Artificial intelligence in relation to considerations from the perspective of history of science, philosophy (of nature) and ethics


Seminar in summer term 2020
Saarland University Informatics Campus

Dr. Christian Müller, Principal Researcher and Research Fellow at the
German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence, DFKI.

Assisted and supported by: Iris Merget, Samantha Hubert

The main language of this seminar will be English. We offer to explain/rephrase some of the content in German, but this is of course only possible for a small fraction. We will also offer German sessions for those who understand English but are more comfortable with German. For those of you who don’t understand English, we cannot recommend the seminar.

About the seminar

In comparison to the discussion "around AI and ethics", which is currently being conducted by stakeholders from industry and society in various committees, this seminar is distinguished by the fact that it aims to get closer to the bottom. We will approach things from a philosophical perspective and, as the title already suggests, we will incorporate aspects of the history of science, philosophy of nature and (this is self-evident) ethics. We will apply these principles in a more pragmatic part to the discussion "on AI and ethics".

But let's stick to the basics. Here we will begin by taking a look at the philosophy of evolution. Coming from there we will derive two views on the nature of humanity: First, a materialistic-reductionist view, which, in a very condensed form, states that consciousness is a more or less causal epiphenomenon that, at a certain point in time, emerged on our highly complex neocortex; and second, a view that sees the consciousness as the preceding, fundamental principle.

We will look at arguments for both views.

The following list of topics results from these preliminary considerations.

List of topics (will be updated)

·     Introductory topics on AI and philosophical foundations (short)
Initial definition from our own work. Identification of the basic characteristics of the AI "components" in relation to relevant questions/problems.

·     Is there knowledge and if so, what is knowledge?
Epistemology from Plato until today (in Asia and in the "Occident", using selected examples)

The epistemology conveys essential philosophical foundations for the seminar and helps us later in the AI definition.

·     What is ethics? Why is ethics a philosophical topic?
We are doing this to make sure that we all understand how to distinguish philosophical thinking  from practical ethics of the standardisation bodies. In the basics, we will above all consult the humanist Julian Nida-Rümelin.

·     Basics from the philosophy of evolution
We will deeper the discussion about materialism versus alternative perspectives onto the world. We can only speak meaningfully about AI if we can make a reference to a view on ourselves.

·     What is intelligence? What about it can be artificial at all?
Part of this complex of topics will be the two views on the nature of man, which are mentioned above. Here, too, we will offer a selective historical outline that will provide us with a tool to sharpen concepts such as perception, understanding, reason, etc. also for their artificial correspondence (if applicable).

·     The modern dilemma: the difficult legacy of Newton and Decartes. An integral view
Behind this lies the question: where does the (deep) ethical debate come from and what are the problematic positions?  Not only Newton and Decartes play a role here, but also, for example, John Locke on the side of rationalism and empiricism, and on the other side, for example, German idealism (Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel).  The complex includes exciting philosophical and scientific battles, such as Goethe's outburst in connection with the criticism of his theory of colours, but also forward-looking integral solutions.

·     What does the AI do particularly in terms of ethical issues (compared to IT in general)?
This is of course an extremely exciting topic, because AI plays an interesting double (even triple) role here, which we will differentiate and discuss in the seminar.

·     Science-historical parallels between physics and AI
As is well known, Elon Musk recently compared the dangers of AI with those of nuclear weapons. Polemical, of course, but what makes the man think so? We'll explain and put it into perspective.

·     Good AI, bad AI - does that exist? What distinguishes them both?
Some will say flatland after all. As mentioned at the beginning, we are here to connect to the current discussion "on AI and ethics". This is then the point where we will - in short - set the framework for the results of the seminar with reference to the title.

·     Strong AI: can it never exist, should it never be allowed to exist, or should it?
Those who have read carefully up to here may make assumptions about which arguments are being held against each other here.


Due to the Corona crisis, we will offer the seminar online. Presentations will be recorded and distributed among the participants. Actual online sessions will we used for discussion, not for presentation.

The contributions / study achievements of the seminar will consist of the recorded presentation and a short written report.

Selection of topics will be done on the basis of the 3 introductionary parts by C. Müller.


Discussion of…



Introduction Part I

C. Müller


Introduction Part II

C. Müller


Introduction Part III

C. Müller




































Literature list (will be updated)


Nagel, T. (2012). Mind and cosmos: why the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false. Oxford University Press.


Nagel, Thomas. "What is it like to be a bat?." The philosophical review 83.4 (1974): 435-450.


Wilber, K. (2001). A brief history of everything. Shambhala Publications.


Wilber, K. (2017). The Religion of Tomorrow: A Vision for the Future of the Great Traditions-More Inclusive, More Comprehensive, More Complete. Shambhala Publications. Chicago          


Nida-Rümelin, J., & Weidenfeld, N. (2018). Digitaler Humanismus: eine Ethik für das Zeitalter der künstlichen Intelligenz. Piper ebooks.


Nida-Rümelin, J. (2016). Humanistische Reflexionen. Suhrkamp Verlag.


Bodo Hemprich. Goethes Farbenlehre. Grundgedanken – Würdigung der Methode. In: Die Drei: Zeitschrift für Wissenschaft, Kunst und soziales Leben. Ausgabe 11, November 1982.


Wittgensteinian Philosophy and Advaita Vedanta: A Survey of the Parallels (2007).

(available as hard copy)


Other authors and sources


Carol Gilligan (ethics of care)

Abraham Maslov

The Upanishades

Great Traditions

Neo Platonism

John Eccles

B.F. Skinner


Thomas Kuhn

Rupert Sheldrake

Ervin Lazlo




Questions and Answers



1)    How much reading is expected per participant?


Answer: There are 50+ introductionary slides. From there, I would estimate another 100-200 textbook pages per participant


2)    How many topics is supposed to be covered by one participant?


Answer: 1

3)    How many research papers / textbook chapters / articles does each topic entail and also the intro?


Answer: The seminar will focus on textbook chapters rather than research articles. The number of chapters varies depending on the topic. On average, we expect entailment of 2-3 textbook chapters. See also question 1.


4)    How much work is to be presented and summarized?


We expect a presentation of about 20 minutes recorded (e.g. using zoom) and distributed among the participants and lecturers. Then another 20 – 30 minutes discussion with be held online (synchronously). Finally, we expect a short 2-3 page summary.