Skip to main content

Secondary navigation:

Perspectives IV, New Scientific Visions

philosophy department

Six credits philosophy, three credits math, three credits physical sciences
Six credits philosophy, six credits physical sciences

The world is ultimately intelligible: all of us, students and scientists alike, assume this, by assuming that it is possible to explain how and why things happen. Yet most people still live with relatively simple assumptions about the natures of things.

This course is a ‘guided tour’ that leads beyond the familiar land of ordinary Newtonian experience, into the strange and mysterious territory of contemporary thinking in science and mathematics. The goal is not merely to introduce students to an understanding of scientific discovery, through several simple yet creative projects.

The first semester begins with the ancient Greek thinkers, who (surprising though it may seem) identified and explored problems in science and mathematics that are well beyond the understanding of even highly educated people today. From there, the course moves to the conceptual revolution that lay behind the seventeenth-century break-through to modern science and the nearly mystical enthusiasm of the time for the explanatory power of mathematical demonstration. After examining the interpretation of human being as a mere, though complex, machine, the course takes up the problems that calculus was invented to solve - and the deeper issues opened up by the very brilliance of this solution. Who would have dreamed that such an amazingly powerful tool could be stumped by the trivial problem of analyzing the motion of a simple guitar string? So it was, however, until another genius arrived with a new solution, the theory of functions.

The second semester takes up the shifts from mechanistic explanation to the more recent view of explanation in terms of functions and relations, and from determinism to randomness and probability. The current understanding of the universe will be examined in relation to the modern concept of energy, the unimaginable and paradoxical results of modern mathematics, quantum theory's continuity with previous developments in the science of heat and energy, and the ‘state of the art’ in contemporary evolutionary biology.

Reading List

First Semester: A New Beginning for Science

Those amazing Greeks:
  • Aristotle, Physics and On the Parts of Animals
  • Euclid, Elements (selections)
  • Appolonius, Conics (selections)
Those amazing Europeans:
  • Cardan, Ars Magna, “Solution of the Cubic Equations,” and “On Imaginary Roots
  • Viete, The Analytic Art
  • Galileo, The Two New Sciences
  • Harvey, On Circulation of the Blood
  • Descartes, Discourse on Method, Meditations, and Geometry (selections)
Humans as machines:
  • Bacon, The New Organon (selections)
  • Hobbes, Leviathan (selections)
  • Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (selections)
Demystifying the calculus:
  • Newton, Principia Mathematica (selections) and other works
  • Leibniz, selected writings
  • Berkeley, The Analyst
Remystifying mathematics:
  • Essays by Taylor, Daniel and Johann Bernoulli, d’Alembert, and Euler

Second Semester: The Modern Idea of Explanation

Energy, heat, and the new chemistry:
  • Priestly, Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air
  • Lavoisier, Elementary Treatise on Chemistry (selections) and other works
  • Laplace, A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities
  • Works of Black, Dalton, Fourier, Mendoza, and Maxwell
The mathematics of the strange:
  • Dedekind, Essay on the Theory of Numbers (selections)
  • Cantor, Foundations of a General Theory of Sets
  • Works of Cauchy and Weierstrass
Relativity and quantum theory:
  • Planck, On Heat Radiation
  • Einstein, Relativity: The Special and General Theory
  • Bohr, On the Constitution of Atoms and Molecules
  • Lewis, The Atom and the Molecule
The beginnings of evolution:
  • Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle and The Origin of Species
  • Kelvin, Physical Considerations Regarding the Possible Age of the Sun’s Heat
  • Mendel, Experiments in Plant Hybridization
Evolution in crisis:
  • Tapes of Creationist - Evolutionist debates
  • Works of Mayr, Crick and Watson, Allayd, Lewontin, and Wright