Metaphysics studies the fundamental nature of our reality and of our selves. It focuses on what exists, and how everything that exists fits together. Questions considered are: Is there a fundamental level of reality? Is it purely physical? When and how do particles compose larger objects? How can one object constitute another? What constitutes a person or a self? What makes a person at a given time identical to a person at some later time? Do we have free will? Is free will consistent with laws of nature? What are laws of nature? Does God exist? Why does the universe exist? Are there multiple universes? Are we in a simulation?
The subject of symbolic logic is part philosophy, part mathematics, and nowadays part computer science. It concerns rationality, truth, and methods to distinguish good and bad deductive reasoning. It is based on a formal, symbolic language designed to enable things to be said clearly and unambiguously, making it a vehicle for elucidation, analysis, and rigorous foundations relevant to a wide range of disciplines. Students will learn how to translate English sentences into the formal languages of sentential and predicate logic, to construct proofs in theses languages, and to critically assess and compare philosophical solutions to logical paradoxes.
Philosophy of Mind
The course focuses on what is arguably the most contested area in the philosophy of mind, the nature of consciousness or conscious experience. On the one hand, everyone knows what consciousness is: it is what vanishes every night when we fall into dreamless sleep and reappears when we wake up or when we dream. On the other hand, it is widely believed that we are currently unable to explain consciousness, and some think we may never. There are two key questions. Firstly, conscious experiences are tightly correlated with physical states of the brain. But correlations stand in need of explanation. Why are some physical states associated with consciousness? Put bluntly, why does consciousness exist at all? Secondly, we believe that we (humans) are conscious. We (perhaps hesitantly) ascribe consciousness to other animals, such as our pets. But as creatures become increasingly different from us, we struggle to say what has consciousness and what doesn’t (is an octopus conscious? insects? bacteria? intelligent robots?). Could we therefore ever build a “consciousness meter” a device that determines, for any physical system, whether and to what extent it is conscious? Philosophers have been debating these questions for centuries. In recent years these questions have become the focus of intense interdisciplinary inquiry engaging not only philosophers, but also neuroscientists, computer scientists, physicists, biologists, and others. We begin studying key contributions from the history of philosophy that have shaped how we now understand these problems. We then look to the contemporary literature and focus on modern attempts to solve these problems.
Philosophy of Science
Philosophy of science explores the philosophical questions that arise when we reflect on the nature of the scientific method and the knowledge about the universe that it produces. The course is both historical and philosophical. Historically, we consider how the scientific method has evolved over time, from the ancient Greeks, through the Scientific Revolution, to the present age. Philosophically, we consider foundational questions concerning the scope of scientific knowledge, the demarcation of science from pseudo-science, theory confirmation and falsification, thought experiments, laws of nature, and whether there can be a complete science of the human mind.
Foundations and Philosophy of Quantum Mechanics
Quantum mechanics is perhaps the most successful theory in all of physics, but the question of what it means has always been controversial. Ideas like multiple universes, signals that travel faster than light, and objects that do not have properties until you look at them, are common in the popular literature, and are taken seriously by some researchers too. This course is about the foundations of quantum mechanics, which has as its central question, “what must the world be like if quantum mechanics is an (approximately) correct fundamental theory of physics?” Answering this question requires us to draw on the methods of physics, philosophy, and mathematics, but there are no prerequisites in these subjects other than high school mathematics, as we will build the necessary ideas and formalism from scratch. Topics covered in this course include: quantum superposition, the formalism of quantum mechanics, multiple particles and properties, two path interference, qubits, the no-cloning theorem, quantum entanglement, quantum teleportation, ψ-epistemic modes (models in which the quantum state is a state of knowledge), the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen (EPR) paradox, the measurement problem, nonlocality, contextuality, decoherence, and interpretations of quantum mechanics (spontaneous collapse theories, de Broglie-Bohm theory, many-worlds, and Copenhagenish interpretations).
Philosophy of Virtual Reality Technology
The seminar focuses on David Chalmers’ forthcoming book Reality 2.0: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy, which argues that virtual reality (VR) technology not only raises new philosophical problems but also helps to solve traditional ones. VR technology includes everything from video games through augmented reality glasses and virtual reality headsets to simulations of entire universes. Descartes’ traditional problem of the external world will receive particular attention: How can we know anything about the external world? How do we know that reality is not an illusion? Many related questions arise along the way: Is there a God? What is consciousness? What makes for a valuable life? What is the difference between right and wrong? How should our society be organized? New philosophical questions include: How do we know we are not in a VR computer simulation? Is VR an illusion? How can we know we’re not being deceived by deepfakes? Can AI be conscious? Do smartphones extend our minds? Can you live a meaningful life in VR? Does augmented reality genuinely augment reality? Are there ethical constraints on the creators of virtual worlds? Should humans ultimately upload themselves to the cloud entirely? What is a computer, anyway?