Human Understanding and Aspiration in a Material World

Instructors:
Peter Beckmann, Department of Physics
Sandra Berwind, Department of English
Paul Grobstein, Department of Biology
Gale Hemeter, Department of English

A consideration of the similarities, complementarities , and differences between scientific and literary perspectives on the human condition, with a focus on such questions as the nature of truth and reality, and the relation between physical reality and the pictures of it generated by the human brain.

Sections of this course meet together on Tuesdays and individually on Thursdays. Topics below refer to Tuesday meetings. Readings are to be prepared for the following Thursday and Tuesday sessions

1. (9/2) Introduction

    Snow, The Two Cultures

What is the fundamental distinction between the two cultures about which Snow writes?

2. (9/9) Scientific Method

    Abbot, Flatland

What is it that compels the acceptance of a new understanding by Flatland's narrator?

3. (9/16) Humanistic Method

    Brecht, Life of Galileo, Wallace Stevens' The Snowman

Find a difficulty in The Snowman, and make sense of it by relating it to other aspects of the poem.

4. (9/23) Culture Before the Rise of Science

    Brecht, and Hawking, A Brief History of Time

What observations account for Galileo's insistence on asserting a new understanding (first draft)?

5. (9/30) Basic Physics (Space, Time, and Modelling the Physical Universe)

    Hawking
How could Hawking come to a new understanding without any new observations?

6. (10/7) Basic Physics

    Hawking
What observations account for Galileo's insistence on asserting a new understanding (second draft)

7. (10/21) Basic Biology (What is Life?)

    Loren Eiseley, Judgement of the Birds, and Man Against the Universe
What common themes run through Eiseley's two essays?

8. (10/28) Basic Biology (Evolution)

    Sacks, An Anthropologist on Mars
Contrast Brecht's account of Galileo with some second account of his life.

9. (11/4) Brain Functions (Unconscious processing)

    Sacks, and begin Hoeg, Borderliners, and Stoppard, Arcadia
Find a difficulty in Borderliners, and make sense of it using other aspects of the novel (sketch).

10. (11/11) Brain Functions (Conscious processing)

    Hoeg and Stoppard
Find a difficulty in Borderliners, and make sense of it using other aspects of the novel (final).

11. (11/18) Why is there Consciousness?

    Hoeg and Stoppard
Discuss the relation between Sacks' form of writing and the material with which he is dealing.

12 (11/25) From the Individual to the Social

    Hoeg and Stoppard
Select a scene from Arcadia, and discuss its relation to the play as a whole.
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