Concepts of Matter: A Brief Philosophical History of the Concept of Matter
Fall 2015 Section: 01
Crosslisting: PHIL 310
In this course, we will explore changing notions of matter in Western thought from classical Greek thought through the quantum revolution in physics, and philosophical debates about their implications. We will begin with views of matter in Plato, Aristotle, and the ancient atomists and how they were interrelated with views of human beings: the devaluation of matter and the body in the Platonistic and Gnostic thought, the perhaps surprisingly positive attitude taken toward death without a hope of continued existence by the materialist Lucretius, and the appropriation of Aristotle’s hylomorphic philosophy into Christian theology and Scholastic science in the late middle ages. We will then look at the emergence of a conception of “material substance” in the 17th century, examining the differences between the mathematical formulations of Galileo and Descartes and those of atomists such as Gassendi. The remainder of the section will focus on the rise of materialism and reactions against it: Descartes and Hobbes on the question of whether human beings are merely machines, the Newton-Leibniz debate about the activity of God in nature, Laplace’s demon and the deterministic interpretation of classical mechanics, and the 19th-century reactions of romanticism and spiritualism. Finally, we will examine the radical and counterintuitive changes in the notion of matter occasioned by quantum mechanics, as well as interpretations that put consciousness and subjectivity back into the collapse of the wave function. We will consider whether contemporary physics really has the kind of notion of “material substance” needed for a traditional form of materialism before concluding with readings from philosophers and physicists in the recent revivals of dualism and panpsychism.
Credit: 1 Gen Ed Area Dept: HA PHIL
Course Format: Seminar Grading Mode: Graded