Perspectives IV, New Scientific Visions

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