24.08J | Spring 2009 | Undergraduate

Philosophical Issues in Brain Science


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1 hour / session

Course Description

This course provides an introduction to important philosophical questions about the mind, specifically those that are intimately connected with contemporary psychology and neuroscience. Are our concepts innate or are they acquired by experience? And what does it even mean to call a concept ‘innate’? Are ‘mental images’ pictures in the head? Is color in the mind or in the world? Is the mind nothing more than the brain? Can there be a science of consciousness? The course includes guest lectures by philosophers and cognitive scientists.


None. Introductory material on the relevant parts of psychology and neuroscience will be given as we proceed.

Guest Lectures

As part of our effort to convey the truly interdisciplinary nature of many philosophical issues about the mind, we have invited six distinguished philosophers and cognitive scientists, whose work overlaps both fields, to give guest lectures to the class. The topics of these guest lectures have been arranged to dovetail with the lectures by us.

Course Readings

Reading, discussing, and writing about the assigned readings are the central activities of this class. No outside research will be necessary. There is a reading assignment for each lecture. Some assignments are (a) very difficult, or (b) very long, or (c) both. All demand careful study. You should complete the assigned readings before each lecture as the lecture will often presuppose familiarity with the material in the texts.

Course Specifics and Grading


Recitation evaluation will be based on attendance, preparation, contributions to discussion, and any written or oral assignments including: 2 argument analysis exercises (2–3 pages). The two exercises together must total at least five pages.


There are 3 5-page papers that students need to submit. Paper topics will be distributed in advance and will ask students to analyze and discuss the material covered in class. Guidelines for papers will be handed out in class. The three papers together must total at least fifteen pages. Either the first or second paper must be rewritten and resubmitted. You are strongly advised to rewrite your first paper. Your grade for the revised paper will be the average of the grades for the two versions. Note that revised papers are held to a higher standard.

Final Exam

You will be required to take a 3-hour final exam on material covered throughout the term. The final exam will be at least 2/3 essay format and essay questions will be distributed in the final lecture of the term. The exam will be closed-notes and closed-books. There is no midterm exam. The instructors reserve the right to fail any student in the course who fails to perform at a passing level in any of the grading areas listed above; so, for example, attendance at recitations is required and consistent failure to attend will result in a F for the course.

Recitations 20%
Papers 60%
Final Exam 20%

How to Cite a Source

If your paper discusses a single essay assigned for the course and if you make clear what essay that is in the body of the text, then you may cite the essay by putting the page number of the quotation in parentheses next to the stretch of text. For example: In his essay, “What is a Neural Correlate of Consciousness?”, David Chalmers offers an account of when a state of a system is a neural correlate of a certain phenomenal property. According to Chalmers, “A state N1 of system N is a neural correlate of phenomenal property P if N’s being in N1 directly correlates with the subject having P.” If you use a source not assigned for the course, include the full reference for the source in a bibliography and at the point in the text where you need to cite the source, put the author’s last name, date of publication, and page number, for example (Chomsky 1978, 75).

MIT Statement on Plagiarism

Plagiarism—use of another’s intellectual work without acknowledgement—is a serious offense. It is the policy of the Literature Faculty that students who plagiarize will receive an F in the subject and that the instructor will forward the case to the Committee on Discipline. Full acknowledgement for all information obtained from sources outside the classroom must be clearly stated in all written work submitted. All ideas, arguments, and direct phrasings taken from someone else’s work must be identified and properly footnoted. Quotations from other sources must be clearly marked as distinct from the student’s own work. For further guidance on the proper forms of attribution, consult the style guides available at the Writing and Communication Center and the MIT website on Plagiarism.


1 Introduction  
1. Nativism
2 History: Plato and Locke  
3 Case study: face recognition  
4 Concept nativism First argument analysis due
5 Guest lecture: Prof. Jesse Prinz, City University of New York Graduate Center  
6 Linguistic nativism  
2. Perception
7 Molyneux’s problem  
8 Guest lecture: Prof. Dick Held, Massachusetts Institute of Technology First paper due
9 Philosophical problems of perception  
10 Imagery I  
11 Imagery II  
12 Guest lecture: Prof. Stephen Kosslyn, Harvard University Second argument analysis due
13 Color and color perception  
14 Guest lecture: Prof. David Hilbert, University of Illinois at Chicago Second paper due
3. Consciousness
15 Consciousness: introduction  
16 Phenomenal and access consciousness  
17 Guest lecture: Prof. Ned Block, New York University  
18 Neural correlates of consciousness  
19 Guest lecture: Prof. David Chalmers, Australian National University  
20 The mind-body problem I  
21 The mind-body problem II  
22 Consciousness and neuroscience I  
23 Consciousness and neuroscience II Third paper due
24 Consciousness: summary  
25 Last lecture  

Course Info

Learning Resource Types
Lecture Notes
Lecture Videos
Written Assignments