Philosophy of Mind: An Introduction and Collection of Resources

This page contains an organized collection of links to beginner friendly videos, podcasts and articles on the philosophy of mind. For the best comprehensive introduction to philosophy of mind, listen to John Searle’s Philosophy of Mind course available on Youtube or read his book Mind: A Brief Introduction. If you’re totally new to philosophy of mind and want a quick introduction to the subject, try the following options:

If you’re interested in a particular topic, simply choose it from the list below for more resources.

What is philosophy of mind and why is it worth studying?

Transcript from John Searle’s philosophy of mind lecture course: Lecture 1 [2:38 – 5:31]:

All right, well this is a course called the philosophy of mind and I have to situate that both intellectually and historically. Intellectually, there’s a single overriding question in contemporary philosophy and the question is this: how do we fit our conception of ourselves; how do we fit the human reality, the reality of consciousness, intentionality, free will, aesthetics, ethics, politics, rationality, fiction, great literature, art, how do we fit that reality in with what we know about how the world is at the most fundamental level?

At the most fundamental level, the world consists entirely in physical particles and fields of force. That’s it. Everything consists of physical particles and they’re in fields of force. The word particle may be the wrong word, maybe they’re strings or points of mass energy and I’m paying those guys down the hill to get a final answer to that, and frankly, I liked physics better when there were electrons, protons, and neutrons. You guys don’t remember that golden age; when you learned [basic physics] in high school and then you can forget about the basic structure of reality. But anyway, I’m paying other people to figure out the basic structure. The point we’re taking here for granted is, to put it in technical terms: the big things are made out of real little things, and the behavior of the big things has to be explained by the behavior of the little things. Now that gives us a universe consisting entirely of mindless, meaningless physical particles, but in that universe, how do we fit in, for example, consciousness? How do we fit in free will? How do we fit in society, rationality, ethics, aesthetics? How do those fit in? And it isn’t just a question of how they fit in, but we have to be able to show how they’re a natural consequence of the organization of the physical particles.

It isn’t just that somehow or other, we can have both consciousness and electrons, but we’ve got to show how once you’ve got electrons and all the rest of it, you’re bound to have consciousness and, indeed, you can’t have consciousness without having electrons and all the rest of it. So that’s the overriding question, and the central part of that question, I think, is the philosophy of mind. We can’t really do subjects like ethics, aesthetics, political philosophy, social philosophy, philosophy of language until we get clear about the nature of the mind because all of those are derivative of, and dependent on, mental operations.

To get started:

  • Listen to this light and rather funny episode [29:00] of The Philosopher’s Arms podcast which discusses whether artificially intelligent robots could be conscious.
  • Then listen to this interview with Barry C. Smith on Neuroscience [13:23] from the Philosophy Bites podcast. It will challenge many of the common sense ways you think about how the mind works.
  • For a quick and accessible video, watch AI: Computers and Minds [10:03] by Philosophy Tube which discusses whether the mind works like a computer.
  • For a slightly longer introduction to the philosophy of mind, listen to What is the Mind? (Turing, et al) by The Partially Examined Life podcast.

What is consciousness?

Perhaps no aspect of mind is more familiar or more puzzling than consciousness and our conscious experience of self and world. The problem of consciousness is arguably the central issue in current theorizing about the mind. Despite the lack of any agreed upon theory of consciousness, there is a widespread, if less than universal, consensus that an adequate account of mind requires a clear understanding of it and its place in nature. We need to understand both what consciousness is and how it relates to other, nonconscious, aspects of reality….

At the risk of oversimplifying, the relevant questions can be gathered under three crude rubrics as the What, How, and Why questions:

  • The Descriptive Question: What is consciousness? What are its principal features? And by what means can they be best discovered, described and modeled?
  • The Explanatory Question: How does consciousness of the relevant sort come to exist? Is it a primitive aspect of reality, and if not how does (or could) consciousness in the relevant respect arise from or be caused by nonconscious entities or processes?
  • The Functional Question: Why does consciousness of the relevant sort exist? Does it have a function, and if so what is it? Does it act causally and if so with what sorts of effects? Does it make a difference to the operation of systems in which it is present, and if so why and how?

Excerpt from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Consciousness by Robert Van Gulick.

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What is the relationship between the mind and the body?

The mind-body problem is the problem: what is the relationship between mind and body? Or alternatively: what is the relationship between mental properties and physical properties?

Humans have (or seem to have) both physical properties and mental properties. People have (or seem to have)the sort of properties attributed in the physical sciences. These physical properties include size, weight, shape, colour, motion through space and time, etc. But they also have (or seem to have) mental properties, which we do not attribute to typical physical objects These properties involve consciousness (including perceptual experience, emotional experience, and much else), intentionality (including beliefs, desires, and much else), and they are possessed by a subject or a self.

Physical properties are public, in the sense that they are, in principle, equally observable by anyone…. The same is not true of mental properties. I may be able to tell that you are in pain by your behaviour, but only you can feel it directly. Similarly, you just know how something looks to you, and I can only surmise. Conscious mental events are private to the subject, who has a privileged access to them of a kind no-one has to the physical.

The mind-body problem concerns the relationship between these two sets of properties. The mind-body problem breaks down into a number of components.

  1. The ontological question: what are mental states and what are physical states? Is one class a subclass of the other, so that all mental states are physical, or vice versa? Or are mental states and physical states entirely distinct?
  2. The causal question: do physical states influence mental states? Do mental states influence physical states? If so, how?

Excerpt from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Dualism by Howard Robinson.

To learn more:

Dualism

In the philosophy of mind, dualism is the theory that the mental and the physical—or mind and body or mind and brain—are, in some sense, radically different kinds of thing. Because common sense tells us that there are physical bodies, and because there is intellectual pressure towards producing a unified view of the world, one could say that materialist monism is the ‘default option’. Discussion about dualism, therefore, tends to start from the assumption of the reality of the physical world, and then to consider arguments for why the mind cannot be treated as simply part of that world.

– Excerpt from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Dualism by Howard Robinson.

To learn more:

  • For an excellent quick introduction to substance dualism, watch this video [5:21] by Philosophy Tube.
  • For an (admittedly rather dull) introduction to dualism in general watch this video [8:24] by Wireless Philosophy.
  • For a slightly longer introduction, watch Peter Millican’s lecture on subtance dualism or listen to this episode on René Descartes from the In Our Time podcast which also includes some historical context.
  • For a light and rather funny introduction to dualism read this article by Philosophy Bro. For a more comprehensive overview, read the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on dualism.

Physicalism

Physicalism is the thesis that everything is physical, or as contemporary philosophers sometimes put it, that everything supervenes on the physical…. The general idea is that the nature of the actual world (i.e. the universe and everything in it) conforms to a certain condition, the condition of being physical. Of course, physicalists don’t deny that the world might contain many items that at first glance don’t seem physical — items of a biological, or psychological, or moral, or social nature. But they insist nevertheless that at the end of the day such items are either physical or supervene on the physical.

– Excerpt from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Physcialism by Daniel Stoljar.

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Famous thought experiments

The Chinese room

The argument and thought-experiment now generally known as the Chinese Room Argument was first published in a paper in 1980 by American philosopher John Searle (1932- ). It has become one of the best-known arguments in recent philosophy. Searle imagines himself alone in a room following a computer program for responding to Chinese characters slipped under the door. Searle understands nothing of Chinese, and yet, by following the program for manipulating symbols and numerals just as a computer does, he produces appropriate strings of Chinese characters that fool those outside into thinking there is a Chinese speaker in the room. The narrow conclusion of the argument is that programming a digital computer may make it appear to understand language but does not produce real understanding. Hence the “Turing Test” is inadequate. Searle argues that the thought experiment underscores the fact that computers merely use syntactic rules to manipulate symbol strings, but have no understanding of meaning or semantics. The broader conclusion of the argument is that the theory that human minds are computer-like computational or information processing systems is refuted. Instead minds must result from biological processes; computers can at best simulate these biological processes. Thus the argument has large implications for semantics, philosophy of language and mind, theories of consciousness, computer science and cognitive science generally. As a result, there have been many critical replies to the argument. – Excerpt from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on the Chinese Room by David Cole.

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Frank Jackson’s knowledge argument

Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red’, ‘blue’, and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal chords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue’.… What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not? It seems just obvious that she will learn something about the world and our visual experience of it. But then is it inescapable that her previous knowledge was incomplete. But she had all the physical information. Ergo there is more to have than that, and Physicalism is false. – Excerpt from Epiphenominal Qualia by Frank Jackson.

To learn more:

Zombies

Zombies in philosophy are imaginary creatures designed to illuminate problems about consciousness and its relation to the physical world. Unlike those in films or witchcraft, they are exactly like us in all physical respects but without conscious experiences: by definition there is ‘nothing it is like’ to be a zombie. Yet zombies behave just like us, and some even spend a lot of time discussing consciousness.

Few people, if any, think zombies actually exist. But many hold they are at least conceivable, and some that they are possible. It seems that if zombies really are possible, then physicalism is false and some kind of dualism is true. For many philosophers that is the chief importance of the zombie idea. But it is also valuable for the sharp focus it gives to philosophical theorizing about consciousness. – Excerpt from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Zombies by Robert Kirk.

To learn more:

Key terms and concepts

Intentionality

If I think about a piano, something in my thought picks out a piano. If I talk about cigars, something in my speech refers to cigars. This feature of thoughts and words, whereby they pick out, refer to, or are about things, is intentionality. In a word, intentionality is aboutness.

Many mental states exhibit intentionality. If I believe that the weather is rainy today, this belief of mine is about today’s weather—that it is rainy. Desires are similarly directed at, or about things: if I desire a mosquito to buzz off, my desire is directed at the mosquito, and the possibility that it depart. Imaginings seem to be directed at particular imaginary scenarios, while regrets are directed at events or objects in the past, as are memories. And perceptions seem to be, similarly, directed at or about the objects we perceptually encounter in our environment. We call mental states that are directed at things in this way ‘intentional states’. – Excerpt from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Intentionality by Cathal O’Madagain.

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Internalism and externalism

Examples of mental phenomena are things like pain, joy, and perceptual states. Internalism about mental phenomena is the view that all mental phenomena are spatially located inside the brain or skin of the creature that possesses them. Externalism about mental phenomena is the view that not all mental phenomena are exclusively located inside the skull or skin of the creature that has them (Rowlands 2003, 2). – Excerpt from the 1000 Word Philosophy article on Semantic Externalism by Rebecca Renninger.

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Qualia

Feelings and experiences vary widely. For example, I run my fingers over sandpaper, smell a skunk, feel a sharp pain in my finger, seem to see bright purple, become extremely angry. In each of these cases, I am the subject of a mental state with a very distinctive subjective character. There is something it is like for me to undergo each state, some phenomenology that it has. Philosophers often use the term ‘qualia’ (singular ‘quale’) to refer to the introspectively accessible, phenomenal aspects of our mental lives. In this broad sense of the term, it is difficult to deny that there are qualia. Disagreement typically centers on which mental states have qualia, whether qualia are intrinsic qualities of their bearers, and how qualia relate to the physical world both inside and outside the head. The status of qualia is hotly debated in philosophy largely because it is central to a proper understanding of the nature of consciousness. Qualia are at the very heart of the mind-body problem. – Excerpt from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Qualia by Michael Tye.

To learn more:

 

Miscellaneous Resources

Youtube videos

Philosophy Bites

History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps

The Partially Examined Life

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Existential Comics

Other pages that may be of interest: