Zvi Biener

Undergraduate Courses 

  1. Philosophy of Science (Expert Knowledge and Democracy)

    phil 3040 (2019)

    The course examines how science — as a tool for gaining expert knowledge — can fit in a society that values every opinion equally. The course consists of three units. The first concerns “traditional” philosophical questions regarding what (if any) is the distinctive method of science and what epistemic attitutde is proper to take in regards the products of scientific activity. The second concerns information spread in society and how it is influences by the values of both scientists and laypersons. We also conver the nature of modeling and the spread of big-data modeling techniques as an instance of overall information spread. The third considers the value-free ideal of science, its pitfalls, and how science-in-practice responds to the values of the society in which it takes place, particularly the democratic values of equality, free-speech, and inclusivity.
  2. Big Data, Bigger Questions

    phil 3097 (2018)

    It is now a truism that Big Data shapes our lives. The products we buy, the news we read, our social networks, even the prison terms we are likely to serve if we run afoul of the law are all determined by algorithms we can neither control nor (for the most part) understand. In this course, we will survey the fundamentals of data and data analysis and investigate their implications for how we make knowledge, our nature and well-being as humans, and the future prospects of education and democracy. Big Data, we’ll discover, is dwarfed by the questions it raises. The course will be devoted to a philosophical exploration of these questions and to their hands-on implications. ​We’ll work with a local organization to take an analytics project from beginning to end. We will divide into groups according to our disciplinary interests, and those groups will: identify our partner organization’s concerns, determine sources of data that can help address them, formulate mechanisms for collecting that data, analyze the data, present our results visually, and make recommendations. Our goal will be to see how the philosophical problems we discuss abstractly become concrete in the implementation of any analytics project. The progress and outcome of the project will be reported in an online portfolio and presented to the local organization.
  3. Rationalism

    phil 3062 (2017, 2012)

    ​To what extent can the human mind grasp the nature of reality? The great rationalists studied in this course – Descartes and Spinoza – thought that the human minds can grasp quite a bit. We will study why they thought we can have access to ultimate reality, and how they thought that reality was structured. Only primary source readings will be used.
  4. The Power of Big Data (with Mike Reilly)

    phil/psyc 1070 (2017)

    Big Data shapes every aspect of modern life. The products we buy, the news we read, our social networks, even the prison terms we are likely to serve if we run afoul of the law are all determined by data-driven formulas we neither control nor, for the most part, understand. In this course, we will learn the fundamentals of data and data analysis. We will also investigate their implications for how we produce and use knowledge to enhance our prospects for high-quality lives and for the betterment of educational institutions and democracy. Big Data, we’ll discover, is dwarfed by the questions it raises. This course has an experiential, hands-on component and a reflective, deliberative component. The hands-on component focuses on problem solving and basic use of apps for data analysis and visualization. The deliberative component focuses on the moral implications of data science for justice in an open and interconnected society.
  5. The Good Life, and How to Live It (w/ Terry Grundy)

    phil 3093 (2017)

    All of us dream of living “the good life,” though the mental images we have of it may differ. Likewise, many of us have carefully thought-out strategies for achieving the good life as we understand it and work hard to implement those strategies. But what is the good life and what do we need to do to be sure that our own life is a good one? From the dawn of civilization, philosophers, theologians and poets have conceptualized the good life and recommended ways to achieve it. They have tried to teach us how to live happily and well. In this course, we encounter some of the most influential thinkers in Western societies who have dealt with the questions surrounding happiness and good living over more than two millennia. We read and discuss their thoughts as a way to help us develop our own philosophy of happiness and good living – a philosophy that will inform our personal life choices, console us when we encounter life’s difficulties, and guide us in our roles as friends and engaged citizens who care about the happiness of others.
  6. Science, Magic, and the Occult

    phil 2042 (2017)

    How do Talismans work? What are Astral Bodies? What is Kabbalah and who is a Magi? Is the universe like a machine, an animal, or book of spells? Does everything flow from The One, and what does that mean? And what does this have to do with modern science? Well… a lot. This course is about the roots of modern science in magical, mystical, and medicinal practices, and the contemporary chasm between science and religion in light of their past relationships. The primary mode of analysis is historical: we investigate how ideas develop over time, and how beliefs and concepts that seem natural, even obvious, today arose from the complex interaction of agents, movements in particular social, cultural and material environments.
  7. Philosophy of Science (Theory and Evidence)

    phil 3040 (2016 - 2009 (x7))

    Science appears to be extraordinarily successful is two crucial respects. First, science apparently serves as an extremely reliable vehicle for arriving at the truth (as contrasted with astrology or palm reading). Second, the methodology of science seems eminently rational (again as opposed to the methodologies of astrology or palm reading). Some philosophers think that the two virtues are illusory and that, upon reflection, science is not significantly superior to astrology or palm reading. Our basic goal is to survey 20th century philosophy of science as centered upon this idea. To this end, our focus will be upon the following question: are truth and rationality genuine features of scientific inquiry, or are they mere illusions? We will discuss topics such as: confirmation and disconfirmation of theories, falsifiability and pseudo-science, induction, probability and statistical inference, prediction, explanation, empirical equivalence, holism, relativism, and realism.
  8. Empiricism

    phil 3063 (2016)

    This course explores the historical origins and development of Empiricism as a philosophical framework for ethics, politics, metaphysics, epistemology, and science in the 17th Century. The core of Empiricism is the idea that experience is the main source of knowledge. However, we shall see that this idea takes any forms. It may be semantic (concerning the origin of mental contents or the ultimate sources of justification), methodological (concerning the proper methods of discovery and invention), or technological and practical (concerning procedures for manipulating real-world experiments or real-world goal like promoting health). We will pay great attention to the scientific context of 17th century philosophy, and the ways in which it encouraged the rise of Empiricism.
  9. How Science Works

    phil 1032, phil 3250 (wmu) (2014 - 2009, x7)

    Like a car, an airplane, or any other tool, science works in a particular way, for a particular purpose. So we can ask: what makes it go? What are its parts, and how do they fit together? What are they for? We will explore these questions by looking at real-life scientific and technological innovations that shed light on the methods, procedures, and concepts of science. We will investigate types of experimental procedures and the evidence they can yield, the role of statistics, the relation between scientific "models" and reality, and the values and starting assumptions that influence scientific theories. This course will prepare students for more focused work in particular sciences and help non-science majors become more sophisticated consumers of scientific information.
  10. Introduction to Philosophy

    phil 2000 (2011 - 2009 (x3))

    This course serves as a general introduction to philosophy as a method and as a collection of subjects. We will study the nature of argument and rational deliberation and use such deliberation to better understand the issues surrounding the relationship of the mind to the body, free-will and determinism, the nature and possibility of knowledge, morality and relativism, as well as the problem of evil and the existence of god. This course satisfies the General Education II requirement .
  11. Moral and Political Ideas

    phil 102 (2011)

    What’s the right thing to do? Is it wrong for a mother to steal in order to feed her starving children? Is it wrong for Robin Hood to rob from the rich and give to the poor? Is it wrong for a government to tax the rich and give to the poor? Can one person be killed in order to save the lives of hundreds? Can one person be tortured for the possibility of saving the lives of hundreds? What principles do we use to justify our answers to these question? We will examine these, and similar questions. Our goal will not just be to address moral questions abstracted from everyday life, but to understand how moral decisions are actually made in our legal and political system, and how legal and political systems generally reflect commitments to ideas regarding what is right and wrong.
  12. Philosophy and the Physical Sciences

    phil 261 (2011)

    This course will explore the philosophical issues surrounding modern physics. We will spend the first few sessions of the course discussing what makes a theory "scientific": is it a theory’s success in making predictions? its ability to explain physical phenomena? its confirmation by empirical evidence? its fit with the remainder of human knowledge? etc. For the remainder of the course, we will discuss the particular issues that are raised by modern physics once modern physics is accepted as properly "scientific": what is the nature of physical action? is action limited by space and time? What is time? Is time travel possible? What is spacetime? how many dimensions are there? and others.
  13. History of Modern Philosophy

    phil 3010 (2009 - 2008 (x3))

    As philosophy entered the modern period, significant advances in scientific understanding and experimental method gave rise to increased concern about the epistemological and metaphysical foundations and implications of the new science. In the first part of this course, we will study the scientific revolution and the epistemological and metaphysical views of the rationalists such as René Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, and Gottfried Leibniz. In the second part of the modern period, empiricism emerged as a tradition to rival rationalism; the pioneers of this empiricist tradition in philosophy were John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume. After investigating the transition from rationalism to empiricism, we will study the metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of language of these British Empiricists.
  14. Foundations of the Modern World View

    phil 3500 (2007)

    Contemporary science attempts to understand nature and its inner workings from a particular perspective, sometimes termed ‘the scientific world-view.’ This perspective is associated with a particular method of research involving physical experimentation and the extensive use of mathematics. In this course, we will examine the evolution of the scientific perspective from Greek antiquity to the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century. We will see that modern science emerged from the interactions of several traditions of thought, some of which, like the magical tradition, seem at odds with modern science. We will begin with an overview of ancient Greek ideas in philosophy, medicine, and cosmology. We will then look at how these Greek ideas were recovered and adapted, almost 2000 years later, during the Renaissance. The last portion of the course will focus on the profound intellectual transformations in Europe during the 17th century.

Graduate Courses 

  1. Newton

    phil 8019 (2020, 2013)

    This course will focus on the transformation in philosophy of science wrought by Isaac Newton’s Principia. We will examine the philosophy of science of Galileo Descartes, Boyle, Hooke, and Hobbes, and contrast their ideas about scientific investigation and progress with those of Newton. In particular, we’ll discuss these thinkers’s response to the threat of underdetermination regarding fundamental ontology, the nature of scientific idealization and its place in explanation and experimentation, and the very possibility of a mathematical science that can capture the structure of the world. We’ll also investigate the foundations of Newtonian science: his accounts of space, time, matter, and force, and God’s relation to the nature and existence of these four fundamental kinds.
  2. The Problem of Induction


    According to one formulation, the problem of induction is that our tendency to project past regularities into the future is not, and cannot, be justified with deductive certainty. Well... Duh. Did it really take a giant of Hume’s caliber to first notice such a simple fact of logic? And why did he, and later generation, think it was such a big deal? The issue is of perennial interest to philosophers of science as the concepts of ’induction’ and ’evidence’ are intimately linked – the problem of induction is not merely about projecting the past into the future, but about drawing any conclusions that extend beyond their evidential base. In this course, we’ll investigate the origins of the "problem of induction." We’ll see that there have been many forms of "induction" in the history of science. that not all of them were vulnerable to Hume’s critique, that there have been several ways to mitigate the varieties of inductive risk, Figures will include Aristotle, Zabarella, Bacon, Boyle, Newton, Hume, Mill, and Norton. Syllabus
  3. Mathematics, Reality, and Philosophy

    phil 8031 (2015)

    Mathematics can describe reality remarkably well. Consequently, it is used in virtually every field that tries to discover truths about the world, from physics and chemistry to sociology and marketing. But this was not always the case. Before the seventeenth century, it was commonly thought that mathematics lacked the representational power to capture the world as it actually is. Curiously, it was still held up as a paragon of knowledge. Why was mathematics held up as an paragon and what did it exemplify? Why did philosophers think it was lacking? How did all this change? The course will address these three questions. We’ll begin with Aristotle and Scholasticism and end with the revolution in mathematics of the seventeenth century. Students are encouraged to develop research projects that engage directly with contemporary philosophy, as long as those are grounded in the history of the problem..
  4. Hobbes

    phil 7009 (2013)

    Thomas Hobbes, like contemporary philosophers, saw himself as trying rework philosophy in light of then-current evidence from the biological and physical sciences. And so, while he is now best known for his political philosophy, during his life he was equally engaged with, and equally known for, developments in physiology, mathematics, and physics. In fact, he saw political philosophy and natural philosophy as two facets of a single project of reforming human knowledge and human activity in light of new evidence. In this class we will focus on Hobbes’s writing in natural philosophy – the account of motion, the physiology of perception and optics – and their connection to the overall project of reforming knowledge. Particular attention will be paid to how his metaphysics and epistemology dovetail with natural philosophy.
  5. Cartesian Classics

    phil 7008 (2011)

    We will examine some classic works on Descartes by some of the most prominent philosophers of the last several decades: Harry Frankfurt and Bernard Williams. Their work focuses mostly on Descartes’ epistemology and the Meditations, and so will we. We will address questions such as: who are Descartes’ targets in the Meditations? What does Descartes set out to prove? Does the so-called “Cartesian circle” pose a problem for him? Are his arguments for the existence of God essential to his overall project? How are Descartes’ arguments related to those of his contemporaries? Does he provide any lasting model for philosophical inquiry? etc.
  6. Empiricism and Newtonianism

    phil 7000 (2009)

    The Enlightenment—the intellectual movement from which many of the philosophical, political, and religious doctrines currently held in the English-speaking world emerged—was born in the eighteenth century from the intellectual union of John Locke and Isaac Newton. With the Newtonian paradigm for mathematical physics, natural science underwent a period of unparalleled expansion and success. With Lockean Empiricism and liberal political theory, the fruits of that science were harnessed for the benefit and wisdom of humankind. This is how the standard story goes. Yet the union of John Locke and Isaac Newton was not a foregone conclusion. Newton’s philosophy of science developed while he was defending and revising his mechanics against philosophical critique, and Locke’s hospitality to Newtonian physics developed as it became clear that Newtonian physics was remarkably successful. In this course we will investigate the extent to which Locke and Newton were intellectual allies, and how they came to be that way. Our reading will be focused on those drafts of the essay that were composed before Newton’s Principia was published, and on Newton’s own philosophical writings and their sensitivity to empiricist concerns.
  7. Natural Philosophy and the Meditations

    phil 8100 (2008)

    Descartes’ Meditations concerned “First Philosophy”, a subject-matter traditionally co-extensive with Metaphysics or Theology. Virtually all of Descartes’ others works, however, concerned “Second” or “Natural Philosophy”, a subject-matter that encompassed any and all investigations into the structure and nature of the changing, material world. The aim of this seminar is two-fold. First, it is to understand the Meditations as an isolated, free-standing text. Second, it is to understand the connection between the Meditations and the remainder of Descartes’ mature philosophical output. In other words, it is to understand the meaning and relations of “First Philosophy” and “Second Philosophy” in the Cartesian context.