How Big is Infinity: How do we know what we know? | Abertay University

How Big is Infinity: How do we know what we know?


This module attempts to tackle two big questions: How do we know what we know? and How sure are we that we know it? These questions underpin much of our technically−reliant society, and yet some of what we know seems to contradict common sense or experience. The module will present several of these 'big ideas' − concepts that capture the imagination yet which can be explained without recourse to specialist or technical language − and use these to illustrate and explain the process of scientific and technical progress.


The aim of this Module is to provide the student with : an understanding of systematic methods of enquiry, with a particular focus on the philosophy of science, and to develop key skills in presentation, critical thinking, reasoning and modes of enquiry.

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this module the student should be able to:

1.  Identify and describe different kinds of knowledge and the mechanisms that we use to develop these.

2.  Describe and discuss key ideas relating to enquiry the development of knowledge.

3.  Discuss and evaluate arguments surrounding the enquiry and the development of knowledge.

4.  Present and defend independent views about scientific enquiry and how it relates to established ideas and beliefs.

Indicative Content

1 Key concepts: Epistemology and the construction of knowledge

In this thread of the module, you will explore knowledge and belief. What is knowledge and how it can be acquired? Is knowledge absolute and universal, or is it provisional, and if so on what does it depend?

2 Key concepts: The scientific method

This thread explores the beginnings of systematic enquiry. Looking at its origins in the late Renaissance, we'll consider how advances in the physical sciences and mathematics transformed the views of society.

3 Key concepts: Reasoning and logical fallacies

Reasoning, the ability to infer logical conclusions from known facts and rules of inference, underpins systematic enquiry. But it easy, and natural, to fall foul of common mental shortcuts and logical fallacies that can lead you down intellectual cul−de−sacs. Here, we explore some of these.

4 Key concepts: The limits of science

Although science is a very powerful tool for understanding and making sense of the physical world around us, it has its limits. Science, for example, can't make moral or ethical judgements. It can't comment on aesthetics or decide how to implement scientific knowledge for political ends. Here, we explore the boundaries of science and think about what society does at the other side.

5 Discussion topics: How big is infinity

Infinity is a concept that everybody meets at an early age. We all remember those moments of playground competition, where we bragged with classmates that our nick−nack was inifinity bigger, while their's was infinity−plus−one bigger. Precocious children would smugly point out that infinity and infinity−plus−one was the same thing. But can we go further? Can we measure infinity? And if so what does that have to tell us about how big it is, and how it might compare to other infinities?

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The universe, it seems, is like baby bear's porridge − just right for life. Scientists have known about the different scientific constants − the force of gravity, the strong and weak nuclear forces and so on − for a number of years, and have puzzled over how finely tuned they seem to be. If any one was just a fraction different, then the universe as we know it would never really have got started and we wouldn't be here to see it. What does that tell us?

7 Discussion topics: The Ghost in the Machine

Where does consciousness come from? Is it an emergent property of the complexity of the brain, or is it something that is unique and separate from the matter of our bodies? What implications does that have about who's at the controls of my body? What do recent developments in neural imaging have to tell us about the mind? Can machines ever truly be said to be conscious, and how would we know if they were?

8 Discussion topics: Cosmology

Space, as Douglas Adams noted, is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind−bogglingly big it is. Similarly, the number of different ways matter can be configured is astonishing, but it's finite. How far would I have to travel, then, before I met an exact copy of myself?

9 Discussion topics: Medical efficacy and quackery

Health is something we all worry about. We worry about the effects of being ill almost as much as we worry about the possibility of becoming ill when we're perfectly healthy. And although we live in an unprecedented age of medical achievement, there's a growing distrust of established medical practice and a growing interest in alternative approaches. So how do we know what will cure us, and how can we differentiate between legitimate interventions and medical charlatans?

10 Discussion topics: Quantum weirdness

Life as an electron is weird. They just don't behave like you or me. In 1974, a team of Italian scientists demonstrated that electrons behave like light waves in the classic 'double slit' experiment − something that was voted by readers of Physics World as being the most beautiful experiment ever in 2002. The implications, though, are startling. Might it be that there is only one electron in the whole universe?

Statement on Teaching, Learning and Assessment

This module explores ideas about inquiry by presenting students with a range of big ideas, drawn from science and the humanities, and using these to encourage engagement with systematic methods of enquiry and interrogation of those ideas. Delivery will be focused around 4 key themes per session, drawn from a larger pool of discussion topics as outlined above. Following an introductory lecture to the module in week 1, each theme will begin with a keynote lecture to introduce each main discussion topic. This will be followed by a series of Blackboard−delivered tutorial exercises, using additional resources from the BBC, which focus on the discussion and interrogation of the ideas, and the methods we use so to do, and will conclude with a discussion group, which is intended to summarise the key points of the case study, and highlight important details and developments. Delivery will be supported by: 1. 1 x 2−hour lecture per case−study topic, to introduce key concepts and theories; 2. 2 x unsupervised electronically−mediated tutorials, which allow students to explore key ideas and concepts, and modes of inquiry 3. 2 x 1-hour discussion groups to summarise key concepts and developments. In the structured feedback week, there will be a drop-in workshop on communication and presentation techniques to explore ideas and student responses.

Teaching and Learning Work Loads

Total 224
Lecture 8
Tutorial/Seminar 8
Supervised Practical Activity 0
Unsupervised Practical Activity 36
Assessment 60
Independent 112

Guidance notes

Credit Value – The total value of SCQF credits for the module. 20 credits are the equivalent of 10 ECTS credits. A full-time student should normally register for 60 SCQF credits per semester.


We make every effort to ensure that the information on our website is accurate but it is possible that some changes may occur prior to the academic year of entry. The modules listed in this catalogue are offered subject to availability during academic year 2018/19 , and may be subject to change for future years.