The first course on the program focuses on questions of epistemology, namely, what is knowledge? What constitutes learning? What characteristics of the mind can be said to be innate, and what learned? How do these characteristics relate to the mind's ability to know the world? And what conditions, if any, inform the limits of what we can know? The great debate between empiricists and rationalists that has animated the subject of philosophy down the ages plays a central role, with each week presenting a development, challenge or complication to what has gone before. One week we may find ourselves convinced by Socrates’s argument for recollection, the next struck by the implications of Hume’s Fork.
The work of perhaps the greatest modern philosopher, Immanuel Kant, takes the centre stage, in particular his achievement of synthesising the two doctrines of empiricism and rationalism in a philosophy that still informs contemporary philosophy of mind and cognitive science more than any other. Through following this debate – one that is so central to the European tradition of academic and cultural theory – the self-esteem and verbal clarity of the inmates has noticeably improved, and many have reported that the course has had a profound effect upon their self-understanding and their reasoning skills.
What is it to be a thinking thing? How do the processes and experiences that go to make up such a thing interact with the world around them? Why was Dualism proposed by a leading scientist and mathematician (Descartes) as a solution to a most vexing problem? Does the problem still stand today? How does the prospect of Articifial Intelligence inform our notions of identity, and how might insights into our own minds inform AI's research program? Do our minds 'stop' at the skull, or are they embedded in a cognitive network of images, tools, data and other minds? Finally, we know that we are thinking animals, but in what way do other animals think? What evidence is there for any conclusions we might make?
These are some of the key questions we approach and tackle in this lively, contemporary module, as we attempt to solve some of the oldest topics in philosophy.