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Part I: Introducing the Issues

In this first part of the course, we'll be introduced to the key issues and some of the central arguments we will be considering throughout the semester. We'll begin by considering several key figures and positions in the debate over enhancing human beings and then move on to an initial consideration of our relationship to animals and machines, the status of anthropocentrism, and the issue of whether there is anything special or distinctive about being human.

                                                          The Coming Posthuman

Wednesday, Jan. 23


Friday, Jan. 25

  • Review of Syllabus

  • What do we mean by the "posthuman"? In order to find out, take a few minutes to explore the following web sites, YouTube videos, and files and think about the different visions of a future humanity each of these figures present. Are these visions of a future human you could embrace?

  • Micro Essay: Your first micro essay of the course is due today. What do you think of the vision of human nature suggested by these avatars of the posthuman?

  • You might also be interested in this compendium of quotes on the "From Human to Posthuman"

Monday, January 28

  • READ: Michael Bess Icarus 2.0

  • Micro Essay: Bess raises the issue of whether we could stop the process of human enhancement. How does he respond to this issue? See if you can reconstruct his argument by identifying his key premises and main conclusion addressing this issue. An argument consists of a conclusion and one or more premises that support that conclusion. What is Bess' conclusion and what are the key premises that provide support for that conclusion?

  • THINK ABOUT: Whether you agree with Bess: can we stop the process of human enhancement?

  • Additional Resources:

Wednesday, January 30

  • READ: Gregory Stock Redesigning Humans

  • Stock and Fukuyama Arguments

  • Micro Essay: Gregory Stock suggests that we are on the cusp of a profound biological change and we have already seen some evidence to suggest that he is right. Does Stock think this is a good thing or a perilous development? What evidence is available in the reading selection to suggest an answer to this question?

  • THINK ABOUT: Whether you agree with Stock's position.

  • Additional Resources:

Friday, February 1

  • READ: Francis Fukuyama Biotechnology and the Threat of a Posthuman Future

  • Micro Essay: What do you think Fukuyama would say in response to Stock's position articulated in "Redesigning Humans"? Using this reading from Fukuyama, try to construct what you think would be his response to the future that Stock imagines.

  • THINK ABOUT: The various issues on which Stock and Fukuyama disagree--and those on which they agree.

Can Animals Think? Can Machines?

We turn to the issue of human exceptionalism and the question of whether human beings are in some way unique and special in comparison with animals and machines.

Monday, February 4

  • READ: Dennis Weiss: "Betwixt and Between Animal and Machine."

  • Micro Essay: Are human beings special? Exceptional? See if you can craft an argument addressing this question. Is there something that makes us special and distinctive and exceptional relative to animals and machines? Or should we give up on anthropocentrism and the idea of human exceptionalism?

  • Additional Resources:


Wednesday, February 6


Friday, February 8

Monday, February 11

  • Additional Resources:

    • The Time Magazine article mentions Rodney Brooks' robot project COG and you can watch a brief video of Brooks discussing robotics here.


Wednesday, February 13

  • WATCH: Star Trek: The Next Generation, "The Measure of a Man"

  • Micro Essay: Were you the Judge Advocate General in Data's trial, how would you rule? Develop an argument in support of your position.

  • Think About: How might you draw on some of the material from Time Magazine, "Can Machines Think?," to more critically address this issue?

Justin Leiber: Can animals and machines be persons?

Friday, February 15

  • READ: Can Animals and Machines Be Persons: The First Morning

  • Micro Essay: Reconstruct either Goodman's or Godwin's core argument as it emerges in this first dialogue.

  • THINK ABOUT: The philosophical significance of the debate initiated on the first morning as well as the four positions that are articulated. How do you think Goodman and Godwin would respond to the case of Data?

Monday, February 18

  • READ: Can Animals and Machines Be Persons: The Afternoon

  • Micro Essay: Do you think that the Turing Test is a good test for determining personhood? Develop an argument that responds to this issue.

  • Additional Resources: Do you think you could shut down a computer system that didn't want to be shut down? This is the intriguing question behind a fascinating NPR report: No Mercy for Robots.

Wednesday, February 20

  • READ: Can Animals and Machines Be Persons: The Following Morning

  • Micro Essay: Who do you find yourself agreeing with more, Mary Godwin or Peter Goodman? Why?

  • Additional Resources: For a quick 60 second account of the Chinese Room, watch this video.

Friday, February 22

  • General Education Workday: There is no class today.

  • Alternative Assignments: 

TEST ONE: Your first essay exam is due in class Monday, February 25

Part II: Philosophical Views of Human Nature

Having been introduced to some of the contemporary issues that arise when thinking about human nature (should human nature be enhanced? what is our relationship to animals? can machines be conscious?), we'll now turn to the Western philosophical tradition and consider what resources it offers for deepening our understanding of these issues.

Classical Views of Human Nature

Monday, February 25

The Biblical View

  • READ: Genesis 1 - 4

  • Micro Essay: Describe the view of human nature that seems to be presupposed in this reading from Genesis. What can we infer are the primary characteristics of human beings based on our understanding of this reading?

  • THINK ABOUT: How we might apply the view of Genesis to some of the contemporary issues we have been considering.

  • Your first exam is due today.

The Greek View: Plato and Aristotle

Wednesday, February 27


Friday, March 1

  • READ: Selections from Nichomachean Ethics

  • Micro Essay: What would Aristotle say in response to Stock's discussion of germline engineering? Do you think he would agree or disagree with Stock's position regarding enhancing human beings?

  • THINK ABOUT: The key elements in Aristotle's view of human nature as they emerge from his discussion of ethics.

Modern Philosophical Views of Human Nature

Monday, March 11

Wednesday, March 13

  • READ: Julian de la Mettrie: Man a Machine

  • Micro Essay: Let see if we can identify the key components of de la Mettrie's account of human nature. What are the key components of their collective view of human nature?

  • Think About: The differences between Descartes' and de la Mettrie's account of human nature.

Friday, March 15

  • READ: David Hume, Selections on Human Nature

  • Micro Essay: Working with these several readings from Hume, can you identify some of the key elements of his philosophical framework and his view of the human being?

  • Think About: You should be thinking about the different frameworks we are investigating and which of them strike you as more acceptable and why.

Contemporary Views of Human Nature

Monday, March 18

Sartre and French Existentialism

Wednesday, March 20

B. F. Skinner

 Darwin, Evolution, and Sociobiology

Friday, March 22

Darwin and Evolutionary Theory

  • READ: Charles Darwin, Descent of Man, selections

  • Micro Essay: In these selections, Darwin compares animals and human beings in regard to their emotional and intellectual faculties. He turns as well to a discussion of morality and raises the question of the origins of the human being's moral sense or conscience. How does Darwin account for the our moral sense/conscience? What are the elements of his account?

  • THINK ABOUT: The contrast between the Biblical view in Genesis and the Darwinian view.

Monday, March 25

E. O. Wilson

Wednesday, March 27

Friday, March 29

  • READ: Marjorie Grene, "People and Other Animals"

  • Micro Essay: We've seen that one of the core issues in philosophical discussions of human nature is whether human beings are exceptional in some sense, whether we are distinct from other animals. Based on your reading of Grene's essay, how would she address that issue?

Test Two: Your second essay exam is due April 1

PART III: Contemporary Dilemmas

In this section of the course we'll return to our examination of a series of contemporary problems associated with human nature, including the status of animals and machines, questions about freedom and determinism, and the status of the posthuman.

Animal Minds

Monday, April 1

Watch: Steven Wise, Chimps Have Feelings and Thoughts

Micro Essay: There is no micro essay due today. Your second exam is due in class at the start of class.

Recommended Reading: 

Additional Resources: Radio Lab's Podcast on Animal Minds

Wednesday, April 3

  • READ: Daniel Dennett, Animal Consciousness: What Matters and Why

  • Micro Essay: How would Dennett respond to Wise's claim that chimps are persons?

  • THINK ABOUT: Dennett encourages us to consider the "radical" hypothesis that there really is a huge difference between us and all other species and that maybe consciousness is the monopoly of human beings (699). Try to identify and think about the key elements of his approach to this issue. See if you can identify several distinct elements that Dennett uses to build his case in support of his claim.

Friday, April 5

Robots, Machine Minds, and the Human Condition

Monday, April 8

  • Read: Brian Christian, "Minds vs. Machine"

  • Micro Essay: How do Christian's reflections on computers and language help us think further about one of our core questions in this course, "what does it mean to be human?"

Wednesday, April 10


Friday, April 12

The Case of Data Redux

Monday, April 15

Wednesday, April 17



Wednesday, April 24

Friday, April 26

Human Enhancement


Monday, April 29

Wednesday, May 1

  • READ: Nick Bostrom, In Defense of Posthuman Dignity

  • Micro Essay: How would Bostrom evaluate Kass' argument against genetic technology? Who do you find more persuasive, Bostrom or Kass?

  • THINK ABOUT: Reconstructing Bostrom's core argument.

Friday, May 3

  • READ: Erik Parens, "Is Better Always Good?" We're going to focus on the second part of Parens' essay, so feel free to skip over the discussion of "Enhancement and the Goals of Medicine" (pages 2 - 6) and begin focusing on his discussion of "Enhancement and the Goals of Society" (p. 6).

  • Micro Essay: In evaluating human enhancement, Parens responds to arguments from precedent that suggest that since we have always used means A to achieve end A and means B helps us achieve the same end A, means B is morally unproblematic. What problems does he identify with this argument from precedent?

  • THINK ABOUT: How is Parens' argument applicable to argument that human beings are natural born cyborgs (Clark, Haraway, Case)?

  • Additional Resources:

Monday, May 6

  • READ: Mary Midgley, Biotechnology and Monstrosity

  • Micro Essay: What is Midgley's position on biotechnology? Does she think we should pursue it?

Wednesday, May 8

Test Three: Your third essay exam will be due by the regularly scheduled final period.

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