HR101A: Minds & Bodies

First Essay Assignment


A 5-7 page essay is due at the beginning of class on Monday, February 25. You have the option of writing the paper on the scientific material we have discussed—genetics and the foundations of life—or on the literature and philosophy of mind and body that we have read. Below are a series of suggested topics for each option. Please note that we are most interested in seeing you use the texts that we have read and discussed in class to pursue your own interests and to develop your own theses. If your interests lead you in a direction different from those suggested in the topics below, please see Prof. Harriott or Prof. Epstein to discuss your ideas and to get permission to address a different topic.



Popular Genetics (adapted from Carolyn S. Steglich): Your paper should be based on an article from a newspaper, magazine, or other popular press source that has something to do with human genetics. Your paper should explain the science so that it is clear that you understand the biological principle(s) involved, and, you should explain why you chose the article. Why is it interesting, and what does it have to do with your professional or personal interests?

“Science Fiction”: Andrew Niccol’s film “Gattaca” speculates on the possible moral, ethical, and social consequences of artificial genetic selection, genetic profiling, and genetic databanking. Write an essay in which you analyze the significance or accuracy of the film, given what is known about the human genome and how it is and could be manipulated. OR, compose your own work of science fiction or speculative fiction, exploring these issues in a different way, or from a different perspective, or focusing on other ramifications of the topic.



Descartes & Dualism: Consider Descartes’ view of the dichotomy of mind and body in the Meditations in light of other texts we have read, or in light of other modes of thought or even personal belief or experience.


Substance Dualism: Descartes came to the conclusion that mind and matter are two different substances, known in two different ways. Churchland, in Chapter 2 of Matter and Consciousness, explains why few modern philosophers consider such “substance dualism” tenable. In “Why Dualism Is Forlorn,” Daniel Dennett, one such modern philosopher and “monist” (the opposite of a “dualist”), critiques substance dualism thoroughly. Is there any reason to maintain a belief in Cartesian substance dualism? If it is so illogical, why did Descartes believe in it? And why do so many non-philosophers—the vast majority of people, in fact—harbor a belief in some form of substance dualism?

Property Dualism: A modern analogue to “substance dualism” is what Churchland calls “property dualism”—the principle that “while there is no substance to be dealt with here beyond the physical brain, the brain has a special set of properties possessed by no other kind of physical object” (10). Is property dualism more tenable than substance dualism? Does it help explain the phenomenon of consciousness and the so-called mind/body problem? If you are interested in this question, you should read a pair of essays not required for class: Thomas Nagel’s “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” and Daniel Dennett’s “What It Is Like to Be a Bat.”


Descartes & Hamlet: There are historical and cultural affinities between Descartes’s Meditations and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Both authors were influenced by the skeptical traditions of Renaissance Humanism. Both Descartes and Hamlet are thinkers who dwell at length and in depth on the seeming dichotomies of mind and body. Consider Hamlet in light of Descartes’s Meditations. Does Descartes’s philosophy help to understand Hamlet’s thoughts and intellectual development? Does Hamlet cast a different light on the insights or limitations of Descartes’s thought? If you are interested in this topic, you may want to read Géza Kállay’s "'To be or not to be' and 'Cogito, ergo sum': Thinking and Being in Shakespeare's Hamlet against a Cartesian Background,” available in the Electronic Reserves.


Hamlet's Progress: Hamlet the character begins the play—even before he knows of the appearance of his father’s ghost— with the conviction that “I have that within which passes show” (1.2.85). He is acutely aware of the disjunction between his sense of interior self and the outward reality of the perceived world. Does he progress at all from this position? Do his character or philosophy evolve, mature, deteriorate, or change in any way over the course of the drama? If so, what is the most essential change and what is its significance?


Where Are They?: Compare Daniel Dennett’s “Where Am I?” to the neurological case studies in Oliver Sacks’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Does reading the stories in Sacks change your perspective on Dennett’s mind/body thought experiment? Is there something about the interconnection of mind and body revealed in Sacks that Dennett is overlooking? Or do Sacks’s real-life tales confirm Dennett’s philosophical speculation?

The Patient Speaks: Oliver Sacks has become famous for his narratives of neurological trauma. His books are international bestsellers, and in the stories he tells he seems always sensitive to his patients’ sufferings while finding profound truths in them. But these stories are always mediated by the voice of the physician, Sacks himself. The most remarkable feature of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is that Bauby, although his condition is even more extremely debilitating than those in Sacks’s book, manages to tell his own story. Does the perspective, and therefore the meaning, of severe neurological trauma change when the story is told by the victim himself?


The Undiscovered Country: Oliver Sacks describes the experiences of patients with neurological disorders. Do you know anyone who has gone through a similar experience, or whose personality has been effected by any kind of disease of or damage to the brain? What did this suggest to you about the nature of the self and individual identity in relation to the brain and the body? Were your reactions or conclusions different than Sacks’s?