Honors | Ancient Science and Modern Superstition
X100 | 2814 | Dickson


We often hear that truly scientific thinking was born in the last few
hundred years, and that in ancient times, theories about the nature of
the world were 'nothing more than' mythology or superstition.  On the
other hand, modern 'science' is supposed to be completely free from
'non-objective' influences such as cultural or philosophical
prejudices. The truth of the matter, however, is far from this common
view.  Many ancient views of the world were as 'scientific' as you
like, by any reasonable definition of the term, and many modern
scientific theories were guided by 'non-scientific' influences.  In
other words, the 'objectivity' that is supposedly found only in modern
science can in fact be found also in ancient theories, and the
'subjectivity' that is supposedly found only in ancient theories can
in fact be found also in modern science.

In this class, we will examine these issues in detail, by considering
several case studies.  Beginning with ancient Mesopotamian astronomy
and astrology, we will learn how ancient societies developed what we
might now call 'scientific theories'.  We will ask what, in those
theories, might be considered 'science', and what might be considered
'superstition', and indeed how we are to tell the difference between
the two.  Other major case studies will include ancient atomism as
found in the extended poem by Lucretius ('On the Nature of Things'),
the Galileo affair as revealed in letters and documents from the
Inquisition, the 19th century science of 'phrenology' and related
studies, and Einstein's theory of relativity.

Students will be expected to come to class prepared to discuss the
readings. In addition, there will be a class project that will involve
writing about 10 pages, a take-home midterm, and a final exam.  (The
precise nature of the final will be determined over the course of the
semester.)  Instruction will be a mixture of lecture, discussion, and
activities in small groups in class.