Quantum Dreams: From Philosophy to Physics and the Space in Between

Hi, my name is Shine--for the purposes of delicious Internet anonymity--and I want to major in English with a minor in Physics.

Unfortunately, I am not sure if this combination is even available at my university; to be honest, I’m embarrassed to ask my advisor. “Hello,” I will say as my fingers uncontrollably fidget with an indeterminate angst, “may I please change my minor from philosophy to physics?”

Am I really prepared for the potential mix of hilarity and condemnation which could overcome my advisor's face, despite his best effort to present an objective front? Of course, I would not blame him if he were to react as such; perhaps I am only projecting my own potential reaction were someone to broach the idea to me.

Admittedly, this is a strange mixture of disciplines which lies at the end of an equally strange path. After high school, I secured a lucky fortune of scholarships and attended Boston University for one semester before turning to a life of waiting tables and pickling my liver. Trusting in my foolish adolescent wisdom and idealized blue collar ethos, I decided that academia was complete bullshit and most definitely not the optimal way to understand the world. I saw no value in reading about life in books when I could be out learning about life by living.

Oh, the impetuous child: so quick to value the senses over reason.

Fast forward through seven hazy years and, suddenly, a life of sensory indulgence had yielded little to satisfy a curious mind. (Well, to be honest, a mind is not quite so curious when routinely besotted with a deluge of alcohol. Still, sometimes a glimmer of intellectual vigor can shine through the dullness of ritual inebriation.) With newly discovered regrets of forsaken academic opportunities, I returned to college at age twenty-six. Unfortunately, elite private universities along the Northeastern coast are not quite so fond of waitresses fresh off of the sauce with a professed desire for knowledge and anorectic bank account.

Fortunately, community colleges in central Texas do not share this aversion.

And so I entered a community college with no clue as to my intended area of study. Convinced that I had permanently impaired my cognitive abilities from years of soaking my neurons in ethanol, I shied away from anything that I considered to be overly technical. Science, therefore, was off limits. Besides, how could I possibly enjoy such an arrogant, rigid, and dogmatic discipline?

Oh, yes. I was a bit misinformed about the nature of science.

Really, I had no reason to be so misinformed. Although I had grown up in a Catholic household, science had never been lambasted by my family, my teachers, nor my religious instructors. I had never even heard of creationism nor Biblical literalism until I moved to Texas; I grew up with a catechism that was predicated on the allegorical interpretation of the Bible. (This delightful allegory deviated so far from the actual text as to render it a sugarcoated fallacy. But that is a topic for another rambling essay.) Still, I was convinced that science was an obnoxiously rigid institution filled with people whose main mission was to denigrate wonder.

Consequently, I immersed myself in the liberal arts with a particular emphasis on literature and philosophy. Essentially, I set to studying the ideas of countless thinkers and writers; great literature is largely philosophy wrapped in symbolic fiction. Ironically, it was through these two decidedly unscientific avenues that I arrived at a platform of naturalism. Naturalism led me to a fresh perspective on science; more precisely, naturalism yielded a mind which was open to enough to objectively explore science without the trappings of judgmental misconceptions. But although I learned to appreciate and value science, I still considered philosophy the superlative method of understanding the world; although science allowed one to marvel, I felt that it was philosophy which allowed one to truly wonder.

Then I met physics.

Suddenly, I found that overarching discipline which examined not just the observational structure of the tactile universe, but also embodied a formalized excursion into proposition and wonder of the universe in its entirety by its smallest units. While this is surely a component of every science, in physics I think that it is much more evident. Perhaps it is the emphasis on abstraction that draws me, or the sensuous thrill of attempting to reconcile one’s mind around the inconceivable.

Whatever the allure is, I’m deeply ignorant of the intricacies of physics but hooked on preliminary details. Meanwhile, after transferring to a university, I’m now over halfway finished with a bachelor of arts in English with honors. I can spare neither the time nor the finances required for a full transition to a bachelor of science.

Ergo, I would like to major in English with a minor in physics.

I have tentative plans to reconcile this puzzling chasm of academic contradiction. Namely, I’ve decided to dedicate my senior thesis to exploring why misconceptions of science persist in this age of information. Where did I get the idea that science was an arrogant, rigid, and dogmatic discipline? I do not think that I am alone in my former misconception; why is this rooted in our culture? I have my theories that the popular misconceptions of science in the modern era are rooted in Victorian sentiments; after a century of ideological oscillation from rigid Classicism to loose Romanticism and back to conservative Victorian ideals, the resultant populace suffered a sort of cultural whiplash. Coupled with a breakneck pace of scientific advancement over the past few centuries, a deep misunderstanding of science took root as popular culture was unable to keep pace with either the changing ideologies or the changing scientific theories. As novels would have reflected pop culture in an era preceding radio, television, or cinema, I am hoping to find evidence of this burgeoning cultural split between science and the masses in the literature of the nineteenth century.

Well, that concludes my latest lesson in why I should not consume quite so much caffeine in the evening. In this blog, I really only intended to propose my idea for a senior thesis in hopes of receiving feedback; somehow, it took me a thousand words to get there.

Evidently, brevity is not my strong suit. ;)

But, to the point, what do you think of this tentative thesis (which is in dire need of less awkward syntax):

Due to the frequent ideological shifts and rapid scientific advancement which preceded the nineteenth century, a cultural split occurred between the general populace and the scientific community. Evidence of this burgeoning split is reflected in several popular novels from the nineteenth century.


Views: 35

Comment by Ryan on October 5, 2010 at 3:47am
Hi Shine,

If that's what you're interested in, I say "go for it". It sounds like you have a good idea of what you want to study and odds are your counselor will understand this. There's no rule saying you can't major/minor in radically different subject areas. In fact, some schools actively encourage it. Personally, I double majored in Mathematics and Psychology -- two seemingly different subjects which probably have more in common than you'd think.

Science is in need of good communicators to continue in the footsteps of those like Carl Sagan. Research which leads to better "popular science" literature would be valuable in this regard. As a starting point, you might want to look into "Don't be such a scientist" by Randy Olsen and "Unscientific America" by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum.

Good luck!

Comment by Jaume on October 5, 2010 at 6:07am
Due to the frequent ideological shifts and rapid scientific advancement which preceded the nineteenth century, a cultural split occurred between the general populace and the scientific community.

Disagree. Before the nineteenth century, the scientific community was a few dozens minds who had trouble communicating with each other, and thus hardly an homogenous community. In common people's imaginations, ivory towers (a nineteenth century metaphor) were populated with solitary scientists, not teams. If there was a splt then, it was between the general populace and the archetypal 'scientist' - an isolated outcast, reminiscent of the witches of old. I doubt the populace could articulate a concept like 'scientific community' back then. Nowadays scientists work primarily as teams, but this is a relatively recent evolution - less than a century old.
Comment by Lisa on October 5, 2010 at 10:49am
I think its a wonderful idea. When you do get your degree, come back to me and give me some pointers on how to debate with these new age "gurus" that throw around scientific terminology like they actually know what they're talking about. They make me crazy and I don't have enough scientific knowledge to give a good argument. You can't just say to them "you're full of shit because I said so." I am currently trying revisit some of my college science courses (its's been awhile) just so I can actually argue with some level of intelligence.
Comment by Shine on October 5, 2010 at 11:46am
Thanks for all the encouragement! Immediately upon transferring this semester, I enrolled in an astronomy course and I absolutely love it. My only complaint is that it is a course specifically designed for non-science majors so it is extremely light on the math. I think that things are easier to understand with an underpinning of math, but I guess it is assumed that liberal arts majors do not like math. I've decided to spend the next two semesters (spring and summer) beefing up my math before earnestly tackling a full year of physics; although I really enjoy math, my current liberal arts track has included only one paltry course in college algebra.

Jaume, I agree that my precept is flawed. I was actually thinking about it as I dozed off last night. (Don't all flashes of insight come in the ambiguous netherland of semi-slumber?) I'm glad that you reminded me this morning because I was too lazy to get up and write it down! By positing a "burgeoning split" in the 19th century, my current thesis assumes that there was some sort of unity between science and the mainstream in the preceding time period. This doesn't line up with reality. Plus, you raise the excellent point that the concept of a "scientific community" is really only modern concept.

The idea that I want to express is that combination of rapidly changing ideologies and paradigm-shifting scientific discoveries set up the modern scientific community for its current state of isolation from the mainstream. Tentatively, I'm thinking of focusing upon Darwin's advances in biology, Maxwell's theory of electromagnetism, and Lyell's work in geology as three crucial ideas which alienated the popular conscience. I am then hoping to find evidence of this revulsion in popular literature of the time, although I think that I will be focusing more on novels than prose. I think that I just need to be careful not to try and portray science as ever having been unified with popular culture; maybe I can focus on the origins of the scientific community today.

Thanks for the feedback! :)
Comment by Kevin Marks on October 5, 2010 at 11:57am
Your post seems to pose two questions, one soliciting thoughts on the divergent major/minor choices and the latter on your choice of thesis. 

Tackling them in reverse order, I would caution you as to the possibility of your thesis being critical of the educational system itself. While undoubtedly it may be accurate, be wise in your submission as not to criticize the raters within the paper. In years past, when I wrote my thesis paper for my bachelors degree in business, I had to unfortunately do some serious revising as I realized I had voraciously attacked my targeted institution. Having said that, I am intrigued by your topic and would wager that many on an open forum such as this would be likewise interested once completed.

Now, as to the more complicated former topic, I truly believe you should pursue exactly which subjects suit your fancy. I am passionate in my belief that education should be not only productive but also intellectually fulfilling. As I mentioned, my major was in business, however I delved into other subjects simply for personal interest. I took optional classes in Philosophy, Physics, Sociology, Criminal Justice, and Education. If your current interest is in Physics, go for it.

Great post and good luck!
Comment by Shine on October 7, 2010 at 11:00am
Kevin, that is a great point. I see now that my thesis has the potential to alienate members of the English department. Although I do not intend to project condemnation on the literature of that time period, I can see how negativity would be inferred from using popular fiction to try and demonstrate an anti-science sentiment. I'm trying really hard to stay away from the religion v. science dichotomy; liberal arts departments are not exactly bastions of secular pride. Honestly one of the biggest reasons that I yearn for science classes is to be amongst others who share the naturalistic worldview. I'm coming to realize that supernatural philosophies pervade higher education much deeper than I had anticipated. It's not that I necessarily care what people believe in; it's just frustrating to dance around to have conversations and debates where I clearly disagree with one of the primary precepts, that being the existence of a supernatural, transcendent godhead.
Comment by Shine on October 7, 2010 at 11:22am
If you restricted your thesis to certain specific themes and stereotypes about science, including their origins, public reception and perpetuation, you should be able to make a strong case.

Perfect: this is exactly the idea that I was seeking to explore moreso than actual scientific precepts themselves. My starting point was with scientific illiteracy our culture today. However, I don't just mean ignorance of scientific laws and theories (although I absolutely must include some statistics showing how many people still think that the sun orbits the earth); I'm really aiming to uncover why mainstream culture is so ignorant about the actual institution of science itself. Why is the basic scientific method so widely misunderstood? When did the negative stereotypes of scientists originate? Honestly, I'm not even sure if these misconceptions truly have their roots in the nineteenth century. But as it was a period of massive cultural transition coupled with several paradigm-shifting scientific discoveries, I'm bound to find something of interest even if my research paints my original thesis as a sham.

If this were vis-à-vis and I were three glasses of wine in, I'd probably have more to say.

Don't tease! I haven't had a good philosophical bottle of wine in years. :( I tried going to a local atheist meeting at a pub for intelligent conversation, but instead found myself the lone female (besides a married friend with her husband) at a table of guys who were more concerned with exchanging phone numbers than with sharing philosophies. Although I did learn a valuable lesson that day: I now know not to assume that atheism is necessarily bound to heightened intelligence, nor that heightened intelligence will guarantee that the intellect will be valued over the flesh.


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