Fall 2023: The physics of time

The philosophy of physics deals with methodological, epistemological, and metaphysical issues in physics. This seminar has the dual purpose of systematically introducing the background necessary to do research in philosophy of physics as well as discussing current research in the field.

This seminar is co-taught by Ryan Miller, Tannaz Najafi, and Christian Wüthrich.

Perhaps no other common-sense concept has had its philosophical analysis upended more by science than that of time. We will review how developments in physics have impacted philosophy of time, including Newton's attack on Aristotelian relationalism, special relativity's challenge to the distinction of space and time, thermodynamic attempts to explain why time only moves in one direction, general relativity's opening for the physical possibility of time-travel, and quantum gravity's suggestion that time is emergent rather than fundamental.

Both the metaphysics of time and the relevant history and philosophy of physics will be discussed, and papers and presentations may focus on history of philosophy, history of science, metaphysics of time, or history of philosophy as desired according to student interest. While some background in physics, mathematics, and philosophy will be helpful, all necessary concepts will be introduced throughout the course, and we will not assume any specific knowledge beyond high school mathematics.

This seminar will be conducted entirely in English, though papers may be submitted in French if desired.

Course Requirements

If this seminar is taken for credit, please let us know. You will have to fulfil requirements, depending on the module for which you are taking this course. For credit in philosophy:

- travail écrit de recherche avec soutenance (env. 25 pages, 50'000 signes)
- travail écrit de recherche (env. 12 pages, 24'000 signes) ou présentation orale durant le séminaire

Contact us if you need credit in physics or in another programme.

Our expectation is that everyone prepares the assigned readings ahead of time, actively participates in the seminar (including those featuring a guest speaker), and accepts a reasonable share of presentation duties.

Course Materials

Course materials such as lecture notes, handouts, etc may be made available as they will be used in class.

The readings for this seminar will be from the following sources:

  • All reading materials will be made available on Moodle.

Grading rubric:

Schedule (Fall 2023)

This is the schedule for the seminar. It is subject to adjustment. For titles and abstracts of the guest seminars, visit https://beyondspacetime.net/. The (a) readings are general introductions to the topic which do not presume prior knowledge. The (b) readings are more advanced, and generally take a contrasting view to that expressed in the (a) readings. Masters students or those unfamiliar with the topic are only expected to do the (a) readings. PhD students, or those already familiar with the topic, are only expected do the (b) readings. The presenter for the week should focus on the (b) reading, because it is more difficult, including how and why it disagrees with the (a) reading. Reading for the guest seminars will be made available two weeks in advance.

Date Readings Presenter(s)
21.09. • Introduction, no readings Christian Wüthrich, Ryan Miller, Tannaz Najafi
28.09.. • 2a: Huggett, ch 9
• 2b: Mach, 222-238
05.10. • 3a: Huggett, ch 14
• 3b: Rea
12.10. • 4a: Huggett, ch 10
• 4b: Dieks, ch 8
19.10. • 5a: Huggett, ch 15
• 5b: Gilmore et al
26.10. • 6a: North
• 6b: Roberts, ch 6
02.11. • no reading Guest seminar: Emily Adlam
09.11. No seminar (semaine de lecture)
16.11. • 8a: Earman and Norton
• 8b: Brighouse
23.11. • 9a: Swinburne
• 9b: Read and Qureshi-Hurst
30.11. • 10a: Smeenk and Wüthrich
• 10b: Zhao and Modesto
07.12. • no reading Guest seminar: Kian Salimkhani
(This meeting will be in UniMail room M5389)
14.12. Guest seminar: John Dougherty
21.12. • 11a: Wüthrich
• 11b: Chua and Callender