Nature of the Universe: Mind and Matter
Science tells us that everything in the universe is made of particles, waves, and so on. But what about minds and meaning? Could thoughts and feelings be made up of chemicals and electricity, or are they some other kind of thing? Does a scientific view of the world allow for the existence of free will? Of rationality? Of meaningful thoughts at all? In this colloquium we will examine these questions by thinking about recent work in philosophy and science.
For syllabus, assignments, readings, announcements, and other material please see the course page on TCU Online.
Philosophy/psychology/cognitive science in the news
20, September, 2018 – Scientists gave MDMA to octopuses to see how it affects them. The evidence is only suggestive so far, but it seems that the drug might affect octopuses in more or less the way it affects humans. Philosopher of biology Peter Godfrey-Smith reflects on what we can learn from these studies, about consciousness and other topics.
2 April, 2018 – The New Yorker published a piece about Andy Clark’s extended mind hypothesis. It doesn’t expand on the ideas in the original journal article very much, but it paints a quirky picture of Andy. If you can’t access it online, ask me and I’ll send you a copy.
Other content relevant to class
What is it like to be a bat?
NPR’s TED Radio Hour did a segment on Daniel Kish and his echolocation. Personally I think the audio segment is much better than the original TED talk (embedded in the link above).
Mind and language
The public radio show Radiolab has a segment about the history of Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL) and—something often not reported—the way that the expanding vocabulary for mental states and propositional attitudes changes the way NSL speakers understand themselves and each other. Check it out here.
Actually that whole episode on words is pretty good. I especially recommend this segment about a woman’s experience with wordlessness after having a stroke.
Mechanisms and moral responsibility
Radiolab reports on the case of a man who commits terrible acts, but (maybe?) only because of a brain tumor. Check out the original episode and their retrospective. Content warning: violence against children.
Have a conversation with a chatbot! The most famous are probably ELIZA (created in the 1960s) and ALICE (created in the 1990s). Newer bots may be more convincing, but you may be surprised at how these old bots perform.
The wonderful podcast Undiscovered has an episode about the potential for social interactions with robots, and whether we can resist ascribing mental states to social robots even when we know they merely mimic human behavior.
Geoffrey Hinton, one of the researchers most responsible for the development of “deep learning” networks, has some interesting thoughts on the future.
For a short, text-based interview that touches on universal basic income and other social issues, check out this 2018 interview by Martin Ford.
For a longer, video interview that explores some more technical problems (like how do you sabotage a self-driving car), check out this slick interview from Reuters.
In 2017 there was a popular news story that Facebook shut down an AI experiment because the chatbots became self-aware and developed their own secret language. But the story was very misleading—Snopes has a fact-check.
You might augment your reading of Chamovitz by checking out the Nature documentary “What Plants Talk about” (sometimes on Netflix; currently on YouTube). It covers a lot of similar ground, including factors in dodder predation and some chemical signaling strategies that Chamovitz doesn’t describe in his chapter.
Rodney Brooks shares his predictions for the future, including the AI apocalypse (he doesn’t think you should worry about it). Read his 2019 interview with Brian Bergstein.
If you want to learn more about the capabilities of Boston Dynamics’ robots, check out this 2017 TED talk by Boston Dynamics CEO Marc Raibert.
Boston Dynamics periodically posts impressive videos of their robots doing things like navigating a building, running obstacle courses and doing backflips. But Raibert warns against being too impressed.