As Otto Raths, professor of physics, walks in one of the two doors and down the steps to the front of the small auditorium in Spiro Hall, he pauses to look at his students. About a dozen men and women sit scattered across the room. Peering through his thick glasses, the longtime Wagner professor jabs his finger at one door or the other and asks each student, “You came in that door, right?” One after the other, they confirm his guesses. “Ha, I know how you think!” he observes.
After this unusual approach to taking attendance, Raths picks up a piece of chalk and asks, “What do you know about the sun?”
This is Astronomy 108: The Solar System. All of the students are also enrolled in its partner course, Philosophy 205: Philosophy of the Mind. Together, they make up an Intermediate Learning Community (ILC), Exploring the Cosmos and Our Place Within It.
Together, the two courses lead to bigger questions than they would alone — “such questions,” according to the course description, “as, What can we know about the universe and ourselves? Is it possible to know the way the universe exists and the way our minds exist? Does the universe have a purpose? Is there a place for consciousness, and for God, within a scientific view of the universe?”
It takes a scientifically-minded philosopher and a deep-thinking physicist to create a course like this. The philosopher is John Danisi, who was a double major in chemistry and philosophy during his own undergraduate years. He and Raths share a fascination with different views of the cosmos — and a commitment to keep questioning and finding new answers.
In Raths’ lectures, therefore, he not only conveys the facts about the Sun’s makeup, temperature, size, and so forth, but also continually contextualizes them. He tells stories (for example, about meeting the physicist and Nobel laureate Hans Bethe); makes observations (“Absolute truth in nature is very hard to find. You never stop, but you become very humbled”); and recommends readings (like the Saturday edition of the Wall Street Journal and a recent essay by a psychologist in the New York Times).
While Raths deals with the makeup of the universe, Danisi is exploring what we can know about the nature of the human self, from a philosophical perspective: from the ancient Hebrews and Greeks, through Descartes and Sartre to today’s scientific-materialistic thinkers, who “whittle away the mind” as a valid way of understanding the human being. “My goal is to restore a place for the mind and for God,” Danisi says.
For students like Paul Passantino ’16, who is still undecided about his major but leaning toward business, this course is mind-blowing and inspirational — so much so that he can’t stop talking about the ideas he’s learning with friends after class.
“That’s why I’m really loving this class,” he says. “We can have different types of views, and I personally believe that Danisi’s philosophy class has helped me with just being able to accept other people’s views. Being able to learn someone else’s views, and make your own opinion on it, that’s the beauty of philosophy, I think. To see how things work, how people think.”
After all, he points out, just as Galileo and Copernicus overturned the received wisdom of their day, today’s students need to keep their minds open in order to discover the next big thing. “As students, we will take everything we learn and find new answers,” he says. “That’s our job, to better ourselves, so we can keep this country and world going, so we don’t just be ok with the normal. We have to keep pushing the boundaries.”
READ MORE IN 'BACK TO CLASS'
During the fall semester of 2013, we set out to see what's happening on the Wagner campus to prepare students for the future. We found a lot of evidence that Wagner students are getting the most out of the college experience, whether they are in class, in labs, in the city, or abroad.
- Emerging Global Health Concerns — First-Year Learning Community
- International Immersion — The Center for International Studies Abroad
- Starting a Career Path — Internship at the Clinton Foundation, New York City
- Developing a Voice — Senior Learning Community in Philosophy
- Liberally Educated, Professionally Prepared — What Employers Want