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Level 5

5AANB053 Philosophy of Physics I: Space and Time


Credit value: 15
Module tutor: Dr Eleanor Knox


  • Summative assessment: 1 x 2,500 word essay (100%) 
  • Formative assessment: 1 x 2,000 word essay


  • Summative assessment: 2 x 2,000 word essays (50% each) 
  • Formative assessment: 1 x 2,000 word essay

Students are reassessed in the failed elements of assessment and by the same methods as the first attempt.

Teaching pattern: one one-hour weekly lecture and one one-hour weekly seminar over ten weeks.
Pre-requisites: none (students should be aware that the course does involve learning some physics and that this will often be couched in mathematical and technical language, but this content will be introduced in the course, and prior knowledge will not be assumed). Students are permitted to take both 5AANB053 and 6AANB054, but it’s recommended to do the level 5 module first.

This module will examine aspects of contemporary physics that bear on our philosophy of space and time. One part of the course will focus on special relativity and the four-dimensional geometry it proposes: we’ll consider its unification of space and time, its own interpretation, and its consequences for the metaphysics of time. Another part of the course will focus on issues in thermal and statistical physics, including discussion of the arrow of time in thermodynamics and the reduction of thermodynamics to statistical mechanics.

Further information 

Module Aims
Learning Outcomes
Indicative Reading List
Past Syllabi

Module aims

This module will introduce students to the philosophy of physics by way of thinking about the physics of space and time. Students will be introduced to the conceptual foundations of spacetime theories, and consider their implications for the nature of space and time. 

Topics to be covered include the nature of space and time in Newtonian theories, the unification of space and time in special relativity, the consequences of special relativity for the metaphysics of time, and the thermodynamic arrow of time. Along the way, students will learn how to approach foundational issues in physics, including how to consider the ontological commitments and conceptual basis of a theory.

Indicative list of topics:

Newton, Leibniz, and the reality of space; neo-Newtonian spacetime; the theory of special relativity; geometry and dynamics in special relativity; the conventionality of simultaneity; the philosophy of time; special relativity and the philosophy of time; time travel; the arrow of time; reduction of the thermodynamic arrow of time. 

Learning outcomes

Students will acquire intellectual, transferable and practical skills appropriate to a level 5 module, in particular, they will have gained the following:

  • Comfort in working with scientific theories and applying thoughts about physics to their philosophical work.
  • A capacity for thinking critically about the content and interpretation of theories in physics.
  • The ability to explain the conceptual content of physical theories in English.
  • The ability to analyse and evaluate arguments in an unfamiliar scientific context.
  • Writing and group presentation skills when dealing with conceptually complex materials.

Indicative reading list

  • J. D. Norton, Einstein for Everyone, ebook, 
  • B. Dainton, Time and Space (Acumen, 2001)
  • T. Maudlin, Philosophy of Physics: Space and Time (PUP, 2012) 
  • D. Albert, Time and Chance, (Harvard University Press 2000)
  • L. Sklar, Physics and Chance: Philosophical Issues in the Foundations of Statistical Mechanics, (Cambridge University Press 1993)

Past syllabi

Please note that module syllabus and topics covered may vary from year to year.

Blank space

The modules run in each academic year are subject to change in line with staff availability and student demand so there is no guarantee every module will run. Module descriptions and information may vary between years.

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