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Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science

Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science

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Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science

Course No. 4140
Professor Steven Gimbel, Ph.D.
Gettysburg College
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4.6 out of 5
53 Reviews
90% of reviewers would recommend this series
Course No. 4140
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What Will You Learn?

  • Understand how the concept of relativity came to be, and how it has changed over time.
  • Learn how psychology and sociology have had a major impact in defining reality.
  • Discover what the future of reality might hold with the advent of virtual reality.

Course Overview

No subject is bigger than reality itself, and nothing is more challenging to understand, since what counts as reality is undergoing continual revision and has been for centuries. For example, the matter that comprises all stars, planets, and living things turns out to be just a fraction of what actually exists. Moreover, we think that we control our actions, but data gathering systems can predict, with astonishing accuracy, when we will get up in the morning, what items we will buy, and even whom we will marry.

The quest to pin down what's real and what's illusory is both philosophical and scientific. At its core, it is nothing less than the metaphysical search for ultimate reality that goes back to the ancient Greeks. And for the last 400 years, this search has been increasingly guided by scientists, who create theories and test them in order to define reality and then redefine it as new theories replace old.

In physics, biology, psychology, economics, and many other fields, defining reality is a task that needs frequent updates. Consider these once solid facts that were later thrown into doubt:

  • Space and time: Nothing is more real to us than our experience of space and time, which is why one of the greatest revolutions in human thought is Einstein's discovery that these two seemingly stable features of the universe are surprisingly fluid in ways that defy common sense.
  • Matter: It seems obvious that matter down to the smallest scale should have measurable properties: it's either here or there, it's spinning this way or that. But quantum mechanics shows that subatomic particles are in many places and states at the same time - until you measure them.
  • Mathematics: What could be more ironclad than the truths of mathematics? Yet in the 1930s, Kurt Godel showed that the field was built on shifting sands - that no set of axioms designed to serve as the foundation of mathematics could be both self-consistent and complete.
  • Life-giving sun: Plants need sunlight; animals eat plants or other animals; therefore all life on Earth ultimately depends on the sun. This seemed indisputable, until scientists discovered colonies of life in the dark ocean depths, feeding on mineral-rich hot fluids from volcanic vents.

When faced with reversals such as these, it's tempting to give up and conclude that nothing will ever be certain. But there's a more rewarding way to look at it, which is that every successful new theory is an improvement on its predecessor, drawing the net ever more tightly around reality, whose form is gradually coming into focus.

Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science gives you the thrill of this exciting quest in 36 wide-ranging lectures that touch on many aspects of the ceaseless search for reality, both scientific and philosophical. From the birth of the universe to brain science, award-winning Professor of Philosophy Steven Gimbel of Gettysburg College shows that separating the real from the illusory is an exhilarating intellectual adventure.

And since dealing with reality is an experience we all share, this course is designed for people of all backgrounds. No prior training in science or philosophy is assumed. Furthermore, the richness of Professor Gimbel's presentation assures that even those who have studied this problem in depth will find new connections and unexpected insights. Dr. Gimbel's thoroughness makes Redefining Reality an unrivaled introduction to key themes in the history of science and philosophy.

The How and Why of Reality

You begin with the contrasting views of two of the most influential philosophers who ever lived: Plato and Aristotle. According to Plato, reality resides in an abstract world of forms that can only be perceived by the mind; while for Aristotle, reality is right here in this world. It was this elevation of the material realm by Aristotle that launched what we think of as science.

Science was part of philosophy until the 16th and 17th centuries. The turning point came with Isaac Newton's laws of motion and principle of universal gravitation, which showed that the world is governed by natural laws. Newton's supremely successful mathematical theory established science as a separate mode of inquiry and provided a model for the ambitions of all future scientists. Henceforth, science was devoted to explaining how the world works. Speculation about why it works the way it does remained the province of philosophy.

A striking case of when a philosophical subject suddenly became scientific occurred in 1965, with the discovery of the fossil radio signal from the big bang, the moment when the universe can be said to have begun. Before this discovery, the notion of a beginning to time was largely theological. After, it was a scientific problem that could be quantified and explored in detail. In Redefining Reality, you examine scores of similar examples of reality in transition, including these:

  • Ghost in a machine: Traditionally, doctors saw the human body as a closed system inhabited by a soul - a "ghost in a machine." The discovery of disease-causing microbes led to a new paradigm: the body as a fortress under attack. Today there's a revised view: microbes are considered crucial to human life.
  • Economics: Newton's success in physics inspired the field of economics. But attempts to predict the complexities of production, consumption, and trade defied exact mathematical analysis. Recent theories have revised our view of economic reality by factoring in the human tendency for irrational economic choices.
  • Artificial intelligence: Can machines think? One current view is that a machine capable of human-like responses to questions would indeed have a mind. But philosopher John Searle's famous "Chinese Room" thought experiment suggests that the imitation of outward behavior is not enough to constitute a mind.
  • Free will: One outcome of today's revolution in big data is that computers can now predict what individuals will do in many situations, including who is likely to commit a crime. These techniques challenge the age-old belief that we have free will - that our actions are the result of deliberate personal choices.

The Art of Reality

Scientists and philosophers are not alone in grappling at an intellectual level with reality. Some of the most accessible interpretations are by painters, novelists, filmmakers, and other artists, whose works not only draw on the latest discoveries but also sometimes inspire them. Professor Gimbel includes examples in practically every lecture, such as the following:

  • Alice in Wonderland: Written by mathematician Charles Dodgson (whose pen name was Lewis Carroll), Alice's adventures can be read as an investigation of the paradoxical worlds that are possible when logic is set loose. Wonderland represents the death of the rationalist project.
  • Pointillism, cubism, and surrealism: These new modes of representation in the visual arts arose concurrently with the triumph of the atomic theory of matter and the radical new picture of reality offered by relativity and quantum mechanics.
  • Reality TV: The legacy of Darwin and his successors pervades one of modern media's most popular genres: reality television. From Survivor to Top Chef, these unscripted shows illustrate such Darwinian ideas as survival of the fittest and creative adaptation.
  • Hybrids and chimeras: Ancient myths spanning many cultures depict winged horses, minotaurs, mermaids, griffins, and other impossible crosses between different creatures. These stories prefigure today's real hybrids produced by genetic engineering.

A distinguished teacher, scholar, and author, Professor Gimbel has a gift for giving clear and concise explanations of concepts that can be notoriously difficult, such as special and general relativity, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, Godel's incompleteness theorem, chaos theory, and string theory. He also has a detective's instincts for connecting the dots, marshaling evidence to spotlight historical trends. One trend that you will learn about in Redefining Reality is the gradual redefinition of humans, for we have developed the power to alter our own reality in major ways - to defeat diseases, compensate for disabilities, enhance our mental well-being, and augment our intellect with computers. Where is that trend going? Take this fascinating course to find out.

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36 lectures
 |  30 minutes each
  • 1
    Metaphysics and the Nature of Science
    Start with the metaphysical concept of reality and how it led to a scientific worldview. Then see how the scientific picture of reality changes as theories are refined or overthrown. Explore examples such as the germ theory of disease and philosopher Thomas Kuhn's influential idea of paradigm shifts. x
  • 2
    Defining Reality
    Take a step back to define reality as understood by the ancient Greeks. Then work your way forward through revolutionary ideas about reality proposed by Plato, Aristotle, Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and finally Newton, who inspired the Age of Enlightenment. Close with the Romantic backlash of the 19th century. x
  • 3
    Mathematics in Crisis
    The most secure science, mathematics, hit the rocks of uncertainty in the 19th and 20th centuries. Trace the shocking discoveries of non-Euclidean geometries, Cantor's paradoxes of infinite sets, and the incompleteness theorem of Kurt Godel. See how Alice in Wonderland sheds intriguing light on this new view of reality. x
  • 4
    Special Relativity
    Until 1905, physical reality consisted of absolute space, absolute time, and the luminiferous aether. Learn how Einstein's special theory of relativity overthrew this deeply ingrained view and heralded an entirely new conception of reality. Examine how cultural figures such as Kurt Vonnegut drew on this legacy. x
  • 5
    General Relativity
    Relativity was incomplete until Einstein formulated a general theory of relativity that incorporated gravity. See how this breakthrough demolished the age-old idea of gravity as a force, replacing it with the concept of warped spacetime, leading to strange predictions such as black holes. x
  • 6
    Big Bang Cosmology
    Investigate the underlying reality that governs the universe. Is the universe eternally the same? Or is it changing and unstable? In modern times, this debate culminated in the contest between the steady state theory and the big bang model. Hear how unexpected events led to a spectacular solution. x
  • 7
    The Reality of Atoms
    Atoms are the bedrock of ordinary matter, but a century ago many scientists were very reluctant to accept their existence, despite growing evidence that chemical elements come in countable units. Investigate the backstory of the atomic hypothesis, and witness its triumph and the complications that ensued. x
  • 8
    Quantum Mechanics
    Delve into the paradoxical subject of quantum mechanics, which was pioneered by scientists probing atomic structure in the early 20th century. Learn about Max Planck, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and Erwin Schrodinger. Focus on the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and the strange behavior of the Schrodinger wave function. x
  • 9
    Quantum Field Theory
    See how quantum field theory led to a stunning synthesis called the standard model of particle physics, which was confirmed by the 2012 discovery of the Higgs boson. Study the startling implications of this theory for our understanding of reality. Close by examining its impact on the visual arts. x
  • 10
    Chaos Theory
    Traditional attempts to understand the world assumed that it was regular, simple, periodic, and predictable. But nature surprised scientists, giving them a richer picture of reality through chaos theory, which includes fractal structures. Learn how chaos is not randomness but a previously unimagined complexity within the universe. x
  • 11
    Dark Matter and Dark Energy
    What happens when the accepted picture of reality is dramatically overthrown? Watch this happen in the late 20th century, when scientists suddenly discovered two completely unexpected phenomena: dark matter and dark energy, which together dwarf the contribution of ordinary matter to the cosmos. x
  • 12
    Grand Unified Theories
    Since its earliest days, science has been on a mission to unite disparate phenomena under the umbrella of more comprehensive theories. Follow the search for a grand unified theory (GUT) that unifies the workings of quantum forces, and a theory of everything (TOE) that quantizes gravity. One current TOE candidate is string theory. x
  • 13
    Quantum Consciousness
    Can physics explain consciousness? Start with Descartes, who held the dualistic view that the mind and body are separate, and see how materialists countered that brain processes produce the mind. Then discover what physics has to say about free will, and probe the famous thought experiment involving Schrodinger's cat. x
  • 14
    Defining Reality in the Life Sciences
    Study one of the most complete transformations of reality in history: the new picture of life that emerged from the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. Close by tracing their influence on William Golding's Lord of the Flies and on television reality shows. x
  • 15
    Genes and Identity
    The mechanism that drives evolution was not discovered until long after Darwin's death. Follow the clues that led researchers first to the cell nucleus, then to chromosomes and genes, and finally to the DNA molecule as the agent of heredity. Close by weighing the role of genetics in determining human identity. x
  • 16
    The Birth of Psychology
    The quest to understand human behavior inspired researchers to study the mind. Investigate the theories of Sigmund Freud, who gave the world a new vocabulary, including concepts like ego, id, and superego. Learn how Freud's legacy has been especially enduring in the horror film genre. x
  • 17
    Jung and the Behaviorists
    Trace the different directions psychology took before World War II. Carl Jung extended Freud's ideas to encompass a universal collective unconscious. Meanwhile, the behaviorists rejected the mind to focus on observable behavior, an approach that had profound influence on advertising and public relations. x
  • 18
    The Rediscovery of the Mind
    The Holocaust raised troubling questions about the mind and its relation to authority. Examine three landmark experiments that tested the limits of human autonomy and came to shocking conclusions: Solomon Asch's group think study, Stanley Milgram's obedience study, and Philip Zimbardo's Stanford prison study. x
  • 19
    The Caring Brain
    Freudian psychology sees mothers as the wellspring of neuroses. Contrast this view with Harry Harlow's groundbreaking studies of maternal caregiving and Carol Gilligan's theory of differing moral development in females and males. Close with a powerful precursor to Gilligan's ideas: Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein. x
  • 20
    Brain and Self
    What makes us distinctly human? Analyze the contributions of genetics, environmental factors, and social interaction to our effective functioning as members of the species. See how CT, MRI, and PET imaging technologies provide windows into brain structure and activity. x
  • 21
    Evolutionary Psychology
    If the human brain is the result of evolutionary processes, then many shared psychological traits must have adaptive advantages. Explore this intriguing view, known as evolutionary psychology. See how it can be illustrated by a simple logic problem, which perplexes most people until they tap into their innate skill for detecting cheaters. x
  • 22
    The Birth of Sociology
    Culture imprints itself on our brains through the process of socialization. Investigate the insights that sociology provides - from the 19th-century founder of the discipline, Auguste Comte, to Herbert Spencer, Karl Marx, and Emile Durkheim, who suggested that crime has an unappreciated positive role in society. x
  • 23
    Competition and Cooperation
    In the early 20th century, one of the most popular words in book titles was crisis," reflecting a widespread anxiety about a rapidly changing world. Study contrasting assessments of the stability of society from sociologists Max Weber, Pyotr Kropotkin, and Ferdinand Tonnies, as well as the influential analysis by industrialist Andrew Carnegie." x
  • 24
    Race and Reality
    What differences between groups are real, and what differences are as arbitrary as a political boundary? Address this question regarding race, which less than a century ago was considered firmly rooted in biological reality. Trace the evidence that led this view to be conclusively overthrown. x
  • 25
    Social Progress
    Continue your investigation of social reality by looking at the concept of progress. Social optimists and pessimists alike believe that society is progressing, but they see different causes. Evaluate their theories, and explore the idea that Western culture is doomed to collapse under its own weight. x
  • 26
    The Reality of Money
    For all of its abstractness, money is a powerfully real phenomenon. Delve into the intricate events that unfold as money, goods, and services are exchanged in the economy. Examine how the ideas of John Maynard Keynes and the results of modern psychological research challenge the two primary assumptions of classical economic theory. x
  • 27
    The Origin of Life
    Apply the reality-analyzing tools you've learned in the course to the problem of life. Consider the close connection between life and sunlight. Then look at the startling exception to this rule: the fauna that flourish around volcanic vents in the dark ocean depths. What does this tell us about life's origins? x
  • 28
    Exoplanets and Extraterrestrial Life
    Fiction writers have led the way in exploring the prospects of life beyond Earth. See how scientists are catching up, looking for extraterrestrial organisms using a variety of ingenious techniques. Learn how they are narrowing the search and which tantalizing clues have already turned up. x
  • 29
    Technology and Death
    Reality for the individual ends at death. But medical technology is making that endpoint increasingly hard to define. Consider what it means to die and the complications that would ensue if we developed brain transplants or found the secret of immortality. x
  • 30
    Cloning and Identity
    Modern technology has transformed procreation, birth, and parenting. Given the different donor and surrogate options, it's perfectly possible to have a child with five biologically contributing parents. What are the implications of this revolution, especially if human cloning becomes the next new option? x
  • 31
    Genetic Engineering
    Explore the history of genetic engineering, which has roots in the imaginary hybrid creatures of ancient myth. Learn how real hybrids can be made by splicing genes for desired traits into the genome of an organism. Then discover how this brave new technology is being used. x
  • 32
    Medically Enhanced Humans
    With the availability of cosmetic surgery, psychoactive chemicals, performance enhancing drugs, and other treatments, people are now free to redefine themselves in order to overcome their limitations. Probe a trend that is rapidly transforming what it means to be human. x
  • 33
    Transhumans: Making Living Gods
    Prosthetics, eyeglasses, and other aids were once seen as less-than-ideal substitutes for normal human abilities. But now technology can enhance us well beyond what's considered normal. Examine the superhuman traits currently available and those on the drawing board. Has the era of the cyborg arrived? x
  • 34
    Artificial Intelligence
    Trace the evolution of artificial intelligence (AI) from simple calculating machines to computers that can vanquish chess masters. Learn the distinction between weak AI, such as a chess-playing machine, and strong AI, which is a machine that has a truly human-like mind. Question whether strong AI is even possible. x
  • 35
    The Internet and Virtual Reality
    For all of their ubiquity, personal computers, email, and the Internet represent a major departure in the evolution of computer technology. Witness the exciting and improbable birth of personal computing in the 1970s, and explore the nature of the virtual world where more and more people now reside. x
  • 36
    Data Analytics
    Today's networked culture is a dream come true for researchers in fields from marketing to sociology to epidemiology. Learn how big data puts potentially everyone and everything under the microscope of analysis, creating a comprehensive view of the intricate reality in which we are all mere atoms. x

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Steven Gimbel

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Steven Gimbel, Ph.D.
Gettysburg College
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...
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Reviews

Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 52.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from History rather than philosophy The title of this course may lead one to think it is a philosophical discussion on how humankind's concept of reality has changed as modern science has progressed over recent years (from 1900 on). However this is not the case. There is some discussion of the "redefinition of reality" however most of the lectures are a historical survey of the new sciences since around 1900. This lecture course is not that different from Prof. Steven Goldman's "Science in the 20th Century: A Social-Intellectual Survey". Both are equally good. I think this course is a bit more up-to-date than Prof. Goldman's. In general, it is a pretty good overview of the development of modern science, but don't expect too much discussion of the philosophical aspects of how the advancement in science has impacted our concept of reality.
Date published: 2017-05-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting and entertaining I usually buy history CD's from The Great Courses and have only done a few in science and philosophy, so I was worried this course might be difficult for me. The professor was interesting and I found his lectures easy to understand. It was helpful to me from a historical perspective as well, understanding how ideas from science have shape popular values and understandings.
Date published: 2017-05-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very I sightful Good course. The professor is very knowledgeable and speaks well. Shows a common thread running through our method of umdetstanding the subject matter of all the sciences
Date published: 2017-04-30
Rated 4 out of 5 by from I bought this course to get an overview of religious thinking. It accomplished this task. The imprecise jargon of theologians and philosophers was a barrier to lay understanding. I did feel that the presenter should have maintained more impartiality rather than adding personal comments when he came to the sections on modern atheists and the possibility of rationally justifying religion in general.
Date published: 2017-03-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An excellent integration of different strands Unlike some others who have reviewed this course, I wholeheartedly endorse Prof. Gimble's approach. He moves through time and among various disciplines to demonstrate the structure of how we come to terms with what we define as "real." It isn't a grand unified theory, as some allege, but a coherent and illuminating investigation of premises and conclusions as they move through the development of systems. Well worth the time.
Date published: 2017-01-24
Rated 4 out of 5 by from no other comments
Date published: 2016-12-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Where Science Meets Philosophy This course is truly an inspirational journey to the frontier of modern science; A place where the scientific method is, by itself, insufficient to explain the discoveries being made throughout the range of the cosmological-quantum scale. No, science must be infused with a philosophical perspective to not only provide a rational explanation but to determine how to proceed ... to develop the "next steps" in scientific investigation. This is truly an exceptional course in all respects; From the well-organized content that flows seamlessly from topic to topic, to the informative -- even entertaining -- presentation of complex ideas in non-technical language that even the non-scientist (and, for that matter, the non-philosopher) can understand and learn. Professor Steven Gimbel's lecturing style is as close to perfection as this "old-guy" has ever experienced. In every respect, from his clear speaking voice to his cadence to his effective use of humor and vernacular to explain complex ideas, Professor Gimbel excels. I purchased this new course because I was intrigued by the course outline (which exceeds my expectations), but the "icing on the cake" is the presentation of the course material by Professor Gimbel. Thank you, The Teaching Company, and thank you, Professor Gimbel, for a most delightul experience. Glenn Aro Auburn, California
Date published: 2016-11-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Essential for Humans; Useful for Cyborgs My first review of this course was rejected, and I'm not sure why. It was the best review I have ever written, and I don't think this second one will compare to it. And I was so shattered by getting rejected that I don't know if I have it in me to continue writing. But I'll try, so here is goes: This is a very good course about how the sciences, including the physical, biological, social, and mathematical ones, have caused us human beings to rethink what we call real. The basic organizing principle is that scientific thought has progressed from particulars to relationships between particulars to fields in which particulars are mere modes. At least that's what I understood. Lots of examples from physics to math to sociology. I was worried that I wouldn't understand all of the science, but Steve Gimbel explained it in such a way that even someone like me could grasp it. I barely have self-awareness, so that should tell you something about Steve Gimbel's skills as a teacher. There are lots of cultural references (to film, art, and literature) that help clarify what Steve was saying. Steve also tells some jokes that are okay. I bet he could be funnier if he wanted to, but the Great Courses probably told him to stick to the script. We're not paying you to tell jokes, Steve. That's probably what they said. I watched the video, but I think the audio probably would be okay, too. In the video, the "classroom" seems a bit strange to me. There is a bookcase with a plant on the bottom shelf. How is it supposed to get enough light down there? I wouldn't have been distracted by that had I only listened to the audio. One other thing: I watched these episodes in 30 minutes or one-hour increments. You don't have to watch this series (18 hours) all the way through in one sitting in order to understand it. I also bought Steve's course on formal logic. I might watch that soon because I liked this one so much.
Date published: 2016-11-22
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