Physics professor teaches natural philosophy

Physics professor uses natural philosophy as teaching method

Physics professor uses natural philosophy as teaching methodCLEMSON—A Catholic professor at Clemson University has an idea for a new way of teaching science.

Murray S. Daw is a professor of physics at Clemson. He is also a member of the Institute for Advanced Physics, a national nonprofit organization of instructors whose goal is to advance modern science without denying its philosophical foundations, spiritual and moral components.

Daw, a member of St. Joseph Church in Anderson, proposes teaching science and incorporating natural philosophy, a concept central to the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas.

Natural philosophy says that everything in the universe has a fundamental order, which human beings come to understand through using their senses and intellect.

“All science comes from some place, and the view that we begin with is that nature is ordered and our minds can understand that order,” Daw said. “This is combined with the understanding that all of what we know about the physical world comes from our senses.”

Daw said this approach could be applied to any science. It is very different, he said, than what most science teachers use.

“Natural philosophy differs from much teaching today because it begins with the implicit idea that all science has to begin someplace, and the modern approach often denies simple things, like there is an order in nature,” he said. “They may even deny that the human mind is capable of understanding that order, and may deny our senses are primary in our understanding of nature.”

Murray Daw, professor at Clemson University, says physics has roots in natural and Christian philosophy. (Photo provided)According to Daw, one primary error is an exaggerated focus on materialism, the concept that the physical world and reality are all that exist. The human consciousness proves that there is also an immaterial side, he said.

The professor said his approach to teaching is useful because it shows the cause behind everything.

Too many physics professors will use equations and abstract statements to explain a basic concept like motion, without teaching students about the fundamental cause of motion, he said.

“All changes have a cause, and motion is a change of position or place ” Daw said. “Therefore, motion has a cause, which is momentum. Momentum is the property that the body has that causes it to move. We teach everything like that. The students learn all the same mathematics and concepts, but with a deeper understanding.”

Daw said he uses this approach in his classes at Clemson, plus a textbook, “Physics for Realists,” that uses the natural philosophy approach to teach basic concepts. The textbook was written by Anthony Rizzi, a physicist and expert on relativity theory who is also founder and director of the institute.  

Daw said the natural philosophy approach should especially be considered at Catholic colleges and universities because of its roots in Christian thought and philosophy.

“The idea that we know about the world from our senses, and that there is an objective reality we can know with our minds is a very Christian concept, and it’s really why science has grown up in the fertile soil of Christendom,” he said.