Honors 182-21: Neuroscience and Emergent Properties: How does a brain beget a mind?

Fall 2010                                                 HONORS 182-21

TR 2:35-3:50

Prof. Michael Bess
208 Benson

Course Description

For centuries – going back to Descartes and in some respects as far as Aristotle and Plato – philosophers have wrestled with the ‘mind-body problem,’ the question of how a physical organism can give rise to, or somehow accompany, the astounding complexity of human thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Today it seems that a historic breakthrough may be in the offing, because neuroscientists are making rapid progress toward mapping the functional architecture of the human brain. It seems likely that over coming decades some of the most profound mysteries of the brain may finally come to be penetrated.

What will these discoveries mean for us? Will we humans be compelled by the findings of neuroscience to see ourselves as ‘mere’ machines made of organic matter – extremely complex machines, to be sure, but machines nonetheless? Or is there something fundamentally misleading about using a machine metaphor for the operations that characterize the brain’s functioning?

From a practical standpoint, moreover, will our newfound knowledge allow us to reverse-engineer the human brain?  Will we develop technologies for manipulating the neural processes that underlie our own thoughts, memories, and emotions? Might people use brain-machine interface devices to communicate directly with one another, brain-to-brain? Will the citizens of the mid-21st century use technology to control or modulate the ‘flow’ of their own thoughts, feelings, sensations, memories? What happens, in such a world, to the deepest qualities that make us human?

Our approach in exploring these questions will be interdisciplinary, encompassing developments in the natural sciences, philosophy, technology, socioeconomic change, and popular culture.

The course will be divided into five thematic parts:

I. The state of brain science today

II. From brain to consciousness

III. What are emergent properties?

IV. Neuroethics: exploring the moral implications of applied neuroscience

V. Peer review of each other’s research projects


Books to purchase:

– Joseph LeDoux, The Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are (Viking, 2002)

– Rita Carter, The Human Brain Book (Dorling Kindersley, 2009)

– Antonio Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of                                            Consciousness (Harcourt, 1999)

– Mark Bedau and Paul Humphreys, eds., Emergence: Contemporary Readings in Philosophy and Science (MIT, 2008)

– Neil Levy, Neuroethics: Challenges for the 21st Century (Cambridge, 2007)


Books from which we will read excerpts posted on OAK:

– Christof  Koch, The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach (Roberts, 2004)

– Edward O. Wilson and Bert Hölldobler, The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and                            Strangeness of Insect Societies (Norton, 2009)

– David J. Chalmers, ed., Philosophy of Mind: Classical and Contemporary Readings (Oxford,                                2002)

– Douglas Hofstadter, I Am a Strange Loop (Perseus, 2007)

– John H. Holland, Emergence: From Chaos to Order (Perseus, 1998)

Assignments, Grading

You should ALWAYS finish each day’s assigned reading before class meets on Tuesday or Thursday. In order to carry out a satisfying discussion, it is essential that all students come to class well-prepared to contribute their thoughts and observations on the readings. I encourage you to take notes on the readings as you go along; this will also help you considerably when you are writing your research paper.

Each student will be asked to choose one class session during the semester in which he or she will start off the discussion with a 10-minute analytical report on that day’s reading.

There will be no examinations in this course. Written assignments will include a one-page topic proposal for your research paper, an 8-10 page research paper or other kind of major project, fourteen one-page (single-spaced) peer reviews of the first drafts of the research papers or projects written by your fellow students; a revised version (8-10 pages) of your research paper or project; and a final one-page reflective essay on what you have learned in this course. Late assignments will be penalized at the rate of 5% per day.

Important: Peer review essays will receive no credit if they are handed in late.

Semester grades will be determined according to the following percentages:

Discussion participation and oral presentations:                      15%

Topic proposal paper (1 page):                                                  7%

Research project, first polished (not rough!) draft:                   25%

1-page peer reviews: 2% each x 14 =                                      28%

Research project, revised draft:                                               20%

1-page “What have I learned?” essay:                                      5%

All assignments for this course will be governed by Vanderbilt’s honor code. Please read carefully the description of the honor code in the student handbook and the section on plagiarism in the writing guidelines for this course. If you have any questions about this very important matter, please come and discuss them with me.

Course Schedule

Part I.  The State of Brain Science Today

Week 1

Thursday, Aug. 26 — Intro and overview; discuss emergent properties; discuss research paper topics; pick dates for student leaders of class discussion; 46-min. video: “The Measure of a Man.”

Week 2

Tuesday, Aug. 31 — Discuss LeDoux, 1-64; Carter, 6-13

Thursday, Sept. 2 — Discuss LeDoux, 65-96; Carter, 36-49

Week 3

Tuesday, Sept. 7 — Discuss LeDoux, 97-173; Carter, 50-57

Thursday, Sept. 9 — Discuss LeDoux, 174-234; Carter, 58-63

Week 4

Tuesday, Sept. 14 — Discuss LeDoux, 235-300; Carter, 64-73

Thursday, Sept. 16 — Discuss LeDoux, 301-325; Carter, 108-121; Christof Koch, The Quest for                                                     Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach (Roberts, 2004), 295-327.                                                       Available on OAK.

First paper due: research topic proposal (1 page single-spaced): Thursday, Sept. 16 (copies to classmates)

Part II. From Brain to Consciousness

Week 5

Tuesday, Sept. 21 Discuss Damasio, 1-81; Carter, 122-139

Thursday, Sept. 23 — Discuss Damasio, 82-130, 317-331; Carter, 140-151

Week 6

Tuesday, Sept. 28 — Discuss Damasio, 133-194, 331-335; Carter, 152-163

Thursday, Sept. 30 —  Discuss Damasio, 195-233; Carter, 164-173

Week 7

Tuesday, Oct. 5 — Discuss Damasio, 234-316; Carter, 174-189

Part III. What are Emergent Properties?

Thursday, Oct. 7 — Discuss Chalmers and Hofstadter readings. Excerpts from David Chalmers,                                                     ed., Philosophy of Mind: Classical and Contemporary Readings (Oxford,                                         2002), pp. xi-xii, 1-9, 197-205, 219-225, 473-478. Available on OAK.                                    Douglas Hofstadter, I Am a Strange Loop (Perseus, 2007), 42-43, 189-                                                          196, 202-206, 275-279, 357-363. Available on OAK.

Week 8

Tuesday, Oct. 12 — Discuss Wikipedia article, “Emergence”; Edward O. Wilson and Bert                                                    Hölldobler, The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness                                                      of Insect Societies (Norton, 2009), xvi-xxi, 4-13, 168-183. Available on                                                       OAK.

Discuss Conway’s Game of Life, available online at the following sites:

http://www.math.com/students/wonders/life/life.html                                                                          http://www.ibiblio.org/lifepatterns/

Thursday, Oct. 14 — no class: Fall Break (Oct. 14-15)

Week 9

Tuesday, Oct. 19 — Discuss John H. Holland, Emergence: From Chaos to Order (Perseus,                                                  1998), 1-10, 81-114, 225-231, 246-248. Available on OAK.

Discuss Bedau and Humphreys, 1-18, 99-110

(Intro, Intro to Phil perspectives, excerpt by Wimsatt)

Thursday, Oct. 21 — Discuss Bedau and Humphreys, 127-150, 154-184, 259-268

(excerpts by Kim, Bedau, Laughlin/Pines)

Part IV.


Exploring the Moral Implications of Applied Neuroscience

Week 10

Tuesday, Oct. 26 —  Discuss Levy, 69-132; Carter, 208-211

Thursday, Oct. 28 — Discuss Levy, 133-196

Week 11

Tuesday, Nov. 2 —  Discuss Levy, 222-257

Thursday, Nov. 4 — Paper swap, Nov. 4. First polished draft of your research paper (8-10 pages typed double-spaced) due. Please bring 14 double-spaced copies for your classmates.

No readings for this day.

Part V. Peer review of research papers

Week 12

Tuesday, Nov. 9 — In-class peer review of two students’ research papers. (Each student hands in 1-page single-spaced peer review of each of the two papers under discussion today.  One copy for the student, one copy for Bess.  No late peer reviews accepted.)

Thursday, Nov. 11 — In-class peer review of two students’ research papers.

Week 13

Tuesday, Nov. 16 — In-class peer review of two students’ research papers.

Thursday, Nov. 18 — In-class peer review of two students’ research papers.

Week 14

Thanksgiving  Break

Week 15

Tuesday, Nov. 30 — In-class peer review of two students’ research papers.

Thursday, Dec. 2 — In-class peer review of two students’ research papers.

Week 16

Tuesday, Dec. 7— In-class peer review of two students’ research papers.

Thursday, Dec. 9 — Closing discussion: What have I learned?

* One-page single-spaced reflection essay due: What have I learned? (Copies to                           classmates)

* Revised research paper or project due in Bess’s mailbox in History Dept., by 3 p.m.,

Wed., Dec. 15