Course: Minds & Machines
Instructors: Alex Byrne
Quote:What is the relationship between the mind and the body? Can computers think? Do we perceive reality as it is? Can there be a science of consciousness?
This course explores these questions and others. It is a thorough, rigorous introduction to contemporary philosophy of mind.
According to many scientists and philosophers, explaining the nature of consciousness is the deepest intellectual challenge of all. If you find consciousness at all puzzling, this is a great place to start learning more.
What you’ll learn:
-The basics of argumentation
-Some central arguments for and against the view that a sufficiently powerful computer can think (AI)
-The main theories of mental states and their relations to physical states
-Some central arguments for and against the view that the world is not as we perceive it to be
-What the “hard problem of consciousness” is
This was one of three “killer MOOCs” I had the bad timing to take concurrently, and thus one-third of the reason I had to forego Pushcart for a few weeks. While I very much enjoyed and got a lot out of some aspects of this course, I was less enthusiastic about other aspects. The main problem was that I didn’t approach it correctly, and that’s my bad. I may take it again, do it right next time, and I think I’ll get a lot more out of it. Because although I did manage to “pass”, a great deal of it went by me, and I fear I won’t retain much. Still, it was perspective-shifting and horizon-expanding, and so the time and effort are well worth it.
What I liked was the general subject matter. These are fascinating topics: can computers think? What is it that we see when we see blue? Do we exist apart from our bodies – that is, how much of my physical body can you remove, and still leave “me” intact? There were fascinating thought experiments: if it were possible to create an atom-for-atom duplicate of a person, would that person have the same thoughts as the original? If your nerves are reporting pain, and you aren’t feeling pain, is there pain? Can we ever understand what it’s like to be a bat? These are the sorts of questions some people tend to sneer at as being high-falutin’ nonsense since nothing is ever answered but only raises more questions, but all of those questions go to the heart of reality, of humanity: what constitutes “me”? What seems simple and straightforward becomes a little fuzzier when all the implications are included. And although these topics can seem diverse, they all relate to each other.
Yet, for all the high-falutin’ nonsense, it was a rigorous course. It wasn’t a sit-around-the-dorm-getting-stoned-and-bullshitting-into-the-night sort of thing (though I wouldn’t know, having never been a residential student); the course consisted of looking at structured arguments for each –ism, and then looking at the objections raised to different parts of those arguments. This is what I wished I’d outlined from the beginning.
My favorite moment of the course came from the TA, Damien Rochford. He was the TA in the earlier course on Paradox & Infinity; I felt sorry for him, one person to cover the myriad of questions raised both on material and on process. In a discussion of whether, in a world where blue swans are possible, if the proposition that there could have been blue swans was possible (hey, it’s fun, lighten up), Damien came up with what is at this time my favorite philosophical statement: “It is a matter of some dispute whether, whenever something is possibly possible, it is possible. My view is that it is not.” I don’t understand why Republicans hate philosophy, do you? Bertrand Russell even said outright: “The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty.”
And that’s a good thing, because I’m still uncertain about much that transpired. The course was subdivided into 5 units: Minds and Computers; Dualism to Functionalism; Minds and Brains; Perception; and Consciousness. Most units lasted two weeks and included a series of lecture videos filmed in the actual classroom, broken up into very short segments (3 to 6 minutes) often followed by an ungraded question or two. Some lectures covered a paper. Some lectures covered a topic. Some brought in basics of argument. I had a hard time figuring out just what I should be focusing on. Part of that may be time limitations, which is something I need to keep in mind (less is indeed more). But part of it is that I didn’t realize from the beginning what the course was, at its heart, about.
This became evident with the first graded assignments. Having read the papers, paid attention to the videos, taken notes, considered what I thought were the important points, and done fine with the ungraded questions, the first Argument Analysis took me by surprise. I “passed” it, but missing one question out of five took its toll. I always thought I was fairly adept at the basics of logical argument. Not so much, it seems: the second argument analysis was disastrous – yet it covered a topic I thought I’d understood fairly well.
Then there were the exams. On the midterm, I was doing very poorly on a series of True/False questions, so I stopped for the evening and picked it up the next day. Things went far better. I’m not sure if I was more rested or focused or whatever, or if the questions were in fact easier. The final section was a series of questions on a previously unread paper, and to my surprise, I did very well at picking out the arguments and objections. I began to wonder if listening to the lectures (which often included somewhat tortuous syntax, repetition of the trivial and non-explanation of the significant) was a mistake. I do think, however, that the paper in question was far easier to follow than the primary papers in the syllabus, with a lot more “guide words”, and the questions asked were both simpler and included significant hints, so that probably explains it. The final exam, it seemed to me, had a number of “easy” questions strewn throughout, designed to give a break to those of us who got something out of the material, though perhaps not the level of an MIT student. And then it had… other questions.
I wish I’d approached the course entirely different, that I had gone through the papers and outlined the argument that was being made, or the objections that were being raised to an earlier argument, as a primary means of study, then outlined the “ism of the week” with reference to those arguments. I think this would’ve helped keep me on track. Unfortunately, I didn’t think of it until week 9 or 10 of 12.
And yes, there’s that: this was a long course, stretching over a full MIT semester. For some reason, I thought it was much shorter, and I kept thinking the course was almost over. When I finally figured out, in mid-January, that it actually ran into March, I got pretty discouraged, since I felt I wasn’t really getting all I could out of it. I wonder if the in-person class was as worn-out as I was by the end, since it seemed the students moved farther and farther back in the rows of seats, possibly because the numbers were shrinking. Then again, these are MIT students. Maybe they don’t need silly thing like lectures to ace their courses.
But now that I have a better idea of what the topic is, I just might run through it again some time. Because it really is fascinating material.