May 23: Harjit Bhogal (Maryland), “Moral Necessity and Scientific Contingency”

On Monday 23 May, Harjit Bhogal (University of Maryland) gave a work-in-progress talk to the FraMEPhys group.

“Moral Necessity and Scientific Contingency”
Abstract: Here is a puzzling phenomenon. Moral theories are typically thought to be necessary. If act utilitarianism is true, for example, then it is necessarily true. However, scientific theories are typically thought to be contingent. If quantum field theory is true, it’s not necessarily true — the world could have been Newtonian. My aim is to explore this discrepancy between domains. In particular, I’ll make a suggestion about what could motivate this modal difference — one to do with our intuitions about the ‘internality’ of explanations in the two domains.

Wednesday 2 February: Inaugural Lecture – Professor Alastair Wilson, “Ways and Whys”

Our life is full of contingency. In every decision we face a range of alternative possibilities – ways for things to be – between which we have to choose as best we can. What sort of things are these elusive ways for things to be? How can we know anything about them? And why do we care about them? A novel answer comes from an unlikely source: quantum theory, understood in terms of parallel quantum worlds. But this approach leaves another kind of question open: why are things the way they are? I disentangle some possible answers to this new question suggested by the quantum account of contingency. Some why-questions can be wholly answered by quantum theory; other why-questions emerge as unanswerable, for principled reasons; but a third type of why-question seems to run deeper than any explanation quantum theory can provide.

Professor Wilson’s research relates to metaphysics and the philosophy of science, with particular interests in the metaphysics of modality and dependence, Everettian quantum mechanics, explanation, chance and laws of nature. You can find Professor Wilson’s biography here and detail on Professor Wilson’s current five-year research project FraMEPhys (A Framework for Metaphysical Explanation in Physics), funded by the European Research Council here

The lecture was held on 2/2/22 at 5.30pm at the University of Birmingham in the Arts Building – Main Lecture Theatre and was followed by a reception and informal launch for the following two books:

Robertson and Wilson on Theoretical Relicts at Bergen

On Friday 5 November 2021, Katie Robertson and Alastair Wilson discussed work in progress at the Annual Philosophy of Science Workshop at the University of Bergen, held over Zoom. Details of the workshop, including abstracts of all talks are here – videos will be available soon.

Theoretical Relicts: Progress, Reduction, and Autonomy
Katie Robertson and Alastair Wilson

ABSTRACT: When once-successful physical theories are abandoned, common wisdom has it that key theoretical entities are abandoned with them: examples include phlogiston, light rays, newtonian forces, euclidean space. In this paper we argue that the theoretical terms of superseded theories can typically be correlated with real and explanatorily relevant higher-level entities – ‘theoretical relicts’ – which enable successful description of non-fundamental phenomena. We describe a ‘verticalization’ procedure which transforms horizontal reductions (in which a reducing theory recaptures the reduced theory within a certain domain of application) into vertical reductions (in which a lower-level phenomenon constitutes or grounds a higher-level phenomenon). Theoretical relicts, as higher-level abstractions, correspond to distinct subject-matters from their lower-level realizers; this distinctness enables the relicts to retain distinctive explanatory power even in the presence of reduction. We suggest that theoretical entities from abandoned fundamental theories should be retained in a scientific realist worldview just when, reinterpreted as higher-level abstractions, they continue to perform distinctive explanatory work in providing the aptest, or most proportionate, explanation for non-fundamental phenomena of interest. In slogan form: a good relict is an emergent relict.

The presentation is here:

How Chance Explains

A new paper by Michael Townsen Hicks and Alastair Wilson, developed as part of the FraMEPhys project and now forthcoming in Noûs, urges us to rethink the role of chance in the explanation of physical events.

“How Chance Explains”

Abstract: What explains the outcomes of chance processes? We claim that their setups do. Chances, we think, mediate these explanations of outcome by setup but do not feature in them. Facts about chances do feature in explanations of a different kind: higher-order explanations, which explain how and why setups explain their outcomes. In this paper, we elucidate this ‘mediator view’ of chancy explanation and defend it from a series of objections. We then show how it changes the playing field in four metaphysical disputes concerning chance. First, it makes it more plausible that even low chances can have explanatory power. Second, it undercuts a circularity objection against reductionist theories of chance. Third, it redirects the debate about a prominent argument against epistemic theories of chance. Finally, it sheds light on potential chancy explanations of the Universe’s origin.

Download the preprint of “How Chance Explains” here.

Symposium at BSPS 2021 – Dependence in Physics

This week the FraMEPhys team will be presenting project research in a symposium at the British Society for the Philosophy of Science Annual Conference, online and open to all. The symposium runs 2.30-4.00pm on Weds 7th July, with talks from Alastair Wilson, Katie Robertson, and Michael Townsen Hicks.

2.30 – 3.00 : Alastair Wilson, “Counterpossible Dependence in Physics”
Handout here

3.00 – 3.30 : Katie Robertson, “Reduction, Relicts, and Realism”
Handout here

3.30 – 4.00 : Michael Townsen Hicks, “Symmetries, Explanation, and Grounding
Handout here

The symposium explores the general notion of dependence as it applies within physics, and contrasts various different relations of dependence which appear to be needed to understand the practice and content of physics. In particular, the symposium talks focus on the dependence relations of reduction (both ‘horizontal’ and ‘vertical’ varieties), grounding and causation. Reduction and grounding are typically conceived as (in different ways) relating multiple levels of physical reality, while causation is supposed to relate events at a single level. However, every case of reduction is highly contested, there are well-known difficulties in making sense of causation in fundamental physics, and grounding presents additional conceptual problems which have as yet received little attention. The aim of this symposium is to classify these different notions of dependence, to explore their similarities and differences, and to illustrate their application to physical contexts including the mechanics of planetary orbits, the relationship between statistical mechanics and thermodynamics, and the relationship between symmetries and conservation principles.

For full details, and to sign up for the conference, go here.

Causal Perspectivalism and Physics Workshop – 22 Sep 2021

On Wednesday 22 September 2021, the FraMEPhys project at the University of Birmingham is hosting a free one-day workshop entitled ‘Causal Perspectivalism and Physics’ via Zoom. Registration details will appear here shortly.

If you have any queries about this event, please email


Alison Fernandes (Trinity College Dublin)
“How Agency Features in Explaining the Direction of Causation”

Jenann Ismael (Columbia University)
“It’s not what you look at, it’s what you see”

Peter Evans (University of Queensland) – (Joint work with Gerard J. Milburn and Sally Shrapnel)
“Causal asymmetry from the perspective of a causal agent”


Wednesday 22 September

1400-1510: TBC

15-minute break

1525-1635: TBC

15-minute break

1650-1800: TBC


Jenann Ismael (Columbia University)
“It’s not what you look at, it’s what you see”
Many writers have pointed out that the apparent direction of causation depends on a coarse-graining that carves phase space into macrostates in a radically uneven way. I will look at the complex set of ways in which agency depends on and exploits the thermodynamic gradient and assess what that means for the senses in which agency (and the causal ideas that agents deploy in navigating the world) are a matter of perspective

Peter Evans (University of Queensland). (Joint work with Gerard J. Milburn and Sally Shrapnel)
“Causal asymmetry from the perspective of a causal agent”
Agency accounts of causation are often criticised as being unacceptably subjective or anthropocentric. According to such criticisms, if there were no human agents then there would be no causal relations, or, at the very least, if humans had been different then so too would causal relations. Here we describe a model of a causal agent that is not human with a view to exploring this latter claim. This model obeys the known laws of physics, and we claim that it endows the causal agent with a “causal viewpoint: a distinctive mix of knowledge, ignorance and practical ability that a creature must apparently exemplify, if it is to be capable of employing causal concepts” (Price, 2007, p.255). We argue that this model of a causal agent provides a clear illustration of the epistemic constraints that define such a ‘causal perspective’, and we employ the model to demonstrate how shared constraints lead to a shared perspective. Furthermore, we use this model to scrutinise the alignment of three familiar asymmetries with the causal asymmetry: the thermodynamic arrow, the arrow of time, and the arrow of deliberation and action.

New Journal: Philosophy of Physics

Dear Colleagues,

We are delighted to announce that we are in the advanced stages of the foundation of a Philosophy of Physics Society which is going to be created to support the international community of researchers and students in the field of philosophy of physics and administer a journal entitled Philosophy of Physics which would be published on an open access basis (without publication charges).

We would like to invite all interested parties to an online “town hall” meeting in which the working group for the creation of the society will be able to answer questions and also take suggestions or comments relating to the drafts we have written for the governing documents for the society (links below).

The meeting has been scheduled for 24th of May at 3pm UK time. If you would like to attend please complete the form below, which also has space to add comments on the documents to propose agenda items for the meeting.

There will be an open call for the post of Editor(s)-in-Chief of the journal which we will publish soon after the meeting. 

All the best,

Eleanor Knox 
Patricia Palacios
James Read 
Bryan Roberts
Katie Robertson 
Karim Thébault 
Jim Weatherall 
Alastair Wilson 
Christian Wüthrich 

Registration Form for Town Hall 

Draft Constitution

Draft Bye-laws

Draft Editorial Brief

Humeanism and the Pragmatic Turn – Workshop 12-13 May 2021

On 12-13 May 2021, the FraMEPhys project at the University of Birmingham and the University of Florida co-hosted a free two-day workshop entitled ‘Humeanism and the Pragmatic Turn’ via Zoom.

The workshop poster/flyer is available here.

If you have any queries about this event, please email


Wednesday 12 May

1400-1510: John Roberts (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)
“Responsibility and the Natural Modalities”

1525-1635: Christian Loew (Umeå University, Sweden), Siegfried Jaag (Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf), and Michael Hicks (University of Birmingham)
“Laws and Normativity”

1650-1800: Jenann Ismael (Columbia University)
“Some Questions about the Role of Totality in the Best Systems Analysis”

Thursday 13 May

1400-1510: Vera Matarese (University of Bern)
“Super-Humean Fictionalism”

1525-1635: Toby Friend (University of Bristol)
“In Defense of Pure Pith”

1650-1800: Barry Loewer (Rutgers University, New Brunswick)
“Let’s Make a (Package) Deal”


John Roberts (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)
“Responsibility and the Natural Modalities”

A pragmatist approach to laws, causation, counterfactuals and so on begins by following Wittgenstein’s advice to look for the use, not the meaning.  So, how do we use the concepts of law, causation, counterfactuals and so on?  In lots of ways.  But one particular family of uses stands out, namely the ways in which we use statements about causal relations, law-statements, and counterfactual conditionals to block or permit attributions of responsibility for outcomes to agents.  I show how to reductively analyze these natural modalities in terms of concepts pertaining to responsibility, and how to use a pragmatist theory of responsibility to generate pragmatist theories of the natural modalities.

Christian Loew (Umeå University, Sweden), Siegfried Jaag (Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf), and Michael Hicks (University of Birmingham)
“Laws and Normativity”  

It is widely agreed that any theory of laws needs to be able to explain inferences from nomic facts to certain non-nomic facts, such as why ‘that it is a law that p’ entails ‘that p’. This challenge is often called the ‘inference problem.’ In this paper, we show that there is an additional ‘normativity problem’: theories of laws need to explain why nomic facts entail certain normative facts, such as what agents ought to do and believe. We will argue that solving the inference problem is not enough to solve the normativity problem and that neither non-Humean theories of laws nor the orthodox Humean best systems account can solve the latter. By contrast, we argue that recent pragmatist versions of Humean reductionism about laws have a ready solution to the normativity problem.

Vera Matarese (University of Bern)
“Super-Humean Fictionalism”

Can Super-Humeanism be legitimately regarded as a fully-fledged scientific realist view? Supporters of Super-Humeanism respond in the affirmative. Indeed, even though they take the properties figuring in the laws to be mere dynamical parameters that should not be interpreted literally, they have recently proposed a functionalist account to locate them in the primitive ontology and to vindicate their existence. I argue, on the contrary, that this functionalist strategy is dubious and that it is not enough to recover scientific realism. Instead, drawing on Varzi’s work on Humean Fictionalism, I propose that Super-Humeanism should be regarded as a fictionalist view. According to this view, the dynamical parameters appearing in the laws should be interpreted as face-value, but sentences about them should not be regarded as strictly expressing the truth. Since this fictionalist view only targets the dynamical structure of our theories, and is not properly ontological, it is still compatible with metaphysical realism and the primitive ontology approach. Moreover, given that it regards the dynamical structure of our theories as the best possible ‘fiction’ to make sense of reality, it also grounds and justifies our belief that reality should be structured with the laws that these theories propose. I will conclude that this view is not a scientific realist view. However, I will also suggest that the gap between such a fictionalist view and scientific realism is not as severe as one would think.

Toby Friend (University of Bristol)
“In Defense of Pure Pith”  

Lewis’s Best Systems Account (BSA) of laws was not much motivated by pragmatics. But recent commentary on his general approach to laws has taken a ‘pragmatic turn’. This was initiated by Hall’s defence against the ‘ratbag idealist’ which argued that best system accounts should be admired rather than criticised for the inherent pragmatism behind their choice of desiderata for what counts as ‘best’. Emboldened by Hall’s pragmatic turn, recent commentators have proposed the addition of pragmatically motivated desiderata to complement the canonical desideratum of pure pith. This, they hope, will allow their revisionary BSAs to respond better to various counterexamples against the original account. Here I problematise these revisionary approaches (though not the pragmatic turn itself). While actual laws may satisfy the newly proposed desiderata, they cannot be constitutive of laws. By comparison, the canonical desideratum appears to be relevant to explaining why and when the revisionary desiderata will reflect pragmatic features of the laws and better reflect the motives behind practitioners of fundamental physics. I therefore attempt to respond to the counterexamples on behalf of the Lewis’s ‘canonical’, purely pithy, BSA.

Barry Loewer (Rutgers University, New Brunswick)
“Let’s Make a (Package) Deal”

I will describe an account of laws of nature that is a descendent and improvement on Lewis Humean Best Systems Account (BSA) called “The Package Deal Account” (PDA) Lewis describes the BSA as a package deal since it proposes a package that includes both laws and chances. But it is a package in which the perfectly natural properties and space-time are not part of the package but are metaphysically prior to laws and chances. In contrast, the PDA is a package that includes fundamental properties, space-time, and laws and chances in one big package. Neither fundamental laws nor fundamental properties are metaphysically prior to the other. Because of this the PDA overcomes a number of objections to Lewis’ BSA and is an account that is closer to the practice of physics.

Counterfactual Reasoning in Science – March 2021

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Image: Harold Edgerton, Bullet Through Apple, 1964 (printed in 1984) Dye transfer print on paper, /240 40.8 x 50.8 cm 16.063 x 20 inches. © 2010 MIT. Courtesy of MIT.

On Thursday 25 March 2021, the FraMEPhys project at the University of Birmingham hosted a free half-day workshop on the topic of counterfactual reasoning in science, via Zoom.

If you have any queries about this event, please email


2.30-3.20pm: Ruth Byrne (Trinity College Dublin)
“How people reason with counterfactual and counterpossible conditionals”

10-min break

3.30-4.20pm: Marco J. Nathan (University of Denver)
“Counterfactuals as Placeholders: Take II”

4.40-5.30pm: Peter Tan (Fordham University)
“Two Theses about Modality and Modelling”


Ruth Byrne (Trinity College Dublin)
“How people reason with counterfactual and counterpossible conditionals”
When people understand and reason from counterfactual conditionals, such as “if the car had run out of petrol it would have stalled”,  they envisage two possibilities, the imagined conjecture (the car ran out of petrol and it stalled) and the presumed facts (the car did not run out of petrol and it did not stall).  Although alternative theories of reasoning have been tested for counterfactuals,  little is known about how people reason with counterpossibles, subjunctive conditionals with impossible antecedents, such as “if lakes were made of bleach people would not swim in them”. I discuss the results of several recent experiments designed to examine how people reason with a range of counterpossibles, that compare those that seem non-vacuously true, to those that seem vacuously true, and those that seem false. The experiments examine the judgments participants made about whether such counterpossibles are true or false and their tendency to make inferences such as modus ponens and modus tollens. I discuss the implications of the results for theories of how people understand and reason from counterfactual and counterpossible conditionals.

Marco J. Nathan (University of Denver)
“Counterfactuals as Placeholders: Take II”
In previous work, I advanced the thesis that counterfactuals, just like their corresponding dispositional properties, are placeholders standing in for predictions or explanations, without themselves actually predicting or explaining anything. This, I maintained, explains the role of subjunctive conditionals and dispositional properties in scientific practice. A few years later, I still believe that both of these constructs are placeholders. However, the placeholder thesis is in need of clarification and amendment. I was wrong to suggest that counterfactuals never explain, and this point can be clearly seen by drawing a distinction between two kinds of placeholders, ‘frames’ and ‘difference-makers.’ The goal of this talk is to elaborate and extend the placeholder view of counterfactuals and its role in scientific explanation, by focusing on examples from various branches of natural and social sciences. 

Peter Tan (Fordham University)
“Two Theses about Modality and Modelling”
Philosophers of science interested in the content of highly idealized scientific representations often claim that their content is modal in nature. There are two prevailing theses about the modal content of idealized models: the view that they provide information about what is merely possible (the “how-possibly thesis”), and the view that their content either literally is or is best understood counterfactually (the “counterfactual interpretation”). These theses about modality and modeling have not received a treatment that compares their advantages, and in fact, only recently has the how-possibly thesis begun to receive more scrutiny. I defend the counterfactual interpretation on three broad grounds. First, it coheres best with broader views about scientific representation; second, it provides a more unificatory account of model formulation and testing; lastly, it best allows for an empiricist-friendly view of the metaphysics of modality.

Humean Entanglement Workshop – Feb 2021

On Monday 8 February 2021, the FraMEPhys project at the University of Birmingham hosted a free half-day workshop on the topic of Humean entanglement via Zoom.

If you have any queries about this workshop, please email


2.30-3.20pm: Zee Perry (New York University, Shanghai) and Harjit Bhogal (University of Maryland, College Park)
“Humean Nomic Essentialism”

10-min break

3.30-4.20pm: Vera Matarese (University of Bern)
“A Humean Wave-Function for Quantum Mechanics”

20-min break

4.40-5.30pm: Craig Callender (University of California San Diego)
“When Has Humeanism Gone Too Far?”


Zee Perry (New York University, Shanghai) and Harjit Bhogal (University of Maryland, College Park)
“Humean Nomic Essentialism”

Humeanism – the idea that there are no necessary connections between distinct existences – and Nomic Essentialism – the idea that properties essentially play the nomic roles that they do – are two of the most important and influential positions in the metaphysics of science. Traditionally, it has been thought that these positions were incompatible competitors. We disagree. We argue that there is an attractive version of Humeanism that captures the idea that, for example, mass essentially plays the role that it actually does in the laws of nature. In this paper we consider the arguments that have led many to concluded that Humeanism cannot be combined with Nomic Essentialism. We identify the weaknesses in these arguments, and we argue in detail that a version of Humeanism based on a variant of the Best Systems Account of laws captures the key intuitions behind Nomic Essentialism.

Vera Matarese (University of Bern): 
“A Humean Wave-Function for Quantum Mechanics”

David Lewis was the first to express concerns about the compatibility between Humeanism and Quantum Mechanics. One of the most important solutions to this problem is provided by Esfeld’s Quantum Humeanism (Esfeld 2014), which is now part of his far-reaching metaphysical thesis Super-Humeanism (Esfeld 2017; 2019). In this talk, I will focus on the treatment of the quantum wavefunction in Esfeld’s view; in particular, I will challenge his following claims: 1. The wave-function is a nomological parameter that makes the laws of nature simple; 2. The wave-function is located in the particle trajectories via its functional role; 3. The initial conditions of the wavefunction depend on the future trajectories of the particles.

Craig Callender (University of California San Diego): 
“When Has Humeanism Gone Too Far?”

Just as functionalists need to decide what not to be functionalist about, so too do Humean systematizers need to decide what’s not derived in the system. Exploiting this opportunity, Humeans have taken entities that were thought to be part of the mosaic and instead made them emerge from the best system description of the mosaic. This move has been done for chance (Lewis), instantaneous velocity (Callender), inertial frames (Huggett), mass (Hall) and the quantum state (Miller, Callender). Esfeld and collaborators have proposed doing it for fields and essentially everything but particle positions. When has this gone too far? Using the example of the quantum wavefunction, I’ll first discuss some new pros and cons of systemizing away the wavefunction, and then I’ll turn to the more general question of when the “rogue and narcissistic Bohumian” (Miller) can legitimately systematize away an entity.

Explanation by Constraint Workshop – Jan 2021

On Tuesday 19 January 2021, the FraMEPhys project at the University of Birmingham hosted a free half-day workshop on the topic of explanation by constraint.

If you have any queries, please email


2.30-3.20pm: Eleanor Knox (King’s College, London)
“On Constraints, Context, and Spatiotemporal Explanation”

3.30-4.20pm: Sara Green (University of Copenhagen)
“Constraint-based Explanation in Biology”

4.40-5.30pm: Lauren Ross (University of California, Irvine)
“The Explanatory Nature of Constraints”

5.40-6.30pm: Michael Bertrand (Ohio State University)
“Metaphysical Explanation by Constraint”


Sara Green (University of Copenhagen)
“Constraint-based Explanation in Biology”

Knowledge about physical constraints plays important roles in reasoning in biology but is rarely explicitly addressed by philosophers of biology. Biologists are not only interested in clarifying “how actually” a given function is produced by a given mechanism. Sometimes the aim is to understand why certain general patterns in anatomical structures or physiological strategies are observed in nature, despite what may seem like endless possibilities for biological diversity. This involves a delineation of “possibility spaces” for biological variation. This paper outlines how analysis on biological possibility-spaces is informed by reasoning about physical constraints and size-dependency of dominant forces. Whereas such examples have been highlighted by theoretical biologists for decades, I show how research on size-dependent constraints are of continued importance in studies of possible evolutionary trajectories, morphological patterning, as well as for what systems and synthetic biologists call design principles.

Lauren Ross (University of California, Irvine)
“The explanatory nature of constraints”

This talk provides an analysis of explanatory constraints and their role in scientific explanation. This analysis clarifies main characteristics of explanatory constraints, ways in which they differ from “standard” explanatory factors, and the unique roles they play in scientific explanation. While current philosophical work tends to appreciate two main types of explanatory constraints, this paper suggests a new taxonomy: law-based constraints, mathematical constraints, and causal constraints. This classification helps capture unique features of distinct constraint types, the different roles they play in explanation, and it includes causal constraints, which are often overlooked in this literature.

Density Matrix Realism Workshop – 24 Nov 2020

On Tuesday 24 November 2020, FraMEPhys hosted a free one-day workshop on the topic of Density Matrix Realism. This took place via Zoom, from 2.30-6.30pm GMT.

If you have any queries, please email .

Provisional Schedule (times GMT)

2.30-3.00: Katie Robertson (University of Birmingham)
‘An introduction to density matrix realism: what’s at stake?’

3.00-3.45: Owen Maroney (Oxford)

10-min break

3.55-4.40: Roderich Tumulka (Tuebingen)

20-min break

5.00-5.45: Eddy Keming Chen (UC San Diego)

10-min break

5.55-6.25 General discussion and wrap-up


Coming soon.

Idealized Models Workshop, 6 Oct 2020

On Friday 06 Oct 2020, FraMEPhys hosted a one-day workshop at the Univeristy of Birmingham.

If you have any queries, please email

Schedule (times BST)

2.00-2.50pm: Arnon Levy (Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
“Must the best explanation be true?”

3.00-3.50pm: Alkistis Elliott-Graves (Helsinki University/University of Bielefeld)
“What are general models about?”

4.00-4.50pm: James Nguyen (University of London)
“Why (at least some) idealisations aren’t false”

5.00-5.50pm: Angela Potochnik (University of Cincinatti)
“Why it matters that idealizations are false”


James Nguyen (University of London)
“Why (at least some) idealisations aren’t false”

In order to understand how idealised models contribute to the epistemic success of science we need to understand how they, and models in general, represent. I outline the, relatively commonly held, view that modelling is an indirect enterprise: model descriptions serve to specify model systems, which in turn represent their target systems. I argue that, suitably interpreted, the idealised aspects of these model systems needn’t be understood as misrepresentations. I then discuss the upshot of this way of thinking in terms of the factivity of explanation and understanding.

Angela Potochnik (University of Cincinatti)
“Why it matters that idealizations are false”

Many of our best scientific explanations incorporate idealizations, that is, false assumptions. Philosophers of science disagree about whether and to what extent we must, as a result, give up on truth as a prerequisite for explanation and thus understanding. I propose reframing this. Factivism or veritism about explanation is not, I think, an obvious and preferable view to be given up only under duress. Rather, it is philosophically fruitful to emphasize how departures from the truth facilitate explanation (and understanding). I begin by motivating one version of the idea that idealizations positively contribute to understanding, then I make the case that it is philosophically important to emphasize this contribution of idealizations. I conclude with a positive account of what theorists about science stand to gain by acknowledging, even emphasizing, how certain departures from the truth benefit our scientific explanations.

Announcement: Warsaw Spacetime Colloquium 2020/2021 (online)

The Colloquium focuses on the foundations of spacetime physics broadly construed, and will be held fortnightly on Zoom (16:00-18:00 CET).

The program for the winter semester is the following:

  • 2 October – Carlo Rovelli (Aix-Marseille University) – “Why can we decide what we shall do tomorrow, but we cannot decide what we did yesterday? Time reversibility and the physics of an agent”
  • 16 October – J. Brian Pitts (University of Cambridge) – “Change in observables in Hamiltonian general relativity”
  • 30 October – James Read (University of Oxford) – “Shifts and reference”
  • 13 November – Karen Crowther (University of Oslo) and Sebastian De Haro (University of Amsterdam) – “The role of singularities in the search for quantum gravity”
  • 27 November – Claus Kiefer (University of Cologne) – “Time in quantum gravity”
  • 11 December – Radin Dardashti (University of Wuppertal) – “The rise and fall of scientific problems”
  • 8 January – Karim Thébault (University of Bristol) – “On the structure of time in physical theory”
  • 22 January – Vera Matarese (Univ ersity of Bern) – “Spacetime the many substances”

People interested in attending the Colloquium can register by sending a
message to Antonio Vassallo (

15 July 2020: Katie Robertson at the Harvard Mini-Workshop on the Foundations of Thermodynamics

FraMEPhys Research Fellow Katie Robertson spoke on Wednesday July 15 at the Harvard Workshop in the Foundations of Thermodynamics, part of the Harvard workshop series which has brought a lot of philosophers of physics together during the Coronavirus lockdown period. Here’s a video!

Katie’s talk was titled “In Search of the Holy Grail: How to Reduce the Second Law of Thermodynamics”. This paper is now forthcoming, open access, in the British Journal for Philosophy of Science! A preprint is available here.

BSPS 2020 Virtual Edition

The FraMEPhys team were due to present a symposium on Dependence in Physics at the (alas) cancelled 2020 Annual Conference of the British Society for the Philosophy of Science in Kent. The good news is that the BSPS conference has gone online in abstract form, and can be accessed here: BSPS 2020 Conference Padlet.

Here’s the abstract of the FraMEPhys symposium:

This symposium explores the general notion of dependence as it applies within physics, and contrasts various different relations of dependence which seem to be needed to understand the practice and content of physics. In particular, the symposium talks focus on the dependence relations of reduction (both ‘horizontal’ and ‘vertical’ varieties), grounding and causation. Reduction and grounding are typically conceived as (in different ways) relating multiple levels of physical reality, while causation is supposed to relate events at a single level. However, every case of reduction is highly contested, there are well-known difficulties in making sense of causation in fundamental physics, and grounding presents problems closely analogous to those of causation which have as yet received little attention. The aim of this symposium is to classify these different notions of dependence, explore their similarities and differences, and to explore their application to physical contexts including: planetary motion, symmetries and conservation laws, and the relationship between statistical mechanics and thermodynamics.

For abstracts of the individual talks in the symposium, and on dozens of other interesting topics, see the full padlet.

Nicholas Emmerson joins FraMEPhys as PhD researcher

We’re extremely happy to welcome a new PhD student to the FraMEPhys team, Nicholas Emmerson. Nick’s primary research projects are in the metaphysics of grounding and the nature of scientific progress, and we’re really looking forward to seeing where he takes them over the next three years in the context of our project research.

Nick already has extensive research experience; he studied philosophy at the University of Kent, where he received a BA and a MA, followed by the MPhil at the University of Cambridge and a year’s PhD research with Alexander Bird at King’s. Beyond philosophy, he takes pictures which can be seen at .

22 June 2020: Paul Näger (Münster), “How Quantum Mechanics Solves the Causal Problem of Entanglement”

For the fourth FraMEPhys meeting of 2020, Dr. Paul Näger (University of Münster) gave a talk entitled “How Quantum Mechanics Solves the Causal Problem of Entanglement” via Zoom to the University of Birmingham FraMEPhys group and guests.

Recent works show that the statistics of typical experiments with entangled quantum objects (EPR/B experiments) contradict the usual principles of causal explanation, even if one disregards all spatio-temporal constraints (Wood & Spekkens 2015, Näger 2016). More precisely, this causal problem of entanglement consists in the fact that it is impossible that both central principles of the theory of causal Bayes nets (Glymour, Spirtes & Scheines 1993; Pearl 2000)—the causal Markov condition and the faithfulness condition—hold in such experiments. Any correct theory of the quantum realm must violate at least one of these conditions. This threatens the idea that the correlations in such experiments might be explained causally. In this talk I shall present a detailed analysis of the quantum mechanical formalism (in a GRW interpretation), revealing that quantum theory even violates both principles. Nevertheless, I shall argue for the claim that there are good reasons to regard the quantum mechanical explanation as a causal one. For the one, it is a well-known fact that the entangled quantum state does not screen off the correlations in such experiments. In other words, if quantum mechanics is complete, there is no screener-off for the correlations (van Fraassen 1982, Butterfield 1989, Cartwright 1989), implying that the theory violates the causal Markov condition (Spirtes, Glymour, Scheines 1993, Pearl 2000), which is a generalisation of Reichenbach’s principle of the common cause (Reichenbach 1956). Referring to the work of Cartwright (1988), however, I argue that in indeterministic worlds one should accept common causes that do not screen off. Further developing on Cartwright’s ideas, I present a generalisation of the Markov condition which is able to capture these new cases. This saves the central principle of causal explanation in the quantum realm, and makes explicit that underlying the quantum mechanical formalism is a causal structure that can explain the correlations. In a second step I show that the quantum mechanical formalism also violates the causal faithfulness condition. While being one of the central principles of the theory of causal Bayes nets, violating faithfulness does not seem to threaten a causal explanation per se: there are well-known counterexamples to the principle in perfectly causal situations. However, an unfaithfulness seems only acceptable in a causal explanation, when one indicates how it comes about (i.e. which type of unfaithfulness there is) given the causal connections in question; for not all types fit with all structures. Wood & Spekkens (2012) are tacit about which kind of unfaithfulness quantum mechanics involves; Näger (2015) claims that the theory involves an unfaithfulness of a supposedly new kind (unfaithfulness by internal cancelling paths), but only sketches its central features. In the present analysis I show explicitly how quantum mechanics explains the specific no-signalling independences by internal cancelling paths. I also provide an explanation for the unfaithfulness occurring between outcomes and local settings (for maximally entangled states), which reveals another so far unnoticed kind of unfaithfulness. In sum, my analysis shows that quantum mechanics solves the causal problem of entanglement in an astonishing and elegant way: though violating both central principles of causal explanation, the theory can still be considered as providing a causal explanation, if one moderately and reasonably modifies the original principles.

Dr Katie Robertson awarded Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship

Some really excellent news for the FraMEPhys project team – our research fellow Katie Robertson has been awarded a three-year Early Career Fellowship by the Leverhulme Trust, to be hosted at the University of Birmingham and to start in 2021.

Katie’s project is called ‘Increasing entropy: from black holes to the direction of time’ and it links directly into her research with FraMEPhys. We’re all looking forward to continuing to work with Katie and excited to see the outcomes of her new project!

Workshop on Symmetries & Explanation, March 2020

On Fri 6 March, the FraMEPhys project hosted a workshop on Symmetries and Explanation at the University of Birmingham (Department of Philosophy, ERI G51).

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0930-1000: Registration. Coffee & Snacks

1000-1115: “Are Particles Characterised by a Symmetry Group? If So, Which One?” Adam Caulton (University of Oxford)

1115-1230: “On Metaphysically Necessary Laws from Physics” Niels Linnemann (University of Bremen)

1230-1400: Lunch (ChangeKitchen) ERI Atrium

1400-1515: “Are Symmetry Explanations Grounding Explanations?” Mike Hicks (University of Birmingham)

1515-1530: Coffee

1530-1700: “What Was the ‘Great Advance’ of 20th-Century Physics that ‘Put Symmetry First’?” Marc Lange (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)

1700-1800: Drinks at Staff House, University of Birmingham

For abstracts see the workshop page. For any questions or information about the event, please email

Adam Caulton: “Are Particles Characterised by a Symmetry Group? If So, Which One?”
Niels Linnemann: “On Metaphysically Necessary Laws from Physics”

Postdoc in Philosophy of Physics – PROTEUS @ UAB Barcelona

The Department of Philosophy at the Autonomous University of Barcelona is seeking to appoint a postdoc in Philosophy of Physics for a fixed-term period of 24 months. The position is to support the research project PROTEUS (GA 758145) – Paradoxes and Metaphors of Time in Early Universe(s), which is funded by the European Research Council and led by Dr Silvia De Bianchi.

The successful candidate will work in a multi-disciplinary research team. S/he is expected to both perform research independently and coordinate her work with other team members and other project partners, including members of the Institute for High Energy Physics (IFAE) at the UAB. S/he is also expected to take part in collaborative research activities with Daniele Oriti’s group in Munich (LMU). There are no teaching obligations, but the candidate is expected to take part in the seminars organized by the research team at the UAB and abroad.

The successful candidate is expected to work on specific research questions on the foundations of quantum gravity. In particular s/he is expected to work on the conceptual issues related to the emergence of spacetime; to identify features of time in relationship to the cosmic evolution and thermodynamics.

More details about the position can be found here:

Information about the project and the research team can be found here:

For more information about the job, please contact

Application deadline: 01/05/2020, 11pm (Brussels time)

The Nature of Contingency: Quantum Physics as Modal Realism

A major new publication from FraMEPhys is out now – Alastair Wilson’s book The Nature of Contingency: Quantum Physics as Modal Realism was published on 11 February 2020 by Oxford University Press. Chapter 6, which focuses on anthropic explanations of fine-tuning in a quantum multiverse context, is a core part of the FraMEPhys project. All of the book explores the broader FraMEPhys theme of how we should link up physics with metaphysics.

Here’s the blurb:

This book defends a radical new theory of contingency as a physical phenomenon. Drawing on the many-worlds approach to quantum theory and cutting-edge metaphysics and philosophy of science, it argues that quantum theories are best understood as telling us about the space of genuine possibilities, rather than as telling us solely about actuality. When quantum physics is taken seriously in the way first proposed by Hugh Everett III, it provides the resources for a new systematic metaphysical framework encompassing possibility, necessity, actuality, chance, counterfactuals, and a host of related modal notions. Rationalist metaphysicians argue that the metaphysics of modality is strictly prior to any scientific investigation; metaphysics establishes which worlds are possible, and physics merely checks which of these worlds is actual. Naturalistic metaphysicians respond that science may discover new possibilities and new impossibilities. This book’s quantum theory of contingency takes naturalistic metaphysics one step further, allowing that science may discover what it is to be possible. As electromagnetism revealed the nature of light, as acoustics revealed the nature of sound, as statistical mechanics revealed the nature of heat, so quantum physics reveals the nature of contingency.

For more background info, and the goofiest photo of the author we could find, check out the launch Twitter thread. Previews of the content can be found here, here or here.

The book can be bought from OUP, or from Amazon, or from other academic booksellers. Currently there are hardback and ebook editions; a paperback is in the pipeline!

Summer Course in Budapest: The History and Philosophy of the Concepts of Scientific Law and Probability

This summer the Central European University will host a Summer University Course in History and Philosophy of the Concepts of Scientific Law and Probability – the application deadline is 14th February.

COURSE DIRECTOR: Barry Loewer (Rutgers University)

FACULTY: Nina Emery (Mount Holyoke College); Michael Esfeld (University of Lausanne); Alan Hajek (Australian National University); Ferenc Huoranszki (Central European University); Carl Hoefer (University of Barcelona); Berna Kilinc (Bogazici University); Dustin Lazarovici (University of Lausanne); and Glenn Shafer (Rutgers Business School)

The purpose of the course is to acquaint course participants with recent work on the history and metaphysics of the concept of scientific law and related concepts that are central to the development and understanding of science. These concepts are important to philosophical accounts of both science and to metaphysics. While there has been a great deal of active research on writing on the metaphysics of laws and also on the history of the concept of laws there has been little interaction between researchers involved in each project. Such interaction will greatly enhance work on both projects. One of the goals of the summer course is to initiate and encourage such interaction.

18 February 2020: Luke Fenton-Glynn (UCL), “Probabilistic Actual Causation”

On Tuesday 18 February as part of the FraMEPhys Seminar series, Luke Fenton-Glynn (UCL) gave a talk entitled “Probabilistic Actual Causation” (Talk Slides, Full Paper) at the University of Birmingham. Luke presented an extension of recent theories of deterministic actual causation, formulated in terms of causal graphs, to irreucibly indeterministic cases.

ABSTRACT: Actual (token) causation – the sort of causal relation asserted to hold by claims like the Chicxulub impact caused the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event, Mr. Fairchild’s exposure to asbestos caused him to suffer mesothelioma, and the H7N9 virus outbreak was caused by poultry farmers becoming simultaneously infected by bird and human ’flu strains – is of significance to scientists, historians, and tort and criminal lawyers. Progress has been made in explicating the actual causal relation in the deterministic case by means of the use of structural equations models and causal graphs. I seek to make similar progress concerning the probabilistic case by using probabilistic causal models and associated causal graphs

Earlier on the same day, Luke took part in a reading group discussion of the above paper.

SMS6 in Bristol POSTPONED to September 2021

Call for Submissions ON HOLD DUE TO COVID-19
SMS 2020: Sixth Annual Conference of the Society for Metaphysics of Science
7-9 September 2021  – University of Bristol, UK

The Society for the Metaphysics of Science (SMS) will be holding its sixth annual conference on 7-9 September, 2021 at the University of Bristol, UK. Our keynote speaker will be Samir Okasha (University of Bristol). In addition, Kerry McKenzie (University of California, San Diego) will deliver a presidential address.

Programme Committee
Chair: Alastair Wilson (University of Birmingham & Monash University)
Sam Baron (Australian Catholic University)
Silvia de Bianchi (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona)
Pierrick Bourrat (Macquarie University)
Eddy Keming Chen (University of California, San Diego)
Michael Townsen Hicks (University of Birmingham)
Vera Hoffmann-Kolss (University of Bern)
Liz Irvine (Cardiff University)
Andrej Jandrić (University of Belgrade)
Radmila Jovanović (University of Belgrade)
Katie Robertson (University of Birmingham)
Kate Vredenburgh (London School of Economics)

Local Arrangements Chair
Tuomas Tahko (University of Bristol)

4 February 2020: Andreas Hüttemann, “Laws and their Modal Surface Structure”

For the second FraMEPhys meeting of 2020, Prof. Dr. Andreas Hüttemann (University of Cologne) gave a talk on “Laws and their Modal Surface Structure” at the University of Birmingham (Muirhead Tower, 427).

ABSTRACT: Law statements or generalisations are involved in one way or another in explanation, confirmation, manipulation or prediction. I argue that these practices require a particular reading of the generalisations involved, namely as making claims about the behaviour of systems. These practices therefore presuppose the existence of systems or things (pace Ladyman, Ross etc.). 
Furthermore, I look at the metaphysical surface structure associated with laws. I use the term “surface structure” to indicate that this structure may or may not be reduced to non-modal facts – as the Humean has it. I will side-line the debate about whether Humeanism is a tenable philosophical position. The positive claim I advance is that the modal surface structure can be explicated in terms of invariance relations – where I take invariance to be a modal notion.

Earlier on the same day, from 1130-1230 in ERI 159, Prof. Dr. Hüttemann attended a reading group where we discussed his “Reduction and Monism“.

21 January 2020: David Papineau, “The Seductions of Interventionism”

At the first FraMEPhys meeting of 2020 (21 January), Professor David Papineau (King’s College London) gave a talk on “The Seductions of Interventionism” at the University of Birmingham.

ABSTRACT: The philosophy of causation is changing. The new ‘interventionism’ promises to dissolve many longstanding problems. Based on the work of Judea Pearl, and transmitted to philosophy by Jim Woodward, this approach builds a bridge between the philosophical analysis of causation and techniques used in statistical causal modelling. It is certainly welcome that philosophers of causation are finally trying to make sense of these statistical techniques. But in the process of transmission a number of ungrounded ideas have been installed as philosophical orthodoxy. In this talk I shall expose two: first, the idea that we need to appeal to ‘interventions’ or actions to understand causation; second, the idea that correlational facts alone are insufficient to determine causal structure.

Talk Handout (4 pages)

Earlier on the same day, Professor Papineau took part in reading group on his paper ‘Causation as a Guide to Life‘, which discussed some of the themes from his talk.

Jobs at Epistemology-of-LHC Project

The Research Unit “The Epistemology of the LHC”, funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) and the Austrian Science Fund (FWF), invites applications for:

2 Postdoctoral and 5 Doctoral positions in the fields of philosophy of science, history of science, social studies of science, and physics.

Established in 2016, the Research Unit has forged a unique cooperation between physicists, philosophers, historians, and social scientists. Its aim is to collectively investigate the epistemology of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN. With its six individual projects cooperating closely and its teams located at universities across Germany and Austria, the Research Unit covers a broad variety of issues concerning the forefront of research on experimental and theoretical physics at one of the largest scientific facilities worldwide. It addresses key questions in philosophy, history, and the social sciences from an interdisciplinary perspective.

After a successful first phase, the Research Unit has been extended for a second phase of 36 months. We would like to fill the following positions:

Project (A1) “The formation and development of the concept of virtual

  • 1 postdoctoral position at the RWTH Aachen University.

Project (A2) “The hierarchy, fine tuning, and naturalness problem from a
philosophical perspective”:

  • 1 position for a doctoral researcher at the University of Wuppertal.

Project (A3) “LHC and gravity”:

  • 1 position for a doctoral researcher at the University of Bonn and the
    RWTH Aachen University.

Project (B1) “The impact of computer simulations and machine learning on
the epistemic status of LHC data”:

  • 1 position for a doctoral researcher at the KIT (Karlsruhe).

Project (B2) “Model building and dynamics”:

  • 1 position for a doctoral researcher at the University of Bonn.

Project (B3) “Producing novelty and securing credibility in LHC experiments”:

  • 1 position for a doctoral researcher at the University of Klagenfurt
  • 1 postdoctoral position at the University of Klagenfurt (Austria).

Each project is directed jointly by a principal investigator from physics and investigators from the philosophy of science, history of science, or social studies of science (STS).

We are looking for candidates from the aforementioned fields who are interested in engaging in interdisciplinary work and who have experience in one or more of the relevant fields of expertise. We are committed to diversity and equal opportunity, and would like to encourage applications from scholars who would diversify the Research Unit, and the academic community more generally.

Positions are funded for three years and will typically start on May 1,
2020. Deadline for applications: January 31, 2020.

Descriptions of the individual projects can be found at:

Please send applications electronically to Applications should include a letter of motivation with a ranked list of the project(s) (A1-A3, B1-B3) applied for, a curriculum vitae, a list of publications and presentations, copies of your degree certificates, and the names and addresses of referees (two for the postdoctoral positions and one for the doctoral positions) who can be contacted directly.

13 December: Barry Loewer, “The Mentaculus Vision”

For our last meeting of 2019, FraMEPhys will be hosting a talk by Professor Barry Loewer (Rutgers University) on Friday 13 December, from 2-4PM in Arts Lecture Room 5 (room 219). 

The Mentaculus Vision

Building on Boltzmann’s approach to statistical mechanics David Albert proposed a framework for a complete physical theory that entails a probability distribution over all physical possible worlds. Albert and Loewer call this framework “the Mentaculus.” In this paper I provide reasons to think that the Mentaculus entails probabilistic versions of the laws of thermodynamics and other special science laws, In addition it is the basis for a scientific account of the arrows of time and an account of counterfactuals that express causal relations. I then argue that the best way to understand the laws and probabilities that occur in the Mentaculus are along the lines of David Lewis’ best system account.

Noelia Iranzo Ribera in Amsterdam: “Interventions in the Spotlight”

FraMEPhys PhD researcher Noelia Iranzo Ribera was in Amsterdam last week to present a paper arising from her PhD research on interventionist theories of causation, at the 7th annual OZSW conference. Noelia’s title was “Interventions in the Spotlight: Delimiting Possibility in Woodward’s Interventionist Theory of Causation”.

In the paper Noelia examined the various different notions of possibility that might be used to make sense of the key notion of a possible intervention in Woodward’s theory. She argued that familiar notions of nomic possibility are too strong, but conceptual possibility is too weak, and offered an extra-weak notion of nomic possibility that might take their place.

FraMEPhys Podcast: Matt Farr, “Do We Need to Explain Initial Conditions?”

The final podcast from our Spring 2019 FraMEPhys Seminar series is now online. In it, Matt Farr from the University of Cambridge outlines his ‘C Theory’ of time and explores what it might mean to explain the initial conditions of the universe. Untearing paper, unmelting ice, disembodied brains and the Big Crunch at the end of the universe all feature!

For more talks like this one, see our project podcast page.

Funded PhD Studentship with FraMEPhys – deadline 27/11/19

We’re very pleased to be able to offer a new fully-funded PhD studentship to work as part of the FraMEPhys team at the University of Birmingham for three years, starting January 2020 or as soon as possible thereafter. The proposed PhD project can be on any topic within the remit of FraMEPhys; candidates should have a good Master’s degree with a significant philosophy component; the deadline is 27/11/2019. Full details follow – please spread the word!

PhD Project Studentship
University of Birmingham – School of Philosophy Theology and Religion

The Project
FraMEPhys, a major 5-year project funded by the European Research Council, is investigating the nature of explanation in physics, with particular focus on metaphysical and non-causal explanations (including grounding explanations, geometrical explanations and unificatory explanations). The aim of FraMEPhys is to combine recent progress in metaphysics, philosophy of science and philosophy of physics to enhance our understanding of the nature of metaphysical explanation in physics. Case studies of special interest include curved spacetime, closed timelike curves and quantum entanglement. Further information:

The Post
This award includes funding for a full-time PhD project studentship to begin on 1st January 2020, or as soon as possible thereafter. The award carries a stipend of £20,500 per annum total, intended to cover both living costs and tuition fees (currently £4,327 for UK/EU students).
The student will contribute to the broader FraMEPhys project either by exploring the general concepts of causation, grounding and explanation as they pertain to physical theories, or by examining in detail a particular case study in philosophy of physics that involves distinctive patterns of metaphysical explanation.
The student should have an excellent first degree and a completed Master’s degree with a significant philosophy component. Candidates must be able to demonstrate competence in general philosophy of science and metaphysics. The PhD project will be supervised by Prof Alastair Wilson, and co-supervised by one of the project Research Fellows (Dr Katie Robertson and Dr Mike Hicks) with potential further co-supervision from members of Birmingham faculty as appropriate to the project.
The successful applicant will benefit from:

  • A fully-funded three-year PhD (stipend of £20,500 per annum) in a leading UK university.
  • Guidance from leading experts in the field and research training from the University of Birmingham Graduate School.
  • Work space at the University of Birmingham Edgbaston campus, and resources to attend and present at conferences and workshops.
  • A vibrant research environment in the Department of Philosophy, with regular research seminars, reading groups, workshops and conferences.

Informal enquiries may be addressed to Alastair Wilson:
To apply, please send a C.V., a separate anonymised writing sample of up to 5000 words, a covering letter outlining your suitability for the studentship and the names of two referees to . Please quote ref. FraMEPhys, and please note there may be a delay in acknowledging receipt.

Closing date: 27 November 2019.
Interviews will be conducted in early December 2019.

FraMEPhys Reading Groups: Autumn 2019

This term our main project reading group runs weekly, 9.30-11am on Wednesdays, in ERI 159 on the University of Birmingham’s Edgbaston campus (G3 on the campus map). We’re alternating readings between articles on causal modelling and on philosophy of probability, though there’s frequently overlap!

Wk 3 (16th Oct) – Brad Weslake, “Exclusion Excluded”

Wk 4 (23rd Oct) – Wood and Spekkens, ‘The lesson of causal discovery algorithms for quantum correlations: Causal explanations of Bell-inequality violations require fine-tuning’

Wk 5 (30th Oct) – Katie Elliot, ‘Explaining (One Aspect of) the Principal Principle without (Much) Metaphysics’

Wk 6 (6th Nov) – Reading week – no meeting

Wk 7 (13th Nov) – Probability, TBC

Wk 8 (20th Nov) – Causal Modelling, TBC

Wk 9 (27th Nov) – Probability, TBC

Wk 10 (4th Dec) – Causal Modelling, TBC

Wk 11 (11th Dec) – Probability, TBC

FraMEPhys Podcast: Emily Adlam, “A Tale of Two Anachronisms”

We have an exciting new podcast to release this week – Dr Emily Adlam from BCRP, Leipzig. In the talk Emily identifies two central elements of current theorizing in physics – objective chance, and temporal locality – which she argues are problematic and may be holding back the progress of physics at a deep level. Watch here and make up your own mind!

Emily’s talk was originally given on 11 February 2019 as part of our Spring 2019 FraMEPhys Seminar series.

Michael Townsen Hicks joins FraMEPhys as Research Fellow

The FraMEPhys team is now complete with the appointment of Michael Townsen Hicks as Research Fellow until August 2022. Mike is a multitalented metaphysician, epistemologist, philosopher of science and philosopher of physics with postdoc experience in Oxford and Cologne and PhD from Rutgers, under Barry Loewer. Mike specializes in particular in Humean accounts of laws and chances in science; he is currently working on the way in which metaphysical explanation features in these accounts, and on the explanatory role of symmetry principles.

With Mike’s appointment, the FraMEPhys team is now complete and fully geared up to tackle our main case studies – the geometry of spacetime in 2020, closed timelike curves in 2021, and entanglement in 2022.

FraMEPhys Podcast: Patricia Palacios, “Redefining Equilibrium in Long-Range Interacting Systems”

Our next FraMEPhys podcast is from our Spring 2019 FraMEPhys Seminar series, with Patricia Palacios (Salzburg) talking about the dynamics of galaxies, and how they could lead us to new definitions of equilibrium. Happy listening!

We also now have a page hosting all the FraMEPhys podcasts – more will be appearing at regular intervals through the autumn.

Skow on Causation and Explanation

As part of FraMEPhys, the project team have been scouring the recent literature on causation and explanation. A new output of this literature review has just been published in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews: Alastair Wilson’s review of Bradford Skow’s new book Causation, Explanation and the Metaphysics of Aspect.

Executive summary for metaphysicians in a hurry: Skow constructs a coherent and systematic picture of causation which centres active entities, which makes the distinction between causes and background conditions a metaphysically substantive one, and which aligns the metaphysics of causation closely (perhaps too closely) with the grammatical form of causal-explanatory sentences in English.

25 June: Matt Farr, “Do we need to explain initial conditions?”

Our final visitor in the 2019 FraMEPhys Seminar series was Dr Matt Farr (Cambridge) on Tuesday 25 June 2019.

Matt’s title and abstract were as follows: 

Do we need to explain initial conditions?
It is common to think of the universe as a grand time-directed process that started out in some initial state — call this the ‘time-directed universe’ hypothesis (TDU). On TDU, the initial state is explanatorily unique — it is the only one that did not evolve from some prior set of conditions. Some have appealed to this explanatory uniqueness to suggest that it is misguided to seek an explanation as to why the early universe was extremely low-entropy, and so argue that TDU plays an important explanatory role in physics. But what if we reject TDU? This talk considers the options for those that assume a temporally adirectional metaphysics, which I call the ‘C theory’. Given the C theory holds there is no intrinsic difference between ‘initial’ and ‘final’ states of physical systems, it is unclear what we are to make of the explanatory demands of the low entropy early universe. I assess a series of options for the C theory, arguing that the rejection of TDU leaves us no worse off with regard to explaining the low entropy early universe.

Before the talk, there was a reading group with the speaker. The paper we discussed was “Measures, Explanations and the Past: Should ‘Special’ Initial Conditions be Explained?” by Craig Callender, available here:

Katie Robertson in Groningen: “Stars and Steam Engines: To What Extent do Thermodynamics and Statistical Mechanics Apply to Self-Gravitating Systems?”

On Sunday 23 June, Katie Robertson gave a talk in Groningen at a workshop on Probabilities in Cosmology, as part of a stellar lineup of speakers including Sabine Hossenfelder and Robert Wald.

Katie’s title was “Stars and Steam Engines: To What Extent do Thermodynamics and Statistical Mechanics Apply to Self-Gravitating Systems?”. The conclusion was an irenic resolution to recent debates about the astrophysics of elliptical galaxies – statistical mechanics does apply to them, but thermodynamics doesn’t.

Katie Robertson at Sigma Club: “In Search of the Holy Grail: how to Reduce the Second Law”

On Monday 17 June, Katie Robertson spoke at the Sigma Club seminar at LSE, on the ‘holy grail’ of philosophy of thermal physics: how to reduce the second law of thermodynamics to statistical mechanics.

Katie’s conclusion is that once we get properly clear on the target of the reduction – on what grail it is we’re seeking! – then the Gibbs entropy of statistical mechanics can be shown to play the role of the thermodynamic entropy.

10 June: Dan Marshall on Facts and Grounding

A supplementary FraMEPhys Seminar was given by project visitor Dan Marshall (Lingnan University) on Monday 10th June 2019.

Dan’s title was “Facts and Grounding”.

Abstract: The most popular theories of the individuation conditions of facts are the coarse-grain theory, according to which facts are identical if and only if they are necessarily equivalent, and the structure theory, according to which facts are structured in the same kind of way sentences are structured. Despite their popularity, both these theories have serious problems. In this paper, I propose a new moderate-grain theory of facts that avoids these problems by individuating states of affairs more finely than the coarse-grain theory and more coarsely than the structure theory. I then defend the proposed theory from the objection that it is incompatible with widely accepted principles of grounding by arguing that these principles of grounding are false and should be replaced with alternative principles.

3 June: Mark Pexton on Contextuality, Emergence and Unification

The next in our series of FraMEPhys Seminars was given by Mark Pexton (Durham) on Monday 3rd June 2019.

Mark’s title was “Contextuality, Emergence and Unification in Physics”.

Abstract: A contextual account of emergence and unification is presented. It is argued that emergent phenomena can be thought of as the consequence of system/context interactions. Contexts often involve modal relations not contained in the first order level of the system in question, hence although the system itself may appear reducible, the combination of system and context is not. Unification as an explanatory strategy can sometimes be seen as linked with reductionist intuitions – by considering their reduction base, disparate systems can be shown to be different manifestations of the same underlying phenomena. However, unifications do not proceed via reduction bases alone. Sometimes they involve moving up a ‘level’ of modal space to unify disparate microphysical phenomena by considering unifying features of the properties of aggregates (such as in universality in critical phenomena). It is argued that unification itself as an explanatory strategy (and therefore putative guide to ontological commitments) is itself highly contextual. Unifications can proceed by shifting the demarcations between systems and contexts to provide new system/context boundaries that create different sets of ‘similar’ unified physical phenomena. As such unification does not easily fit a standard paradigm of reduction or emergence.

There was a reading group with the speaker before the talk. We discussed “Reduction and emergence in the fractional quantum Hall state”, joint work between Tom Lancaster and Mark.

20 May: Patricia Palacios on Equilibrium in Long-Range Interacting Systems

Our spring FraMEPhys Seminar series continued with a talk from Dr Patricia Palacios (University of Salzburg) on Monday 20th May 2019. A video podcast is now available of Patricia’s talk.

Violent relaxation (!) is the phenomenon of faster-than-expected approach to equilibrium for systems like galaxies with long-range gravitational interactions

Patricia’s title was “Re-defining equilibrium for long-range interacting systems” (joint work with Lapo Casetti, University of Florence). The abstract is as follows:

“Long-range interacting systems (LRI) are systems in which the interaction potential decays slowly for large inter-particle distance. Typical examples of long-range interactions are the gravitational and Coulomb forces. The philosophical interest for studying these kinds of systems has to do with the fact that they exhibit properties that escape traditional definitions of equilibrium based on stationary probability distributions. How should we define equilibrium for LRI then? In this contribution, we argue that a comparison with ergodicity-breaking phase transitions gives us a qualitative understanding of equilibrium for these kinds of systems in terms of metastable equilibria. As in the case of phase transitions, we contend that in LRI one could account for metastable equilibria by defining the dynamics for finite-time scales. However, in contrast to phase transitions, we show that these metastable states depend on unknown initial conditions and do not correspond to Boltzmannian equilibrium. This negative conclusion provides a possible basis for future scientific research.” 

There was a reading group with the speaker from 1.30-2.30pm before the talk, also in ERI 149. We discussed “Mind the Gap: Boltzmannian versus Gibbsian Equilibrium” by Charlotte Werndl and Roman Frigg.

Katie Robertson at DIEP, Amsterdam: “Emergence and Reduction: Go Hand in Hand?”

On 10 May 2019 Katie Robertson was in Amsterdam to give a paper on the relation between reduction and emergence at the workshop ‘Emergence: conceptual and philosophical aspects’ organized by the Dutch Institute for Emergent Phenomena.


Katie’s main conclusion: The irreversible equations of SM can be reduced to the underlying microdynamics — but the resultant time-asymmetry is emergent. A reduced theory will often describe emergent entities that are novel (if the reduction is ‘vertical’) and robust (if the reduction/construction will reveal which lower-level differences did not matter).

Oxford Philosophy of Physics Events – Summer 2019

Followers of FraMEPhys might be interested in the following talks at the University of Oxford during May and June 2019:

Thursday May 2: Olivier Darrigol (Paris)
Philosophy of Physics Seminar (Lecture Room, Radcliffe Humanities), 4.30 p.m.

Ludwig Boltzmann: Atoms, mechanics, and probability
Statistical mechanics owes much more to Ludwig Boltzmann than is usually believed. In his attempts to derived thermodynamic and transport phenomena from deeper microphysical assumptions, he explored at least five different approaches: One based on mechanical analogies (with periodic mechanical systems or with statistical ensembles), one based on Maxwell’s collision formula, one based on the ergodic hypothesis, one based on combinatorial probabilities, and one based on the existence of thermodynamic equilibrium. I will sketch this various approaches and show how Boltzmann judged them and interconnected them. It will also argue that in general Boltzmann was more concerned with constructive efficiency than with precise conceptual foundations. Basic questions on the reality of atoms or on the nature of probabilities played only a secondary role in his theoretical enterprise.

Friday May 3: Nancy Cartwright (Durham and UC San Diego),
Jowett Society (Lecture Room, Radcliffe Humanities), 3.30 p.m.

‘Nature the artful modeler’
Are our hugely effective scientific laws – like equations we use in physics for precise prediction and technology – true? No. But they are not false either. They are not proper propositions in competition for truth or falsehood. What we find in physics texts and articles are not well-formed formulae but equations and ‘principles’ without, e.g., quantifiers and ‘ceteris paribus’ conditions included. Nor, I shall argue, can they be turned into proper propositions and still do all the jobs we require of them. They are rather materials we have learned how to use to build models and claims that are not only candidates for truth but, in any common sense of the word, are true. We are artful modelers, and we have insufficient reason to think it could ever be different. I urge that, as good empiricists should, we take successful scientific practice as our guide to what the world is like. Our best bet then about Nature is that she is not in the business of following out some laws writ in heavenly books any more than we are. She too is an artful modeler. The talk will defend the claim that we recoup the facts by artful modelling and explain what it means to claim that that is what Nature does too.

Thursday May 16: Jeremy Butterfield (Cambridge)
Philosophy of Physics Seminar (Lecture Room, Radcliffe Humanities), 4.30p.m.

On realism and functionalism about space and time
(Joint work with Henrique Gomes.) In this talk I will set the recent literature on spacetime functionalism in context, by discussing two traditions that form its background. First: functionalism in general, as a species of inter-theoretic reduction. Second: relationism about space and time.

Thursday May 30: Henrique Gomes (Perimeter and Cambridge)
Philosophy of Physics Seminar (Lecture Room, Radcliffe Humanities), 4.30p.m.

Gauge, boundaries, and the connection form
Forces such as electromagnetism and gravity reach across the Universe; they are the long-ranged forces in current physics. And yet, in many applications—theoretical and otherwise—we only have access to finite domains of the world. For instance, in computations of entanglement entropy, e.g. for black holes or cosmic horizons, we raise boundaries to separate the known from the unknown. In this talk, I will argue we do not understand gauge theory as well as we think we do, when boundaries are present. For example: It is agreed by all that we should aim to construct variables that have a one to one relationship to the theory’s physical content within bounded regions. But puzzles arise if we try to combine definitions of strictly physical variables in different parts of the world.

Thursday June 6: Martin Lesourd (Oxford)
Philosophy of Physics Seminar (Lecture Room, Radcliffe Humanities), 4.30p.m.

Reasoning on the basis of past lightcones
We shall ask the following: in general relativistic spacetimes, what can observers know about their spacetime on the basis of their past lightcones? After briefly describing the inductive character of this question, I will review and describe the significance of various known results, due in particular to Malament 1977 and Manchak 2009. I will then present some new ones and explain how they bear on the former. Time permitting, I shall briefly describe the idea behind general relativity’s foremost open problem – the conjecture of strong cosmic censorship – along with its potential relevance. 

Thursday June 13: Harvey Brown (Oxford)
Philosophy of Physics Seminar (Lecture Room, Radcliffe Humanities), 4.30p.m.

Title and abstract TBA.

Thursday June 20: John Bush (MIT),
Mathematical Institute (Woodstock Rd, OX26GG), 5.00 p.m.

Walking on water: from biolocomotion to quantum foundations
In this lecture John Bush will present seemingly disparate research topics which are in fact united by a common theme and underlaid by a common mathematical framework.  First there is the ingenuity of the natural world where living creatures use surface tension to support themselves on the water surface and propel themselves along it. Then there is a system discovered by Yves Couder only fifteen years ago, in which a small droplet bounces along the surface of a vibrating liquid bath, guided or ‘piloted’ by its own wave field. Its ability to reproduce many features previously thought to be exclusive to quantum systems has launched the field of hydrodynamic quantum analogs, and motivated a critical revisitation of the philosophical foundations of quantum mechanics.

Please email to register.
This talk will be streamed live on:

3 April: Levels of Explanation Workshop – Schedule now available

How do explanations within physics relate to explanations in other sciences, and what different levels of explanation can be distinguished within physics itself? To help answer these questions, on Monday 3rd April FraMEPhys hosted a workshop at the University of Birmingham on Levels of Explanation, with talks from Karen Crowther, Alex Franklin, Lina Jansson, Eleanor Knox, Christian List and David Yates.

A schedule and abstracts are now available at the workshop page.

Al Wilson in Stockholm: “Emergent Contingency”

On 14 March 2019 Al Wilson was at the Department of Philosophy at the University of Stockholm to give a talk titled ‘Emergent Contingency’ – on the general prospects of naturalistic metaphysics, on how to bring science to bear on modality, and on how Everettian quantum theory can underwrite a naturalistic theory of contingency. Fun was had (we think) by all. Abstract and slides are below!

Abstract: I develop and defend a reductive account of objective contingency in nature, drawing on resources from Everettian (many-worlds) quantum mechanics. I distinguish four degrees of naturalistic involvement in the theory of modality; the proposed quantum modal realism is naturalistic in all four senses. I also sketch some consequences of the account for the methodology of metaphysics.