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Experience and Consciousness

This course is expected to run but has not yet been scheduled.

Course Description

We typically enjoy a rich conscious mental life: there's a subjective feel, or something it's like, to experience the smell fresh brownies, to be stuck with a pin, or to go on a first date. Conscious experience is such a fundamental part of what it is to be a creature like us that we often take it for granted, but some of philosophy of mind's most fascinating and difficult questions revolve around conscious experience precisely because it is so fundamental. What is this experiential consciousness? Are the sciences on the right track to accounting for it? What is the relationship between conscious experience and what it is to be you, the experiencer?

The distinctive, qualitative aspects of one's conscious experience, sometimes called one's "phenomenal consciousness," are the topic of this course. The course will focus on a critical examination of various positions with regard to a number of questions about phenomenal consciousness, drawing from contemporary philosophy, psychology, and cognitive science.

Our primary focus will be on discussing just what phenomenal consciousness is. Is it something that can be given a physical sort of explanation, or is there reason to think that this may leave out something irreducible (perhaps even immaterial)? We will explore and evaluate some of the arguments philosophers have brought to bear on this issue: including argument from hypothetical examples like Mary, the brilliant color-vision scientist raised from birth in a gray room, as well as argument from real cases from the empirical literature, like blindsight patients who appear to have low-level functioning vision even though they claim to have no visual experience whatsoever. We will also consider to what extent having consciousness is just a matter of having the right programming! Can we eventually build a machine with full-blooded consciousness?

In addition, we will discuss what it is to have the experiences you do? What are they really like? Is it literally true that you can see that someone is lying, or that you see that your friend is upset with you? How much does what you see literally depend on what you believe?

By the end of this course, students will have a better understanding of the central philosophical issues surrounding conscious experience. Students will come away either with a well-reasoned position of support for one or another view on these issues, or a well-reasoned decision that, as things stand, one ought not lean any particular way. Perhaps most importantly, students will also come away with an improved ability to engage difficult and abstract subjects critically, carefully, and logically, using the methods of analytical philosophy. This includes an improved ability to do clear, illuminating expository work, as well as critical work which is not only convincing, but convincing because of the rational force of its content.

There are no prerequisites for this course, but a strong interest or some background in the subject material is expected.

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