Phil771 Home

About the Course    

CLASSES: 11:30-2:30, UH 316

INSTRUCTOR: Richard T. W. Arthur (rarthur at

OFFICE: UH 305; ext. 23470         OFFICE HOURS: M 3:30-4:30 p.m.

In this course we will be studying philosophical issues concerning space and time, with an eye to the implications of modern physics. This is very topical, as modern physicists’ search for the elusive grail of quantum gravity has seen them become increasingly sensitive to the metaphysics of space and time, even while they are mostly blissfully ignorant of the history of the subject, and not skilled in philosophical reasoning. On the other hand, many philosophers working in analytic metaphysics are blissfully ignorant of the implications of modern science, and could also profit from a better knowledge of the history of thought on space and time. Accordingly, we will try to steer a course through the middle, and at the same time educate ourselves on some of the subtleties of the views of major thinkers in the tradition. 

We will begin with a foray into the history of the subject, starting with the debate between Samuel Clarke (acting for Newton) and Gottfried Leibniz on the nature of space and time, an acknowledged classic that still acts as a fulcrum for modern discussion. The relativity of motion was a prominent feature in seventeenth century debate, so the step to Einstein is (i) not so great, but (ii) considerably more subtle than you might have thought. Three features that were not classically anticipated, though, are of the utmost importance: the discovery that simultaneity is not absolute but dependent on the motion of the observer, Minkowski’s realization that spacetime is in some respects more fundamental than space and time by themselves, and the idea that space itself might be curved.

In the latter part of the course we will be concentrating more on the philosophy of time. There are many major issues, some of them with a long philosophical pedigree, some completely novel: the status of the present; whether the world is static, and becoming an illusion; whether the universe has a beginning; whether time travel into the past is possible; and if it is physically permissible, whether and how paradox can be avoided; what constitutes the direction of time; and many others.

© Richard T. W. Arthur 2016