New Scientific Visions

Six credits philosophy, six credits core natural science
Six credits philosophy, three credits core math, three credits core natural science (must take both semesters for this distribution)

This course is not recommended for first-year students.

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. But why do we assume that the universe should be comprehensible to the human mind? What methods could we possibly use to encompass the behavior of the natural world?

This course attempts to trace the process by which humans learned how to describe, categorize, model, and manipulate the natural world. 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. We consider the development of that Greek tradition in the Roman, Islamic and Christian medieval worlds – and the many developments in this period that paved the way for later thinkers.

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. We consider the so-called “Copernican revolution” that united the astronomy and physics of the heavens and the earth.

We then consider the revolution in matter theory – the reemergence of an atomic theory of matter, and that theory’s eventual links to the mysteries of heat, combustion, electricity, magnetism and light.

We also return to the ancient problems of natural history – the question of the formation of the earth’s surface and all those things that live on it. Can these be fully explained within a materialist, mechanist universe? What are the philosophical implications of the belief that the earth and all its living creatures can change over time?

Finally, the second semester takes up the shifts from an absolute time and space, to the embrace of Einstein’s relativistic spacetime, and from determinism to the randomness and probability of quantum mechanics. We consider some of the epistemological and ethical issues raised by humanity’s increasing ability to manipulate nature, and the dangers of overestimating our degree of certainly about our understanding.

New Scientific Visions thus features primary sources in core scientific fields – including astronomy, physics, chemistry, and the life sciences – from antiquity to present. The thematic approach aims to help students to better understand the origins and development of natural science, including the various questions, assumptions, methods, ideas, values, and results that have characterized scientific practice in a range of historical contexts. Representative readings from antiquity to the end of the nineteenth century can be found in The History and Philosophy of Science: A Reader, co-edited by Professors McKaughan and Vande Wall. While readings will differ at the discretion of the instructor and from year to year, the following list is a fair indication of the kinds of texts typically covered over the course of the year.

Reading List