Course Description

This course is an introduction to the methods of contemporary philosophy, concentrating on the following questions:
  1. The Problem of Other Minds: How can we tell whether animals and future computers have minds, or whether they're instead just mindless automata? How can we tell that other people have minds?  
  2. The Mind/Body Problem: What is the relation between your mind and your body? Are they made up of different stuffs? If a computer duplicates the neural structure of your brain, will it have the same thoughts and self-awareness that you have?  
  3. Life and Death: What does it mean to die? Why is death bad? Do you have an immortal soul which is able to survive the death of your body?
  4. Personal Identity: What makes you the person you are? Why would a clone of you have to be a different person than you are yourself? If we perfectly recorded all the neural patterns in your brain right now, could we use that recording to "bring you back" after a fatal accident?  

Info about the Course and Section Meetings

Our Contact Info

See the Course Requirements


Added:Some of you gave us back the info forms telling us about your background and your aims for this course. Those of you who are on our lists for the course (whether enrolled or on the waiting list), but didn't give us that form, I've just emailed. If you didn't give us the form and you didn't get an email from me about it, that means we don't have you in our records so please get in touch and let us know what's what.
Remember, first writing assignments are due on Monday.

Please make sure your name is on your paper, you've used wide margins and double-spacing to facilitate us giving you comments, you've stapled the pages if you're submitting a printed copy, and so on. These should be your normal expectations when submitting any written work. Your TAs will let you know if they prefer to be given printed or electronic submissions.

Lecture notes on AI and the Turing Test. I guess I wrote the first draft of those notes a long time ago, since I talk about Palm Pilots. This is some ancient, steampunk-era technology you kids won't have heard of. Maybe next year it will be retro-fashionable.
Here's a note on a detail in Turing's article. (This concerns the "harder" passage on the back side of the handout of copied passges that I distributed in class.)
Turing is a very interesting character who made huge contributions to several areas of thought, beyond what we're looking at in class. If you read about his life, you'll see he also had a hard time for being homosexual, and may have committed suicide as a result. Or his death may have been a tragic accident; from what I've read it seems to be unclear. In any event, much of our contemporary life has been profoundly shaped by his contributions.
For Monday read: Greg Egan, Learning to Be Me. This is one of my favorite sci-fi explorations of the philosophical ideas we'll be discussing this term.
Optional reading: here is a novel about building a computer to pass the Turing test. (Here is a summary.)
Another "random link": Philosophical issues in the movie Blade Runner
Among Turing's best-known contributions were the development of early computers. If you find this interesting and want to read more, here are some links (again, this is all completely optional):
Here is a question about definitions that a past student of this class emailed, with my reply.
Readings for Wednesday 9/10 were already posted (scroll down).
A short writing assignment is due Monday 9/15. Here are some Guidelines on Writing a Philosophy Paper.
Some random links about animal intelligence. When I say "random links" that means I'm not asking or expecting the class to read these. I'm just making these available for those who are interested or bored and want to read further. You should not think that reading these is any part of our first writing assignment. But of course, it's possible that you may get ideas for arguments that you weren't already considering, when browsing these links or re-reading Allen's "Star Witness" article.
In class I mentioned a pair of articles exemplifying the method of philosophical analysis applied to the concept of "flirting." Here is the article by Carrie Jenkins and here is a response by Daniel Nolan. These are optional reading. I haven't listened to it yet, but I see that there was also an episode of the Philosophy Talk radio show devoted to this subject.
Read for Monday 9/8: (i) Mind's I Ch 8: "Mark III Beast", (ii) Colin Allen, "Star Witness"
The assignment at the end of Allen's article is part of Allen's paper; it's not specifically an assignment for this course. However, you will be writing an assignment for this course shortly which is in the same spirit as that one.
Read for the class after that (Wednesday 9/10): (i) Brian Aldiss' story "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long"; (ii) Mind's I Ch 4-5. Don't rush! The last articles need to be read several times. Try to get a solid understanding of what the arguments are in each of them. You might look again at How to Read a Philosophy Paper.
The following story is longer than the Super-Toys one listed above, and addresses some similar themes. It isn't required reading. I'm just linking to it for those who might be interested: "The Lifecycle of software objects", by Ted Chiang.
If you're trying to figure out whether this course is right for you, you may find it useful to look ahead at one of the more difficult (but not the most difficult) readings we'll be working with this term. That is a selection from Peter van Inwagen's book Metaphysics. We will be discussing the arguments in this reading around the end of September, over a number of classes. We will not be holding your hand and summarizing the article for you; we will be expecting you to read it and re-read it and map out its structure for yourself until you understand it. If you have a look at this reading and find it really engaging (regardless of whether you agree with van Inwagen or completely disagree with him), that's a good sign you will enjoy this class. If you find it really boring and too detailed, and can't imagine what the point might be and aren't really that motivated to figure it out, that's a good sign that you won't engage fully with this class and won't enjoy it. If you find the article interesting but confusing, and hard to keep track of, and uses words you never heard before, don't worry about that for now. These are obstacles that we will be working to overcome by the time we assign the reading later in the course.
The Philosophy Department offers a number of courses each semester open to (and aimed at) students with no or relatively little background in philosophy. (If you've taken a course in philosophy in high school, or in departments other than philosophy, then you should presume that counts as "relatively little" background---we hope that preparation will be useful to you, but you most likely won't yet have acquired the main skills our introductory courses aim to build.)

In addition to our course---that is, Phil UA 1 section 1 (the lecture) and sections 2-5 (the recitations)---this semester the department also offers:

For more details about these other courses, see the department course listings.

The primary aim of all of these courses is a common one: to teach you how to reason, argue, and write like a philosopher. Additionally, there is moderate overlap between the issues discussed in our course and each of the others. So it's not easy to choose between them based on what material the courses propose to cover.

Perhaps the focus of one of these courses will appeal to you more than the others. Or perhaps one will fit your schedule best. Or if you're on the fence, perhaps you can arrange to sit in on a few sessions of two of the classes and see which you're more comfortable in. It's not obvious that will be feasible: some of these courses may hit their enrollment limits. But you might look into it if you genuinely can't decide. Note that it's far better to sit in from the beginning in a class you're hoping eventually to enroll in, even if you're not enrolled in it yet, than to try to drop in in the middle of things in the second week or so.

If you decide that ours is the course that suits you (or your schedule) best, and you get wait-listed for the course, then be patient. We'll try to accommodate you; but we won't be able to settle this until after a lecture or three. Have a back-up plan---for example, you might also attend one of the other introductory philosophy classes if you can---but in the meantime, just attend our course on the assumption it may work out.
Our first course meeting is on Wednesday 9/3 in Kimmel #803. Recitations will meet during the first week of class: on Wednesday 9/3 and Thursday 9/4.
If you have issues about which of the recitation sessions you're signed up for, please be patient about this as well. To take this course, it's mandatory that you have space in your schedule to attend at least one of our scheduled recitations. But if you can't sign up for the one that suits you best, we'll sort this out later too. Make sure you go to one of the sections the first week anyway, even if it's not the section you ultimately hope to be in. Email the TAs rather than Professor Pryor about any section-scheduling matters. All our emails are listed under "Contact Info". At this point you don't have to worry about whether Albert thinks you are taking the section we think you are taking. (Though it's likely you do have to tell Albert you're taking some section.)
You will have to purchase some texts (listed under "Course Requirements"); others will be available on the course website using a password announced in class. Some (but not all) readings will be available both ways. The texts will be available at the NYU Bookstore. (Let us know if they're available yet.) We've also posted links so that you can purchase them from Amazon or Barnes&Noble.
Some introductory readings for the course: (i) Philosophical Terms and Methods and (ii) How to Read a Philosophy Paper. For your entertainment (though it is instructive): What is an argument?.