The Philosophy of Time and Space
String theory, quantum gravity, quantum mechanics, and space-time may be traditionally associated with physics, but LAS Distinguished Professor of Philosophy Nicholas Huggett is investigating the philosophical nature of these fields—and what that means for our understanding of time and space—with support from a recent $1.1 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation.
Established in 1987, the John Templeton Foundation offers grants to projects that cross interdisciplinary boundaries and focus on research about the “basic forces, concepts, and realities” governing the universe and humankind’s place in it. Working on what the foundation refers to as “Big Questions,” Huggett’s research on the philosophical understanding of theories of quantum spacetime explores how both philosophy and physics inform our understanding of the nature of time and space.
The grant will support Huggett and his research collaborator Christian Wüthrich in continuing this important multidisciplinary and international effort. The funds will be distributed equally between Huggett at UIC and Wüthrich at the University of Geneva. “With this grant, we plan to establish UIC as one center of this study in the middle of the United States, paired with a second center in the middle of Europe in Geneva, Switzerland,” Huggett said.
For Huggett, the connection between the humanities and sciences within the study of physics has been a long-established relationship. “I’ve always been interested in questions like these, since high school and then to university—I studied at Oxford University in England and completed a dual degree in philosophy and physics,” Huggett said. “The nature of space and time were a big part of that program.”
Huggett earned a PhD from Rutgers University, during a time when interest in the subject of quantum gravity was growing. In the early 2000s, Huggett, along with Wüthrich, began to publish more on the topic. “We started to write a book, organize a few panels at conferences, and, eventually, started developing conferences ourselves,” Huggett said. “We especially wanted to support younger scholars who are interested in this still-developing field. Eventually we were approached by the Templeton Foundation to put together a grant proposal.
"To put it in a historical context,” Huggett said, “big revolutions in physics have turned on re-conceptualizations of the nature of space and time. Going back to Newton’s early work, an important part of Newtonian mechanics and the law of gravity is his account of what space and time are like. For Newton, space was a fixed background, with respect to which everything else is moving. He thought he saw the need for some big container in which everything is moving around.”
As the understanding of physics advanced, ideas of gravity outside Newton’s “container” evolved. New scientific thinking aims to present a picture of the world in which space and time are not fundamental ingredients at all, but rather made from something more basic; much like we now know solid objects are in fact made of atoms in the vacuum. Huggett’s research investigates how to philosophically understand this new scientific concept of how space and time operate.
“Philosophy enters the picture because some of the problems with quantum gravity are conceptual ones about the nature of space and time,” Huggett said. “By quantizing gravity we challenge the most fundamental ingredients of physical reality. Developments in this field will require philosophical rethinking of basic concepts of material existence, of laws of nature, and of causality.”
In addition to supporting Huggett’s research, the grant will provide opportunities for graduate students in the form of pre- and post-doctoral fellowships, biannual conferences on the subject, production of video lectures and talks, and building the scholarly community to foster an interdisciplinary dialogue between physics and philosophy. “The idea is to bring PhD students who are working on a dissertation and post-docs in this field to UIC,” Huggett explained. “With this grant, they will be able to come to LAS and spend time working with us on their research projects.”
Current PhD students like Joshua Norton (MS ’14, Physics), who recently defended his thesis on quantum gravity, and Tiziana Vistarini (PhD ’13, Philosophy; MS ’12, Physics), “will also be involved in the project, and will be among the speakers at future conferences supported by this new grant funding,” Huggett concluded.
Huggett has been a faculty member in the UIC College of Liberal Arts and Sciences for 20 years, and in 2015 he was awarded the title of LAS Distinguished Professor by Dean Astrida Orle Tantillo. The LAS Distinguished Professor honor recognizes faculty with high levels of service to, and recognition from, their field and the college community. In the spring of 2016, an invited lecture and reception will be convened in his honor.
To learn about how you can support research and teaching in philosophy at UIC, please contact Katherine Veach, Assistant Dean for Advancement, at 312.413.3469 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
To find out more about Professor Huggett’s research and to follow updates on his project, please visit beyondspacetime.net