What do we know? How do we know it? Can we even know anything at all?
First-years in the Knowledge, Skepticism, and Science tutorial weren’t afraid to begin their Grinnell careers tackling some of humanity’s most basic questions.
Jordan Hellmann ’16 was attracted to the course because of “the radical nature of the subject matter. We examine some of the fundamental ideas of Western thought — such as the concept of knowledge and science as a method of gaining knowledge.”
Hellmann says, “The first segment of the course was devoted to an analysis of philosophical skepticism, the idea that knowledge itself is impossible.” From that start, John Fennell, associate professor of philosophy, challenged students to answer the skeptics.
Fennell encourages his tutorial students to draw from both philosophy and science. Each approach to building knowledge, he says, has something to offer the other.
“Science requires that the beliefs and theories that it counts as knowledge are verified by experience. In this way science can rein in unbridled philosophical speculation,” says Fennell. “However, philosophy can police science, too. Science may claim ‘we don’t make stuff up; we don’t wildly speculate.’ But philosophy points out that many of the entities that science talks about, e.g., protons, quarks, etc., we don’t actually see. They are theoretical entities inferred to explain what we do see. The problem is that in highly theoretical scientific fields more than one theory may be equally well-substantiated by experience.
“Many think that modern natural science constitutes knowledge, if any discipline does,” he continues. “However, philosophers such as David Hume in the 18th century and Thomas Kuhn in the 20th century argue that scientific reasoning and theory choice are far from purely rational. Kuhn’s position, though, is subtle; rather than accusing science of wholesale irrationalism, he is suggesting we re-think scientific truth and reason as the consensus reached by the community of scientific inquirers informed by values such as predictive accuracy, explanatory unity, coherence, and simplicity. Philosophy has begun to participate in and partner with science.”
Hellmann sees the connections already. “Professor Fennell's course overlaps with all of my classes except German. Some of the basic logical ideas that we've discussed in his course have also appeared in discussions of proofs and statements of theorems in my Linear Algebra course.”
Maybe that explains why Fennell’s upper-level courses attract so many mathematicians and scientists.