Density Matrix Realism Workshop – 24 Nov 2020

On Tuesday 24 November 2020, FraMEPhys is hosting a free one-day workshop on the topic of Density Matrix Realism. This will take place via Zoom, from 2.30-6.30pm GMT. Registration will open soon.

If you have any queries, please email f.longworth@bham.ac.uk .

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)
Title TBC

10-min break

3.55-4.40: Roderich Tumulka (Tuebingen)
Title TBC

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

Abstracts

Coming soon.

Idealized Models Workshop, 6 Oct 2020

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

All are welcome. This is a free Zoom event (no registration fee). For more details, see the workshop page.

If you have any queries, please email f.longworth@bham.ac.uk

Provisional 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)
“On general models”

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

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 (antonio.vassallo@pw.edu.pl).

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 https://www.instagram.com/nich_emm/ .

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.

ABSTRACT
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 f.longworth@bham.ac.uk

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: http://www.proteus-pmte.eu/job-fixed-term-24-months-research-position-in-philosophy-of-physics/

Information about the project and the research team can be found here: http://www.proteus-pmte.eu/

For more information about the job, please contact silvia.debianchi@uab.cat

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
particles”:

  • 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
    (Austria).
  • 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: http://www.lhc-epistemologie.uni-wuppertal.de/.

Please send applications electronically to lhc.epistemology@uni-wuppertal.de. 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: https://framephys.org/

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: a.j.wilson@bham.ac.uk
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 calpg-research@contacts.bham.ac.uk . 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: https://doi.org/10.1093/bjps/55.2.195

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.

diep

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 external-relations@maths.ox.ac.uk to register.
This talk will be streamed live on:
https://facebook.com/OxfordMathematics
https://livestream.com/oxuni/bush

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.

11 March: Laura Felline, “The Measurement Problem in Quantum Information Theory”

Our next visitor in the FraMEPhys Seminar series was Dr Laura Felline (Roma Tre) who spoke on Monday 11th March. Laura’s title was ‘The Measurement Problem in Quantum Information Theory’ and her abstract was as follows:

“In this talk I criticize the idea, wide-spread between the advocates of Quantum Information Theory, that in order to explain away the measurement problem it is sufficient to reject the assumption that the quantum state represents physical objects. In order to do that, I will analyse three notable information-theoretic approaches to QT: Bub’s new information-theoretic interpretation (as a representative of a psi-ontic approach), Pitowsky’s Bayesian interpretation (as a representative of an objective psi-epistemic approach) and Qbism (as a representative of a subjective psi-epistemic approach) and argue that the measurement problem still affects the first two interpretations, while Qbism leads to an unacceptable clash between the alleged content of quantum theory and scientific practice.”

Laura argued that the Wigner’s friend thought-experiment, for different reasons in each case, undermines all of the main information-theoretic ‘solutions’ to the measurement problem.

Before the talk, there was a reading group with the speaker in ERI G54 from 1.30-2.30pm. The paper discussed was “An Introduction to QBism with an Application to the Locality of Quantum Mechanics” by Fuchs, Mermin and Schack, available here: https://arxiv.org/pdf/1311.5253.pdf

25 Feb: Antonio Vassallo, “Dependence Relations in General Relativity”

The second talk in our spring FraMEPhys Seminar series was given by Dr Antonio Vassallo (University of Barcelona) on Monday 25th February 2019. Antonio’s title was “Dependence Relations in General Relativity”, and his abstract was as follows:

“I will discuss the nature of the dependence relations underpinning the talk of mutual action between material and spatiotemporal structures in general relativity. In particular, I will present a case study involving frame-dragging effects. Frame-dragging relates local inertial frames to distant distributions of matter in a time-independent way, thus establishing some sort of non-local link between the two. For this reason, a plain causal interpretation of frame-dragging faces huge challenges. By using a generalized structural equation model analysis I will argue that frame-dragging is best understood in terms of a novel type of dependence relation that is half-way between causation and grounding.”

Antonio’s central argument was that the lawlike status of the Einstein Equations renders the overall frame-dragging model explanation as partly causal and partly metaphysical.

There was a reading group before the talk, outside in the February sunshine, where we read Carl Hoefer’s “Mach’s Principle as Action-at-a-distance in General Relativity: The Causality Question”.

Katie Robertson at the Oxford Philosophy of Physics Seminar

FraMEPhys postdoc Dr Katie Robertson gave a talk to the Oxford Philosophy of Physics seminar on Thursday 21 February. Here are the details:

Reducing the second law of thermodynamics: the demons and difficulties
In this talk I consider how to reduce the second law of thermodynamics. I first discuss what I mean by ‘reduction’, and emphasize how functionalism can be helpful in securing reductions. Then I articulate the second law, and discuss what the ramifications of Maxwell’s demon are for the status of the second law. Should we take Maxwell’s means-relative approach? I argue no: the second law is not a relic of our inability to manipulate individual molecules in the manner of the nimble-fingered demon. When articulating the second law, I take care to distinguish it from the minus first law (Brown and Uffink 2001); the latter concerns the spontaneous approach to equilibrium whereas the former concerns the thermodynamic entropy change between equilibrium states, especially in quasi-static processes. Distinguishing these laws alters the reductive project (Luczak 2018): locating what Callender (1999) calls the Holy Grail – a non-decreasing statistical mechanical quantity to call entropy – is neither necessary nor sufficient. Instead, we must find a quantity that plays the right role, viz. to be constant in adiabatic quasi-static processes and increasing in non-quasi-static processes, and I argue that the Gibbs entropy plays this role.

Mathematics, Metaphysics and Evolution (guest post by Aaron Sloman)

Topics discussed on the last day of the FramePhys/Gothenburg conference on Metaphysical Explanation in Science, linking mathematics, science, biological evolution and metaphysics led Aaron Sloman to write some comments available online here:

Inspired by a combination of Immanuel Kant’s philosophy of mathematics and Al Wilson’s notion of grounding as metaphysical causation, Sloman draws attention to the extraordinary metaphysical creativity of biological evolution (the most creative mechanism known to us) repeatedly “discovering” and instantiatiating new metaphysical types of ever increasing complexity and generative power, building on (still unidentified) generative features of fundamental physics that made everything else possible, including increasingly complex and varied forms and uses of information (mostly via chemistry).

He suggests that key features of evolution constitute a process in which pre-existing parametrisable mathematical structures of ever increasing complexity and generative power, are systematically “discovered”, combined and used in creating new (parametrised) instances that when combined with appropriate parameters produce instances of newly discovered metaphysical types, including not only new physical structures and processes but also increasingly complex and powerful new types of information, and information processing mechanisms. This creative, productive, grounding, can be construed as exemplifying Wilson’s characterisation of Grounding as Metaphysical Causation [G=MC].

The details of this process, and its products provide deep challenges for both neuroscience and current AI, neither of which explains the ability of animal brains to discover and use powerful mathematical theories, e.g. concerning topology and geometry. Sloman also links this to Alan Turing’s suggestion (1938) that digital computers cannot replicate human mathematical intuition, only mathematical ingenuity.

— Aaron Sloman

11 Feb: Emily Adlam, “A Tale of Two Anachronisms”

This term sees the start of the FraMEPhys visiting speaker series, and our first speaker was Dr Emily Adlam (BRCP, Leipzig) who spoke on Monday 11th Feb.

Emily’s title was ‘A Tale of Two Anachronisms’, and her abstract was:

“Scientific reasoning is constrained not only by the outcomes of experiments, but also by the history of human thought and our own place in it. As a result, even our best theoretical models often incorporate features which are present more as the result of historical accident than as the endpoint of a process of evidence-based deliberation, and it is sometimes possible to make considerable progress by identifying and eliminating such features. In this talk, I will identify two features of current thought about quantum physics which may be anachronisms of this kind. I will briefly discuss their history and then raise some arguments against them. Both of these features have previously been recognized as problematic by parts of the physics community, but I argue that this recognition is not sufficiently widespread and that both features are actively limiting progress in the field of quantum foundations.”

For those wondering, the anachronisms were: reliance on objective chance, and the avoidance of action that is non-local in time.

The remaining dates in the series are:

25 Feb: Antonio Vassallo (Barcelona)
11 Mar: Laura Felline (Roma Tre)
6 May: Matt Farr (Cambridge)
20 May: Patricia Palacios (Salzburg)
3 June: Mark Pexton (Durham)

— Alastair Wilson

Metaphysics of Entanglement in Urbino

A metaphysician finding inspiration in a metaphysical poet.

On January 22 2019, Al Wilson was in Urbino, Italy to speak at a workshop on the metaphysics of entanglement – the 2021 case study for FraMEPhys. The workshop focused on a new paper by Claudio Calosi and Matteo Morganti, arguing that entangled quantum systems are mutually metaphysically dependent in Kit Fine’s sense of essential dependence. In short, they were arguing that part of what it is to be a particular entangled particle is to be entangled with its partner – and vice versa.

Al’s comments focused on the notion of dependence at work – making use of essential dependence brings some apparently problematic consequences, such as no system being able to survive becoming entangled with (or disentangled from) any other system. He also argued that an underlying monist interpretation of the quantum state continues to offer a more elegant overall explanation of entanglement than the coherentist view. See the slides for more details:

Apparently quantum entanglement is a topic of vital local interest, because a TV crew was present to record proceedings. You can watch a short report on the workshop on RAI TV, starting around minute 16.00.

— Alastair Wilson