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
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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
 |  Average 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

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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 (1937–2018) was a member of the philosophy faculty at Oxford University, where he lectured annually since 1991. He was 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...
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Consciousness and Its Implications is rated 3.3 out of 5 by 133.
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Good Review of Obvious and/or Worthless Philosophy Please note the remarkable variation in ratings of this course, probably more evenly spread from one to five stars than for any other I have seen. So, YMMV to a greater extent than most. I'll come down in the middle. If you want to learn, in a quite brief and concise series, what philosophers have to say about consciousness, this is a very worthwhile course. Although many reviewers disagree, I feel that Professor Robinson did a fine job outlining the many and varied philosophical approaches to consciousness, from very different perspectives, by philosophers through the ages. He is well organized, expert in his field, and, again in my humble opinion, quite clear and straightforward in his philosophical explanations. I did not detect any religious or other bias. On the other hand, if you want to learn anything you don't already know about consciousness itself, you have come to the wrong place. This is one area of philosophy (in contrast to, for example, the very worthwhile field of ethics) where all that can be said is either obvious or simply matters of playing with definitions. An obvious statement would be something like "There is a difference between being 'conscious of' and being 'conscious'." (Lecture 2). A definitional jumble might be "...we take for granted that the plans and purposes shaped within our own mental life causally bring about actions capable of realizing those very plans and purposes. Considered philosophically, however, this state of affairs is highly perplexing. And considered scientifically, it seems virtually impossible." (Lecture 5). Nonsense. We all know exactly how mentally wanting to do something results in its happening on a conscious level. There is nothing philosophy can add to this simple experience. And science is busy figuring out how the neurophysiology works. Just calling approaches by different names does not, in this case, add anything. What we still have no idea about, and what this course says nothing about, is why we have a subjective experience of consciousness on top of the physical workings of our brains and nervous systems. This has been called "the hard problem", a remarkable understatement. In my own, again very humble, opinion, it is intrinsically insoluble, but of course like everything else here, there are many and contradictory perspectives. So - A course recommended to those who would like to know what philosophers are saying about consciousness, usually considered a branch of the field of philosophy known as metaphysics. But don't waste your time if you are actually seeking insight into what consciousness is. You already know all that there is to know about that.
Date published: 2020-10-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Uncompromising Introduction to Philosophy of Mind I have had this course for a while and the first time through, I was not a fan. I have been thinking about consciousness for a while now, but almost exlclusively from the vantage point of my personal bias, which is physicalist/neuroscientific. I was taken with Dan Dennett's facile dismissal of the "problem of qualia" and so felt able to dismiss Prof. Robinson's approach to the subject, without truly engaging with the material in the strict philosophical (more precisely ONTOLOGICAL) terms that his approach demands. Upon re-listening to these lectures with a spirit of humility, I realize that this course offers a rare privilege, as other reviewers have pointed out. This is not an undergraduate survey course that gently leads the listener systematically through the foundations of the subject as could be found in any textbook. Rather, it is a dive into the broader philosophical challenges that the study of consciousness entails we meet before we can begin to reasonably begin to understand the nature of the ground of our personal identity and our deeply personal experience of being alive. It isn't immediately obvious at the outset of many of Prof. Robinson's digressions, what the relevance is to the subject at hand, but with careful listening and reflection, it becomes clear that we carry many tacit assumptions and philosophical baggage (e.g., dualism, physicalism, nominalism to name a few) that must be made explicit, if we are to avoid false paths and fallacies when trying to evaluate theories of consciousness. This is what makes the course hard. It is a masterclass in thinking carefully like a philosopher and there is no spoon feeding here. If you are looking for a scientific understanding of what consciousness is from a psychological or neuroscientific perspective, then this is not the course for you. This course digs deeper than than that precisely because consciousness seems to have a unique ontological duality: we can share objective aspects of our conscious exprience through verbal reports, artisitic expression and via the behaviour of instruments that measure our brain states. Yet, there is a subjective component to our own consciousness. This subjective aspect is present in no other class of phenomena, but seems to be fundamental to what consciousness is. This tension between the subjective and objective (what philosopher David Chalmers calls the "hard problem") is what necessitates extreme caution in trying to apply methods of objective analysis to this subject. Professor Robinson explores this dichotomy with meticulous rigour and deep insight, as befits a serious philosopher. The result is challenging, not always satisfying, but more than many other of the Great Courses, gives a glimpse of what discussions are like in the Philosophical Big Leagues.
Date published: 2020-10-07
Rated 4 out of 5 by from I wish you would give the date in your the course was formulated as well as all the other courses.
Date published: 2020-05-24
Rated 2 out of 5 by from too dry I only managed to sit through 3 lectures in this series. It seems to be more about the history of thought than about consciousness. I got the video series, rather than just the audio, because I thought it would be more engaging to watch; maybe I envisioned something like a TED talk, a dynamic speaker with some images, etc. However, it is just a person standing at a lectern in a studio set (picture "Masterpiece Theatre"), reading off of a teleprompter. The speaker is fluent, but he might as well be an actor (and perhaps is) costumed up as the very stereotype of a professor -- paunchy older bearded bespectacled white man. They could not have selected a more stereotyped speaker; it's a real throwback to mid 1900s presentation style. The script sounds authentic, but tediously verbose and unconversational. I might try to revisit the series and sit through a few more lectures, but probably not.
Date published: 2019-12-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Informational and thought-provoking I bought this and I am glad for the insights I attained and am still reflecting...
Date published: 2019-12-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from extraordinary with this course, Professor Robinson proves himself to be Zeus among the other Olympians at "The Great Courses", this series of lectures will blow you away, get ready, bring a pencil, you'll listen to lectures twice, rewind to catch again a complicated idea, rendered clearly, however, and concisely, despite their complexity, a characteristic of not only educators, but poets, you'll come away utterly enlightened, I promise
Date published: 2019-09-02
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Long winded. There is some interesting information in this course; however that information could easily be covered in two lectures. I sounds like the professor has nothing of substance to say and insist on saying it.
Date published: 2019-08-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Gets you thinking Professor Robinson (RIP) is an extremely knowledgeable and engaging lecturer, and contrary to what some suggest, he is quite even-handed in his treatment of the various opinions about this most difficult and perplexing of subjects. Robinson spends a good deal of time explaining Physicalism, for example and yes, he also spends time on the arguments against it. If you are going into this course with a closed mind: You already know the answers you want to hear, then skip this course and do everyone a favor. But if you want to hear a well rounded survey/discussion of the subject and get a taste of all the different problems and opinions surrounding it, go for this course and you will not be disappointed. Note: Nowhere does it say that this is an introductory course for the uninitiated - if you are not already familiar with how philosophical discourse works, are offended by someone who uses words that have more than two syllables, or are just looking for some spooky stories and entertainment, THIS IS NOT THE COURSE FOR YOU. Professor Robinson was a serious and very learned scholar and that is the manner in which he engages and communicates. In this course, you are essentially being invited into his living room for a most interesting and intriguing chat - take advantage of the chance if you can, if not, look elsewhere for your kicks.
Date published: 2019-01-12
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