Fall 2015

Mind and Brain

Listed in: First Year Seminar, as FYSE-109

Moodle site: Course (Guest Accessible)


Stephen A. George (Section 01)


How could there be any difficulty understanding mind, when we seem to have easy and direct access to the workings of our own minds simply by paying attention to what we are experiencing at the moment?  By comparison, matter—including the matter our bodies are made of—seems foreign and remote.  Yet why, on thinking more about it, does mind seem so mysterious that the seventeenth century philosopher René Descartes could liken it to something "extremely rare and subtle like a wind, a flame, or an ether"?  Descartes believed that mind is puzzling because our apprehension of it is obscured and distorted by the body and the senses.  He argued that until we turn things around and analyze the mind with the penetrating clarity he thought possible, we will not be able to justify our claims to know anything.

These are intriguing ideas, especially since one aim of liberal education is to develop habits of mind such as a willingness to question one's own beliefs, to say clearly what we believe and why we believe it, and to ask ourselves whether we have a sound basis for our beliefs.  If Descartes is right, we cannot proceed far in liberal studies without inquiring into the nature of mind and determining its powers and limitations in connection with knowledge and reasonable belief.  We will ask whether Descartes' account of mind can survive what is known today about the unconscious, the influence of emotions and conditioning on belief and action, and the relation between brain function and mind.  How does Descartes' view of mind fare in explaining personal identity, free will, and differences between humans and computers or animals?

The goal of the course is not to uncover a completely satisfactory account of mind—none exists at present—but rather to organize puzzlement through the process of clarifying and examining basic beliefs and assumptions about the nature of mind.  This process involves self-scrutiny, as well as discussion and writing based on readings from philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience, plus occasional laboratory work.  The aim is to give opportunities to develop an inquiring mind capable of tolerating ambiguity rather than clinging to false certainties, yet also capable of having beliefs rather than retreating into total skepticism.  Three classroom hours per week.

Fall semester. Professor Emeritus S. George.


Attention to Writing


2017-18: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2015, Fall 2016