Theories of Brain, Mind and Consciousness"Thinking about Thought"
San Francisco, 160 Spear Street, from April 14 till May 19 - 6:30 - 9:30.
Reader | Slides
This course provides an interdisciplinary survey of theories of mind, consciousness and life emerging from a broad range of fields (Neurophysiology, Cognitive Psychology, Philosophy, Computer Science, Evolutionary Biology, Genetics, Mathematics and Physics) while using a conversational language that can be grasped by an audience of intellectually curious professionals and undergraduate students, with no specific training or background in these fields. The course should appeal both to the novice and to the expert. By exploring a multitude of exciting (and often contradictory) new theories that border on several different disciplines, from Psychology to Physics, students meditate about the ultimate meaning of our being and about what (and who) we are.
INSTRUCTOR'S BIOGRAPHYSee this page
Content Outline of the 2014 Edition(The 2015 edition has the same contents, but squeezed into six evenings of three hours each)
Details on each Session
Session One: Introduction to the current status of research on the mind
Session Two: The Contribution of Philosophy: Materialism, Dualism, Functionalism
This is an overview of the traditional mind-body debate among philosophers. Dualists claim that mind and body are made of different substances, and their goal is to explain how they interact. Materialists think that the mind is made of the same substance as the body and their goal is to explain how the mind (consciousness in particular) can arise from electrochemical processes in the brain.
Functionalists believe that the substance is negligible: what matters is the way the mind works. The mind is viewed as something that operates in such and such a way, and could be implemented with any number of substances (including a computer).
Session Three: The Contribution of Biology: What is Life?
Darwinian evolution has been a powerful paradigm across the board. Today, we view the single organism as the product of a need for adaptation and as part of an ecosystem. Darwin indirectly invented a new powerful scientific paradigm: design (highly sophisticated design) can be attained without any need for a designer, can be attained thanks to the work of variation and selection over many generations. Ordered structurtes "emerge" over time.
Session Three: The Contribution of Biology: What is Cognition?
Ecological realism is a school of thought that views the mind as a product of the environment. Cognition is always "situated" and cannot be separated from the purpose it serves in the environment. The environment provides all the meaningful information and the environment is, ultimately, cognition itself.
Session Four: The Contribution of Mathematics: from Godel to Turing, from formal systems to the computer
During our century Math has developed a very sophisticated system of dealing with logical concepts. The underlying assumption of this program (the program of "formal systems") was that the laws of thought ARE the laws of logic. In the process of defining formal systems, mathematicians invented the universal Turing machine (today called "computer") but also found a fundamental limitation of Logic (Godel's theorem). Mathematicians view the mind as a formal system, i.e. a machine. Turing proposed a famous test to decide whether a machine has become intelligent. Many critics deny the validity of that test.
Session Five: The Contribution of Information Science: Artificial Intelligence and Neural Networks
Artificial Intelligence views the mind as a symbol processor, which is a variation on a formal system. Artificial Intelligence has evolved into a formal study of human knowledge, away from the purely logical approach of its beginnings. Today the emphasis is on knowledge processing: a human is "intelligent" not by virtue of the ability to solve mathematical problems but by virtue of the ability to accumulate and use common-sense knowledge. In order to deal with common-sense knowledge, A.I. has employed non-standard logics such as fuzzy logic.
Cognitive Science has borrowed A.I.'s assumption that the mind is a symbol processor and applied it to psychology (memory, learning, reasoning, etc).
Connectionism is a school of thought opposed to traditional A.I. that promotes the paradigm of Neural Networks, i.e. simulating the way the brain works. Connectionists view the mind as a mechanical product of the brain's distributed parallel computation.
Session Six: The Contribution of Linguistics: Meaning and Metaphor
Linguistics has become a formal study of meaning. Chomsky revolutionized the view of the mind by emphasizing competence over performance (the sentences one could potentially utter versus the ones that will actually be uttered). Pragmatics deals with acts of speech, or why people use the language they use it. Metaphor is considered by many thinkers as fundamental not only to our linguistic abilities but to our thinking in general. The mind is viewed as a processor of metaphors.
Session Seven: The Contribution of Psychology: Models of Cognition
Cognitive Psychology views the mind as a more or less mechanical processor of concepts. The mind's functioning is driven by memory, which is capable of organizing knowledge into concepts. Memory is learning and is reasoning. No act of memory occurs without an act of reorganizing it (i.e., learning) and without some kind of reasoning. There is a fundamental unity of cognition, which is driven by the ability of the mind to organize the world into concepts. Different schools have different ideas on how this task is actually carried out.
Session Eight: The Contribution of Neurophysiology: How the Brain works
Neurphysiologists are providing a wealth of data on how the brain works. The vision that is emerging is one of the brain as yet another darwinian system, that is shaped mainly by experience. The genetic code determines only the initial configuration of the brain, but most of its development is driven by experience: the same type of competition that occurs among organisms also occurs among neural connections.
Session Nine: The Contribution of Thermodynamics: Self-organization and the Science of Emergence
All darwinian systems create order from disorder, a process that violates one of Physics' fundamental laws, the law of entropy. Physicists are trying to reconcile the obvious reality of life with that law. Nonequilibrium thermodynamics and many other disciplines have originated over the last few decades. The discipline of self-organizing systems views the mind as a self-organizing system. Theoretical physicists are also advancing theories of consciousness based on quantum relativistic mechanisms.
Session Nine: The Contribution of Physics: the Application of Relativity and Quantum theories to the study of consciousness
While the traditional interpretation of Quantum Mechanics is questioned and new theories offer to unify it with Relativity Theory, it seems more and more likely that we do not have a good theory of the universe we inhabit.
Session Ten: Towards a Science of Consciousness/ What are We?
Classes will consist of lecture and discussion.
Grades will be assigned based on the level of comprehension of the subjects, assessed through individual and group discussions and/or papers (depending on the size of the class).
My book "The Nature of Consciousness" is the reader of the course.