Humanities Circle: Middle School

The Middle School Humanities Circle Winter 2018 course will focus on Philosophy.

Winter Quarter 2018 Course Information

In Winter 2018, we will offer one course for students in grades 6–8. The focus is Philosophy. The class will meet on Wednesday evenings: 6:15–7:30 pm.

Puzzles about Knowledge: Brains, Babies and Bots

What is knowledge? What do illusions, magic tricks, and cognitive biases reveal about our brains? What do babies know and how do they learn? Can robots ever have knowledge? In this class, students will engage in philosophical inquiry on these classic and contemporary puzzles about knowledge. Each session will begin with a short lesson, followed by a discussion question. Students will be encouraged to label their contributions to the inquiry (hypothesis, reason, analogy, thought experiment, counter-example, etc.) and fill out inquiry diagrams to map out the discussion. In the last 20 minutes of each session, students will come up with their own questions to discuss as a class. On the final day, students will give presentations to parents and guests on their two favorite inquiries.


  • Week 1: Philosophical Theories of Knowledge: Foundations, Coherence, and Infinite Regression
  • Week 2: Perception (Part 1): What can we know from perception?; Descartes’ Skepticism, The Matrix, and Fallibility
  • Week 3: Perception (Part 2): Optical illusions and Magic Tricks—How our brains deceive us.
  • Week 4: Reasoning (Part 1): What can we know through reasoning?; Deduction, Induction, and Abduction
  • Week 5: Reasoning (Part 2): Can our reasoning go wrong? Cognitive biases—how to spot them in ourselves and in others
  • Week 6: Memory and Experts: What can we know from our own memories and what can we know from expert testimony? Can our memories deceive us? Which experts should we trust?
  • Week 7: Babies: What are babies born knowing? How do they learn? How does early knowledge influence later knowledge?
  • Week 8: Robots: Can robots ever be said to have knowledge? How are they similar to and different from humans?
  • Week 9: Presentations

Iris Oved (PhD 2009, Rutgers University) studies knowledge acquisition in human adults and children as well as in robots. Her PhD is in Philosophy with a cognitive science focus, and she has three years of postdoctoral experience in Developmental Psychology and two years of experience in Machine Learning, designing ‘robot babies’ that learn the way that human scientists and children do. She currently does research on causal learning in preschool children in Alison Gopnik’s developmental psychology lab at UC Berkeley and is the founder and director of the Paradox Lab, a non-profit organization aimed at teaching creative critical inquiry to youth, visit and for more research information.