Chris Smeenk

Undergraduate Courses 

  1. Einstein for Everyone

    phil 2032g (2022)

    This course considers the work of Albert Einstein and its impact, focusing mainly on the theories of relativity and cosmology. Mathematics will be kept to a minimum, and no physics background will be assumed. The course starts with special relativity, as formulated by Einstein in 1905. We will discuss Einstein’s two postulates and explore their strange consequences for the behavior of measuring rods and clocks, and explain the meaning and importance of the relativity of simultaneity. How did Einstein discover special relativity? We will look at the historical context of his work, showing how it related to 19th century physics. We will also consider various consequences of the theory, such as E = mc^2, and alleged paradoxes (such as the twin paradox). We then turn to Einstein’s most striking achievement, the general theory of relativity (1915). This theory is based on the remarkable idea that spacetime is curved. We will develop the background needed to understand this concept and the other basic ideas of the theory, and consider consequences of the theory related to cosmology and black hole physics. We will also consider Einstein’s innovative path to general relativity as exemplifying an effective critical analysis of a physical theory.
  2. Philosophy for Integrated Science

    phil 2320 (2017)

    An introduction to aspects of science not covered in traditional science courses. This includes history of science, scientific methodology, ethical dimensions of conducting and applying research, and conceptual issues in specific disciplines. The role of the media in disseminating science and how science shapes public policy will be discussed. This course has three main objectives. First, students will reflect on the nature of scientific inquiry from a philosophical perspective, including a critical assessment of the methods of science, their rationale, and the nature of scientific progress. Second, the course will invite students to reflect on the relation of science to other aspects of our culture, including ethical questions related to the conduct of research, and the implications of scientific research for public policy. Third, the writing assignments for the course will help students to develop their ability to evaluate various viewpoints fairly and critically, to develop their own positions, and to present clear arguments in writing.

Graduate Courses 

  1. Ethical and Societal Implications of AI

    phil 9232b (2023)

    New technologies often reshape our lives in ways that prompt philosophical reflection and analysis. Successful technologies usually make something that we were already doing easier, yet sometimes they trigger a transformation, changing the nature of the activity itself. Social media, for example, initially offered a way to keep in touch with friends and family, but subsequently transformed how people acquire information – with unanticipated negative impacts on public discourse and trust in institutions. Deciding how and whether to impose constraints on speech for social media platforms requires revisiting the ethical and legal ideas that support our approach to traditional media. More generally, the new capacities for action that technology creates often generate entirely new ethical issues, and require rethinking basic concepts and assumptions. This is particularly true for artificial intelligence, including technologies that are already widely in use (data analytics and machine learning) as well as those that remain aspirational (general artificial intelligence). This course will survey several aspects of the impact of AI. Through these discussions we will clarify several distinctive features of AI – including opacity, the inability of an AI user to understand how it has reached a result, and the potential for autonomy – and consider their implications for the use of AI tools in a variety of settings. We will further consider governance of AI, such as whether tech companies or professional societies have developed adequate ethical guidelines, and how and whether government should develop novel regulatory approaches for AI.
  2. Measurement

    phil 9303 (2023)

    Measurement is a central part of scientific practice. As Lord Kelvin once put it, in words now inscribed on the façade of a building at the University of Chicago, “If you cannot measure, your knowledge is meager and unsatisfactory.” What is measurement, and is Kelvin right to view it as an essential part of scientific knowledge? Histories of science often focus on successful measurements as anchoring a field of study. Similarly, in philosophy of science, successful measurements are often taken to decide among competing theories. Recently there has been a renewed interest in understanding measurement, and its role in how scientific theories represent the world, among philosophers of science, and this seminar will survey this work. We will approach questions regarding measurement from three different perspectives: (i) historical analysis of case studies, including Smith and Seth Brownian Motion, and Chang’s Inventing Temperature; (ii) considering what properly accounting for the role of measurement reveals about the structure of scientific theories and broader epistemological questions; (iii) challenges regarding how to introduce and justify measurable quantities in the social sciences. The course will not presume background knowledge of the relevant scientific areas.
  3. Effective Field Theories

    phil 9284 (2022)

    Philosophers often implicitly take physical theories as giving, in principle, complete descriptions of possible worlds: for example, the way the world would be if a particular theory were true. Although the actual world is not among this set of possibilities, due to the limitations of existing theories, this assumption shapes treatments of the content of theories and how they represent the world. In this seminar we will explore a very different understanding of the structure and content of physical theories motivated by the idea of “effective field theories,” developed within physics. An effective field theory gives an approximate description of the relevant causal structure within a limited domain of applicability. In a sense that can be made precise, physics at high energies “decouples” from physics at lower energy scales, so that high energy physics has limited impact on physics at lower energy scales. We will discuss the impact of these ideas on philosophical questions, such as the status of realism, that have been the focus of recent debates.
  4. Empiricism and the Structure of Theories

    phil 9620 (2018)

    What is the structure of scientific theories, and how do experiment and observation contribute to their justification? Philosophers of science have approached these two central, intertwined questions from different starting points throughout the last century. This course will survey attempts to clarify the structure of theories, and formulate and assess empiricism, from formal, historical, and practice-oriented approaches. Two central themes will run throughout these discussions. First, how do positions regarding the appropriate epistemic attitude to take towards different aspects of scientific theories relate to definitions of theoretical equivalence? Second, how does experience contribute to theoretical knowledge, and how are answers to this question reflected in different views about the structure of theories?.
  5. Philosophy of Space and Time

    phil 9227 (2017)

    We will consider the nature of space and time, in light of the interplay between philosophy and physics. We will begin with seventeenth century debates regarding what structures must be ascribed to space and time for an adequate dynamical account of motion, and what this implies regarding the ontological status of space and time. We will then turn to the changes in our conception of spacetime due to special and general relativity: first, the shift to four-dimensional spacetime geometry, and second, the shift to dynamical spacetime geometry in Einstein’s theory of gravity. We will discuss the core physical ideas involved in these transitions, the philosophical contributions that contributed to these developments, and their ramifications for broader debates. The choice of further special topics (such as time’s arrow, black holes and singularities, etc.) will depend in part on the interests of students enrolled in the seminar. .
  6. Philosophy of Cosmology

    phil 92?? (2016)

    A number of challenging questions arise in contemporary cosmology, and philosophers can contribute constructively to answering them. Over the last century cosmologists have debated whether, for example, this field requires a distinctive methodology due to the unusual nature of its subject matter. In what sense is cosmology a “special case,” in terms of its aims, the nature of cosmological theories, or the ability to establish theories empirically? New cosmological theories have also prompted new theories of how science works, with scientists revisiting basic questions about evidence and method. For example, “anthropic reasoning” is sometimes thought to require new rules for using evidence. Cosmology also has implications for various foundational problems in physics. For example, does modern cosmology support a neo-Boltzmannian account of the arrow of time? How should we understand “spacetime geometry” in alternative theories of gravitation, or in theories according to which spacetime “emerges”? This seminar will provide a survey of several central questions, with some topics explored in more depth. These topics connect with different areas of philosophy: philosophy of physics, general issues in philosophy of science (confirmation theory, modeling), and metaphysics (modalities). The choice of questions will be dictated in part by the interest and background of seminar participants.
  7. Empiricism in the Philosophy of Science

    phil 9200 (2010)

    What is the contribution of experiment and observation to scientific knowledge? A variety of empiricist positions share the guiding idea that experiment and observation should be the sole source of justification for scientific knowledge. Pursuing this idea leads directly into a thicket of central issues in the philosophy of science: what are the semantics of theoretical terms? what is the structure of scientific theories? is there a sharp observational / theoretical distinction? what is the appropriate epistemic attitude to adopt regarding theories? The seminar will focus on two influential empiricists, Carnap and van Fraassen, in some detail, before turning to more recent work in philosophy of science and epistemology.
  8. Philosophy of Physics Survey

    phil 92?? (2009)

    This course provides a survey of foundational issues in relativity theory, statistical mechanics and thermal physics, and quantum mechanics.
  9. Foundations of Relativity Theory

    phil 754 (2007)

    We will review the foundational concepts in theories of space, time, and motion, starting with classical mechanics and then turning to special and general relativity.