Foundations of philosophy of science

Basic Information

Course 2017/2018
Carl Hoefer
Department of Philosophy
Universitat de Barcelona
Module 7. Issues in Contemporary Theoretical and Practical Philosophy


Tuesdays, 9:30-12:30
UB, Philosophy Faculty, room 409


The goal of this course is to introduce students to contemporary philosophical debates in philosophy of science, and to build the analytical and critical skills needed to contribute to those debates. This year the topic chosen is the philosophy of physics, and in particular the main conceptual problems and interpretive issues found in quantum theories and Einstein’s relativity theories. Students will acquire an understanding of the conceptual foundations of these theories and of the interpretive questions that remain unsolved; they will also acquire an understanding of how General Relativity and quantum theory appear to conflict with each other, giving rise to the search for a quantum gravity theory. Classes will consist of introductory lectures by the professors, and in later weeks discussion sessions based on reading of important contemporary articles.  Students will be expected to participate in class discussion and write a final paper on the topic.

No special mathematics or physics knowledge is presupposed, beyond high-school level mathematics.


Structure and Contents


Part 1: Space, time and Relativity theory

  • Introduction to space, time and mechanics: from Aristotle to Newton.
  • The ontology of space and time in classical physics I: the Leibniz-Newton debate.
  • 20th century Leibnizian theories (Huggett, Barbour).
  • Introduction to Special Relativity.
  • Introduction to General Relativity.
  • The ontology of space and time in relativistic physics: the Hole Argument and Mach’s Principle. Introduction to the formalism of quantum mechanics.


Part 2: Philosophy of quantum theory

  • Introduction to the formalism of quantum mechanics.
  • Why quantum mechanics needs an interpretation: the measurement problem.
  • Interpretations of quantum mechanics I: many worlds, many minds.
  • Interpretations of quantum mechanics II: primitive ontology approaches. 
  • Space and time meet the quantum: the problem(s) of quantum gravity. 


Students will read introductory texts on the different topics covered, and also some important journal articles from recent decades. Class will be organized as lectures with time for discussion and practice with some exercises. In most weeks students will be given a homework assignment, due the following class, intended to complement the lectures and solidify understanding of the basic concepts. Students will also be expected to attend and participate in class discussions, and write a final paper discussing a topic agreed with the instructor(s).



Homeworks: 20%

Class participation: 30%

Final paper: 50%


Learning outcomes:

  • Students should be conversant with the fundamental concepts and laws of quantum mechanics, special relativity theory, and general relativity theory.
  • Students should be able to critically understand central texts philosophy of physics in a way that puts them in a position to develop and apply original ideas. 
  • Students should be able to communicate their knowledge and their arguments to specialized audiences in a clear and articulate way. 
  • Students should be able to work both independently and in a team in an international environment. 
  • Students should be able to identify fallacies and methodological errors in reasoning.
  • Students should be able to critically engage with the concepts and methods of contemporary philosophy of physics.
  • Students should be able to identify and critically engage with the current state of a particular philosophical debate, and form a reasoned view, even if provisional, about it.
  • Students should be able to critically use specialized terminology in the field of philosophy of physics.



Basic readings:


  • Huggett, N. and C. Hoefer (2017). Absolute and relational theories of space and motion. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.
  • Maudlin, T. (2012). Philosophy of Physics: Space and Time. Princeton University Press.
  • Maudlin, T. (2017). Philosophy of Physics: Matter. Princeton University Press (forthcoming).


Advanced & optional readings:


  • Allori, V., S. Goldstein, R. Tumulka, and N. Zanghì (2008). On the common structure of Bohmian mechanics and the Ghirardi-Rimini-Weber theory. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 59, 353–389. http: // 

  • Barbour, J. (1982, September). Relational concepts of space and time. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 33(3), 251–274. 

  • Earman, J. (2002). Thoroughly modern McTaggart or what McTaggart would have said if he had read the general theory of relativity. Philosopher’s Imprint 2(3). 

  • Earman, J. and J. Norton (1987). What price spacetime substantivalism? The hole story. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science. 38, 515–525. http: //
  • Gryb, S. and K. Thébault (2016). Time remains. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 67(3), 663–705.
  • Huggett, N. (2006). The regularity account of relational spacetime. Mind 115, 41–73.
  • Maudlin, T. (1995). Three measurement problems. Topoi 14, 7–15.
  • Rickles, D. (2008). Quantum gravity: a primer for philosophers. In D. Rickles (Ed.), The Ashgate Companion to Contemporary Philosophy of Physics, Chapter 5, pp. 262–382. Ashgate Publishing LTD. http://
  • Wallace, D. (2013). A prolegomenon to the ontology of the Everett interpretation. In A. Ney and D. Albert (Eds.), The wave function, Chapter 10, pp. 203–222. Oxford University Press.