4 year MPhysPhil

Physics and Philosophy

This course will be of interest to those who seek a deeper philosophical understanding of the basis of physics and who want a degree comparable in level with advanced European degrees. In the physics and philosophy course some of the physics subjects in each year are replaced by topics in philosophy.The Joint Honours degree in Physics and Philosophy is intended to restore the long-standing connection between natural science on the one hand and the study of its foundations in metaphysics and the theory of knowledge on the other hand. The course is also intended to equip those who take it with the ability to think scientifically, to handle difficult concepts and to present their conclusions incisively and effectively. It is a course which aims to bridge the Arts/Science divide.

Why Oxford?

The Oxford Philosophy Faculty is one of the foremost centres for the study of the Philosophy of Physics in the UK.
The Oxford physics and philosophy degree is an integrated programme in which physics and philosophy are given equal weight. Both subjects are studied in parallel for the first three years, with an option for greater specialisation in the fourth year. But most importantly, they are bridged by inter-disciplinary work in the philosophy of physics which is undertaken in the first three years of the course, and is an option in the final year.

The Course

The physics component of the course over the first three years covers the more theoretical part of the standard Oxford undergraduate programme in physics. By confining the physics studied to those subjects that are relevant to foundational issues, the course equips students to study the philosophy of physics in greater depth than would be possible if the philosophy component was simply an alternative to a theoretical physics option.

The physics that is included in the course is generally taught through lectures which are supplemented by one or two tutorials or problem classes per week.

In philosophy, instruction is given through weekly tutorials backed up by core lectures. In the first three years, the philosophy of physics is taught through specialist lecture courses and complementary tutorials. The first year deals with rival seventeenth century conceptions of space and time, and in the next two years the philosophy of special relativity and quantum mechanics are studied at an intermediate level. In the final, fourth year, advanced philosophy of physics is taught through lectures and classes, rather than tutorials.

Any Joint Honours degree is bound to have a heavy workload, and Physics and Philosophy is no exception. Undergraduates are expected to be as fluent in mathematics as are their Single Honours peers in physics and as competent in writing essays as their colleagues in philosophy. The course necessarily involves a lot of work, but the unity of the selections taken from each subject does give scope for the subject matter to come together once the basic skills have been mastered. A limited amount of practical work in physics (involving three experiments) is undertaken in the second year, and an option exists in the fourth year for a more advanced practical project to replace one of the physics papers.

There is an examination in maths (two papers), physics, philosophy and logic at the end of the first year (Moderations).

Syllabus Overview

Please see the detailed summary in the University Prospectus.

Preparation

There is a lot of mathematics in the course, so those who are not studying further mathematics at A-level should familiarize themselves with a representative further maths A-level syllabus before coming to Oxford.

Helpful texts for preparation for the formal logic course in the first year are W. Hodge's Logic (Penguin) or W. Newton-Smith's Logic (Routledge).

For physics, Beiser's Concepts of Modern Physics (McGraw Hill) covers a lot of the material studied in the course at an introductory level. Of the many popular reviews of modern physics presently available, A. J. Legget's Problems of Physics (Oxford) is strongly recommended.

There are many introductions to philosophy, for example M. Hollis' An Invitation to Philosophy (Blackwell). Philosophy As It Is, edited by Myles Burnyeat and Ted Honderick is a useful collection. Perhaps the most helpful for students of physics and philosophy is Key Themes in Philosophy edited by A. Philips Griffiths (Cambridge). A recent book on the philosophy of mind and its connections with modern physics is Mind, Brain and the Quantum (Blackwell) by M. Lockwood.

Useful introductions to current issues in the philosophy of science can be found in A.F. Chalmers' What is This Thing called Science? (Open University Press) or R. Harré's Philosophies of Science (Oxford).

Tackling technical problems in the philosophy of physics requires considerable familiarity with the relevant physics. Spacetime Physics (Freeman) by E. Taylor and J. A. Wheeler is excellent background reading for relativity physics, the philosophy of which is treated in Spacetime and Electromagnetism (Clarendon) by J. Lucas and P. Hodgson, as well as in Relativity: The Theory and its Philosophy (Pergamon) by R. Angel. A. Rae's Quantum Physics - Illusion or Reality? (Cambridge) is a useful introduction to the philosophy of quantum mechanics.

Final Remarks

Physics and Philosophy has been offered as a degree course at Oxford since 1968, and since then the course has developed and changed greatly, in response to changes physics and current issues in the philosophy of physics over that period. The way in which these developments have been reflected in the course owes much to the suggestions of undergraduates and their representative on the joint University committee responsible for running the course.

Physics and Philosophy graduates go on to an astonishing range of careers. The combination of mastery of technical detail with cogency of argument makes them well suited for jobs in the Civil Service, media, campaigning organizations and elsewhere. In particular, the course prepares graduates for further academic study in either discipline, or in the Philosophy of Physics.

The course has often been described as demanding but rewarding. If you are interested in applying, full details of the procedure are in given in the University Prospectus.

The Physics and Philosophy frequently asked questions page can be found here.