Philosophical Science (or is it Scientific Philosophy) MOOC

Course: Philosophy and the Sciences
School: University of Edinburgh via Coursera (free)
Instructors: Various

Scientific research across both the physical sciences and the cognitive sciences has raised pressing questions for philosophers. The goal of this course is to introduce you to some of the main areas and topics at the key juncture between philosophy and the sciences. The course is structured around two broad areas:
1. Philosophy and the Physical Sciences
2. Philosophy and the Cognitive Sciences
Each week we will introduce you to some of these important questions at the forefront of scientific research. We will explain the science behind each topic in a simple, non-technical way, while also addressing the philosophical and conceptual questions arising from it. Areas you’ll learn about will include:

• Philosophy of cosmology, where we’ll consider questions about the origin and evolution of our universe, the nature of dark energy and dark matter and the role of anthropic reasoning in the explanation of our universe.
• Philosophy of psychology, among whose issues we will cover the evolution of the human mind and the nature of consciousness.
• Philosophy of neurosciences, where we’ll consider the nature of human cognition and the relation between mind, machines, and the environment.

I’m afraid I came to a somewhat different conclusion by the end of this course: the philosophers are talking to themselves about what the scientists are doing, and I have to wonder if anyone’s really paying any attention to them. But they seem to be having a very good time, and I greatly enjoyed listening in.

(Addendum: This course has been converted to the new Coursera platform and may differ in content and atmosphere)

After the first week (a general examination of what makes science, science, as opposed to pseudosciences like astrology and phrenology), the course was structured in the two modules described above, with the option to focus on one or the other or do both. Lecture videos, less than an hour per week, included material from both scientists and philosophers in an ever-changing cast as we moved through topics. The explanation of course grading seemed downright Byzantine to me, with three “tracks” and multiple ways of completing both; fortunately, I didn’t pay attention to the requirements until it was time to write this post, so I just plowed ahead and did what was assigned, and that worked out fine.

I found the cosmology lectures in Module 1, to be very difficult to follow, but it wasn’t a serious impediment to passing the course; only a general understanding of the broadest scientific concepts (about the same level as a Nova segment) was required for the quizzes and writing the peer assessed assignment about the specific philosophical theories and structures (such as theory choice and the anthropic principle). The more technical material, while perhaps not at the level of an actual astrophysics course (though I wouldn’t really know) kept students with a higher level of scientific understanding interested; the forums were very active with questions about the red shift, singularities, expanding vs contracting universes, etc.

I found the philosophy to be hard to find in the second module focusing on cognitive science, but the science was fascinating (particularly concepts of intelligence and consciousness) and accessible. I think I even understood the presentation of Bayes’ Rule explaining the mathematical way our brains “guess” at making meaning from input. The Ames room was fascinating: a trapezoidal room that appears perfectly square from one point of view (a similarity to anamorphic art?). I couldn’t see the trapezoid at all. I still can’t, even though I’ve seen multiple models and explanations – am I unusually susceptible to image? Is that a philosophical question, or a scientific one?

I suspect my trouble sorting science from philosophy is because the disciplines interweave, with one imperceptibly blending into the other. It was fine back in the 17th century when Descartes did his cogito ergo sum thing, but once you start seeing brain processes on fMRIs and PET scans and hypersensitive EEGs, not to mention my new friend the Bayes rule, I’m not sure the mind-brain debate can be among philosophers any more. This made the essay for that module particularly difficult to write. In fact, I’d say that whereas my paper for the first module was boring and uninspired but reasonably accurate and comprehensive, for the second module I turned in a disorganized, incoherent mess; my self-assessment was quite low, and if my peers are honest, the scores they give it will be low as well.

But scores aren’t the point; fact is, I know more now than I did before; in fact, I know about whole swaths of concepts I never knew about before. This is a very general, very introductory level course, and whoever it is in whatever discipline that’s doing the work, it’s incredibly interesting, looking at what happens when we perceive, think, feel, dream.

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