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Instructor Class Description

Time Schedule:

Paul Boynton
CHID 270
Seattle Campus

Special Topics

Each special topics course examines a different subject or problem from a comparative framework.

Class description

--- SCIENCE, MAGIC, AND THE PASSAGE TO MODERNITY --- CHID 270A Autumn 2013 (5 credits) SLNs 12219, 12220, 12221


Taking a long view of Western civilization, science, and philosophy, one may wonder how we came to our current state of modernity's starkly materialist flavor in contrast with the mystical richness of pre-Enlightenment conceptions of the natural world. In Science, Magic and the Passage to Modernity (SMPM), we trace a circuitous path from antiquity to our current, modern worldview by examining the historical/philosophical roots of the culture of scientific inquiry. That is, how human experience/perception of the physical world has been interpreted in four historical periods: classical antiquity, Hellenism, the late Renaissance, and the early Twentieth Century. In doing so, we discover not only the success and power of our modern way of knowing the world of matter and energy, but also its inherent limitations and self-imposed boundaries that become evident when attempting to extend this vision to accommodate the full range of human experience.

Through these four historical periods we pursue the philosophical response to two natural phenomena that were eventually seen as closely related: 1) the visible complexity of planetary motion in the night sky, and 2) terrestrial gravitation. Studying the history of approaches to solving the puzzle posed by these basic observations of nature provides key insights to how we have come to our current perception of the natural world, and may offer hints to how that perception might be expressed in the future.

The wide-ranging topics covered in this history of ideas will borrow heavily on and directly inform concepts you have already met or will encounter in literature, history, and philosophy classes during your academic adventures at the UW. You may be surprised by the foundational connections between the intellectual structure of modern science and a number of seemingly peripheral issues: Pre-Socratic concerns regarding the distinction between belief and knowledge, the tension between thought and experience that pervade classical natural philosophy, Hellenism's retreat from reason, late medieval Scholasticism, Renaissance magic, Cartesian dualism, Baconian induction, Newton's towering but schizophrenic intellect, and Einstein's surprisingly Pythagorean vision. These are but a few elements in an intriguing story of rationally disciplined human creativity that recounts the emergence of modern science and the scientific underpinnings of modernity. Join us for the telling.

SMPM is intended for liberal arts students, not for science majors. Although this is a course about the history of physical science, familiarity with only the most elementary aspects of high school algebra and geometry is presumed. Reasoning and critical thinking, on the other hand, will be fully exercised. Also, some background in the history and/or philosophy of the Western world is assumed. Class participation will comprise 15% of the grade, written assignments 40%, a research paper 20%, mid-term and final exam scores 10 and 15% respectively.

There are no required textbooks or monographs for this course. Reading materials will be linked to the course web site.

Paul Boynton Physics, Box 351560

Student learning goals

Honors 220C/CHID 270A, Autumn 2013


According to Albert Einstein, the greatest cosmological mystery is not the origin and nature of our Universe of stars and galaxies, but that we have gained any scientific knowledge of these matters at all. Think about it. Why did we as a species even think to ask such questions? How did we acquire that knowledge? Does our knowledge correspond to the "true" nature of the Cosmos? Does our understanding have some measure of meaning? Moreover, the intellectually sophisticated ontological and epistemological questions that lie behind or beyond the physical nature of existence (i.e. metaphysical concerns) were actually recognized as unavoidable even at the beginning of the ancient Presocratic quest for a rational understanding of the natural World undertaken roughly 25 centuries ago.* How amazing is that?

The extant historical record indicates that the idea of positing that the constitution of the Cosmos could be understood through observation and rational inquiry was pursued for the first time in the bustling Ionian seaport town of Miletus on the Aegean coast of Anatolia around the middle of the 6th century BCE. That singular event marks where and when Western natural philosophy began (that is, the task of making sense of observations of the natural world), and to which we trace the earliest roots of modern science. That such an idea arose within a culture completely comfortable with the received, anthropocentric cosmology populated by mythic gods of legendary powers and very human flaws is even more astounding. What are the connections between this radical (even heretical), 6th-century vision of the Cosmos, and the character of modern science? As mentioned in the course description, Science, Magic and the Passage to Modernity is a narrative, a chronicle of a series of milestones in a fascinating history of ideas beginning with that Milesian School of natural philosophy. This quest to build knowledge of an ordered Cosmos continues in fits and starts for more than 20 centuries before old and new ideas were re-imagined and re-presented in such a fashion that their astonishing productivity in accounting for natural phenomena became the engine of the Enlightenment, of the industrial revolution, and of modern science; hence, a chronicle that illuminates the onset of the modern era.

By examining historically the philosophical roots of this persistent preoccupation with finding sense and meaning, we illuminate the sources of a culture of scientific inquiry that begins to emerge in the late Renaissance and flowers during the Enlightenment. Foremost among these sources is a surprising mix of magic, materialism, and a new epistemological methodology.

In pursuit of these ideas, you (the student) should be mindful of the challenges presented by the following higher-level learning goals that your TAs and I want you to strive toward:

1. The major goal of this course is to have students recognize natural philosophy (referred to as "science" only since the latter decades of the 19th c.) to be closely linked to arts and letters up through the Enlightenment, as well as connected to the mystical (even magical) traditions of the previous two millennia. We will try to convince you that the heir to all these influences on natural philosophy, modern science, remains every bit as imaginative and creative as any other scholarly or even artistic pursuit, albeit in a carefully disciplined fashion.

2. Only in those last decades of the 19th c. does a communication wall become evident between physical sciences and the humanities. The second goal is to help penetrate that wall built on the perception that scientific thinking is, for the uninitiated, unfathomable or at the least, arcane. It is a fact that scientists perceive and make sense of the physical World with a methodology that is necessarily based on carefully chosen ontological and epistemological fundamentals. The key to meeting this second goal is to grasp the necessity of these choices, which is clarified by understanding the broader historical context in which these fundamentals were refined.

In this course, the scientific method is presented in its original, non-mathematical, 17th c. form using simple, intuitive examples. In this way, non-science majors can come to appreciate that this approach is carefully crafted to build knowledge of the natural, physical world. Moreover, applications are described in some detail demonstrating its spectacular success in the employ of Isaac Newton. Hence the desired outcome is for students to recognize that the creativity proclaimed in the first goal, although highly disciplined by this method, only increases the demand on our scientific imagination.

3. The third goal is that humanities students may come to value important historical linkages between science and the humanities within their own experience by encountering in this course historical figures, events and concepts that are already familiar to them in the context of their studies in other courses, and then to have these concepts suddenly take on deeper meaning because of these revealed connections. In this way, science may be brought into sharper focus when viewed within the broader scope of human experience revealed through liberal learning. Science might thereby be seen as part of our culture, not an external agent that drives cultural norms and expectations. As such, a continuing dialog between the humanities and sciences is essential to the success of the modern enterprise.

4. Much of this course is about a history of ideas associated with the phenomenon of celestial motion and its eventual, 17th c. reformulation as a manifestation of "universal gravitation." On a higher level, however, it is also about the importance of critical thinking and the realization that "the right answer" is a relative concept --- not only historically, but even within the carefully proscribed activity of modern science. One finds the crucial step toward success in all rational inquiry is to formulate the "right" question in the context at hand. Student internalization of this and other aspects of critical thinking is the fourth goal.

All reading assignments are web-accessible, no book purchases required.

*In this course, capitalization of "World" is to distinguish it from the lesser connotations of the term "world." That is, "World" is given here as synonymous with "Cosmos" and the modern term "Universe." You might then ask what it means when Cosmos and Universe are capitalized---and I would admit this to be a tiresome affectation of cosmologists, those who believe the Cosmos (or Universe) to be the most important concept in the world.

Honors 220C/CHID 270A, Autumn 2013


All reading assignments are web-accessible, no book purchases required.

In a nutshell, to complete this course successfully students must:

- Read approximately 40 pages per week

- Respond in writing to a few questions about each of the eight reading assignments

- Participate actively in biweekly (Tuesday and Friday) discussions/presentations

- Write one 6-8 page research paper due near the end of the quarter

- Take the midterm and final exams

1. PARTICIPATION (15% of final grade): Participation means actively engaging in course conversations, which is difficult without coming to lectures and especially section meetings, as well as reading the assigned texts carefully and completing occasional in-class section assignments that your TAs will provide. The latter may include short writing assignments, student presentations, and peer reviewing of written work. Participation will be scored as excellent, good, below average, or vacuous.

Note: Even one unexcused section absence makes it impossible to receive an excellent score for participation, and three or more unexcused absences will mean no credit (i.e. 0.0) for participation. Plan ahead and clear absences with your TAs ahead of time.

2. WRITTEN ASSIGNMENTS: There are three kinds of written work: reading questions (15%), three projects (totaling 25%), and a research paper (20%). All written work is submitted electronically, if any diagrams are required, they may be hand drawn then scanned. Information specific to each assignment will be provided on the course website.

3. MIDTERM (10%) and FINAL EXAM (15%): The 50-minute midterm will cover topics studied up to roughly a week prior to the exam date. The 110-minute final exam is cumulative but weighted largely to that material presented post mid-term. Both will be composed of a few multi-part questions, most requiring only short responses. Study questions will be posted 10 days before each exam, and the content of all exam questions will refer directly to the study questions. The times and dates of the mid-term and final exams will be posted at the beginning of the quarter---there are no make-up exams.

4. FINAL GRADES: Throughout the quarter, evaluated coursework is given a score from 1 to 10, not a grade on the 4.0 scale. For each such assignment, your numerical 1-10 score will be returned to you with the max, min, mean and standard deviation of scores for the entire class. These numbers will allow you to judge your standing relative to the rest of the class for each assignment. At the end of the quarter, your individual scores for each of the components of the final grade (as reviewed in items 1 to 3 of this list) are properly weighted and summed to produce a raw score. Where your raw score lies in the distribution of raw scores for the entire class will determine your final grade on the standard 4.0 scale.

General method of instruction

Recommended preparation

Class assignments and grading

The information above is intended to be helpful in choosing courses. Because the instructor may further develop his/her plans for this course, its characteristics are subject to change without notice. In most cases, the official course syllabus will be distributed on the first day of class.
Last Update by Paul Boynton
Date: 08/22/2013