Experience and Consciousness
This course is no longer being offered.
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 the claim that one is never actually directly aware of any phenomenal features of experience at all!
In addition, we will move on to discuss what it is to be you, the "subject" that "has" your conscious experiences. What is it to "have" conscious experience? What is a "subject" in this sense? Is it something best understood biologically? Psychologically? Or perhaps some other way?
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 write clear, illuminating expository work, as well as critical work which is not only convincing, but convincing because of the rational force of its content.