PHIL 435/805 Neurophilosophy

Fall Semester 2012 | Evening| Burnaby


INSTRUCTOR: Prof. Kathleen Akins


Neurophilosophy is an interdisciplinary subject that has been in existence for about 25 years. Although people differ on what they take it to be, I think of it as a two-way flow of information, from neuroscience to philosophy and from philosophy to neuroscience. In one direction, this means taking a new look at traditional philosophical problems given the input of recent neuroscience: once we have in hand something like the facts about neurological processing, does this change either our philosophical questions or the kinds of answers we think should be given? In the other direction, after a few millennia of thought about problems of mind, epistemology and ontology and other metaphysical questions, philosophers have a fairly good idea about, if not where the answers lie, where we know they don’t —i.e. the great dead ends of philosophical thought! The kind of problem-solving sophistication that philosophy brings to the table can sometimes make it easier to see which scientific projects are genuinely new and interesting—and hence might yield conceptually novel answers. These are the sorts of insights that can change the course of scientific inquiry. (That said, I’ve yet to meet a great scientist who wouldn’t make a great philosopher and vice versa.)

In this course we are going to look at a number of different traditional philosophical problems in order to see what neurophilosophers have had to contribute (in either direction). The topics to be covered will depend to a certain extent on the student interests of the class. At the first lecture, I will give the class various topics and accompanying readings from which the class can choose—e.g. the nature of the emotions, social interactions and their relevance to cognition, the consciousness of other species, risk behaviour and the neuropsychology of addiction, embodied cognition, the neural basis of moral action, spatial representation. I will begin the course by presenting some of the early literature in neurophilosophy on mental representation and consciousness and then we will turn to the class’s choices.



It is the nature of a philosophy seminar that student interest makes or breaks the experience. This does not mean that every person must be ‘chatty’ (god forbid), but that every person attends regularly and keeps up with the material.

  1. The central work of the course will be a course project, which begins with a class presentation of one topic or group of articles. Each presentation will be made by two or three students; the final paper/project can be an individual or joint venture. The final paper/project is due, for undergrads, one week after classes end.
    1. Hour Meeting with professor, scheduled two weeks in advance of presentation. Students will be expected to have read the material assigned, looked for secondary source materials, and have a rough idea of what they wish to present. Unprepared students will be graded appropriately. 10% of final grade.
    2. Presentation of topic. Each student will receive a grade according to his or her contribution. 24%
    3. Final paper/project. 15 pages. 40%
  2. Reading ‘abstracts’ and questions. Over the course of the first 10 classes, students must hand in a eight (8) 250-350 page abstracts of day’s reading accompanied by a fixed number questions. No exceptions will be made (barring appropriately grave disasters) or late abstracts accepted.
    1. Grad students: Each abstract plus questions is due by midnight the night before class. You must write 3 substantive questions not clearly answered in the text. 24%
    2. Undergraduate students: Each abstract/question must be received by midnight the day of the class. This means that you can revise your abstract or even write it after the class. However, you must attach 1 substantive question that you felt was NOT answered in class. 24%

Graduate students and undergraduates will be evaluated according to appropriately different standards.