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Colorado State University: PHILOSOPHY 415


The Dynamics of Self: A Philosophical Introduction to Cognitive Science






Course Info

Where: Wagar 232

When: MWF 1 p.m.

Web: phil415.pbwiki.com


Instructor: Darko Sarenac

Office: Eddy 235

Phone: (970) 491-5441

Hours: Mon 12:00-1:00 p.m./Wed 2:00-3:00 p.m. and by appointment

Email: Darko.Sarenac at colostate.edu





1. Mindware, Andy Clark. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. ISBN 0-19-513857

2. Personal Identity, John Perry, editor. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1975. ISBN: 0-520-02960-7

3. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Philip K. Dick. New York: Vintage Books, 1965. ISBN 0-679-73666-2

4. An online course reader. The reader will consist of a series of papers on our (three) main topics of exploration: cognitive science and the dynamics of pain and self.



NOTA BENE: We encourage you to get second hand copies.(Save some money and some trees!) Some good places the we know of for cheap second hand books: half.com, amazon.com, {this is by no means an ad. please contribute further suggestions?}, etc.


Movies and Multimedia

Ghost in the Shell, Matrix; Bladerunner; Nice Guys Finish First; a short film on Alan Turing; a number of talks from TED.com; internet sources, namely, SecondLife; and (optionally) a number of video games such as Black and White and others emphasizing virtual or alternate identities.


Paper Due Dates

Final: December 1?, 2008, 11 p.m.



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Course Description

We will explore the boundary between humans and their physical and cultural environment. In particular, we will look at a computer--a type of machine--and try to understand our relationship to it. Our purpose will be to examine the philosophical and scientific understandings of pain and personhood, and their respective relationship, in a rigorous analytical manner. Through our main texts and supplements, but also through a series of movies and pop-culture artifacts, we will tackle some of the following questions:  What does it take to be a person/individual/self? (Or, if you really want to put it strongly: What is it to be human?) Are we simply computational machines? Are there capacities that we possess which escape a computational description? What role does pain play in the neurological “construction” of personhood? Does nociception set the boundaries of self in more than just the physical sense? Are we simply pain/pleasure based computational devices? How intimate can we be with a non-biological entity? What are the ethical consequences for us and machines?


The didactic goal of the class

This is not only a new course that we will be developing together, where simply the content of the course is new, but an entirely new and experimental approach to teaching cognitive science and philosophy of mind. The background idea for the course is based on various experiences that I had teaching in both logic/philosophy and the humanities. The course develops a high-tech multimedia based curriculum for teaching cognitive science. The goal is to explore the potential of the new technologies, ways of communicating, and approaches to learning suitable for the 21st century. Cognitive science seems particularly suitable for this approach as the relevant materials abound. The ultimate goal is to produce a universally accessible on-line version for the future.



Teaching methods

Instead of basing the course solely on textual information and classical teacher-student interaction, the idea is to try to explore visual, auditory, and interactive potential of the Worldwide Web for learning. The backbone of the course will be a wiki website, a style of web based interaction where every member of the class can freely edit the content. The website would track the evolution of topics in the class as well as the process of individual student intellectual development. Facebook (facebook.com), the social utility website, would be a supplement to the wiki, and in addition to allowing novel ways of interacting with the teacher, it would also allow us to explore new ways of defining one’s identity as well as a new multi modal way of communicating. Perhaps the most interesting component, however, is going to be the virtual world SecondLife (secondlife.com). This utility allows one to create an identity and partake in interactions with other avatars. I have previously held classes in SecondLife and the results were pedagogically mind boggling: quiet male students turned into outgoing female avatars, the set-up allowed for more than just textual communication, and then again there are all the consequences for the notion of the self. Finally, we are also hoping to involve the rich cognitive science community at CSU (computer science, cognitive psychology, molecular biology) as well including the wider international cognitive science community via lectures in SecondLife, and interaction with the research community through some of the other social utilities. Assignments are to include on-line interactions with well-known cognitive scientists around the globe, doing research in the new environment of immediately available multifaceted information. The course will draw on my experiences participating in Co-creating Cultural Heritage group at Stanford University. This group devised classes that experimented with new technologies in teaching in the humanities (http://humanitieslab.stanford.edu/heritage/11).  


The technological extravaganza of this course is made possible with the generous support of The Institute for Learning and Teaching at Colorado State University.



 Two upper level philosophy courses. This course is intended to be upper level undergraduate/graduate course. The requirements for the two groups will be slightly different with expectations higher for the graduate students. This course does not require any particular formal (logical or mathematical) background.



Course Requirements

Weekly reading summary + question (150 words max) (30%), final presentation + final paper (2500-3000 words) (50%), and participation in discussions and web forum (20%).


Student responsibility

It is your responsibility to:

  • properly enroll in the class
  • be clear on any announcements I make in class regarding–but not limited to–such things as exact exam dates, changes in the class outline, scheduling changes, etc.
  • get all notes and handouts if you miss a class
  • makeup any missed exams; unless made up, a missed exam scores a zero.






Schedule of Lectures




Links and Web Resources


Class Forum


Lead discussion, present


Weekly Submissions


Comments (7)

Evan Brennan said

at 7:04 pm on Sep 20, 2009

Study of the mind not only serves to explain intelligent behavior, but also the inner organizations that make up one's beliefs, desires, fears, and so on. Of the three psychologists mentioned (Fodor, Churchland, & Dennett) arguing for/against folk psychology, I found Churchland's arguments bashing common sense psychology to be the most interesting. While reading Fodor's section which was for folk psychology, I couldn't help but feel similar oppositions shared by Churchland. I agree that it can only work in a limited domain, some of the examples Churchland gave in which it does not apply were: sleep, creativity, memory and so on. Dennett seemed to argue that though we may all be internally different, there are definitely inherent patterns of behaviors in which "behaviorally normal people participate." Not sure what he means exactly by "behaviorally normal", but still he insists upon a definite purpose for folk psychology.

darkair@... said

at 8:13 pm on Sep 28, 2009

While i liked the connectionism view I found it only to reinforce the physical symbol system, in that these connections of patterns are represented in physical states. At this time we may not be able to fully understand the individual nueral synapsis but the sumation of these individual processes obviously produces a greater than additive affect.

Evan Brennan said

at 3:12 pm on Oct 4, 2009

I thought the most interesting part of chapter 5 was the part that discussed "action-oriented representations." These were defined as "representations that describe the world by depicting it in terms of possible actions." I think what is meant by this is that no matter how insignificant certain details in our surrounding areas are, all surroundings observed influence what we do (What we see makes up what we do). For example, if you were sitting in your living room and decided to go to the kitchen to visit the fridge, you would make an unconscious effort to do so by observing your surroundings and then acting. All your surroundings (floor, microwave, windows, doors) all influence your final action of successfully making it to the kitchen.

Evan Brennan said

at 11:41 am on Oct 12, 2009

Chapter 6 talks about artificial intelligent and the use of robots or "boids." The way the actions of the robots is broken down is useful in that it helps to define the behavioral movements and actions of real live animals, but it doesn't go any deeper than that to actually explain the way the systems in the brain cause these things to happen. Maybe it just seems too simplified as in the case of the artificial cricket. The process of the female cricket identifying the male cricket's song is simplified into 3 steps: hear the male's song, localize the source of the sound, and locomote towards the song. This is useful in that it helps to narrow down the assumed process, but it seems like by simplifying the process you could ultimately end up with many flaws in your design of artificial life.

Evan Brennan said

at 11:37 am on Oct 19, 2009

Philip K. Dick was one crazy mofo!!! Readin a "'pape," what the hell? Definitely an interesting book so far though. I like the suitcase psychiatrist. Not quite sure about a few things though: Precogs? Is there alien life in this book? what does P.P. Layouts do?

Evan Brennan said

at 9:26 pm on Oct 25, 2009

Concept such as "stigmergic" routines which suggest animal activity or work as a response to signals serve to simplify complex processes of the brain to help better understand these processes. It may be more difficult however to fully understand these processes outside a simplified external stimulus/response method. It may help to identify the simple computations of the brain in these processes however to assist in further experiments in artificial life.

There can be no internal representations without external symbols and experience. It seems every action is taken from a previous action or observation, and either follows that action or observation, or improves upon one of the two. Unless Mindware only means the external environment which becomes a direct part of the process the dynamic system represents such as the treadmill in the walking baby example.

Dynamic systems are broadly defined as systems that change over. But what actually qualifies as "change" is still unclear. As in the case of termites, their process of building mud nests in the simplest sense is collecting mud balls, putting their scent in the mudballs, and then putting the mud balls in the area with the strongest scent. But this is the extent of the process. Once it is completed, it is repeated throughout the duration of the building of the mud nest. The system does not change.

Evan Brennan said

at 8:09 pm on Nov 1, 2009

The notion of "mindfulness" comes from: bodily, neural, technological, and social and cultural factors. Human thought is also greatly influenced by visual props and aids in which our brain learns, mature, and operates. I think Andy Clark is saying the mind uses visual aids (pen, paper, blah, blah, blah) and past experiences to simplify and piece together new puzzles. We recognize manipulate patterns from similar past experiences to solve new problems. This makes me think of how most all knowledge gained comes from other humans. Human beings have the greatest influence on the mind of all so I wonder if humans could be considered visual aids?

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