Philosophy 2A: What Am I?

Philosophy 2A: What Am I?

You are a very impressive creature. There are all sorts of things that you can do. Among many other things, you can think, feel, and act. There are all sorts of things that you are. You are a human person, with a body, and a nationality, and a history. Which of these features, in what combination, make you the kind of creature that you are and the particular individual that you are? What exactly are you?

One thing that is special about you is that, unlike rocks and trees, you have a mind. Your mind is the thing that makes you capable, among other things, of thinking, feeling, and experiencing. Our thoughts, feelings, and experiences are clearly central to who we are. But what might your mind be such that it has these distinctive features? Is it simply a very powerful computer: your brain? Or are there things that your mind can do that a computer could not? Is your mind something more than your physical brain or nervous system?

Another striking feature of you is that you seem to be able to freely decide how to act. Indeed, it seems that there’s an important sense in which it’s “up to you” whether or not to take this course. Our capacity to act freely is an extremely important part of who we are. Without it, it’s hard to see how we could ever be held responsible for our actions. But given that we are embodied creatures made up of physical particles, and given that physical things seem governed by physical laws, how can we ever act freely? Is freedom compatible with our physical nature? Or does freedom require that you are not simply a physical being?

What we think and feel, and how we act, brings about changes to world around us, and to ourselves. You don’t think and care about the same things that you did five or ten years ago, and you don’t do the same things, either! But although we undoubtedly change throughout our lives, we also seem to persist over time. When you look at photographs of yourself as a child, you have no hesitation to identify the person as you, despite the profound changes you have undergone. But what makes you and the person in the photo one and the same? If you are just your mind, and your mind is completely different, are you really still you? Not only your mind, but your body is very different. The physical particles that make you up have almost all changed and eventually your body will expire. Are you the sort of thing that could persist beyond bodily death? What makes and keeps you you despite all these changes?

Whatever we are, we don’t exist in isolation. Our identity isn’t limited to the particular things which make us individuals, but seems to include at least some of the groups to which we belong. We seem to belong to many wider groups including gender, race, class, and nationality, Group membership, for many people, is a fundamental part of their self identity. For all of us, group membership affects our thoughts, feelings, and actions. The relationships between our self-identities and our group memberships have important moral and political implications. Is our membership in these groups part of what makes us who we are? Are you really part of something bigger than yourself?

In this course, you will be considering these questions as part of answering and thinking critically about the broad question: what am I? Answering this is fundamental to understanding yourself and your place in the world.

Course convener:  Dr Robert Cowan 
Semester: 1
Lecture hour: 12-1, Monday - Thursday
Lecture venue: See MyCampus

Teaching resources for this course, including lecture notes and exercises, will be made available on the Philosophy Moodle site.

Further course information

Course Structure

The course is split into four sections.

In the first part we ask: Is my mind my brain? Here we consider theories in the philosophy of mind concerning the relationship between the mind and the physical world, including our brains. Possible topics covered include (but are not limited to): artificial intelligence, dualism, idealism, and physicalism.

In the second part of the course we ask: am I free? Here we consider philosophical approaches to the problem of free will: whether not freedom of choice is possible, given the nature of the world we inhabit. Possible topics include: compatibilism, hard determinism, and libertarianism.

In the third part we ask: what makes me, me? Here we consider philosophical approaches to the problem of personal identity: what does it take for a person to persist over time – to continue rather than ceasing to exist? Possible topics include: animalism, brain theory, and psychological continuity theories.

Finally, we ask: am I part of something bigger than me? Here we consider issues in social philosophy concerning both the nature and moral/political aspects of group membership. Possible topics include (but are not limited to): gender, race, and nationalism.

Preparatory Reading

Pete Mandik, This is Philosophy of Mind, Routledge

Gideon Rosen et al, The Norton Introduction to Philosophy, Norton (chapters 8, 9, 12 and 13)