Dr. Jonathan Birch, one of the department’s newest members, is doing two exciting new courses this year that will undoubtedly exercise the grey matter. If you’re a new MSc in Economics and Philosophy, Philosophy and Public Policy, Philosophy of Science or Philosophy of the Social Sciences, you have the opportunity to sign up! You are also free to attend the first lecture before deciding.

Ph428: Emotion, Cognition and Behaviour: Science and Policy

Course Catalog Entry

This course provides an introduction to the (i) philosophical foundations and (ii) ethical, social and political implications of contemporary cognitive science. No background in either philosophy or cognitive science is required.

Topics covered include two parts.

Part I: Foundations


Thought as computation: What does it mean to say that thought is ‘computational’? What is getting computed, and how? Are there limits to the ‘computer’ analogy?

The boundaries of thought: Are thoughts wholly ‘in the head’? How might they extend beyond it? Where does cognition begin and end?

The fate of ‘folk psychology’: Are there really such things as beliefs and desires? Or is the ‘common sense’ conception of human thought radically mistaken?

‘Dual-process’ theories of cognition: Do cognitive processes come in ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ varieties? Is the mind partitioned into two systems? Or is the true picture more complicated than this?

Part II: Consequences

Emotion and morality: Is explicit moral reasoning nothing more than the after-the-event rationalization of snap judgements made in the emotional heat of the moment? If so, where does that leave ethics?

Implicit bias: Could we be unaware of our own racial and gender biases? Are we responsible for the decisions they influence? And is there anything we can do about them?

Improving decisions: Can policymakers exploit cognitive science to ‘nudge’ our behaviour in the direction of desirable social outcomes? If so, should they?

Cognitive enhancement: What are the prospects for enhancing human cognitive capacity by technological means? What are the ethical limits? Are there any?

Ph427: Genes, Brains & Society

Course Catalog Entry

This course examines, from a philosophical perspective, the ways in which recent developments in genetics and neuroscience challenge our conceptions of what we are — and what we could become.


Topics covered include the following.

  1. Human nature: Does the concept of ‘human nature’ have any biological basis? Can we distinguish between those traits which are part of ‘human nature’ and those which are not? And is ‘human nature’ fixed, or can it be altered by technological means?
  2. Sex and gender: Are ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ the same thing? Are gender categories natural or social? Are there robust psychological differences between men and women? If so, are they explained by genes or by culture? And should we reconcile ourselves to these differences, or should we try to eliminate them?
  3. Race: Do races exist? Is there any objective biological basis for racial categorization, or are races socially constructed? Does the concept of ‘race’ have a future, or will human societies soon become racially undifferentiated?
  4. Free will and responsibility: Has neuroscience debunked the notion of ‘free will’? If so, can we still be held responsible for our actions? Should neuroscientific data be used to predict—and prevent—wrongdoing?
  5. Right and wrong: Has neuroscience shown that morality is more a matter of emotion than reason? Can we use neuroscience to help us choose between ethical theories, and to help us improve our own behaviour?