Physics and philosophy appear, at first glance, to be two very different subjects. However, there’s a rich overlap between them. If you’re interested in the ‘big questions’, in examining not only the foundations of our universe but also the very methods we use to investigate them, this may be the course for you.
Some of the questions this course seeks to answer include:
- What methods are acceptable in science?
- What are the differences between mathematical knowledge and knowledge based on experience?
- What does it mean for one event to cause another?
- Is a physical object simply a collection of particles?
- Could space exist if there were no objects to occupy it?
- What does it mean for an event to have a probability of occurring?
- How can we learn the laws of physics that resulted in the Big Bang when there are no other examples of Big Bangs to study?
Which universities offer Physics and Philosophy?
Physics and Philosophy is offered at Oxford, but not Cambridge. It is also offered at many other universities across the country, such as: Exeter, Bristol, King’s College London, York, Durham, and Manchester.
Which A-Levels will I need to study Physics and Philosophy?
Maths and Physics are compulsory prerequisites for this course at Oxford, with Further Maths also recommended. In particular, all the Mechanics options offered within the A-Level Maths syllabus are highly recommended. The offer is usually A*AA, with an A* in one of the above three subjects.
This course may appeal to you if you did these A-levels alongside an essay based subject, such as English, History, or even Philosophy. Be aware, however, that the philosophical content does not follow on from the A-Level syllabus. Although it’s not crucial to have a humanities A-Level in tow, essay writing is a large part of this degree, and honing these skills to an A-Level standard will prove invaluable.
What would I be studying?
At Oxford, the Physics and Philosophy course naturally covers the core topics from the Physics degree (classical mechanics, quantum mechanics, and special relativity) and a number of pure philosophy courses (including logic and an introduction to key philosophical themes called ‘General Philosophy’).
However, there are also courses that cover the overlap between the two. For instance, in the first year, you’ll study the Leibniz-Clarke correspondence, a famous scientific and philosophical debate held in a series of letters between Leibniz and Clarke in the early 18th century. Their discussion ranged across topics including the nature of space, the nature of causation, the role of God in physics and whether all motion is relative, and you’ll be encouraged to tie many of these topics back to more modern debates too.
Later crossover courses include some with a very broad scope, such as the philosophy of science, and others which focus on more specific debates, such as philosophical issues arising from quantum mechanics.
If you’re interested in both the nature of the universe and our knowledge of it, and if you value the opportunity to combine your mathematical and scientific skills with the reading, writing, and discussion you’ll get from philosophy, this might just be the course for you.
For more of an idea of what the course entails, take a look at our reading recommendations for Physics and Philosophy.