Physics/Philosophy 419




What is this course about?

From the textbooks:

A more contemporary view is that philosophy's role is to serve, not as some ground for the sciences or as some extension of them, but as their critical observer. The idea here is that the particular scientific disciplines use concepts and methods. The relationships of the concepts to one another, although implicit in their use in science, may fail to be explicitly clear to us. It would then be the job of philosophy of science to clarify these conceptual relationships. (Sklar, Philosophy of Physics, p. 2)

My present endeavor is rather to present in non-technical language the conceptual revolutions that the scientific community had to undergo in order to be able to accept 'modern physics'. (Rohrlich, From Paradox to Reality, p. viii)

Willis, Hulon A Brief Handbook of English Handbook

More specifically,
what topics will be covered?

  • The transition from the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic picture 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. Philosophical implications.
  • Quantum mechanics. How might we make sense of it?
  • Irreversibility and the "arrow of time."
  • Current problems in cosmology and elementary physics.

See the schedule with reading assignments.

Are there any unifying themes?

Roughly: "What can science do for a theory of knowledge, and what can a theory of knowledge do for science?" For a somewhat longer discussion of the themes, go here. (Currently NOT linked)

Who is teaching it?


Philip W. Phillips (2121 ESB, 244-2003  e-mail)
Office hour: Thurs.
2:30-4:00pm, or whenever my door is open.

Teaching assistant:


What is the structure of the course?


Tuesday and Thursday, 12:30 PM - 01:50 PM, in 144 Loomis.

I will not lecture for 75 or 90 minutes straight. There will be discussions, either initiated by your questions and comments, or by mine, or both.

Discussion section

On hold for now. We may have some later in the semester, as the situation warrants.


Usually weekly assignments. They will be short, 500-750 word (2-3 page), essays. They will be graded both for content and grammar (this is a composition-II course) and returned the following week or sooner. Grading of Homework: All homework will be graded out of a total of 20 points. Both the grammar and the content will be graded. For the first 3 assignments, grammar will count for 60% (12 points) and the content for 40% (8 points). In the remaining 4 homework assignments, the point distribution will be reversed: 12 points for content and 8 points for grammar. Note the grading of the grammar will be strictly quantitative. A single point will be deducted for each grammatical error including spelling; so please use spell-check. In the first 3 assignments, points will be deducted until 12 errors are found. Beyond that, no deductions will be made. Hence, there will be no negative scores in grammar. A grammatical error will be defined as anything that is not in line with the usage in a standard handbook of English. For example, subject-verb disagreements, run-on sentences, two sentences joined together by a comma, misplaced semicolons, non-parallel constructions, misplaced commas, etc. are all instances of grammatical errors. You should consult your favorite text on this matter; however, a few include Strunk and White, Elements of Style and Willis, Elements of English Grammar. Please read this comment about written assignments.


There will be a final exam. The time and place of the final exam will be announced later. It will consist of approximately four essays about the conceptual issues raised during the semester.
The exam will be open book & open notes.

Term paper (for students who are interested in the topics but need only 2 hours credit without Comp II credit, see PWP for special arrangements to take course without paper requirement)

You are to write a critical essay of about 2500 - 4000 words (10-15 typed pages) on some aspect of the interpretation of physical theories. The topic should reflect your interests and make use of your background. You should develop your topic into a coherent presentation of ideas for which you argue clearly and convincingly. We do not expect you to do groundbreaking work on the foundations of science, but you must not merely summarize or restate some other author's views.

The term paper has a series of required deadlines. See the information page (currently NOT linked) for more details. Also please refer to the general comments about written assignments.


  • Philosophy of Physics , by L. Sklar (Purchase at or
  • From Paradox to Reality, by F. Rohrlich (Purchase at or

These two books come close to providing a text. Rohrlich is somewhat more accessible, but downplays the interesting problems of quantum interpretations.

The Character of Physical Law, by R. P. Feynman (a set of brief, entertaining lectures that give a feel for how the basic principles look to a thoughtful working physicist)


  • The Copernican Revolution, by T. S. Kuhn (gives a feel for how one major change in physical outlook occurred)
  • The Sleepwalkers, by A. Koestler (provides an accurate historical critique of the key players in the development of cosmology from the Babylonian times through Newton. There is no hero worship here in contrast to the work of Kuhn. )
  • Quantum Reality, by N. Herbert (an occasionally mushy account of why quantum mechanics is disturbing)
  • Relativity, the Special and General Theory , by A. Einstein. (a very accessible introduction to relativity)
  • A Brief History of Time, by S. W. Hawking (hits many of the high points of modern physics in a lively fashion)

All of these books, as well as others relevant to the course (currently NOT linked) and useful for the term papers, are on reserve in the Grangier Library or the Undergraduate library, or both.

How will the course be graded?

Homework will contribute 40% of your grade,
The term paper will contribute 35%, and
The final exam will contribute 25%.