Research Opportunities in the Philosophy of Cosmology

I got an email this morning telling me about the following interesting opportunities for research fellowships. They are in quite an unusual area – the philosophy of cosmology – and one I’m quite interested in myself so I thought it might ahieve wider circulation if I posted the advertisement on here.

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Applications are invited for two postdoctoral fellowships in the area of philosophy of cosmology, one to be held at Cambridge University and one to be held at Oxford University, starting 1 Jan 2013 to run until 31 Aug 2014. The two positions have similar job-descriptions and the deadline for applications is the same: 18 April 2012.

For more details, see here, for the Cambridge fellowship and  here for the Oxford fellowship.

Applicants are encouraged to apply for both positions. The Oxford group is led by Joe Silk, Simon Saunders and David Wallace, and that at Cambridge by John Barrow and Jeremy Butterfield.

These appointments are part of the initiative ‘establishing the philosophy of cosmology’, involving a consortium of universities in the UK and USA, funded by the John Templeton Foundation. Its aim is to identify, define and explore new foundational questions in cosmology. Key questions already identified concern:

  • The issue of measure, including potential uses of anthropic reasoning
  • Space-time structure, both at very large and very small scales
  • The cosmological constant problem
  • Entropy, time and complexity, in understanding the various arrows of time
  • Symmetries and invariants, and the nature of the description of the universe as a whole

Applicants with philosophical interests in cosmology outside these areas will also be considered.

For more background on the initiative, see here and the project website (still under construction).

25 Responses to “Research Opportunities in the Philosophy of Cosmology”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    In the pre-quantum era there wasn’t really a philosophy of physics, because every symbol in the equations involved in physical description was understood to have an ontological counterpart “out there” – a 1:1 correspondence. Formally, there *was* a philosophy of physics (‘realism’), but there was not much more to say and everybody agreed on it. (There was an extensive Western *theology* of physics, but that was really about motivating physics rather than its nuts and bolts; secular people might today call this a sociology of physics in a religious era.)

    Quantum theory led to advances in prediction (which is why it became accepted), but it broke that 1:1 correspondence. Differing philosophies might therefore lead to differing interpretations. Because this happened at the same time as growing religious scepticism in the culture where most science is done, differing philosophies were available “off the shelf”. The result has been interpretational confusion. Motivation of scientists is a personal matter, but without ranting again in favour of hidden variables, I believe it is the task of physicists to ask questions like: “Will *the next* electron register in the Up or Down detector in my Stern-Gerlach apparatus?”, and I am deeply dissatisfied with the response “You may no longer ask that question.” That’s censorship, or at least self-censorship.

    In cosmology of the early universe, quantum theory must ultimately be made consistent with relativistic gravity. We don’t know how to do that, let alone interpret it. This is a task for the brightest and the best, hopefully guided by asking the right questions. I don’t think philosophy does.

  2. Interesting that you should highlight this. A rather more critical view of accepting Templeton funding can be found on Peter Woit’s blog: http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=4478

  3. telescoper Says:

    I know some people are opposed to the Templeton Foundation per se, but although I am an atheist, I think dialogue between science and religion is a good thing and have no problems with it funding this sort of activity. It’s the Dawkins types who are the problem, in my opinion….

    The Templeton Prize has been awarded to people with a variety of religious views, including my DPhil supervisor John Barrow, friend and colleague George Ellis, and Martin Rees (who is an atheist).
    None of these people is trying to advance some sort of secret agenda.

    Anyway, I got an email from John about this and offered to post it here. He was happy for me to do so, so there you are.

    • I don’t mean to suggest that Barrow, Ellis or Rees are trying to advance any agenda. It is however pretty obvious that the Templeton Foundation is trying to advance an agenda.

      Now it may be that some people find that agenda acceptable. Or others may feel that although the overall agenda of the Templeton Foundation is flawed, we need not worry about it affecting the research of physicists in this instance, perhaps because of physicists’ inherent admirable ethical qualities and independence.

      Nevertheless, the possibility of a conflict of interest is certainly present, and should therefore be debated. We do (or at least I do) feel that the analogous issue of pharmaceutical companies funding medical research is worthy of debate, even if in the end the benefits may be judged (by some) to outweigh the risks.

      Anyway, since you didn’t mention it – and Sean Carroll in his post on the topic specifically sidesteps the issue – I thought it worthwhile to link to an opposing opinion.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      I agree with Peter “Not Even Wrong” Voit (re String Theory) that these positions should not be held in physics or applied mathematics departments.

      After the Templeton Prize, which is supposed to advance aspects of religion that interface with science, went to certain atheists, my opinion of the consistency of the Templeton Foundation plummeted. (This is not to criticise those atheists, as they are open enough about their stance on religion.)

      I happen to be a Christian but neither of the above comments depends on that. I simply can’t make out the Templeton Foundation. Sesh, what do you think their agenda is?

      Anton

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Peter,

      Science and religion are distinct, but not disjoint. Some say the difference reflects the difference between material and physical; or between faith and reason; or between reductionism (taking things apart conceptually) and holism; or between how and why. There is some truth in each of these contrasts, but none is wholly accurate. And they are not disjoint because they go head to head over miracles, in particular.

      • telescoper Says:

        I don’t think I said that science and religion are disjoint. I think there are many things that science, at least in its current state, cannot explain or even address, and attempts to look at these things from a different perspective, whether philosophical or religious or something else, are to be encouraged. In practice they rarely seem to produce anything very profound but then, frankly, neither does a great deal of physics research…

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Peter,

        I was commenting generally on your comment – not trying to straitjacket it in any way. I think that one of the problems with philosophy in science is that philosophy is open-ended at both top and bottom. It doesn’t proceed from axioms. This is both a strength and a weakness…

    • The face-value agenda of the Templeton Foundation as a whole can be found on their website (though not particularly clearly stated) or deduced from the citation statement for the Templeton Prize. I would disagree with that agenda itself, but I understand that other people may not.

      The argument that there is another agenda behind funding these “philosophy of cosmology” positions that aim to direct cosmological research in more theological directions (“why is there something rather than nothing, or what caused the Big Bang?”) is what Peter Woit presents – he’s a better writer than me and has more space to expand on his theme, so I can simply direct you to his blog.

      It is also a simple fact that the President of the Templeton Foundation is one of the biggest donors to the campaign of Rick Santorum – possibly the most wilfully ignorant, anti-science political figures in existence anywhere in the world. For me, this should at least merit a mention and some serious discussion among scientists as to the merits of accepting this money.

      • telescoper Says:

        ..in that case every dollar he spends on science is a dollar not given to Rick Santorum.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        I wouldn’t worry too much. I simply don’t believe that theology can exert any significant effect on physical cosmology. God is not a term in an equation. If you or Woit ponder in a bit more detail what worries you, I suspect you will find it is to do with politics or office space rather than a twisting of basic physics research. (NB I know almost nothing about Santorum other than he sounds like a Latin genitive.) I’d be intrigued to read a scenario arising from these posts that you believe could directly and negatively impact basic science. Personally I expect these positions to produce little other than bullshit.

      • Whether bullshit (your word) should be provided a platform in physics departments at some of the world’s most prestigious universities, or should be allowed to claim a veneer of respectability by association with science, is however precisely the point.

        Blurring the distinctions between science and theology does no favours to science.

      • telescoper Says:

        @Anton Perhaps it will be bullshit … but we also have departments crammed full of string theorists producing much the same commodity

        🙂

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Well Sesh, I agree with you – I said at 5.10pm that I believed these posts should not be held in physics or applied maths depts. But I got the impression that Woit’s concern, which you say you share, was over something to do with theology and not just about waste-of-space bullshit.

        Peter: you might say that about string theory; I couldn’t possibly comment. I’ll leave critiques of string theory to Woit. He does a good job.

      • Woit probably has several reasons for not supporting this Templeton initiative, but one of them is precisely because he feels it is part of a strategy to boost multiverse/string theory research – see the comment from him below the blog I linked to.

        I too will refrain from passing judgement on string theory. But Peter, if you dislike it so much, it would appear that you should be united with Woit in your opposition to more Templeton funding for it!

      • telescoper Says:

        I don’t mind string theory being funded by Templeton, actually. The issue for me is how much it should be supported by the mainstream science budget.

  4. I think it is pretty clear what the agenda of the Templeton Foundation is, namely to buy respectability. That is true, of course, for many types of donors, such as oil companies who sponsor Masterpiece Theatre or whatever on public television in the USA; it’s more PR than a real interest in the topic. However, British drama and oil are rather disjoint, whereas science and religion have something to do with each other (what, exactly, that is has to do with one’s point of view). While it might not be quite as bad as tobacco companies sponsoring research on lung cancer (which did actually happen; not sure if it still does), the potential for a conflict of interest is certainly there.

    I think one has to distinguish several cases. There are several very good scientists who make no secret about their religion (Barrow and George Ellis come to mind, but also Lemaitre); I see no problem in one of these folks accepting Templeton money, though presumably the religious views of Barrow, Ellis and Lemaitre are quite different from those of Rick Santorum. Rees makes no bones about not being religious (though he admits to being a cultural Anglican) so there is no question of the award not having been made in good faith (pun intended) and I doubt the huge sum will influence Martin’s behaviour much (remember, his reply to a journalist’s question whether he was already a millionaire before the award was “no comment”). Still, I think a rejection by Rees would have been an interesting gesture. The Templeton Foundation is now awarding money to more junior researchers, however, who, in these trying times, might have to choose between Templeton money and leaving the field. Even if people don’t change their behaviour as a result of accepting the money (which is asking a lot, especially if such people apply for more Templeton money in the future), presumably the Templeton Foundation at least indirectly has some influence on who gets the money, and such a selection can influence the way the relationship between religion and science is perceived by the public.

    I’m sure there is a possibility to donate huge sums anonymously if one really wants to promote science and not one’s own reputation or agenda.

    While people can probably agree on a view of science, agreeing on a view of religion is a bit more complicated. Taking a broad view, there are some religions which definitely directly conflict with science, and in such cases, science has always won. Other religions (or relatively modern interpretations of some of them) might not have a conflict, but to me what is left is general enough to be acceptable even to non-religious people, so calling it a religion seems more of a word game than anything else.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Phillip,

      In your first sentence, do you mean buy respectability for themselves or for a particular point of view. If the former, whoever said they had been disreputable; if the latter, what point of view? I’m not necessarily disagreeing – rather, seeking clarification.

      “there are some religions which definitely directly conflict with science, and in such cases, science has always won”

      Could you be more specific?

      Anton

      • First point: for themselves. Many companies use sponsoring as a method of advertising, and often that which is sponsored is chosen to cast the company in a better light.

        Second point: Age of the Earth, Adam and Eve as ancestors of humans etc etc. Note that the “but it’s just a metaphor” claim was advanced only after science had pointed out that the stories can’t be true; there is no evidence that anyone in the middle ages, say, ever thought of the Bible as anything but literally true. (This also raises two questions: 1) Metaphor for what? and 2) How does one know what is supposed to be a metaphor and what isn’t?). Of course, since religions also disagree with one another, one can conclude that they can’t all be correct.

      • Further to point 1: It’s not always the case that someone had said they were disreputable, but rather covering all bases in advance, so to speak. This is similar to corporations which donate money to all political parties (except perhaps the communists). Obviously, this can’t be done to aid a specific point of view in the sense of a party platform, but rather has the aim of making the parties fear losing the donations should they be too critical of the donors.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Phillip,

        If Templeton wants to buy respectability, why? No disagreement, but to me there’s still a shortfall in your explanation.

        Re point 2, YOM in Hebrew (as in Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement, and the six YOM of creation in Genesis 1) can also mean “era”. It can’t mean 24 hours in Job 15:23 and 18:20, for example. (“Day” in English has the same ambiguity, eg “the day of steam power”.) In Genesis 1:5a God simply calls the light period “day” – he does not specify any duration; and the first three YOM were before the sun and moon began to differentiate day and night on YOM-4. So even in the pre-scientific era there were clues that this was not a 6 * 24hr account. In the pre-scientific era, Jewish commentators who better understood the flexibility of Hebrew took this account a lot closer to modern science than did Christian commentators. The references are in Gerald Schroeder’s remarkable book The Science of God, which also has a diferent take on Adam and Eve.

      • Point taken in this case (there are several instances—Moses with horns comes to mind—where things were garbled in translation), though other events (the Flood etc) don’t have this ambiguity. As Isaac Asimov points out in his book of the same name, the whole point of the story of Ruth was probably lost in non-translation. Of course, God (or the Devil) could have created the Earth and/or parts of it with the appearance of age (fossils etc), so one can always have a scheme which can’t be disproven, though one has to wonder what the point would be.

        As to Templeton, my impression is that by awarding the Templeton Prize to big names (and having these big names accept it), the hope is that the public will see less of a disagreement between science and religion.

      • On the other hand, “and the evening and the morning were the first day” is, as far as I know, not a mistranslation, and certainly does suggest a 24-hour day, rather than a “day of steam” type construction.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Re disagreement between science and religion, it deserves to be asked: Which religion? And to point out that science developed in a culture in which almost everybody believed the Bible was factually true. But Yes, there is a clash over miracles.

        “Of course, since religions also disagree with one another, one can conclude that they can’t all be correct.”

        I agree. But why have you artificially restricted the field to religions? Communism and secular humanism are comprehensive belief systems too, and like all such they depend on axioms that cannot be proved from anything more primitive. (If they can, you still face an infinite regress problem that can be terminated only by a statement of faith of some sort.)

        I have only found summaries online of what Asimov wrote, to the effect that Israelites looked down on Samaritans and Moabites, which I agree is a crucial point. It is well known among better Bible teachers though.

        I agree it is undisprovable that a creator God did not make everything 10 seconds ago with false memories. I can say only that God is not a capricious practical joker. That is one of my replies to young-earth creationists re fossils, in fact.

        It is odd that evening and morning are referred to before the sun and moon became visible at Yom-4. It would have been obviously a mistake even at the time of writing unless something more was going on. What that is, I’m not certain, but there are plausible suggestions in Schroeder.

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