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

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Announcements

10/22
Lecture notes on Searle's Chinese Room (part 1).
For Monday 10/27, read Mind's I Ch 26: "A Conversation with Einstein's Brain" and Mind's I Ch 11: Prelude... Ant Fugue.
Random links:
Optional readings:
I came across this interesting biographical article in The Atlantic, about Douglas Hofstadter, one of the editors of our anthology The Mind's I (and also the author of the dialogues in that volume). There's more at Wikipedia. Of course this is all just trivia, which you'd only bother with after having thoroughly understood and thought through functionalism and the Chinese Room argument, right?
Random links:
If you want to read ahead, then for Wednesday 10/29, read Ch. 3 of Cory Doctorow's Down and Out In the Magic Kingdom. Also for Wednesday 10/29, read Mind's I Ch 13: Dennett, Where Am I?.
Soon we will be reading John Perry's A Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality. You will need to purchase that book if you haven't already done so.
10/20
Lecture notes on Behaviorism vs. the Causal Theories of Mind (complete).
Here's another very helpful optional reading, by my colleague Ned Block: The Mind as the Software of the Brain.
Here are two email exchanges with students from past versions of the class: Can pigs fly? and Behaviorism vs functionalism.
Remember, first graded papers are due Wednesday 10/22, at the start of class. Papers turned in after Prof Pryor begins lecturing are considered late. Here is our policy for late papers.
For Wednesday 10/22, read Mind's I Ch 22: Searle, "Minds, Brains, and Programs"
Some interesting links:
10/15
When discussing the "overdetermination argument" against some forms of dualism, one principle that is sometimes invoked is Occam's Razor. That link is to a Wikipedia article which is just for optional historical details.
Lecture notes on Behaviorism vs. the Causal Theories of Mind (part 1).
For Monday 10/20, read Cory Doctorow's Truncat. What would the mind have to be like, so that feeding it a computer program recorded from another person's brain, and stored on a network, could give you some of the experiences and memories of the original subject?
About sorting algorithms:
If you want to read ahead, in upcoming classes we'll be discussing Mind's I Ch 22: Searle, "Minds, Brains, and Programs", then Mind's I Ch 26: "A Conversation with Einstein's Brain".
10/8
No class on Monday 10/13 (University closed).
Lecture notes on Arguments for Materialism.
Your first graded papers are due Wednesday 10/22. We will grade these and give you comments, and then you will need to rewrite the paper. The rewrite will also then be graded. You want to do the best job possible on the first draft, so that we can give you comments that will help you improve in the most productive and rewarding way. Decide on a paper topic now and start going over in your mind what your argument is. Roughly plan out the argument you want to make. Come to one of our office hours, or talk to someone else in the class, and give your central argument orally. (Best if you do both!) Get people's feedback on that, then once you're finally happy with your argument, you can sit down to write it up. If you wait until a few days before the paper is due to begin this process, the result will be poor and you'll have cheated yourself of one of the major learning exercises in this course.
For Wednesday 10/15, read Armstrong, The Nature of Mind and Lycan, Machine Consciousness. (Optional reading: Block, What is Functionalism?.)
If you want to read ahead, then for Monday 10/20, read Cory Doctorow's Truncat; and for Wednesday 10/22, read Mind's I Ch 22: Searle, "Minds, Brains, and Programs".
Here is a question about supervenience that a student from a previous year emailed, with my reply.
10/6
On Wednesday, we'll finish up discussing Necessity and Conceivability, and Descartes' argument in Meditation 6. Then we'll begin discussing some arguments for materialism. Some of what we say will overlap with the van Inwagen chapters you looked at before. There is no additional reading assigned for that meeting. On Wednesday, we will also post the topics for the first graded paper. The following Monday, 10/13, the University is closed so we have no class. We'll meet again on Wednesday 10/15, and the readings for that meeting are Armstrong, The Nature of Mind and Lycan, Machine Consciousness. (Optional reading: Block, What is Functionalism?.)
10/4
The NYU Couples Lab is asking for volunteers for a research project. Participants will be paid a small fee. Here is more information.
10/1
Lecture notes on Descartes' Argument that He is Distinct from His Body.
At the end of class today I began talking about Necessity and Conceivability. Normally I'll post the lecture summaries after the lectures, but in this case, because the material is important and complex, I'll post it all now. I will summarize again in class, and I hope we'll have more time this way to talk through your questions.
There are no additional readings for Monday. But we strongly encourage you to be going over the recent lecture notes and especially the van Inwagen article again to solidify your understanding of them, and to make it clearer to yourselves what you're unclear on, and would like us to help you sort out. It should be understood that you should always be going over the readings and notes multiple times like this; but in this case we doubly recommend it.
9/29
Earlier, the syllabus had floated the possibility of us showing the movie Bicentennial Man to the class. We've decided not to do that; though we will definitely be showing some other movies later in the term. You may want to watch Bicentennial Man anyway, since it raises some of the issues we're discussing in class in an interesting way. Warning: it is a heavy-handed Hollywood tear-jerker, and it's debatable how plausible are the choices various characters in the movie make. I think it is useful, though, to think about what your attitudes to some of the characters would be, say, if they were your neighbors. Nothing the movie presents seems to be impossible.

An artistically stronger exploration of some of these themes is the novella "The Lifecycle of software objects", by Ted Chiang, which I linked to earlier in the term. This is optional reading, but I give it a good recommendation.

Here are lecture notes for Leibniz's Law and Arguments for Dualism, Privileged Access and Inverted Spectrums, and Illegitimate Uses of Leibniz's Law. We will continue discussing Privileged Access and Illegitimate Uses of Leibniz's Law in our next lecture.
Optional: here are some papers by philosophers who argue that we don't have privileged access to our own minds: Armstrong, "Is Introspective Knowledge Incorrigible?" and Heil, "Privileged Access".
For 10/1, read selections from Meditation 6 and the Objections and Replies to it. We will be discussing some issues surrounding that reading for a few classes.

If you want to read ahead, for Wednesday 10/15 we'll be discussing Armstrong, The Nature of Mind and Lycan, Machine Consciousness. (Optional reading: Block, What is Functionalism?.)

I haven't taken an exact count of how many people are in lecture, but from a casual visual estimate it seems to be only about 3/4 of those registered for the class. We're aware that people are sometimes sick and so on, but it is crucial for you to keep in mind that if you're only relying on doing the reading, reading the lecture notes, and going to sections, you are almost certainly going to do much worse in this course than you think. Philosophy is very hard but can look deceptively easy. We provide many routes for you to understand the material, and different ways of coaching you into how to think about it and respond to it, because experience has shown that that's what it takes. If you think Of course I wouldn't show up for the final without reading the central texts for the course, you should be thinking just the same way about all the other components of the course, including the lectures. We tried to emphasize this in the "ambitions for the course" section of the forms you gave us at the start of term. If you recall, almost all of you stated:

In this class, I’m aiming for a grade between B and A. Barring accidents, I’ll be making sure to do all of the reading for the dates it was assigned, taking my own notes and figuring out the main structure and arguments of the readings on my own ahead of time, and returning to the readings again while (and after) we’ve discussed them to study them again with fresh eyes. I’ll be plotting my papers out in advance, seeking feedback about my plans from multiple sources, then (inevitably) completely re-designing the paper in response to feedback, writing a draft, setting it aside, coming back to it and rewriting it (multiple times if I can). I’ll be actively participating in our section discussions, every week.

In short, there are many reasons some of you might miss lectures and if you're sick I hope you'll recover quickly, and that the lecture notes and sections can help you catch up again quickly. But I also hope none of you will delude yourself into thinking you'll be able to get by with less work and engagement with the course than it really takes. We tried to make this clear from the beginning.

Finally, there seems to be an ongoing issue with five to ten of you trickling in after class has begun. You will miss announcements, the framing remarks at the start of lecture that might be important to understand what's going on, and when we give the surprise quizzes you won't be able to take them. Also, it's distracting to me and other students and slightly slows down how much material we can get through. Each case of a student coming in late doesn't have that much effect, but five to ten students showing up late each time does make a noticeable difference. I'll be gentle about this for the time being: please try harder.

9/24
Lecture notes for Meditation 1 and Meditation 2. The notes for Meditation 2 go on to discuss the stuff we didn't get to in lecture today. Do continue to read through that part of the summary. I'll review it at the start of our next meeting, and ask for your questions. It is difficult and subtle material. I expect it will take some care and concentration to keep track of everything that's going on.
Some more optional reading about The Cogito Argument.
Remember, second writing exercises are due on Monday.
The reading assignment for Monday is just to re-read the van Inwagen article and the Descartes material, especially the Second Meditation. For class on Monday, again bring a copy of the Second Meditation to look at, and also bring the handout we distributed today in lecture.
9/22

Test your understanding: How many arguments does van Inwagen offer for dualism? Can you say in a sentence or two what is the main strategy of each of the arguments? Where does his discussion of the "second" argument for dualism begin, and where does it end? Which side (the dualist, or the physicalist) is "ahead" at the start of each paragraph in that discussion? What does van Inwagen mean by "interactionism" and "epiphenomenalism"? What question are these views competing answers to? Then: how many arguments does van Inwagen offer for physicalism? (these come after the blank page in the pdf).

It's to be expected that you'll have trouble answering some of these questions: after all, you've just started studying philosophy. We will be discussing most of them in more detail in the coming weeks. But to the extent that you can't answer the questions, it means you haven't fully understood that part of van Inwagen's discussion. When you find yourself in that position, you should work hard to improve your position. Reread the article several times, trying to keep track of the details. We can't gift you with understanding. We're more like personal trainers who can guide you ways that may help you learn more efficiently---but only if you're already seriously engaged in the attempt in the first place.

One thing you may notice, if you're alert, is that van Inwagen will define some terms a bit differently than I do, and also states some debates a bit differently than I will. As I've said in lecture, this is inevitable in philosophy. You need to learn how to work around it. The first step is noticing when different philosophers are using the same words in slightly different ways. I'm aware of at least one word I introduced during previous lectures that van Inwagen defines a bit differently: can you identify it?

For 9/24, read selections from Descartes' First Meditation and Second Meditation. Please bring a printout of these texts to class on Wednesday.
When Descartes wrote the Meditations, he sent them out to various other intellectuals in Europe, some of whom were sympathetic to his arguments and others of whom thought those arguments weren't very good. Some of these other intellectuals composed seven booklets of "Objections" to Descartes, and Descartes in turn wrote "Replies" to the Objections. Some excerpts from the Objections and Replies are included in our reading selection. However, Descartes also considers argumentative objections and replies to them even in his initial presentation. Sometimes he shifts between stating an objection and giving the reply even within a single paragraph. So important argumentative moves can happen within a sentence or two. Other times, several paragraphs in the text all constitute a single unit pushing in a single direction. Try to map out the dialectical structure of the Descartes reading, in the same way you did for van Inwagen. This will probably be a more challenging exercise. Even if you get confused, at least form a hypothesis about what direction each sentence is pushing in, what it's supposed to accomplish.
Here are lecture notes on Dualism vs. Materialism.
A second writing exercise is due Monday Sept 30.
If you want to read ahead, we will be discussing selections from Meditation 6 and the Objections and Replies to it on 10/1.
9/21
Here are some additional links about the Turing Test, which we discussed last week.
9/17
As mentioned in class, Rosa will be taking over the Thursday sections at 9:30, and Yu will be taking over Thursday sections at 11. This is in order to better allocate you between them. It would still be good if any of you had flexibility to switch between sections, so that there weren't as many people in some of the disucussion groups. If you have flexibility to switch, please let the TAs know.
Here are lecture notes on What is Life?.
Random link: Here's a video by chemist Martin Hanczyc about his research on "protocells," simple chemical models of living cells. He discusses how this research may help us understand the difference between living and nonliving systems, and recognize life on other planets that might be fundamentally different from the forms of life we find on earth.
Random link: here is another video about a possible new form of life(?)
For 9/22, read selections from Peter van Inwagen's book Metaphysics. This introduces a number of arguments that we'll be discussing over the next few weeks. Warning: this reading will be challenging. Also note that the selection goes to p. 168 and then continues: it picks up again on middle of p. 178 and ends at p. 183. Some people don't notice the latter segment.
An important task when approaching philosophical writing is to identify the "dialectical structure" of the text. For example, here there's an argument for thesis X (I usually draw a box around the text containing the argument); here an objection to that argument is being described; here a response is being given to that objection; here is an objection to that response; here is a second objection to the original argument; here an argument is being given for a weaker thesis Y; and so on. Some of our texts are in the form of dialogues, and there each of these shifts usually corresponds to a new speaker. But in other texts, we have to do more work to see these shifts. Try to figure out and pencil in the back-and-forth structure of the argument in the van Inwagen reading. This will help position you better to understand what the arguments are actually saying.
9/16
Optional: After you're read, digested, and thought through your reactions to the Feldman chapters (so most likely, not quite yet!) you may want to have a look at a more advanced article covering the same ground, and pointing to ongoing contemporary debates about it.
9/15
Image of C-3PO and E-3PO.
There's much that's still controversial and uncertain about the prospects of discovering life elsewhere in this solar system. If there is such, it would most likely be microscopic and found on Europa or Callisto, which are moons of Jupiter, or on Titan or Enceladus, which are moons of Saturn. But who knows at this point.
Optional: If you want to read more about neurons or other brain cells, whose function we're still learning about, you can start reading at those links.
Some of you asked for pointers to further reading and my lecture notes on free will. They're there if you want to read independently on those topics.
We will come back to questions about what it takes to have a mind, and how we can know who else has minds. But we're going to turn now to a neighboring topic: what it takes to be alive. Plants and bacteria are alive but presumably don't have minds. Maybe we can bioengineer more living things, that also lack minds. So "living" doesn't imply "has a mind." What about the other direction? Arguably, there may someday be computer programs that think and have intentions, but aren't alive. Now, maybe, we shouldn't take it for granted that computer programs necessarily fail to be alive. There is a research field devoted to trying to create "artificial life." But even if we decide it is possible for some computer programs to be alive, it's not obvious that only the programs that are alive will be capable of thinking. So perhaps "has a mind" doesn't imply "living", either.
Random links: A-Life, Synthetic biology (more, more)
Start reading for Wednesday 9/17: Feldman Ch 1-3
Here are some sample writing exercises from previous years, with comments. A previous teaching assistant David Barnett provided another helpful example of how to do the first assignment poorly, and then improve it. I strongly recommend you study these examples, and also the comments your TAs will give you next week. When reading the examples, be sure to click the links at the very top of the page. They will display the papers at various stages of revision. (I notice that the javascript + css I used doesn't work right on Safari, I don't know why. It works on Firefox. I haven't checked other browsers. If anyone has the time and know-how to look into it and see what's wrong, I'd welcome suggestions.)
9/10
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):
9/8
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.
9/3
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.
8/29
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?.