Warsaw Spacetime Colloquium 2021/2022 (online)

The Colloquium’s goal is to provide a window into the state-of-the-art in the foundations of spacetime physics. It brings together top-level philosophers and physicists willing to share their current research with an international audience.

Winter Semester Program:

22 October (17:00-19:00 CEST) – Gordon Belot (University of Michigan) – “The Mach-Einstein Principle of 1917-1918.” (SlidesWatch on YouTube)


In 1917 and 1918 Einstein was working on relativistic cosmology and on promoting and explaining general relativity in correspondence.  During this period, the thesis that the spacetime metric should be determined by the distribution of matter played an important role in his thought. This talk is concerned with interpreting this thesis and with investigating its status in general relativity.

5 November (17:00-19:00 CET) – Robert DiSalle (Western University) – “On the Epistemological Foundations of Space-Time Geometry.” (Watch on YouTube)


According to Einstein, what was central to the motivating arguments for the general theory of relativity included not only the familiar arguments about generalizing the relativity of motion, but also the more complicated argument about the empirical content of space-time geometry. On this matter, Einstein’s views, broadly speaking, reflected the influence and insight of Poincaré and Hilbert regarding the empirical interpretation of formal structures. More specifically, however, Einstein offered a reductive analysis of the empirical foundation of geometry, that is, the argument reducing geometrical measurements to observations of “point-coincidences.” This reductive argument in turn inspired logical empiricist conceptions of the empirical content of formal theories. This paper draws a sharp contrast between such conception and the way in which the theory actually determines its characteristic theoretical magnitudes, such as the curvature of space-time. It suggests that the reductive analysis ultimately obscures the empirical significance of general relativity as a novel theory of gravity and space-time, and the nature of the evidentiary basis for this dramatic conceptual shift. I outline an alternative account of how general relativity connects with spatial and temporal measurement, based in the history of the epistemology of geometry, by extending historical analyses of spatial measurement, and of the empirical character of non-Euclidean geometry, to the analysis of curved space-time. This account suggests, more generally, an account of scientific representation, and of the links between empirical descriptions and mathematical structures, that avoids the characteristic difficulties of standard recent approaches.

19 November (17:00-19:00 CET) – Jeremy Butterfield & Henrique Gomes (University of Cambridge) – “Assessing the Hole Argument.” (SlidesWatch on YouTube)


We assess the hole argument in general relativity, and the related topics of the definitions of symmetries and determinism. We begin by rejecting the claim made in some recent literature that the sheer mathematics of the theory makes it mandatory to identify spacetime points “across possible worlds” by dragging along by the isomorphism. We agree that the mathematics is indifferent to the identity of points, and that in many contexts, drag-along is appropriate. But we argue that general relativity, and indeed other spacetime theories, use other means of “trans-world identification”, which we will call threading. Besides, they need to use threading, on pain of trivialising important constructions: even elementary ones like the Lie derivative.

3 December (17:00-19:00 CET) – David Albert (Columbia University) – “Physical Laws and Physical Things.” (Watch on YouTube)


I will consider several strategies for absorbing unwanted pieces of concrete physical ontology (for example: absolute/substantival Newtonian space, Maxwellian Electromagnetic fields, and especially and particularly quantum-mechanical wave-functions) into the metaphysical category of Laws.  I will argue that these strategies work well for the case of Newtonian absolute space – but that they work poorly for the case of quantum-mechanical wave-functions.

17 December (17:00-19:00 CET) – Alastair Wilson (University of Birmingham) – “Fundamentality and Levels in Everettian Quantum Mechanics.” (HandoutWatch on YouTube)


Distinctions in fundamentality between different levels of description  are central to the viability of contemporary decoherence-based Everettian quantum mechanics (EQM). This approach to quantum theory characteristically combines a determinate fundamental reality (one universal wavefunction) with an indeterminate emergent reality (multiple decoherent worlds). In this talk I explore how the Everettian appeal to fundamentality and emergence can be understood within existing metaphysical frameworks, identify grounding and concept fundamentality as promising theoretical tools, and use them to characterize a system of explanatory levels (with associated laws of nature) for EQM. This Everettian level structure encompasses and extends the ‘classical’ levels structure. The ‘classical’ levels of physics, chemistry, biology, etc. are recovered, but they are emergent in character and potentially variable across Everett worlds. EQM invokes an additional fundamental level, not present in the classical levels picture, and a novel potential role for self-location in interlevel metaphysics. When given a modal realist interpretation, EQM also makes trouble for supervenience-based approaches to levels.

7 January (17:00-19:00 CET) – Elise Crull (City University New York) – “You’re a Good Man, Harvey Brown: Quantum Rods & Clocks from Decoherence.”


Harvey Brown’s 2005 book Physical Relativity calls for the development of a constructive-theoretic (as opposed to principle-theoretic) interpretation of relativity: in short, for a quantum-dynamical description of rods and clocks. Significant issues, however, stand in the way of this project. For one, such an interpretation of GR will require carrying over the Strong Equivalence Principle from SR, and this is not trivial. For another, a quantum-dynamical GR is clearly in tension with the fact that the fields in Einstein’s field equations are classical.
In this talk, I argue that these issues may be dissolved by appeal to decoherence — and this prior to having in hand a fully realized theory of quantum gravity.

21 January (17:00-19:00 CET) – Richard Dawid (Stockholm University) – “Final but Incomplete: What String Theory May Suggest for 21st Century Physics.”


String theory has not come close to a complete formulation after half a century of intense research. On the other hand, a number of features of the theory suggest that the theory, once completed, may be a final theory. It is argued in this talk that those two conspicuous characteristics of string physics are related to each other. The property that links them together is the fact that string theory has no free parameters at a fundamental level. The talk will discuss what finality could mean under the given circumstances and will look at possible implications of this situation for the long term prospects of theory building in fundamental physics.