PP1MM-Mental Machines

Module Provider: Philosophy
Number of credits: 10 [5 ECTS credits]
Terms in which taught: Summer term module
Non-modular pre-requisites:
Modules excluded:
Module version for: 2016/7

Module Convenor: Dr James Stazicker

Email: j.stazicker@reading.ac.uk

Summary module description:
This module investigates the possibility, the promise and the perils of thinking machines. How close are we to creating artificial intelligence (AI), and what fundamental obstacles does the project of AI still face? How will AI change the world, and how afraid should we be of the Singularity - the point at which machines become more intelligent than humans, and design exponentially more intelligent machines without us? Where does the mind stop and machinery start? For example, could a neural implant or even a smartphone form part of your mind? Are we ourselves thinking machines, in the form of intelligent, naturally occurring computer programs? If so, could humans learn to upload their minds and live beyond brain death? These are all serious philosophical questions, and we will investigate them by reading the works of contemporary philosophers such as David Chalmers, Andy Clark, Hubert Dreyfus and John Searle, as well as scientists such as Susan Greenfield.


Required readings will be posted online.


Tim Crane, The Mechanical Mind, Routledge 2003.
Hubert Dreyfus, What Computers Still Can't Do, MIT Press 1992.
John Searle, 'Minds, brains, and programs’. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 3: 417-457, 1980.
David J. Chalmers, 'The Singularity: A Philosophical Analysis', Journal of Consciousness Studies 17:7-65, 2010.
Andy Clark and David Chalmers, 'The Extended Mind’, Analysis 58(1): 7-19, 1998.

Students in this module will learn to engage knowledgeably, critically and rigorously with the complex and pressing issues about artificial intelligence which face contemporary society. They will learn how the tools of philosophy can illuminate scientific problems, and they will be introduced to some central questions in philosophy of mind. They will learn to formulate precise arguments about these problems and questions, both orally and in writing. This module will prepare students for further Philosophy modules at Parts 2 and 3, by developing critical skills required in all Philosophy modules, as well as through subject knowledge which will be especially helpful in Philosophy of mind (PP2MIN) and Philosophy of cognitive science (PP3COG).

Assessable learning outcomes:
Students in this module will acquire subject knowledge in the philosophy of mind and artificial intelligence, by engaging with cutting-edge research in these disciplines. In addition, they will learn the skill of formulating precise, convincing philosophical arguments about scientific problems. They will learn how to communicate these arguments effectively in discussion and in writing, and how to criticise such arguments effectively and constructively, engaging effectively with their peers. Finally, in-class presentations will give students a chance to learn about presenting themselves and their ideas effectively.

Additional outcomes:
Students in this module will develop an appreciation of how philosophy can engage effectively with the sciences, and of an appreciation of how philosophy can engage effectively with pressing practical issues facing society the world over. Students will be exposed to written work in diverse philosophical and scientific styles and traditions, learning how to translate efficiently between them.

Outline content:
The module begins with some recent achievements in work on artificial intelligence, before assessing John Searle’s ‘Chinese Room’ argument that no computer program could be sufficient for intelligence, along with Hubert Dreyfus’ criticisms of the idea that machines might think (Weeks 1-2). In Week 3, we turn to the question whether we humans are ourselves thinking machines, in the form of intelligent, naturally occurring computer programs. In Week 4, we assess Andy Clark and David Chalmers’ thesis that technological aids to cognition which lie outside the brain might nonetheless form parts of one’s mind. Finally, in Week 5, we assess the perils of artificial intelligence, by reference to Chalmers’ work on the Singularity and scientists’ responses to his argument.

Brief description of teaching and learning methods:
The module is taught by lectures and seminars. Students are expected to attend 10 hours of lectures and 5 hours of seminars during the term in which it is provided. Lectures include the presentation of some material by video, as well as traditional lecturing by the module convenor. Seminars include student presentations, as well as discussion among multiple students. All students are required to write one module essay from a list of questions supplied by the module convenor, and to give one seminar presentation. Students are encouraged to be active in all classes, asking questions and trying to answer the questions posed by others. Reading, handouts and other study aids will be available via Blackboard.

Contact hours:
  Autumn Spring Summer
Lectures 10
Seminars 5
Guided independent study 85
Total hours by term 100.00
Total hours for module 100.00

Summative Assessment Methods:
Method Percentage
Written assignment including essay 70
Oral assessment and presentation 30

Other information on summative assessment:

Formative assessment methods:
Students will have the opportunity to submit draft work for both their presentations and their written assignment.

Penalties for late submission:

Penalties for late submission will be in accordance with University policy.
The Module Convenor will apply the following penalties for work submitted late, in accordance with the University policy.
  • where the piece of work is submitted up to one calendar week after the original deadline (or any formally agreed extension to the deadline): 10% of the total marks available for the piece of work will be deducted from the mark for each working day (or part thereof) following the deadline up to a total of five working days;
  • where the piece of work is submitted more than five working days after the original deadline (or any formally agreed extension to the deadline): a mark of zero will be recorded.

  • The University policy statement on penalties for late submission can be found at: http://www.reading.ac.uk/web/FILES/qualitysupport/penaltiesforlatesubmission.pdf
    You are strongly advised to ensure that coursework is submitted by the relevant deadline. You should note that it is advisable to submit work in an unfinished state rather than to fail to submit any work.

    Length of examination:

    Requirements for a pass:
    A mark of 40% overall

    Reassessment arrangements:
    Written coursework only. Students who fail at the first attempt will have the opportunity to submit a second attempt at their written coursework in September. This is to include no work which has previously been marked.

    Additional Costs (specified where applicable):
    1) Required text books:
    2) Specialist equipment or materials:
    3) Specialist clothing, footwear or headgear:
    4) Printing and binding:
    5) Computers and devices with a particular specification:
    6) Travel, accommodation and subsistence:

    Last updated: 6 January 2017

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