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Science, Perception and Reality

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Course DatesWeeksMeeting TimesStatusInstructor(s)CRNRegistration
July 09, 2018 - July 27, 20183M-F 8:30A-11:20A and T,TH 12:15-3:05POpenJames Van Cleve

Course Description

Modern science throws light on many of the perennial questions of philosophy, sometimes seeming to confirm or refute old answers and sometimes suggesting new ones. Are sensory qualities, such as colors, in external things or only in our minds? Is the world governed by deterministic laws, and if so, what room is there for freedom of the will? Could space have extra dimensions? Could it obey geometrical laws other than the familiar ones of Euclid? Is time something that flows, or is the world a static four-dimensional manifold? Is time travel possible? Do the laws of classical logic break down at the level of quantum events? Is reality at the quantum level to any significant extent (as some have maintained) an observer-created reality? In this course we will explore these questions, using as food for thought both works of philosophy and elementary expositions of the two major theories of 20th-century physics, relativity theory and quantum mechanics.

During the first week, our theme will be the relation between the world of everyday perception and the world as described by science. We will pay special attention to the writings of the great 18th-century philosopher George Berkeley, who wrestled with this issue as it arose during the heyday of the Newtonian world view. Berkeley resided for a time in Newport, RI, and our course will include a trip to his home.

During the second week, our theme will be philosophical questions about the nature of space and time. Among other things, we will read Einstein's own popular exposition of the Special Theory of Relativity, seeking to determine what bearing it has on various of the questions listed above.

During the third week, we will turn to quantum physics, reading explanations of it for the layman and pondering its implications for determinism and observer-created reality.

An important aspect of the course will be identifying arguments for philosophical conclusions and critically assessing them. Our reading materials will contain many argumentative passages on which we may practice this valuable skill.

Prerequisites: None