Fall 2017

Tuesdays & Thursdays
in 144 Loomis

Welcome to the course!

What is this course about?
From Marc Lange, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Physics (p. ix):
A principal aim of the philosophy of physics is to work out what the universe must (or may) be like considering the remarkable success that various theories in physics have had in predicting our observations. In other words, the philosophy of physics is concerned with interpreting physical theories -- with figuring out what they tell us about reality. As Einstein remarked, we must work from our best physical theories back to what reality is.

Some topics that will be covered:

  • The transition from the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic model of the Universe to Copernicanism.
  • The birth of modern mechanics and the philosophical issues raised by it.
  • The theory of electromagnetism and its awkward coexistence with classical mechanics.
  • The special theory of relativity and its 'paradoxes'.
  • General relativity and its philosophical implications.
  • How to make sense of quantum mechanics.
  • Irreversibility and the 'arrow of time'.
  • Current problems in cosmology and elementary physics.

Grading in brief

The course is crosslisted, so one may register in either the Physics or Philosophy version. 419 obtains ACP credit and 3 credit hours, and requires a term paper; 420 is worth 2 credit hours.

419: Short written assignments 25%, term paper 50%, final exam 25%.
420: Short written assignments 50%, final exam 50%.


Note about the reading: No single text covers the entire course. You are given freedom to pursue the books that are of most relevance/ interest to you, but you should definitely be reading at least one of the three principal books below. Peruse them first, but if you are at a loss about where to start, contact Charles with your major, interest, & background, and he will be happy to provide some general guidance. For A Brief Handbook of English, please log in to Compass.

  • General texts (see syllabus for recommended reading):
    • L. Sklar, Philosophy of Physics. This covers a large portion of the material, but it is densely-argued, and you must be prepared, if necessary, to read a particular passage several times.
    • J. T. Cushing, Philosophical Concepts in Physics. Somewhat similar in coverage to Sklar, but more historically-oriented. Cushing has a definite thesis to advocate -- see in particular the part on quantum mechanics -- but this does not detract from the usefulness of the text.
    • F. Rohrlich, From Paradox to Reality: Our Basic Concepts of the Physical World. While perhaps historically and philosophically na├»ve, this book complements Sklar by presenting an attitude toward the fundamentals that is probably typical of that of many thoughtful working physicists.

All of these books, as well as others relevant to the course and useful for the term paper, should be on reserve in the Engineering Library.