The Great Questions of Philosophy and Physics

The Great Questions of Philosophy and Physics
Course Trailer
Does Physics Make Philosophy Superfluous?
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.

30 min
Why Mathematics Works So Well with Physics
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.

35 min
Can Physics Explain Reality?
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.

35 min
The Reality of Einstein’s Space
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.

33 min
The Nature of Einstein’s Time
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.

29 min
The Beginning of Time
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?

27 min
Are Atoms Real?
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.

31 min
Quantum States: Neither True nor False?
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.

29 min
Waves, Particles, and Quantum Entanglement
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.

30 min
Wanted Dead and Alive: Schrödinger's Cat
10: Wanted Dead and Alive: Schrödinger'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.

29 min
The Dream of Grand Unification
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.

31 min
The Physics of God
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.

29 min
Steven Gimbel

Scientists give us new accounts of how the universe works, and philosophers unpack those theories to see what they tell us about what is real.

ALMA MATER

Johns Hopkins University

INSTITUTION

Gettysburg College

About Steven Gimbel

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 dissertation on interpretations and the philosophical ramifications of relativity theory. At Gettysburg, he has been honored with the Luther W. and Bernice L. Thompson Distinguished Teaching Award. Professor Gimbel's research focuses on the philosophy of science, particularly the nature of scientific reasoning and the ways that science and culture interact. He has published many scholarly articles and four books, including Einstein's Jewish Science: Physics at the Intersection of Politics and Religion; and Einstein: His Space and Times. His books have been highly praised in periodicals such as The New York Review of Books, Physics Today, and The New York Times, which applauded his skill as "an engaging writer...[taking] readers on enlightening excursions...wherever his curiosity leads."

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