Rotman Director, Chris Smeenk, was recently awarded a $205,000 grant from the John Templeton Foundation to pursue research on the philosophy of cosmology. Smeenk will serve as principal investigator, along with co-investigators Jim Weatherall and John Manchak, both from the Department of Logic and Philosophy of Science at UC Irvine.
Physical cosmology has made enormous progress in the last few decades, but this progress raises a variety of philosophical questions. From the grant summary:
Cosmology is different from other areas of the physical sciences, both in its subject matter – the universe as a whole – and in the tools we use to study it. Standard experimental and theoretical methods used throughout the rest of the physical sciences have little traction in cosmology, where we have only one universe to study and many of the features of greatest interest are removed from us in space and time. These methodological difficulties, coupled with the profound importance of understanding the history and structure of the universe, make cosmology an urgent subject for philosophical research.
The grant includes funding to support three conferences, and the creation of an interdisciplinary team comprised of a postdoctoral fellow here at the Rotman Institute, graduate students at Western University and UC Irvine, and a team of faculty collaborators from philosophy and cosmology. The team will review work in the growing field of philosophy of cosmology, focusing on identifying problems best tackled by philosophers and cosmologists working together. The grant identifies three general areas as potential targets:
(a) the epistemic and methodological challenges to traditional conceptions of scientific practice posed by the unusual features of cosmology;
(b) the nature of evidence in cosmology, and particularly the status of anthropic arguments; and
(c) the role and epistemic status of spacetime geometry in general relativity and other physical theories on which cosmological models are based.
Part of the vision of the Rotman Institute is to foster and support dialogue and collaboration between philosophers and scientists, thereby building novel and productive bridges between the humanities and the sciences. This project will complement ongoing research at the Rotman Institute, and create additional opportunities for further collaboration with philosophers and cosmologists here at Western University, UC Irvine, the Perimeter Institute, and other institutions.
Image credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (Cepheid Variable Star RS Puppis)