Philosophy and Physics

Contemporary physics throws up a variety of questions about scientific knowledge—epistemological questions, to use the philosopher’s term of art.  Is Superstring theory or M-theory legitimate science, given its immunity to empirical test?  Is Copenhagen quantum mechanics, with its refusal to say anything about the world beyond the prediction of measurement outcomes, an adequate scientific theory?  Should we take seriously the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum theory, even though we have no empirical access to any worlds other than our own? Should we take seriously multiverse theories that face similar epistemic worries?

It also forces us to confront what philosophers call metaphysical questions:  challenging and potentially confusing issues about the nature of the world and its relation to the everyday concepts that we often unreflectively use to characterize it.  How should we understand the non-local connections associated with violations of Bell inequalities, which are entailed by quantum theory and have been experimentally verified by Aspect and others? Can we speak of space-like separated events causing each other, even though switching reference frames can switch the temporal order of the events in question?  Can we make sense of backward causation or the time travel permitted by some models of General Relativity? Indeed, should we accept the literal existence of a four dimensional spacetime, given its prima facie incompatibility with the idea that time passes?  To properly address such questions we must address a variety of metaphysical issues.  What is causation?  Is it part of the world, or merely an aspect of how we conceive of the world?  What are time and space, and how should we modify our view of the world, when we move from time and space to spacetime?

These kinds of questions are directly relevant to physics, but they are not typically a focus of a physicist’s training. Philosophers on the other hand do focus on the nature of scientific knowledge, causation, and how we should, all things considered, understand space, time, and spacetime.  Such philosophical research is, and should be, informed by physics, and it can also legitimately return the favor by helping physicists grapple with the methodological and metaphysical questions that are sometimes directly salient to their research, and often, at least in part, motivate that research. Moreover, studying philosophy and physics concurrently will provide students with an especially broad intellectual skill set, combining the physicist’s mathematical and physical sophistication with the conceptual clarity and critical acuity that is developed by studying philosophy.  Pursuing both majors can provide a comprehensive perspective on our most fundamental ideas of the nature of reality.

            Relevant Philosophy Courses

  • PHIL 1003: Critical Reasoning: Discovery, Deduction, and Intellectual Self-Defense
  • PHIL 3943.Philosophy and Physics: Quantum Theory and the Measurement Problem
  • PHIL 3943.Philosophy and Physics: Space, Time, Time Travel, and Time Machines
  • PHIL 3943.Philosophy and Physics: Locality in Modern Physics
  • PHIL 3943. Philosophy and Physics: Philosophy of Space and Time
  • PHIL 4213. Philosophy of Science
  • PHIL 4203: Theory of Knowledge
  • PHIL 4603: Metaphysics

If you have questions, contact Professor Barry Ward (