Philosophy and the Sciences

I’ve been ramping down my participation in the Coursera MOOCs of late, mainly because I’ve taken just about all of the introductory courses that I can take and because what’s left that I have any interest in is a bit too in-depth for a casual learner like me. But it’s also because as I get older I’m more set in my ways and getting lazier about truly exercising my mind and getting very involved in tricky subjects. This course, the follow-up to the Introduction of Philosophy course from the University of Edinburgh that I took earlier this year, is an unfortunate example.

Like its predecessor, this one features a different set of lecturers for each week. The course is divided into two parts with the first one being devoted to cosmology and the second one being about the theory of mind. As usual there is a multiple-choice question quiz after each set of lectures but full completion of this course also requires doing peer-assessed written homework and active participation in the forums. There is a homework question which requires an essay-style answer for each of the two parts of the course and students are required to write a minimum of four posts on the official forums.

The central idea of this course is that each topic is covered both by a philosopher and a scientist. The scientist’s job is to explain what the leading scientific theory of the issue in question is while the philosopher’s job is to examine both the philosophical issues that arise out of that scientific theory and how we can know that this theory and not some other theory could provide the best explanation. In practice, this works well at the beginning of the course as the philosopher of the week tries to include the philosophy of science in the overall picture which to some extent is successful in convincing me that the shift from  one scientific paradigm to another doesn’t happen without examination and criticism from philosophers. But this becomes less and less true as the course progresses until the philosopher is as much a cheerleader for the leading scientific theories of the day as the scientist.

I think it isn’t a coincidence that the lecture videos of the first part of the course, covering cosmology, also run longer and therefore have richer content. I especially liked how both of the lecturers in Week 3 worked together to propose alternative theories that wouldn’t require the existence of Dark Matter and Dark Energy and what these would entail. The conclusion remains of course that as elusive as these two entities are, they are still the best bets since alternative explanations seem so unreasonable but it’s very illuminating to watch the lecturers work towards this conclusion. The contrast with the final two or three weeks is marked as these lectures merely introduce the latest scientific ideas with hardly any philosophy involved.

My wife who followed along with watching the videos, accused me of taking courses about things that I already mostly knew about, which is sort of true. There were some cool bits which were new to me, such as the very neat McGurk Effect and I really appreciated how thoroughly this course explained the significance of the Anthropic Principle which as the introduction here stated had always seemed like an exercise in tautology to me. But for the most part, this was a refresher course for me even if I needed the reminder for many of the topics. That’s another contributing factor to why I found it hard to muster the enthusiasm to do the peer-assessed homework or engage much in the forums.

Still, apart from the drop in quality towards the end of the course, this is as good an online course on philosophy as anything I can imagine. The lecturers are top-rate, the topics are interesting and staff actively participate in forum discussions and there’s even a weekly video that roughly sums up each week’s worth of discussion and provides some answers. I’d have been wildly crazy about this course if it had been available to me when I was in my 20s. For me in the present day, it’s just that I’d have greatly preferred a course that was more focused, one about the philosophy and history of science for example, or about the philosophy of mind specifically, instead of a broad catch-all of various topics.

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