Our Sense of Self: what does science teach us?


Winter 2014 quarter

Taught by

Some living things are conscious, but not all.  Some conscious things are self-aware, but not all.  The same applies to our own experience: sometimes we are conscious and sometimes not; sometimes we are self-aware and sometimes not.  But when we are conscious and self-aware, what are we aware of?  Is it just our bodies, or our brains?  Is it something non-physical but somehow associated with our bodies and brains.  Could it be some combination of the physical and non-physical, of body and mind, or body and soul?  Three philosophers explored these questions in the first half of the 17th c., and each vigorously defended the emergent new science of that period.  Each argued that Galileo had mapped a path that promised a truly scientific understanding of humankind.  Nonetheless, each disagreed fundamentally with the other two.  In the first weeks, we will study this dispute between René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, and Baruch Spinoza.

Today many continue the debates of Descartes, Hobbes and Spinoza.  In the second half of the quarter, we will study contemporary writings by philosophers, neuroscientists, psychologists and journalists such as John Searle, Antonio Damasio, Bruce Hood, and Brian Christian. What does the new science of today reveal, or change, about our sense of self?

Familiar and challenging questions surround this work:  “Will brain science replace psychology in our understanding of human nature?”; “Will machines surpass humans in all cognitive activities?”;  “Could our conscious, self-aware lives extend beyond death?”;  “Is our sense of self a mirage, if not an hallucination?”; “Is our sense of free choice illusory?”

All students will be expected to read challenging texts, discuss them openly in seminar, and write short, critical essays aimed at deeper understanding of the texts and questions we address together.  In addition, more advanced students will be expected to complete a longer essay.

Program Details

Fields of Study

Preparatory for studies or careers in

further studies in philosophy, history of science, psychology, and artificial intelligence.

Location and Schedule

Campus location



Offered during: Day


Buy books for this program through Greener Bookstore.

Online Learning

Enhanced Online Learning: Access to web-based tools required, but use of these tools does not displace any face-to-face instruction.


Date Revision
October 24th, 2013 This program has been cancelled.
March 21st, 2013 New program added.

Registration Information

Credits: 16 (Winter)

Class standing: Freshmen–Senior; 25% of the seats are reserved for freshmen

Maximum enrollment: 24


Course Reference Number not yet available.

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