Philosophical Reflections on Physics

Changing Perspectives

The aim of this course is to foster critical discussion and thinking about methods of knowledge acquisition in science and to create theories and models. To achieve this, students critically evaluate topics and approaches from physics against a broader historical and philosophical background. The course accompanies the lecture course “Physics II”. During plenary sessions and tutorials students discuss, scrutinize and consolidate their background beliefs regarding topics such as theory formation and experimental practice, and address fundamental concepts such as matter and causation.


In the lecture course “Philosophical Reflections on Physics II” Michael Hampe (Philosophy), Norman Sieroka (Physics und Philosophy) und Rainer Wallny (Physics) discuss knowledge generation processes in degree programmes and in science with students. The lectures run in parallel with the introductory course “Physics II”. They place aspects of physical themes addressed in the physics course in their historical and philosophical contexts, and reflect on them critically. Questions such as the relevance of physical models, the explanatory potential of metaphor and the significance of physical theories are approached using original texts, and discussed. To shed as much light on these themes as possible, the three instructors present pre-prepared, vastly diverging standpoints during panel and plenary discussions.
Seven of these panel events take place during the semester. Every event comprises input from one of the instructors (ca. 20 minutes) and a podium debate among all three (ca. 30 minutes), which then becomes a plenary discussion (30-40 minutes) to which students may bring further questions, additions and interruptions. After roughly one and a half hours the discussion continues among the students, now divided into four small groups. These groups are monitored by two teaching assistants each from physics and philosophy. During the semester every student is also supervised by assistants from both disciplines.
In the weeks between the podium discussions, special tutorials take place which help students to acquire the basic skills necessary for the course (close reading, formulation of a critical protocol). These tutorials also serve to stimulate cross-disciplinary discussion and to relate the issues addressed in the panel sessions (discussed in the tutorials) to one another. A tutorial might, for example, explore whether all experimental approaches in physics are acceptable in terms of the various assumptions regarding theory elaboration.

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This course enables students to critically discuss and assess various approaches and issues from physics, and also to communicate their opinions with confidence. Reflection and communication are its main fundaments – not least because standing firm in questions and answers in a discussion is the first step towards assuming “response-ability”. Therefore the course deploys a comprehensive spectrum of activities to practice these abilities. Its format also offers variety, and the diversity of discussion channels (forum, plenary discussion, small groups) allows all students to contribute actively.
Since 2017 three of the seven small-group tutorials have made specific use of an annotation tool (hypothes.is in eSkript). Here students must complete an online assignment, and the tutorial itself takes place in flipped classroom format. For instance, when discussing protocol writing students comment on a sample protocol in eSkript. They are asked to highlight passages which they consider particularly good or particularly poor or clumsy, and must always post a comment explaining why. This allows them to focus on specific passages (specific types of argument, specific concerns regarding rhetoric, etc.), instead of merely being supplied with general rules for protocol writing.


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