PHI 538, Metaphysics of Physics

Seminar Leaders: H. Halvorson and J. Butterfield

Meeting time: Wed, 6:00-8:50pm


In the first half of the semester, we will discuss philosophical problems of classical mechanics and classical field theories: the persistence of matter, modality, the representation of mechanical problems, time reversal, determinism, and the nature of instantaneous velocity. In the second half of the semester, we will discuss some selected philosophical problems about: (i) space and time, especially in the light of relativity theory; (ii) quantum theory; (iii) thermal physics (thermodynamics and statistical mechanics).

Required text: M. Salmon et al., Philosophy of Science.

Most papers below are linked from this page. Other papers are available from Electronic Course Reserves (ECR), and can be downloaded from:

Click on PHI 538, enter username: phi538, password _____


Sep 15

The persistence of matter in metaphysics and classical physics

Additional reading:

Sep 22

What is it to solve a problem in mechanics? The schemes of analytical mechanics

Possible other theme for this session or next: Modality in Classical Mechanics The main JB paper is: 'Some aspects of modality in analytical mechanics' (arXiv: physics/0210081)

Sep 29


For those interested in a deterministic version of quantum theory (the de Broglie-Bohm interpretation): Cushing, J. (1994) Quantum mechanics: historical contingency and the Copenhagen hegemony, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Oct 6

Philosophy of Geometry, especially in the light of relativity

Possible other theme: Kant's Philosophy of Geometry

Oct 13

Relationism about Space and Time

Oct 20

Interpretive problems of quantum mechanics: the measurement problem and decoherence

Readings: TBA

(Fall Recess)

Nov 1 (Note: special date and time, Monday 4:30pm)

Guest lecture by Gerard Emch: Not what models are, but what they do.

Nov 3

Guest lecture by Gerard Emch: Spontaneous symmetry breaking in statistical mechanics

Nov 10

Everettian interpretations of quantum theory: probability and identity over time

Reading for those with time to spare:

Nov 17

Everettian interpretations of quantum theory

Reading for those with time to spare:

Nov 24

No meeting

Dec 1

Paul Mainwood: Renormalization group

Hilary Greaves: 'Justifying conditionalization: Conditionalization maximizes expected epistemic utility'

Dec 8

Interpretations of quantum mechanics

Joint seminar with Bas: from 4:30 to 8:00

4:30-6:00 Bas and Hans: proposals for interpretation

6:00 Guest speaker Brad Monton: wave function ontology

Readings (minimal reading — items 1 and 4)

  1. Albert, David 1996, 'Elementary quantum metaphysics', in J. Cushing, A. Fine, and S. Goldstein (eds), Bohmian Mechanics and Quantum Theory: An Appraisal, Kluwer, pp. 277-284.
  2. Monton, Brad 2002, 'Wave function ontology', Synthese 130: 265-277 (PDF file)
  3. Lewis, Peter 2004, 'Life in configuration space', Br J Philos Sci 55: 713-729 (philsci archive) (journal)
  4. Monton, Brad, 'Quantum mechanics and 3N-dimensional space' (PDF file)

Other readings will be supplied during the semester. Below are some readings on the philosophy of classical mechanics that are broadly related to the first three sessions.

Method in Galileo and Newton

The Rise of Field Theory

Could extended objects be made out of unextended parts?