New Directions in Philosophy of Cosmology Grant

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Chris Smeenk, Director of the Rotman Institute of Philosophy and Associate Professor of Philosophy at Western University, and Jim Weatherall, Professor of Logic and Philosophy of Science at the University of California, Irvine, have been awarded a grant from the John Templeton Foundation for $1.37-million USD. Their project, entitled New Directions in Philosophy of Cosmology, will offer a new model for collaboration between philosophers and cosmologists.

Physical cosmology has enjoyed decades of progress, leading to a new understanding of the cosmos and our place in it. But this success comes with new puzzles. Cosmologists seek to understand events that are far removed from us. Moreover, in many cases they study historical episodes that are apparently unique – such as the origin of the universe – and which cannot be studied experimentally. To overcome these challenges, cosmologists have often revisited basic questions concerning what constitutes an acceptable scientific theory, what sorts of explanatory demands a theory of cosmology can meet, and how to understand confirmation in this context. Their answers to these – essentially philosophical – questions have shaped the character of cosmological theory.

The principal goal of this project is to articulate and scrutinize the philosophical commitments behind cosmology’s Standard Model. The project will dive more deeply into two pressing conceptual issues, identified in collaboration with cosmologists James Bullock (UCI) and Robert Brandenberger (McGill), both of whom are collaborators on the grant: (1) the epistemological significance of the crucial role now played by simulations in linking cosmological theory with observations; and (2) the status of the large-scale structure of the universe in light of suggestions from quantum gravity that characteristic features of general relativity, such as singularities, may not persist into future theories.

Over the course of the three-year grant period, this project’s research activities will include a book manuscript, publications in a range of journals in the fields of philosophy and physics, and several conferences and workshops. The grant will also fund the 2018 Rotman summer institute in philosophy of cosmology, as well as other outreach and capacity-building activities. It will provide substantial training opportunities at the pre-doctoral, post-doctoral, and established researcher levels.

The New Directions in Philosophy of Cosmology project is part of an ongoing cross disciplinary collaboration between the Rotman Institute of Philosophy at Western and the Department of Logic and Philosophy of Science at the University of California, Irvine. Now in its tenth year since its creation in 2008, the Rotman Institute has established itself as a global centre for interdisciplinary research and training. Through projects such as this, scholars at the Institute have pursued work that brings philosophical insights to bear on pressing issues in science, and problems of real social significance. UC Irvine’s Department of Logic and Philosophy of Science, meanwhile, has emerged as a leading research center for philosophy of science, philosophy of physics, and philosophy of mathematics, consistently earning top rankings for graduate study in each of its fields of specialization. This is the second project on which Smeenk and Weatherall have collaborated, following the successful Templeton-funded project “Laws, Methods, and Minds in Cosmology” (2016-18).

The Templeton Foundation awards grants to innovative, interdisciplinary research projects. This grant is part of their Science and the Big Questions funding area, addressing questions about fundamental structures and laws of nature.

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