Philosophy of Mind: Brains, Consciousness, and Thinking Machines

Course No. 4278
Professor Patrick Grim, Ph.D.
State University of New York, Stony Brook
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Course No. 4278
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  • 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 well illustrated and features more than 1,000 animations, live demonstrations, illustrations, and video clips. The animations and illustrations help you visually make sense of concepts ranging from the mind-body problem to the ways robots perceive the world around them. There are live demonstrations and video clips of fascinating thought experiments, including one that uses a horizontal line to probe the relationship between belief and perception. There are detailed maps of the brain, as well as numerous photographs and illustrations of ancient and modern computing machines.
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Course Overview

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
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 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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  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 192-page printed course guidebook
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  • 192-page printed course guidebook
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Your professor

Patrick Grim

About Your Professor

Patrick Grim, Ph.D.
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...
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Reviews

Philosophy of Mind: Brains, Consciousness, and Thinking Machines is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 92.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Broad well-balanced course Wish I had this prof when I majored in philosophy in college. A near perfect approach to that most difficult of subjects, thinking about thinking. His grasp of the history and fallacies of theories of mind is deep and accessable. I now know a lot more about what I don't know, which is the best you can expect from any philosophical discussion.
Date published: 2018-12-06
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Excellent Intro to the Mind Body Issues I only listen to this on audio will driving around. It's a great introduction to the subject, which I hadn't given much thought to since reading 'The Society of Mind' by Marvin Minsky back in the late '80s. The lecture inspired me to dig back into the subject and I've read several books on it with more lined up. If you're already up to speed on consciousness, self, mind, body issues this will probably not add much to your understanding.
Date published: 2018-09-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent read of both Brains and Thinking Machins I bought this a little over a month ago. It really opens up the mind and brain way of thinking. I liked the product because I find it, to be able to absorb the content in a very understandable way. I watched the DVDs all the way thru and then read the booklet.
Date published: 2018-06-25
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Thoughtful Questions This was a good course. I really enjoyed it! Yes it's philosophy, so naturally there's a lot of questions and not a lot of definitive answers. But it was thought provoking and enjoyable.
Date published: 2018-04-30
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Good course but with some gaps For Prof Grimm, “the aim of science is knowledge [a better grasp of reality]” and the aim of philosophy is the “study of wisdom…tackling questions that are not only unanswered but elusive in terms of methods for finding answers”. “Once we think we have the techniques needed to answer specific questions, they become scientific questions rather than philosophical questions”. Upon my initial completion of the course, I was somewhat disappointed but after reviewing the content in greater detail, I developed an appreciation for the thoughtful layout and logical progression of the lectures, and the systematic assessment of theories. Prof Grimm presents various philosophical positions, analyzing each and citing examples from science to support or refute. Unfortunately, the “evidence” is sometimes highly speculative, where he cites examples of imaginary zombies, teletransporters (think Star Trek), what it’s like to be a bat, whether beings on other planets could feel pain, etc. If one needs to cite imaginary examples to support a position, what does that say about the position? Imagination is also frequently called upon to interpret “evidence” from a Darwinian evolutionary perspective. The course considers Philosophy of Mind from a decidedly materialistic perspective, focusing on sensory perception. My primary concern with the course is that our ability to reason logically is not directly examined or explained. “Functionalism” is presented as the dominant theory today to explain how we operate in the world. Prof Grimm discusses a potential weakness with Functionalism in the area of subjective experience (e.g., our experience of color). How Functionalism would account for our ability to think logically (in abstraction) is not discussed. I would have expected this topic to be covered in a course on the Philosophy of Mind. In many cases, Prof Grimm accepts or dismisses a position because to him it “seems” valid or invalid. In these cases, evidence is sometimes given, and sometimes not. Perhaps at the end of the day, that’s all anyone is able to do – accept or reject a philosophical position depending upon how it “seems” to us, despite the fact that “philosophy’s major tool is rational argument”.
Date published: 2018-03-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Absorbing! I was dubious at first about the ability of this topic to be both scientifically deep and engaging but I was not disappointed!! The professor is fantastic and he has the ability to explain highly esoteric subjects with insight while providing examples for clarity. It was so much better than I expected and was exactly what I was looking for! I wholeheartedly recommend this course!
Date published: 2017-11-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thorough and Workmanlike This course is an excellent introduction to philosophy of mind. Even as a philosophy major in college who previously studied many of the underlying issues in some depth, I found the course quite stimulating. Because Professor Grim does an exemplary job explaining difficult concepts clearly and economically, I would think that the course would be quite accessible to newcomers to philosophy of mind and even to newcomers to philosophy. In this regard, the course is very well organized and conceived, and all the themes of the course are set out clearly in the first lecture, which is cleverly organized around three "exhibits:" Des Cartes' dream, Einstein's brain, and a 19th century precursor to the computer. All in all, this is a quite masterful course and presentation. Although this course was recorded in 2008, it is as timely today as it was then. In this regard, I note that there are two other teaching company courses that address the same basic subject matter. The first is Professor Robinson's course "Consciousness and Its Implications." While not nearly as clear as the instant course, it is quite useful complement to it, and address some issues in greater depth. The second is another course by Professor Grim: "Mind-Body Philosophy," which was recorded in 2017. I do not understand why this course was made. At least 80% of the material in the 2017 course is either the same verbatim as the material in the 2008 course or is a close paraphrase, with some material moderately compressed and other material moderately expanded. But the presentation in the 2017 course is generally inferior to that of the 2008 course. For example, while the opening lecture in the 2008 course compelling set forth all the themes of the course, the opening lecture of the 2017 courses seizes on a baseball metaphor of left field, right field, and center field (materialism, idealism, and dualism) that didn't illuminate issues in the course and was meaningless. I think it was misleading of the teaching company to label this a separate course: it was more in the nature of a "second edition" of the course released in 2008. But because the "new" material was so limited and of such little value, I am hard pressed to explain why the 2017 course was made.
Date published: 2017-07-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Extremely interesting I am very much enjoying this course. I am currently at lecture 18. I have been viewing the DVD and online versions, and I find Professor Grim's delivery to be excellent and engaging. One can quibble with the amount of philosophy being discussed but if like me you think that our computers are on their way to becoming as intelligent as humans, be it in 15 or 35 years, then all of the lectures on thinking machines become as important as those discussing the human mind and human consciousness.
Date published: 2017-02-21
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