The Great Questions of Philosophy and Physics

Course No. 60000
Professor Steven Gimbel, Ph.D.
Gettysburg College
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Course No. 60000
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What Will You Learn?

  • See how physics never outgrew philosophy, as the role of philosophy only grew with the startling discoveries since the turn of the 20th century.
  • Probe the surprising effectiveness of mathematics at describing reality.
  • Analyze cause, explanation, truth, and other philosophical concepts that underlie physics.
  • Explore the new concepts of space and time entailed by Einstein's theory of relativity.
  • Investigate the philosophical paradoxes of the quantum world.

Course Overview

No field of the humanities is so closely tied to physics as philosophy. Since ancient times, philosophers have puzzled over the nature of space, time, and matter—inquiries that led to the flowering of physics in the 17th century with Isaac Newton and other pioneers of the Scientific Revolution. Since then, the spectacular success of modern physics might imply that philosophy is no longer relevant to the field. Far from it! Surprising discoveries in the atomic and cosmic realms have opened a floodgate of new philosophical questions, such as:

  • Is time travel possible? Time travel is an idea that would have seemed absurd to a classical physicist like Newton. But it appears to be a real option according to Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity—raising the prospect of time machines, along with a host of paradoxes including whether the past can be altered.
  • Is the universe fine-tuned for life? The more we learn about the universe, the more it looks tailor-made expressly for us. Does this imply a Creator? On the other hand, where else could we live except in a universe conducive to life? This suggests that countless other universes may exist with quite different properties.
  • Is Schrödinger's cat dead or alive? A thought experiment proposed by the physicist Erwin Schrödinger features a cat whose life hangs in the balance subject to a quantum event, which is inherently probabilistic and unobservable. The implications have led to startling proposals about the nature of reality.

Treating these and other puzzles with a light and accessible touch, award-winning teacher and philosopher Steven Gimbel of Gettysburg College guides you through the concepts, theories, and speculations that underlie our understanding of reality in The Great Questions of Philosophy and Physics. In 12 wide-ranging, half-hour lectures, Professor Gimbel covers many of the fundamental ideas of modern physics, highlighting the role of philosophy in setting ground rules, interpreting results, and posing new questions.

The only prerequisite for the course is a desire to think critically and abstractly—in other words, philosophically. No prior background in science, mathematics, or philosophy is assumed. Trained as a philosopher of physics, Professor Gimbel deftly introduces the major players, sketches the intellectual terrain, and outlines the most important debates. He also tells a few jokes, displaying the playful side of his profession.

Wrestle with Profound Questions

Dr. Gimbel’s humor is on display when he brings up the topic of atoms. “Do atoms exist?” he often asks his classes. “Of course they do,” his students invariably tell him. “What about Santa Claus?” Dr. Gimbel counters. “Does he exist?” The point is that our evidence for atoms is indirect, much like the clues for Santa’s visit (packages under the tree and missing cookies). While the analogy should not be stretched too far, there is a long tradition in the philosophy of science that regards unobservables as being metaphysically out of bounds. This view is called empiricism. There is an equally venerable tradition, called realism, that views strong evidence for entities such as atoms as proof of their existence, in spite of the fact that they can’t be observed directly.

In The Great Questions of Philosophy and Physics, you wrestle with tricky debates like this, assessing the arguments on both sides. Inevitably, you will find yourself persuaded by one position and then having second thoughts when you hear the arguments against it, which is a mark of the subtlety of the underlying philosophical issues.

Consider these questions, which you address in the course:

  • Why is math so effective? Mathematics is the hallmark of a rigorous science such as physics. But why should that be? Is the world a mathematical system, as some philosophers contend? Or is mathematics simply our most powerful, logical tool for making sense of the relations between things in nature?
  • Is space a thing or a relation? Newton believed that space is a kind of amphitheater that the universe occupies. His rival, Leibniz, argued that space is just a set of relations. If the contents of the universe were removed, there would be nothing left, not even “space.” Einstein cast this debate in a remarkable new light.
  • What is scientific truth? Philosopher Nancy Cartwright points out that the laws of physics are idealized and do not describe reality. If fundamental laws don’t lead us to the truth, then what does? It may be that we have to settle for statements that are true enough to give the best explanation—and no more.

Probe the Surprising Nature of Reality

For a 19th-century physicist trying to formulate physical laws, an empirical approach was common sense. “Seeing is believing” was hard to argue with. The deep reality at the root of nature was interesting to contemplate, but hardly accessible at the time. However, in the 20th century, a revolution swept physics, eventually giving us two comprehensive theories of reality: the standard model of particle physics, which unifies the strong, weak, and electromagnetic forces that control events in the atomic realm; and general relativity, which covers gravity, the force that operates without limit across the universe.

Both theories are extraordinarily successful at predicting events at their respective scales. Both imply an underlying reality that is counterintuitive, if not bizarre. Both have major philosophical implications. And each is incompatible with the other, hinting that an eventual theory that unifies both will sketch a reality of utmost strangeness—as proposals such as string theory do.

One of philosophy’s most important roles is clearing up misconceptions. There are plenty of those surrounding modern physics, as you learn in this course. For example, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle is often cited as an epistemological claim. That is, for a given subatomic particle, the uncertainty principle limits our knowledge of simultaneous values for a pair of quantities, such as position and momentum. You can know one or the other, but not both. But that’s not the whole story. The uncertainty principle is really a metaphysical claim: precise, simultaneous values for both quantities simply don’t exist. According to one theory, after you know one value, the other disappears into a parallel universe!

You finish the course with a venture into philosophy’s oldest branch: theology. Today’s theologians sometimes invoke discoveries in physics to argue that the most logical hypothesis is that God created the universe in a big bang, analogous to the account in the Book of Genesis. You weigh arguments for and against this view, closing The Great Questions of Philosophy and Physics with the greatest question of all: How did it all begin?

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12 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Does Physics Make Philosophy Superfluous?
    Trace the growth of physics from philosophy, as questions about the nature of reality got rigorous answers starting in the Scientific Revolution. Then see how the philosophy of physics was energized by a movement called logical positivism in the early 20th century in response to Einstein's theory of relativity. Though logical positivism failed, it spurred new philosophical ideas and approaches. x
  • 2
    Why Mathematics Works So Well with Physics
    Physics is a mathematical science. But why should manipulating numbers give insight into how the world works? This question was famously posed by physicist Eugene Wigner in his 1960 paper, The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences." Explore proposed answers, including Max Tegmark's assertion that the world is, in fact, a mathematical system." x
  • 3
    Can Physics Explain Reality?
    If the point of physics is to explain reality, then what counts as an explanation? Starting here, Professor Gimbel goes deeper to probe what makes some explanations scientific and whether physics actually explains anything. Along the way, he explores Bertrand Russell's rejection of the notion of cause, Carl Hempel's account of explanation, and Nancy Cartwright's skepticism about scientific truth. x
  • 4
    The Reality of Einstein's Space
    What's left when you take all the matter and energy out of space? Either something or nothing. Newton believed the former; his rival, Leibniz, believed the latter. Assess arguments for both views, and then see how Einstein was influenced by Leibniz's relational picture of space to invent his special theory of relativity. Einstein's further work on relativity led him to a startlingly new conception of space. x
  • 5
    The Nature of Einstein's Time
    Consider the weirdness of time: The laws of physics are time reversable, but we never see time running backwards. Theorists have proposed that the direction of time is connected to the order of the early universe and even that time is an illusion. See how Einstein deepened the mystery with his theory of relativity, which predicts time dilation and the surprising possibility of time travel. x
  • 6
    The Beginning of Time
    Professor Gimbel continues his exploration of time by winding back the clock. Was there a beginning to time? Einstein's initial equations of general relativity predicted a dynamic universe, one that might have expanded from an initial moment. Einstein discarded this idea, but since then evidence has mounted for a Big Bang." Is it sensible to ask what caused the Big Bang and what happened before?" x
  • 7
    Are Atoms Real?
    Compare proof for the reality of atoms with evidence for the existence of Santa Claus. Both are problematic hypotheses! Trace the history of atomic theory and the philosophical resistance to it. End with Bas van Fraassen's idea of constructive empiricism," which holds that successful theories ought only to be empirically adequate since we can never know with certainty what is real." x
  • 8
    Quantum States: Neither True nor False?
    Enter the quantum world, where traditional philosophical logic breaks down. First, explore the roots of quantum theory and how scientists gradually uncovered its surpassing strangeness. Clear up the meaning of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which is a metaphysical claim, not an epistemological one. Finally, delve into John von Neumann's revolutionary quantum logic, working out an example. x
  • 9
    Waves, Particles, and Quantum Entanglement
    Quantum mechanics rests on an apparent category mistake: Light can't be both a wave and a particle, yet that's what theory and experiments show. Analyze this puzzle from the realist and empiricist points of view. Then explore philosopher Arthur Fine's natural ontological attitude," which reconciles realism and antirealism by demonstrating how they rely on different conceptions of truth." x
  • 10
    Wanted Dead and Alive: Schrodinger's Cat
    The most famous paradox of quantum theory is the thought experiment showing that a cat under certain experimental conditions must be both dead and alive. Explore four proposed solutions to this conundrum, known as the measurement problem: the hidden-variable view, the Copenhagen interpretation, the idea that the human mind collapses" a quantum state, and the many-worlds interpretation." x
  • 11
    The Dream of Grand Unification
    After the dust settled from the quantum revolution, physics was left with two fundamental theories: the standard model of particle physics for quantum phenomena and general relativity for gravitational interactions. Follow the quest for a grand unified theory that incorporates both. Armed with Karl Popper's demarcation criteria, see how unifying ideas such as string theory fall short. x
  • 12
    The Physics of God
    The laws of physics have been invoked on both sides of the debate over the existence of God. Professor Gimbel closes the course by tracing the history of this dispute, from Newton's belief in a Creator to today's discussion of the fine-tuning" of nature's constants and whether God is responsible. Such big questions in physics inevitably bring us back to the roots of physics: philosophy." x

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Your professor

Steven Gimbel

About Your Professor

Steven Gimbel, Ph.D.
Gettysburg College
Professor Steven Gimbel holds the Edwin T. Johnson and Cynthia Shearer Johnson Distinguished Teaching Chair in the Humanities at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, where he also serves as Chair of the Philosophy Department. He received his bachelor's degree in Physics and Philosophy from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and his doctoral degree in Philosophy from the Johns Hopkins University, where he wrote his...
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