosophy provides powerful tools for investigating the mysteries of thinking, feeling, and perceiving.

What Is Your Mind?

History's most profound thinkers have spent their lives attempting to answer the deceptively simple question, "what is the mind?" including Aristotle in antiquity, René Descartes in the 17th century, and William James in the 19th century.

Questions about the nature of the mind are among the most hotly debated in philosophy today. Today, we are beginning to see the true complexity of this pursuit, as philosophers draw on the latest evidence from neuroscience, psychology, artificial intelligence, linguistics, and other fields to probe still deeper into the inner workings of the mind.

One of the most exciting research partnerships in recent decades has been the interdisciplinary study of the mind called cognitive science. It draws on neuroscience to chart how bundles of neurons create minds, psychology to illuminate how minds function, linguistics to explain how minds generate language, artificial intelligence to attempt to reproduce the output of our minds, and other fields to cover the big picture.

Try Thought Experiments

An amazingly productive technique for studying the mind is the hypothetical scenario, or thought experiment, which helps us grasp these overarching questions and show what a puzzling phenomena the mind is. Some of the fascinating thought experiments you encounter in Philosophy of Mind are:

  • Brain in a Vat: How do you know you are not a brain in a vat, with a completely simulated life? While plausible as science fiction, this picture assumes that the mind could be disembodied. The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio and others, however, seem to have strong evidence that feedback from the body is essential to forming a mind.
  • Chinese Room: Imagine a room in which a non-Chinese speaker follows rules for translating Chinese and produces correct answers without understanding the language. In his powerful critique of artificial intelligence, the philosopher John Searle draws a comparison with computers and argues that they can't have understanding simply by virtue of manipulating rules and symbols.
  • Life as a Bat: We all know what it is like to be us, but what is it like to be a bat? No matter how much we know about bat physiology, says philosopher Thomas Nagel, it is impossible to know the subjective experience of a bat. Perhaps no subjective state, such as consciousness, can be understood objectively.
  • The Changing Taste of Beer: Qualia are qualitative experiences such as tastes and smells, but how real are they? As an example, the philosopher Daniel Dennett cites the typical first reaction to the taste of beer: "What awful stuff!" But suppose you become a beer lover—has the taste of beer changed? Do you have different qualia, or do you have the same qualia but are just reacting differently?

Explore a Panorama of Theories

In Philosophy of Mind, you study all the major theories of the mind, including:

  • Dualism, which holds that body and mind are separate substances
  • Behaviorism and Functionalism, which stress behavior and interactions with the world as clues to the mind's inner workings
  • Idealism, which views the physical world as an illusion and suggests that only the mental realm exists
  • "Antitheories" of the mind, which posit that subjective mental experiences are fundamentally inexplicable and will always remain a mystery.

These and other philosophical positions all have something going for them. One thinker's convincing arguments often diverge radically from another's equally convincing argument, so that a newcomer to the field can't help but get lost among the contending proposals.

Philosophy of Mind expertly sorts out the various approaches to understanding the mind, giving the pros and cons of each in an engrossing survey of complex and often controversial intellectual terrain. The course articulates these intellectual options in service of capturing the excitement of intellectual discussion, never to lay down a single dogmatic position.

What You Learn

Philosophy of Mind begins with three case histories emblematic of issues that crop up throughout the course:

  • Descartes' Dream: In 1619, the young René Descartes envisaged a new science in a series of dreams. The core of the science was a radical distinction between minds and bodies, and it formed the framework for the mind-body problem that stimulates philosophical debate to this day.
  • Einstein's Brain: A strange saga began after the great scientist's death when his brain was removed without official permission. Its eventual analysis showed that an area associated with mathematical thought had taken over an area associated with language, hinting at the extreme plasticity of brains and minds.
  • Babbage's Difference Engine: Designed in the 1800s, this steam-driven device of steel and brass was markedly different from modern computer hardware. It was capable, however, of the same functions as a general-purpose computer, raising the question of whether there is anything about a machine that could possibly make it intelligent or even conscious.

You then proceed through a sequence of lectures that cover the basic concepts, classical theories, and latest hypotheses in the philosophy of mind, ending with a discussion of Functionalism, the dominant trend in current research. The next six lectures pursue the theme of Functionalism, concentrating on perception, our conceptions of ourselves, and minds as they function in the world (real robots play an interesting role in this investigation).

The next six lectures address questions of human versus artificial intelligence: Just how alike and how different are brains and computers? Philosophy of Mind then concludes with a focus on subjective experience and the continuing mystery of consciousness, with a final lecture that returns to the three emblematic examples from Lecture 1.

Probe Your Own Mind

One of the most enjoyable features of Philosophy of Mind is the experiments you can do to illuminate surprising aspects of your own mind. Some mind probes you learn about throughout the course include:

  • An Inner Theater: Imagine a pirate. Now describe him down to the number of buttons on his coat without revising your mental picture. If you had an "inner theater"—a place for fully formed thoughts and perceptions—you should be able to look at your mental image and report everything about it. Chances are, however, you make it up as you go along.
  • Filling In: By looking at a simple diagram in the Course Guidebook that accompanies this course, you can find your blind spot: the region of your eye lacking photoreceptors, where the optic nerve joins the retina. Normally, we're unaware of this "hole" in our vision, since the brain fills in an appropriate background. Professor Grim also plays a recording of an intriguing auditory version of this phenomenon.
  • Phantom Limb: Professor Grim describes an experiment you can perform to fool your mind into thinking that a rubber hand or even a coffee cup is part of your own body. This phenomenon may relate to the similar confusions of "body image" that make some amputees feel sensations in their missing limbs.
  • Belief and Perception: Does belief drive perception? Apparently not. To prove this, draw a two-inch horizontal line, mark the midpoint, and then draw a two-inch vertical line from that point. You will see that the vertical line looks longer than the horizontal, despite the fact that you measured them to be identical. Your justified belief that they are the same length can't override your mind's erroneous perception.

Grapple with Endlessly Interesting Phenomena

A thorough exploration of what we know and don't know about our mental functioning, Philosophy of Mind is an incomparable introduction to the various issues that revolve around the question of what, exactly, the mind is. It makes you think, evaluate your own opinions, and change your mind not a few times as you grapple with the endlessly interesting phenomena of mind.

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24 Lectures
  • 1
    The Dream, the Brain, and the Machine
    Professor Grim previews the range of ideas in the course with three examples: a dream of the philosopher René Descartes in 1619, the saga of Einstein's brain after his death, and a steam-driven computer designed in the mid-1800s. x
  • 2
    The Mind-Body Problem
    How does the mental relate to the physical? One response is Dualism, developed by Descartes, which sees the two as radically distinct. x
  • 3
    Brains and Minds, Parts and Wholes
    The strange case of Phineas Gage, who suffered a horrible brain injury in 1848, sheds light on the brain-mind connection. x
  • 4
    The Inner Theater
    Do we have an inner realm where representations of the world are displayed completely? A range of experiments seem to show that something much more complicated is going on. x
  • 5
    Living in the Material World
    You examine alternatives to Dualism—from the idea that the universe is purely mental (idealism) to the view that it is purely physical (materialism). x
  • 6
    A Functional Approach to the Mind
    Behaviorism and Functionalism take a radically different approach to the body and mind approach. x
  • 7
    What Is It about Robots?
    If Functionalism is right, a machine could have real perception, emotion, pleasure, and pain. Wouldn't it then also have ethical rights? x
  • 8
    Body Image
    Having conjectured how a body produces a mind, we approach the problem from the other side: how a mind produces a body. x
  • 9
    Self-Identity and Other Minds
    This lecture explores our concept of ourselves and other minds—not just human but animal—together with puzzling questions about self posed by "teletransporter" thought experiments and split-brain cases. x
  • 10
    Perception—What Do You Really See?
    What do we really see? What do we really hear? Empiricism argues that what we perceive are not things in the world but rather subjective sense data. x
  • 11
    Perception—Intentionality and Evolution
    The intentionalist view holds that perception is always "about" something. The evolutionary view sees perception as an evolved grab bag of tricks. x
  • 12
    A Mind in the World
    In order to understand the mind, we have to understand the environment in which it functions—the mind in the world. x
  • 13
    A History of Smart Machines
    You trace the fascinating stories of computing machines—from the Antikythera device of 100 B.C., to legends of mechanical calculating heads in the Middle Ages, to Charles Babbage's designs for steam-driven computers in the 1840s. x
  • 14
    Intelligence and IQ
    This lecture looks at attempts to measure intelligence. x
  • 15
    Artificial Intelligence
    In 1950, Alan Turing proposed a test for determining whether a machine displays human intelligence, predicting that such a thinking machine would exist by 2000. x
  • 16
    Brains and Computers
    Computers use binary digits and logic gates. By contrast, brains are built of neurons, which are far more complex. While we know how computers work, we are ignorant of brain function on many levels. x
  • 17
    Attacks on Artificial Intelligence
    The very concept of artificial intelligence has serious critics, including Hubert Dreyfus and John Searle. The latter has a powerful argument called the "Chinese room," which this lecture considers from both sides of the debate. x
  • 18
    Do We Have Free Will?
    Can our actions be free? The compatibilist view holds that free will, when properly understood, is a natural part of a causal universe. x
  • 19
    Seeing and Believing
    This lecture explores how our conscious experience is shaped by background beliefs and expectations. This issue raises an important question for our justice system: Is eyewitness testimony reliable? x
  • 20
    Mysteries of Color
    Is color real or is it something that exists only in the mind? You explore this question with thought experiments and insights. x
  • 21
    The Hard Problem of Consciousness
    If there is a defining problem in philosophy of mind today, it is the problem of accounting for our subjective experience. David Chalmers calls this the "hard problem of consciousness." x
  • 22
    The Conscious Brain—2½ Physical Theories
    How are we to understand conscious experience? This lecture considers two attempts to explain consciousness in terms of physical processes in the brain. x
  • 23
    The HOT Theory and Antitheories
    The philosopher David Rosenthal identifies consciousness with "higher-order thoughts"—HOT. You also survey antitheories. x
  • 24
    What We Know and What We Don't Know
    Professor Grim reviews the high points of the course, focusing on questions raised by Lecture 1. x

Lecture Titles

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Patrick Grim
Ph.D. Patrick Grim
State University of New York, Stony Brook

Dr. Patrick Grim is Distinguished Teaching Professor of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He graduated with highest honors in anthropology and philosophy from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He was named a Fulbright Fellow to the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, from which he earned his B.Phil. He earned his Ph.D. from Boston University. Professor Grim is the recipient of several honors and awards. In addition to being named SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor, Dr. Grim has been awarded the President and Chancellor's awards for excellence in teaching and was elected to the Academy of Teachers and Scholars. The Weinberg Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Michigan in 2006, Professor Grim has also held visiting fellowships at the Center for Complex Systems at Michigan and at the Center for Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh. Professor Grim, author of The Incomplete Universe: Totality, Knowledge, and Truth; coauthor of The Philosophical Computer: Exploratory Essays in Philosophical Computer Modeling; and editor of the forthcoming Mind and Consciousness: 5 Questions, is widely published in scholarly journals. He is the founder and coeditor of 25 volumes of The Philosopher's Annual, an anthology of the best articles published in philosophy each year.

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Reviews

Rated 4.6 out of 5 by 71 reviewers.
Rated 4 out of 5 by Good, but more science than philosophy The course content is interesting, and the professor competent, but the major problem with this course is that it relies so much on experimental psychology, neurology and the like, that it is somewhat superficial when dealing with philosophy proper. Let's hope a future edition will address this issue, but I still recommend this course to anyone interested in the Philosophy of Mind. July 7, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Rich, thorough, and entertaining. The course is organized really well, with a specific topic within a larger theme which he never loses sight of. The examples are great, his explanations are very clear and the pace moves right along start to finish. It's my third TGC course that I've gone through and I enjoyed them all but this was probably the most enjoyable delivery I've heard yet. If he's reading it you wouldn't know, and his intonation made me chuckle now and then. But it isn't rambling or repetitive; I think it's because he knows the material so well he has found really clever ways to explain it. It's a primer in philosophy but not so full of technical terms that you can't follow. Really, this is great, you won't be disappointed if the subject matter interests you. March 13, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 Best course from TGC so far I thoroughly enjoyed this course. Having taken a Philosophy of Mind course as part of my undergraduate university education in 1983, I was curious about how thinking about Mind has evolved. Prof. Grim did not disappoint. Of all the courses I've partaken of at The Great Courses, the organization of his course, and indeed each and every lecture, was superb. He covers the history of thought about Mind, the major thinkers and their points of view, and it all comes together in the last several lectures. This course was not as "dense" as some of the others at TGC, nor was it as biased towards the lecturer's point of view. This one is definitely worth the investment of your time. September 2, 2013
Rated 5 out of 5 Excellent course! I feel like I'm ahead of the game after learning from this teacher. I construct healthier arguments and it turns out I know a lot more than those who haven't taken this course and argue with me about dualism or other kinds of dogmas. Before Patrick Grimm and Steven Novella I used to be very gullible... I've gone through many courses, some of them don't even exist on the website anymore... July 15, 2013
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