The Great Questions of Philosophy and Physics

Rated 5 out of 5 by from Superb! A very enriching and informative series. Well laid out, and thought provoking content. Whether curious about physics or philosophy, well worth the attention
Date published: 2020-10-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from First Rate and Fascinating! As a retired engineer, catching up on subjects that I never before had a chance to consider, this is a fine introduction to the basic questions that have bedeviled thinkers since the time of Aristotle. This year, I struggled to get through the first chapters of Introduction to Elementary Particles (2nd Edition, Griffiths, 2010). Professor Gimbel’s course provides useful context for this endeavor, especially the mystery of why mathematics is such a useful tool for dealing with the observable world. My wife, who knows nothing of mathematics and physics, sat through the twelve lectures with me and was fascinated. Gimbel is an excellent speaker and humorist. Yes, there are jokes ⸺and good ones. My brain has been wired for classical mechanics for so long that the concepts of quantum entanglement (Verschränkung) and the Schrödinger's cat thought experiment seem out-of-this-world weird ⸺and the Professor does a good job of explaining just how strange quantum mechanics can be. Altogether, a very satisfactory lecture series. HWF, Mesa AZ.
Date published: 2020-10-09
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Never Mind the Why and Wherefore This is the second course that I have taken from Dr. Gimbel, the other being “An Introduction to Formal Logic”. I found the course in logic to be quite interesting and sometimes a bit challenging. I think that it is helpful in that course to have at least a modest background in logic. Certainly I found the latter part of the course to be difficult to grasp without some consideration. Just so with this course. While it is not necessary to have studied physics or philosophy in order to understand what is going on, it is most definitely helpful. Professor Gimbel’s lecture style, while informal, is on the quick side. Add to that is the shortness of the course (12 lectures) meaning much explanation and background is missing. I think most taking this course will need to fill in missing information, as some explanations that are of necessity, so brief as to be misleading. But not entirely, as there is a fair amount of time given, for example to wave/particle phenomena of light. But as there is much to cover, it will be helpful to have familiarity with things like the “standard model”, which is passed over as quickly as some of those particles decay. And it is not only the science, but also the philosophy. Even though Professor Gimbel gives quite a bit of time to this area, it is easier to keep up if one has some familiarity with logical positivism and the ilk. But even if you have some formal education, some of the questions raised are most difficult—perhaps profound. For example, lecture 7, “Are Atoms Real?” was fairly easy from the scientific perspective, not so much as when the discussion turns to “constructive empiricism” and a discussion as if we can consider anything real. But all is not obscure. The lecture on Schrodinger’s Cat and its implications makes the both “alive and dead” as comprehensible as any explanation I’ve seen. As mentioned, Professor Gimbel (he refers to himself as “Steve”) is both casual and rapid. I like his humor, though some reviewers have not. For example he ends one troublesome lecture and a quandry with a blank screen, something I found appropriate and delightful. On the other hand, I hated the set. I found the bright, almost garish colors to be off-putting at best and distracting from the points being made at worst. I’d have liked this course better, if it were longer and the theme could have been more tightly developed. As it is, we get a brief tour of modern physics and the issues raised. Beginning with Newton up to quantum mechanics, philosophical questions are raised and answers are there none. It could not be otherwise, for these kinds of questions. Recommend for those with an interest in one subject or the other.
Date published: 2020-06-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The cat is both alive and dead, welcome to Ph. A very interesting and nice course. I enjoyed very much the lectures regarding the meaning of time.
Date published: 2020-06-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Science Knows Only One Thing This course comes across as an advanced dissertation, but actually addresses our most basic scientific assumptions. It is presented clearly and provocatively. The first 15 minutes of the first lecture are unusually enticing and tightly edited, sketching the complex issues to follow and the history that generated them with deft simplicity. Gimbel succinctly explains how we have relied for a century on two modes of thought that are not compatible. As usual in such confusing situations, we have the option to fall back on God, at least those with an intact sense of wonder. The realization is that, scientifically, we know nothing except that our predictive models work.
Date published: 2020-06-13
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Fairly interesting, but not great This course by Dr. Steven Gimbel is fairly interesting, but not great. Professor Gimbel's presentation is excellent, but the course itself contains too much gobbledegook terminology and conceptual obfuscations. As the great physicist Richard Feynman once observed, physicists are hands-on explorers, while philosophers are merely spectators. Feynman's words are still apropos.
Date published: 2020-06-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from down the rabbit hole Professor Gimbel leads us into an adventure where up is down, black is white, true is false, and so on, conditions of the science of physics as it is understood today after the probing ruminations of some its greatest thinkers - you'll need your thinking cap on, however, the concepts are not easy, but the trip, and it is indeed a trip, is utterly delightful thanks to the professor's engaging presentation, with the cherry on top of his unexpected, and quirky, sense of humour
Date published: 2020-06-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Course !!! At last TGC got back to some heavy weight ideas and issues. I enjoyed this class so much. A perfect balance between philosophy and physics, very interesting insight covering history of prominent ideas and theories, multi angel approach to issues. Most importantly Professor Gimbel talks about very complex issues with very easy and plain language inserting his great sense of humor. I just loved this class and I "PreOrder" any future classes delivered by Professor Gimble.
Date published: 2020-05-28
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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.


Johns Hopkins University


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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