CHID 270 A: Special Topics

Science, Magic, and the Passage to Modernity
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Section ID: 
Meets GE Requirements: 
Individuals and Societies
Meets Other Requirements: 
Honors Course


Boynton, Paul

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-Renaissance 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 aspects of motion in the heavens, 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, 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.

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.

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

Last updated: April 28, 2016 - 9:11am