Brains and cogs

Exploring some of the complex questions about the nature of the mind and its relation to the natural world

Module details

  • Offered to 4th & 5th Years in specific departments only**
  • Thursdays 16.00-18.00
  • 2 term module worth 6 ECTS
  • Degree Credit only

**See info at the top of the following webpage: 
4th & 5th Year Undergraduates (6 & 7.5 ECTS)

Degree credit module options by departmentHow to enrol

The module will explore a range of topics in the philosophy of mind, such as the nature of consciousness and thought, the nature of human action and the problem of determinism, the relation between mind (or mental phenomena) and body (or physical phenomena), and the possibility of artificial intelligence. You will gain a deeper understanding of the interplay between philosophical research in these areas and research across a broad range of scientific disciplines, such as neuroscience, life sciences, medicine and computing.  By comparing the work of thinkers as diverse as Dennett, Davidson, Putnam, the Churchlands, Fodor, Ryle, Wittgenstein and Heidegger, you will encounter and critically evaluate the cutting edge of modern thinking about the mind, and the issues that must be resolved before embarking on any scientific exploration of the mind.

*The module specification above is subject to final committee approval and is therefore subject to change.*

Information blocks

Learning outcomes

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By the end of this module you will be better able to: 

  • Understand the structure of some of the major debates within the philosophy of mind through extensive lecture material and discussion in class.
  • Communicate verbally and in writing the contrasting arguments in the philosophy of mind through classroom discussion and written assessments.
  • Debate individually and in groups the ability to use creativity and innovation in approaching practical and conceptual problems through small and large group debate in class.
  • Evaluate and analyse the relevance of complex conceptual issues to their core area of study through classroom discussion.
  • Select and use a range of sources to critically evaluate and compare the merits of philosophical positions through the independent research required for written essays.

Indicative core content

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  • The basic structure of the mind/body problem, and what issues must be resolved in order to arrive at a concrete solution to this problem.
  • The nature of consciousness and the place of qualia and other experiential states in relation to the physical world.
  • Dualist theories of mind dominated thinking about the mind for centuries, but are out of favour in much contemporary philosophy. We will explore the merits of various versions of dualism and will look at modern versions of dualism.
  • Reductive Physicalist theories argue that all talk of mental states is ultimately reducible to descriptions of the physical substrate in which it inheres. We will explore various versions of reductive Physicalism, such as Identity theory, Eliminative Materialism and Behaviourism.
  • Non-reductive Physicalist theories argue that while mind is dependent upon the physical for its existence, it is not ultimately reducible to descriptions of causal physical states. We explore some of the most prominent of these theories, such as Property dualism,  Emergentism and Machine Functionalism.
  • The Computational Theory of mind has gained many adherents in recent years, so the module will look in detail at what must be the case in order for this theory to be true.
  • Questions about the nature of personal identity and what it is that makes a person the same person throughout their lives.
  • Action theory and the question of mental causation, i.e. whether mental states are the causes of action or not.
  • The free-will/determinism debate and the difficult question of whether we are the authors of our actions, or whether they are entirely determined by causal physical processes over which we have no control.
  • Heidegger’s challenge to conventional thinking about mind and his claim that mind is embodied.
  • Wittgenstein and Ryle in their different ways also posed a challenge to conventional thinking with their respective linguistic analyses of the meaning of mental terms. We will explore the implications of their findings for contemporary views of the mind.
  • The Internalist/Externalist debate is a key debate in contemporary thinking about the mind, so we will explore the virtues of both positions and their implications.
  • Philosophy of mind and neuroscience. Any neuroscientific experimentation and explanation must adopt some theory of mind in designing its experiments, but the findings of neuroscience can also influence philosophical thinking about mind. We will explore the complex inter-relationship between these two fields.
  • What is the nature of emotions? Are they defined by their content (i.e. that which they are about) or by the feelings that characterise them?
  • Is artificial intelligence possible? This is a highly contentious modern debate, and the answer to this question depends in large part on the answers we give to other questions addressed during the module. We will try to gain a clear understanding of which conceptual issues are important to AI projects.


  • Coursework: Essay - 1,500-2,000 words (40%) This assessment has a lower weighting than the later essay of the same length, as it comes early in the course and you may not have much experience in the subject.
  • Coursework: Essay - 3,000 words (60%) This assessment has a higher weighting because it comes at the end of the module and so will better evaluate your summative learning.

Key information

  • Requirements: You are expected to attend all classes and undertake approximately 110 hours of independent study in total during the module. Independent study includes reading and preparation for classes, researching and writing coursework assignments and preparing for other assessments.
  • This module is designed as an undergraduate Level 6 course.  See Imperial Horizons level descriptors [pdf]
"The material was very engaging and well structured, and flowed naturally from one subject to another."
"This is an awesome module - totally different from anything I have done at university up until now and it is definitely teaching me to think more critically about myself, my mind, the way I learn and several other aspects of every day life. The overall structure of an hour of covering new material followed by an hour of discussion is excellent."
"Very interesting material with a highly engaging lecture structure."
"The module is taught in a very refreshing way, with the scope for discussion. I really enjoy the lectures and the material is introduced in an accessible and engaging manner."