Course outline - HTML

Amherst College           First Year Seminar: Mind and Brain            Fall, 2011          Prof. Stephen George

 September 6:  Plato, Euthyphro

Should we rely on authorities to tell us what to believe?  This dialogue is about relying on authority to say what piety or holiness is.  Although this course doesn't focus on piety, the argument of Euthyphro also applies to concepts that are central to this course and to education generally.

 September 8: Plato, Gorgias

Teachers help students come to know about French literature, biology, or eonomics.  But what are we saying when we say a person knows anything at all?  How does knowing something differ from believing it?

 September 13:  Plato, Theaetetus (excerpt)

Are things as they seem to each person, or are some things a certain way no matter what anyone observes or believes or wishes?  What counts as knowledge will depend on one's  answer to this question.

 September 15:  Camilo Golgi and Santiago Ramón y Cajal Nobel articles

Eventually our course will attempt to bring mind and brain together to the extent possible. First we need to lay the groundwork by finding out about what brains are made of at the cellular level.  We meet today in lab (McGuire Life Sciences 145).

 September 20: Bertrand Russell, Truth and Falsehood (Problems of Philosophy, Chap. 12);                                   Thomas Nagel, The Meaning of Words (from What Does It All Mean?). 
            Helen Keller, The Story of My Life, excerpt

At this point we need to try to get clearer about two concepts: truth and meaning.  One suggestion is that what can be true or false is a sentence, which is true if it corresponds with how things are.  What kind of correspondence would that be?

 September 22:   Plato, Meno; Theaetetus (excerpts)

Plato suggested that one knows something if (1) one believes it, (2) one can give good reasons for the belief, and (3) the belief is true; knowledge is "justified true belief."  What reasons for a belief are good enough for the belief, if it is true, to count as knowledge? 

September 27:   René Descartes, Meditations I and II

If knowing requires that beliefs be true independent of us, how can we ever be sure we know anything?  If there were even one thing we could be absolutely sure of, perhaps it could be used as a foundation for other beliefs, and then we could feel certain about those other beliefs too.

 September 29:   René Descartes, Meditations, part of III, and IV

If what one can be certain of is one's own existence as a thinking thing, does this open a path to knowledge of physical objects, other persons, and God?

 October 4: David Hume, Treatise and Enquiry (excerpts)
            Bertrand Russell, On Induction (Problems of Philosophy, Chap. 6                    

Do Descartes' method and conclusions lead to knowledge about cause and effect, and about whether past experience is any indication of what things will be like in the future? 

October 6: Perry & Bratman, Selected Paradoxes + handout

How does Descartes' system, based as it is on logical reasoning, deal with the existence of verbal and logical paradoxes?

                                    -- Fall break --

October 13: W. K. Clifford, The Ethics of Belief
               C. S. Pierce, The Fixation of Belief
               William James, The Will to Believe

Perhaps focussing on truth, knowledge, and certainty leads nowhere.  The pragmatists say it is more useful to focus on beliefs, and on what makes them reasonable or unreasonable.

 October 18: Bertrand Russell, The Value of Philosophy (Problems of Philosophy, Chap. 15)

We've seen doubt treated as irritating, but also as desirable, something to seek and force on oneself.  Russell has a different view of doubt, and of knowledge as well.

October 20: E. D. Adrian, Electrical Activity of the Nervous System (excerpt)

Back to the lab to find out how information is transmitted within nervous systems  (Life Sciences 145)

 October 25: Sigmund Freud, Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, Chapters 1, 2, and 3

Our discussion of mind so far has taken for granted that the mind's workings are conscious, and therefore readily accessible for analysis.  How is the discussion affected by the existence of unconscious mental processes?

 October 27: Sigmund Freud, Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, Chapters 4-5
               Sally Springer & Georg Deutsch, The Human Split Brain

               Hans Eysenck, Sense and Nonsense in Psychology, excerpt

What exactly resides in the unconscious: Emotions?  Wishes?  Beliefs?  Reasons?  How do these processes connect to the conscious mind and to behavior?  Is there a known physical basis for an unconscious mental life?  How powerful are unconscious processes?

 November 1:     David Hume, Of the Influencing Motives of the Will

Is reason able to move us to act, or are all our actions caused by emotions?  Are there emotional causes for behavior of which we are completely unaware?

 November 3:    René Descartes, Meditation VI
               Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind (Chap. 1 and part of 2)

What is the mind?  From the notion that a person is a thinking thing, Descartes inferred that mind and body are two distinct substances, mental  and physical respectively.  But how could a non-physical mind interact with a physical brain or body?  An alternative is to take mental processes to be ways of behaving, but that seems to leave out conscious experience.

 November 8:    Jerome Shaffer, Materialism (Philosophy of Mind, Chapter 3)

Is mental activity the same thing as brain activity?   If so, which aspect of brain activity?  Why does our mental life then seem so different from brain activity?

 November 10:   John Searle, Is the Brain's Mind a Computer Program?
               Paul and Patricia Churchland, Could a Machine Think?

Conscious mental events seem to be closely related to brain activity, even if we hesitate to call the two identical.  What aspect of brain activity is related to mind: is it something specific about how brains work, or is it just that brains process information?  If it's the latter, then wouldn't anything that processes information - notably  computers - be capable of being conscious?

 November 15:   Thomas Huxley, The Automaton Theory
               David Premack & Ann Premack, Teaching Language to an Ape
               George Johnson,  Chimp Talk Debate: Is It Really Language?

In what sense do animals have minds?  In distinguishing animal minds from human minds, how important is the ability to acquire and use language?

 November 17:   Art and animal minds

The class meets in Mead Art Museum today to view and discuss objects in the collection relevant to animals and animal minds.

                        -- Thanksgiving break --

November 29:   Roger Penrose, Minds, Machines, and Mathematics

Back to the "brains and computers" question.  Brains certainly do process information, but do they do it like computers, in a sequence of operations where what happens is determined by the present state of the system, plus what goes into the system?  And, why are we even asking this question - don't all physical, mechanistic processes work that way, and isn't brain activity a physical, mechanistic process?

 December 1:     David Hume, Treatise (excerpt)
               Oliver Sacks, The Lost Mariner 
               Uta Frith, et al., The Cognitive Basis of a Biological Disorder: Autism

How is our own personal identity defined and maintained, and on what basis do we impute personal identity to others?

 December 6:      C. Arthur Campbell, A Defense of Free Will
               R. E. Hobart, The Harmony of Free Will and Determinism                   

If our mental functioning is deterministic, in what sense are we free to choose what to think and do?  If our mental functioning is in some way not deterministic, does that really provide for free will?

 December 8:      David Hume, Of Liberty and Necessity
               Harry G. Frankfurt, Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person

Perhaps free will isn't an "all-or nothing" issue, but rather we are more free if we have more alternatives from which to choose, even if the process of choosing is deterministic.

 December 13:    John Hospers, Psychoanalysis and Moral Responsibility
               Herbert Morris, Persons and Punishment

What do the different approaches to the problem of free will imply about moral and legal responsibility?