Humanities Circle: Middle School

The Middle School Humanities Circle will not be offered in Spring 2017, but will return in Fall 2017.

Archive: Winter Quarter 2017 Course Information

Puzzles About Consciousness: Minds, Brains, and Robots

In this course, students will engage in philosophical inquiry into classic and contemporary puzzles about consciousness. These questions include: Do colors look the same to you as they do to other people, and what about flavors and the sensation of pain? Could robots ever have conscious experiences, and if so what might they be like? What is it about human brains that allows us to have conscious experiences? Is there a way for science to someday allow us to know what the experiences of others are like?  

Each session will begin with a presentation by the instructors on a puzzle about consciousness, combining observations from Philosophy, Cognitive Science, and Robotics. Students will then be given a short break followed by a question to discuss in small groups. The class will then reconvene to discuss the question together. Students will be encouraged to label their contributions to the discussion (e.g., hypothesis, reason, analogy, thought experiment, supporting example, counter-example, objection, clarification request, etc.). They will also fill out inquiry diagrams that map out the hypotheses, reasons, and challenges as they come up. After another short break, students will spend the last 30 minutes choosing a question of their own to discuss together with class, again using labels and filling out inquiry diagrams.            

  • Sessions 1-4 explores questions about sensory experiences, looking at visual perception and flavor perception in humans, and sensory processing in robots.

  • Sessions 5-7 explores questions about conscious experiences of pain and emotions, looking at what happens in the human brain during such experiences and exploring what it would take for robots to have similar 'brain' features.

  • Sessions 8-9 explores the limits and possibilities for a science of consciousness.

  • In Session 10, students will choose two of their inquiry diagrams and present summaries on how their positions have changed (or become strengthened) on the questions explored.