Thinking about Thought

A Seminar on Formal Theories of Mind

by Piero Scaruffi

(View the slides)

The next seminar will be held in Spring 2015 at UC Berkeley (previous editions were held in 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2014). Click here for details.

It is a 6-week or 10-week evening course, depending on the season.

If you are interested in attending this class, drop me an email.

A parallel class that sometimes i teach at UC Berkeley is about History of Knowlege.

View the slides
Marketing material | Content outline: overview | Content outline: details
Preface to my book on Consciousness | Research Statement | Abstract | Academic Biography

"Thinking about Thought" - The Nature of Mind

An interdisciplinary survey of studies on Mind, Consciousness and Life


The purpose of this course is to provide an interdisciplinary survey of theories of the mind, consciousness and life that are emerging from a broad range of fields (Neurophysiology, Cognitive Psychology, Philosophy of the Mind, Artificial Intelligence, Biology, Artificial Life, Mathematics and Physics) while using a conversational language that can be grasped by an audience of intellectually curious professionals and undergraduate students with no specialistic training in any of those fields. The course should appeal both to the novice and to the expert, as most of this information is not readily available outside research reports.


This course will provide the student with a general knowledge of the most recents developments in the search for the nature and meaning of consciousness and our cognitive faculties. The student will gain a basic understanding of the various research programs that deal with the mind, consciousness and life: how the brain works, how its structure relates to the mind, how conscious phenomena relate to the mind, how mind relates to life, how science can explain all of this. In order to develop this theme, the course will deal with the theory of evolution, the essence of life, intelligent machines, the neurophysiology of the brain and a multitude of exciting new theories that border on several different disciplines, from psychology to physics. The wealth of scientific data and theories will stimulate the student to meditate about the ultimate meaning of our being and about what (and who) we are. The course will enable the student to pick up a book on a specific mind-related topic and understand the general concepts.


The field of research on the nature of the mind and how it relates to the brain and life in general is among the most explosive and exciting of our age. Today, science is very close to providing a formal account of how life, mind and consciousness "emerge" in a natural way from the very structure of our universe. Striking progress has been made by scientists and thinkers from a multitude of disciplines (neurophysiology, cognitive psychology, philosophy of the mind, artificial intelligence, neural networks, artificial life and nonlinear physics). The course provides an overview of the current debate and the various theories. It assumes very little from the audience by employing a conversational language and concentrating on the ideas, rather than on the mathematical or philosophical tools. At the end of the course you will master the basic concepts from all these disciplines and be able to understand nonspecialistic literature on the subject.


Piero Scaruffi is a cognitive scientist who has been a visiting scholar at Harvard University and Stanford University, has written three books on artificial intelligence and theories of the mind, published hundreds of articles on magazines, and is a member of the Cognitive Science Society.

Born in Italy, Piero Scaruffi holds a degree in Mathematics from University of Torino, where he did theoretical work on Relativity and Elementary Particles Physics. In 1983 he relocated to California to head Olivetti's Artificial Intelligence Center, and subsequently their Olivetti Research Center. He has lectured on Artificial Intelligence in Italy, South America and the U.S.A.

In 1997 and 1998 he lectured at U.C. Berkeley on Formal Theories of the Mind and at the California Institute Of Integral Studies on Formal Theories of Consciousness.

As a poet, he has been awarded seven national prizes in Italy.

Content Outline for 2002 in Redwood City

(OCT 8) Introduction to the current status of research on the mind
(OCT 15) The Contribution of Philosophy: Materialism, Dualism, Functionalism
(OCT 22) The Contribution of Biology: What is Life?
(OCT 29) The Contribution of Mathematics: from Godel to Turing, from formal systems to the computer
(NOV 5) The Contribution of Information Science: Artificial Intelligence and Neural Networks
(NOV 12) The Contribution of Linguistics: Meaning and Metaphor
(NOV 19) The Contribution of Psychology: Models of Cognition
(NOV 26) The Contribution of Neurophysiology: How the Brain works
(DEC 3) The Contribution of Physics: Self-organization and the Science of Emergence, Relativity and Quantum in theories of consciousness
(DEC10) Towards a Science of Consciousness

Details on each Session

(You may click on the session number to see the slides if you have a plug-in for Powerpoint)

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).

  • Behaviorism
  • Materialism
  • Identity Theories (Armstrong, Place, Small)
  • Computational Functionalism (Putnam)
  • Computational Theory of the Mind (Fodor)
  • Homuncular Functionalism (Lycan, Dennett)
  • Multimind (Ornstein)


    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.

  • Creatures (Brooks)
  • Memes (Dawkins)


    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.

  • Ecological Realism (Gibson, Neisser, Dretske, Maturana, Varela)
  • Situated Cognition


    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.

  • Cybernetics (Shannon, Wiener, Von Neumann)
  • Reasoning (deduction, abduction, induction, nonmonotonic logics)
  • Theories of Common Sense (probability, evidence, fuzzy logic)


    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.

  • Turing's Test
  • Artificial Intelligence (Simon, Newell, McCarthy, Minsky, Schank)
  • Neural Networks
  • Artificial Life
  • Emergent 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.

  • Language (Chomsky)
  • Pragmatics (Austin, Searle, Grice)
  • Metaphor (Lakoff)


    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.

  • Connectionism (James, Thorndike, Hebb)
  • Memory and concepts (Bartlett, Rosch)
  • Mental models (Johnson-Laird)


    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.

  • Neural Darwinism (Edelman)
  • Emotions (Aggleton)
  • Convergence zones (Damasio)
  • Time-based Binding (Llanas, Crick)


    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.

  • Design without a designer
  • Nonlinearity
  • Nonequilibrium
  • Dissipative Systems (Prigogine)
  • Self-organizing Systems (Kauffman)

    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

    The most recent theories of consciousness are based either on discoveries of how the brain works or on speculation on quantum theory.


    Classes will consist of lecture and discussion. READING REQUIREMENT

    Students will be provided with a specific bibliography (recommended readings in priority order). The instructor will gladly tailor the bibliography according to the specific interests of each student. The author provides a textbook that can be downloaded from the web.