PHIL 1306: Minds, Machines and Persons


Course Description

Minds, Machines and Persons is an introduction to the central questions of philosophy with an emphasis on problems concerning the nature of the mind and the self. We increasingly think of ourselves as part of the natural realm, but doing so leads us to question some of our deepest beliefs about ourselves. If we are on par with the rest of nature, can we make sense of the idea that we have free will? Can we make sense of the idea of an afterlife? The objective perspective of the physical sciences can seem to leave out what it really means to be human: can the workings of brains really explain the nature of conscious feelings and sensations? Our increasing understanding of our physical/neurological make-up also raises new ethical dilemmas. Neuro-drugs are already used to encourage focus and lift moods. What other sorts of human enhancement are on the horizon, and what sorts of ethical questions do they raise? In this course, we will deal with these questions, and in the process, the student will realize the benefits below.

Instructor Biography

Professor Howell has been recognized as an Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor and has received the Presidents Associates Outstanding Faculty Award for excellence in teaching and research.  He is an internationally recognized scholar in the philosophy of mind in consciousness, and is the co-author (with Torin Alter) of A Dialogue on Consciousness (Oxford University Press, 2009) which is one of the texts of this course.   He is also the author of Consciousness and the Limits of Objectivity (Oxford University Press, 2013) and is currently completing a book on the nature of the self.  Professor Howell was the 2013 Maguire Center for Ethics Public Scholar.

Learning Outcomes and Benefits

  • An awareness of some of the most important ethical issues that will face us in the next thirty years.
  • An understanding of three of the most influential philosophical problems in history: the mind-body problem, the problem of personal-identity, and the problem of free will.
  • An ability to write clear, structured argument papers that deal with difficult topics while avoiding unnecessary jargon.
  • Familiarity with the techniques of formal reasoning.
  • A critical perspective on relevant issues in science and the media.
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