Consciousness and Its Implications

Course No. 4168
Professor Daniel N. Robinson, Ph.D.
Philosophy Faculty, Oxford University; Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, Georgetown University
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Course No. 4168
  • Audio or Video?
  • You should buy audio if you would enjoy the convenience of experiencing this course while driving, exercising, etc. While the video does contain visual elements, the professor presents the material in an engaging and clear manner, so the visuals are not necessary to understand the concepts. Additionally, the audio audience may refer to the accompanying course guidebook for names, works, and examples that are cited throughout the course.
  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. The video version is not heavily illustrated, featuring nearly 70 photographs and illustrations. The photographs are those of key contributors to the field, including Aristotle, Wittgenstein, Locke, Searle, and even Deep Blue, the IBM computer that defeated grand chess master Garry Kasparov. While we recommend the video version and believe that the included visuals greatly enhance Professor Robinson's presentation, audio customers report being highly satisfied with their experience as well.
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Course Overview

It's as essential to human existence as water is to a fish. Every night we surrender it gratefully, only to get it back in the morning. We recognize that we have it, but we can never be sure anyone else does. Consciousness, this unique and perplexing mental state, has been the subject of debate for philosophers and scientists for millennia. And while it is widely agreed within contemporary philosophy that consciousness is a problem whose solutions are likely to determine the fate of any number of other problems, there is no settled position on the ultimate nature of consciousness.

  • What is the most promising way to study this subject?
  • What are the implications that arise from the fact that we have consciousness?
  • What are the ethical and moral issues raised by its presence—or its absence?

Questions like these are at the heart of Consciousness and Its Implications, 12 thought-provoking lectures delivered by distinguished philosopher and psychologist Daniel N. Robinson. Rather than merely explain away consciousness, or hide behind such convenient slogans as "it's all in your brain," Professor Robinson reviews some of the special problems that philosophers, psychologists, scientists, and doctors face when taking on such a vexing topic.

What Is Consciousness?

Much of what we do every day is done without our being directly conscious of the steps taken to complete the task: riding a bicycle, taking a walk, humming a tune. But as natural as this state is, it stands as a very serious threat to any number of core convictions and assumptions in both philosophy and science. One of the overarching goals of this intriguing course is to make clear just what about consciousness serves as such a challenge to these convictions and assumptions.

But what makes Consciousness and Its Implications so engaging is more than just the nature of the questions it poses and the issues it tackles. It's the way in which Professor Robinson, the consummate teacher and scholar, conveys this goal in four main points, each of which you explore in depth in these lectures.

  • Consciousness seems to require, for its full understanding, a science not yet available.
  • What distinguishes consciousness from all else is its phenomenology—that is, the act of being conscious is different from all other facts of nature.
  • Conscious awareness is a power that, at times, can be so strong as to greatly affect our senses.
  • The powers of consciousness vary over the course of a lifetime; as such, they can become subject to disease and defect.

Compelling Examples of Consciousness

Throughout the course, Professor Robinson brings this riveting topic vividly to life with real-world examples and striking anecdotes.

  • Review the case of Deep Blue, the IBM computer that in 1997 shocked the world by defeating a human, the chess grand master Garry Kasparov. Does Deep Blue's ability to "outsmart" a human being constitute a kind of consciousness? Or is it a reflection of the human minds that created this complex computer?
  • Consider the case of the sleepwalker, who moves around with purpose and mimics behaviors we see in everyday life, but can remember nothing upon awakening. How does this mental state relate to human consciousness? What would be lost if we lived our entire lives as sleepwalkers?
  • Study the case of a comatose patient who lives in an unbroken sleep state but, after a miraculous recovery, recalls having heard doctors speak about her. How do we interpret this patient's ability to perceive the surrounding world while in a coma? Does the patient's experience reflect some in-between mental state we've yet to define?
  • Look at the case of a child with autism who can perform complicated mental tasks but lacks the most basic human attribute: empathy. How does this inability to imagine other minds affect the child's capacity to enjoy the full experience of human consciousness?

Using compelling examples such as these, Professor Robinson weaves a riveting tale of the human condition that will change the way you think about your own mind.

Probe Life's Most Profound Philosophical Riddles

Professor Robinson also draws on the wisdom of the world's greatest thinkers—from the ancient Greeks to today's top scientists—to shed light on some of the ethical debates involved in any examination of consciousness. These include

  • John Locke, whose famous "Prince and the Cobbler" hypothesis raised questions about the relationship between one's personal identity and one's body;
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose "Beetle in a Box" scenario holds implications for how we define consciousness both inside and outside ourselves; and
  • Aristotle, who led a pointed discussion on the relationship between the physical world and what he referred to as "real being."

You also enter the lab and explore the impact of modern physics and medicine on our understanding of the self. Pondering questions ranging from the most fundamental—"Why are we here?"—to contemporary quandaries about artificial intelligence and the medical decision to prolong life, you'll gain new insights into the complexity of how great minds define consciousness.

Consciousness and Its Implications is a chance for you to view this deep and profound subject from all angles. A distinguished scholar in philosophy and neuropsychology, Professor Robinson incorporates many disciplines—psychology, physics, philosophy, medicine—to explore these abiding questions.

So embark on a challenging and wholly satisfying exploration of this unique, mysterious, and essential mental faculty. The knowledge you'll gain in this course is not only intriguing—it is crucial to understanding the nature of humanity and the social and ethical obligations that define us all.

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12 lectures
 |  30 minutes each
  • 1
    Our exploration of consciousness begins with a consideration of a potent hypothetical case: the zombie. A physical entity that seems human but lacks consciousness, this imaginary construct helps outline the function and characteristics of the mind. x
  • 2
    If our bodies change continuously—if cells die and are replaced throughout our lives, how do we keep a sense of self? In this lecture, we probe the notion of personal identity and its relationship to our bodies. x
  • 3
    The "Problem" of Consciousness
    We examine the claim that physics holds the answer to the meaning of existence, and we explore the relationship between the material realm outside us and the immaterial, internal world of the mind. x
  • 4
    The Explanatory Gap
    Is it possible to prove that the workings of the nervous system "create" our experience of consciousness? Will we ever bridge the gap between neurons and the conscious mind, or must we resign ourselves to the possibility that the relationship will remain elusive? x
  • 5
    Mental Causation
    Does your desire and decision to raise your arm "cause" your arm to be raised? In this lecture, we explore what can be known about the connection between a mental experience and the physical reactions that seem to result from them. x
  • 6
    Other Minds
    We cannot directly perceive any mind but our own, so how can we be sure other minds exist at all? The problem of "other minds" gets to the heart of how we as human beings can be certain we know anything at all about existence. x
  • 7
    Physicalism Refined
    In this lecture, we return to the relationship between mental events and the physical world. Here, we consider two perspectives: the Identity Thesis and the Supervenience Theory, which says that changes in a mental state require changes in one's physical state. x
  • 8
    Consciousness and Physics
    Here we examine the laws of thermodynamics and quantum physics. Will they offer a solution to the puzzle of the relationship between the mental and material worlds? Is it possible that an explanation of consciousness may demand a new physical science beyond our current reach? x
  • 9
    Qualia and the "Mary" Problem
    Is scientific knowledge about a phenom­enon the same as experiencing that phenomenon? Using a model developed by philosopher Frank Jackson, we ask: Can personal experiences be reduced to the scientific attributes of the objects we perceive? x
  • 10
    Do Computers Play Chess?
    From IBM's chess-playing computer, Deep Blue, to the hypothetical analogy of the "Chinese Room" posited by philosopher John Searle, we consider whether computational power equates to our idea of human intelligence. x
  • 11
    Autism, Obsession, and Compulsion
    To attempt to determine the contours of normal human consciousness, we examine what happens when that faculty is impaired, as in cases of autism, brain trauma, and neurotic disorders. x
  • 12
    Consciousness and the End of Mental Life
    In this lecture, we consider the conditions of comatose patients and raise vexing and crucial questions about the rights of those whose consciousness has been compromised due to trauma, illness, or age. x

Lecture Titles

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  • 12 lectures on 2 DVDs
  • 80-page printed course guidebook
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  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps

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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 80-page printed course guidebook
  • Illustrations
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider

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Your professor

Daniel N. Robinson

About Your Professor

Daniel N. Robinson, Ph.D.
Philosophy Faculty, Oxford University; Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, Georgetown University
Dr. Daniel N. Robinson is a member of the philosophy faculty at Oxford University, where he has lectured annually since 1991. He is also Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, at Georgetown University, on whose faculty he served for 30 years. He was formerly Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Columbia University, and he also held positions at Amherst College and at Princeton University. Professor Robinson earned his Ph.D. in...
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Consciousness and Its Implications is rated 3.3 out of 5 by 123.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Right on Title. I truly enjoyed learning about the Consciousness and its Implications that it has on all of us.
Date published: 2018-07-09
Rated 2 out of 5 by from What does "Implications" of consciousness mean. The course was an historical review of notions of consciousness. The lecturer read what he said so there was no sense of genuine discovery from the presenter. The content was focused on Monism and little mention of Dualism. The lecturer is a philosopher not a scientist. Understanding consciousness is a scientific matter these days. The course was philosophical. Disappointing.
Date published: 2018-06-12
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Contains good insights but... I consider Prof Robinson’s presentation style akin to a stream of consciousness, where various ideas sometimes only loosely connected are shared in sequence. He makes statements that he assumes are universally accepted, many times without elaboration or justification – for example, the standalone statement that “We recognize the difference between the mere registration of an event and our knowledge of it”. As he shares his thoughts, it would have been helpful if he had highlighted more clearly the key points within each lecture, as they can get lost in the flow. I would have expected and appreciated if he had shared at least a working definition, subject to clarification and analysis, of consciousness in the first lecture. Instead, we are each left on our own to piece together a definition from glimpses, sometimes apparently contradictory, across the various lectures. Despite the above, Prof Robinson identifies and addresses key questions about consciousness, much more directly and aggressively than other similar courses I have taken. If you’re willing and ready to invest extra effort to analyze and extract the key concepts within the lectures, there is value to be had.
Date published: 2018-06-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Food for Thought As to food for thought, this is a banquet served up by a gourmet chef. It was a difficult class, requiring me to listen to several lectures several times. It's not an easy topic and definitely not an introductory class, but Professor Robinson's way of delivering the information makes it well worth the time to take it.
Date published: 2018-04-12
Rated 1 out of 5 by from What a bore! I stopped listening half-way through the second lecture. My husband gave up after the first lecture. Obscure, jargon-filled, theoretical, not interesting to a generalist. He's only preaching to the choir. Would only be suitable for people who are interested in or engaged in academic philosophy studies.
Date published: 2018-01-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great reward <= great challenge Outstanding, detailed, amazing. This is no course for the lazy or dilettante, but rather a true set of university lectures, unlike others (I am sad to say) in the Great Courses collection on cognitive science and philosophy of mind. This course is a wonderful companion to Prof. Grim's course. I have two degrees from Harvard (anthropology/folklore and public policy) and have studied dozens of Great Courses titles as well as MOOC offerings from Udacity and Coursera.
Date published: 2018-01-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Science and Philosophy This course sees Professor Robinson at his erudite best. As usual he never uses a simple word when a complex one will suffice, but in his discourse they are all correct and add to the substance and tone of the lectures. Unlike one of his other courses, he rarely deviates into extended asides and when he does it adds to the color of the course. And rarely does he insert some of his verbal tics (e.g. I say). In short, his presentation is of the highest order. I was not sure what to expect when I ordered this course, but as I enjoy and learn from Dr. Robinson, even when the course is uneven, I ordered it on a distress sale. And am I glad I did. There are no formulaic answers to questions posed, but rather a thoughtful discourse on the subject of consciousness and its implications. Many of the issues raised by Dr. Robinson had not occurred to me, but were of interest when brought to my attention. And some of the issues about which I had considered, such as the lecture on “Do computers play chess?” gave me some differing aspects to consider. I am still not sure of the answer, nor if there is one, but great food for thought and discussion. For me the highlight (perhaps because of my educational background) was the chapter on consciousness and physics. Bringing together quantum mechanics and the workings of the mind was a real treat. I am aware that “Physics and Philosophy” is a course of study at Oxford, Dr. Robinson’s home university. After listening to this lecture and course, I’d be surprised if several students in that course of study were not exposed to him and his classes. For sure if I could go back (way back) to my university days, I’d love to have studied both. Other reviewers have commented on the difficulties of listening to this course while driving or while otherwise distracted. Fortunately I purchased the video version, so was able to sit quietly while watching, pause for thought and back up occasionally to reconsider or rehear a point. For me this course was worth the effort required, but I must admit that for those not interested in more questions and answers and in this subject should give it a miss.
Date published: 2017-09-08
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Not the best of Great Courses 1. Don't get the video version. The professor stands motionless and expressionless, not even looking at the camera. The only visual aids presented are the occasional picture of some philosopher he mentions. 2. The professor is not at all engaging in his presentation. Monotonous and makes no effort to explain or clarify the points he is talking about. I've only made it 3 lectures in. I had to go back several times to re-listen to portions I blanked out on. I'm debating whether to get a refund on this one, but I think I will try to power through it.
Date published: 2017-05-28
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