PHI 247 / CIS 247
Philosophical Issues in Modern Physics
Fall 2002
TR 11:30-12:45, Chambers 123 (and occasionally 212)




Tim Gfroerer (Physics) Dave Robb (Philosophy)
Office: Dana 155 Office: Chambers 203-A
Phone: x2319 Phone: x2218
Email: Email:
Office Hrs: MTWR 2:30 - 4:30 Office hrs: MWF 2:30 - 3:30




This is an interdisciplinary course focusing on philosophical issues in modern physics. We値l look at three main topics, in each case focusing first on the relevant physical theory and then on the philosophical questions.  There are no prerequisites, but one previous course in physics and one previous course in philosophy are recommended.  The course satisfies one core requirement in philosophy/religion.

(1) Space and Time

In what ways do special and general relativity call for a revision in our commonsense notions of space and time? What is curved space and how might it be manifest in the universe? Why do we speak of a unified space-time?

Is space-time finite or infinite? Is it something like an independently existing "container" of physical objects and events?

Does time "flow", or do all events (past, present, and future) exist at once? Is time travel possible?

(2) Modern Cosmology

What is the Big Bang theory? What empirical evidence is there for it? What questions remain unanswered?

What caused the universe to come into existence? Does the Big Bang theory support theism or atheism?

Why do we have the laws of nature that we do? Are the physical constants and laws of nature "fine-tuned" to allow for the emergence of life?

(3) Quantum Mechanics

What are the postulates of quantum mechanics and how are they applied to microscopic systems? Is our world deterministic? How does Bell's Proof distinguish between different interpretations of quantum mechanics?

What is the quantum measurement problem? Does consciousness play a role in determining the course of events in the microscopic world?

What is the quantum world really like? Do (or should) physicists even ask this question, or is physics merely attempting to devise theories that accurately predict observable phenomena?


Students who take this course should obtain a clear conceptual understanding of the physical theories under consideration. They should also learn how empirical evidence is used to support these theories. Emphasis will be placed on physical concepts, but mathematical treatment (at the level of algebra and trigonometry) will also be necessary.

Students should be able to clearly formulate the central philosophical questions raised by modern physical theories and discuss the main answers to these questions, including the arguments for and against each answer.

Students should gain an appreciation of how science and philosophy can inform each other and fruitfully interact in the development of one's worldview.

Students should develop their skills in analytical problem-solving and critical reasoning.


Required written work: Six problem sets, three five-page papers, and a final exam. Regular attendance and quality participation in class and online discussions is expected. The exam, to be taken during the self-scheduled exam period, will be comprehensive. You are expected to observe the Honor Code at all times. Specific restrictions on assignments are described below.

Problem sets: These will be collected at the beginning of class on the dates designated. On these assignments, always explain your arguments completely, realizing that clarity, neatness, correct units, and appropriate significant figures count in the grading process. We encourage you to collaborate on the homework sets, but you must participate in the process of obtaining the solution to each problem. When working with a partner, keep in mind that the final will test your individual problem-solving ability.

Papers: These may be turned in electronically via Blackboard's drop-box; see the schedule below for due dates. When preparing your papers, you may discuss general ideas and arguments with each other, but all of the writing, editing, and proof-reading of your paper should be your own. (You may also take your paper to a tutor in the Writing Center.) If you use the idea of another student- or of anyone else, for that matter- you should acknowledge this help in a footnote.

Final Exam: This will be closed-book, closed-notes, and no collaboration will be allowed. You may, of course, work with each other when preparing for this exam.

Late work policy: We are extremely reluctant to grant extensions on assigned work, and typically will do so only given circumstances so serious that they require the attention of the Dean of Students. Any extensions must be approved in advance of the due date and by both of the course instructors. Unauthorized late work will be penalized one letter-grade per day.

Grading: At the end of the semester, we'll calculate your course grade like this:

Participation 15%  
Problem Sets 30%
Short Papers 30%
Final Exam 25%



Edward R. Harrison, Cosmology: The Science of the Universe (Cambridge University Press, 2000).

Peter Kosso, Appearance and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Physics (Oxford University Press, 1997) .

Martin J. Rees, Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces that Shape the Universe (Basic Books, 2001).

Additional readings available online.


Blackboard: On our Blackboard page, you値l find course documents, such as handouts, assignments, and solutions. You値l also be able to turn in work electronically with the Digital Drop Box. And you値l use the Discussion Board for online discussions of questions prior to each class meeting. (We値l talk about the logistics of this in class.) Those of you not familiar with Blackboard can find a tutorial at:

Physlets: Physlets are web-based physics simulations that are created here at Davidson College.  We will occasionally use physlets to demonstrate physical concepts in class and to test physical understanding on problem sets.  When Physlet Demonstrations are used in class, they will be posted on our Blackboard website for your review.  Physlets work best on Windows machines running Internet Explorer.  Please test the functionality of physlets on an appropriate computer that is accessible to you well ahead of the first physlet assignment due date and report any difficulties to Dr. Gfroerer.

Outside speakers: We strongly encourage you to attend all physics seminars and philosophy colloquia. These talks broaden your perspective and show you how physics and philosophy are practiced outside of Davidson.

Lunches: Once a week after class we値l have 撤hysics/Philosophy Table, an informal (and optional) lunch for the class over at the Commons.

Schedule of Topics and Assignments

This is subject to change. Numbers in parentheses refer to entries in the bibliography below.




Reading Assignment

Written Work Due

T 8-27


Puzzles about space and time





Part I



R 8-29

Curved space



Harrison, chs. 9, 10


T 9-3


Special relativity



Kosso, ch. 3, pp. 38-70



R 9-5


Special relativity


Harrison, ch. 11



Problem Set 1

T 9-10


General relativity



Harrison, ch. 12; Kosso, ch. 4, pp. 71-88


R 9-12


Space: Substan-tival vs. relational


Ray (1)

Problem Set 2

T 9-17


Space: Substan-tival vs. relational


Kosso, chs. 3 & 4, esp. pp. 31-38, 88-91


R 9-19


Time: dynamic vs. static



Taylor (2); Smart (3)


T 9-24


J. C. Polkinghorne visit



Polkinghorne (12)


R 9-26


Time: dynamic vs. static

Penrose (4)




T 10-1


Time travel



Lewis (5); Harrison, pp. 178-9



Part II



R 10-3


Hubble Expansion

Harrison, pp. 270-289 and 302-309



Sun 10-6

(Not a class meeting day)



Paper 1 (by 11:59pm)

T 10-8


Hubble Expansion



Harrison, ch. 15


R 10-10


Cosmic Microwave Background


Harrison, pp. 344-348 and 387-397



T 10-15


(Fall Break)





R 10-17





Harrison, ch. 20

Problem Set 3

T 10-22





Harrison, ch. 22


R 10-24


Did God create the universe?


Craig (6)


Problem Set 4

T 10-29


Could the universe be self-caused?


Smith (7)


R 10-31




Rees (all); Harrison, ch. 23


R 11-5

Explaining fine-tuning



Van Inwagen (8)


T 11-7

Explaining fine-tuning




Sun 11-10


(Not a class meeting day)



Paper 2 (by 11:59pm)


Part III



T 11-12

Introduction to quantum mechanics


Feynman (9)



R 11-14

The Stern-Gerlach experiment

Kosso, ch. 6, pp. 110-133  



T 11-19

The EPR Experiment



Mermin (10)

Problem Set 5

R 11-21

Bell痴 proof


Kosso, ch. 6, pp. 133-151



T 11-26

The measurement problem


Kosso, ch. 7

Problem Set 6

R 11-28



(Thanksgiving Break)




T 12-3

The measurement problem


Chalmers (11)



R 12-5




Kosso, ch. 2



T 12-10




Kosso, ch. 5, 8


Paper 3 (at 11:30 am)

F 12-13 to  R 12-19




Final Exam (self-scheduled)




All of these are in the library痴 electronic reserve unless otherwise indicated.


(1) Christopher Ray, 哲ewton and the Reality of Space and Time, ch. 5 of Time, Space, and Philosophy (Routledge, 1991).


(2) Richard Taylor, 典emporal Passage, ch. 9 of Metaphysics, 4th edition (Prentice Hall, 1992).


(3) J.J.C. Smart, 典ime and Becoming, in Peter van Inwagen (ed.), Time and Cause (D. Reidel, 1980).


(4) Roger Penrose, selections from The Emperor's New Mind (Oxford, 1989), pp. 201, 302-3.


(5) David Lewis, 典he Paradoxes of Time Travel, American Philosophical Quarterly 13 (1976), pp. 145-152.


(6) William Lane Craig, The Ultimate Question of Origins: God and the Beginning of the Universe. Available online at:


(7) Quentin Smith, The Reason the Universe Exists is that it Caused Itself to Exist. Available online at:


(8) Peter van Inwagen, 典he Place of Rational Beings in the World: Design and Purpose, ch. 8 of Metaphysics (Westview Press, 1993).


(9) Richard P. Feynman, 的ntroduction, ch. 1 of QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter (Princeton University Press, 1985).


(10) N. David Mermin, 鉄pooky Actions at a Distance: Mysteries of the Quantum Theory, The Great Ideas Today (Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1988).


(11) David Chalmers, 典he Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, ch. 10 of The Conscious Mind (Oxford, 1996).


(12) J. C. Polkinghorne, "Natural Science, Temporality and Divine Action", ch. 7 of Faith, Science and Understanding (Yale, 2000).