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Exploring the Eternal Questions of the Cosmos

Written by Ken Branson

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Rutgers philosophers and scientists will lead a three-year exploration of the basic questions concerning the nature, age and fate of the universe.

The initiative, funded through a $967,000 grant from the John Templeton Foundation, aims to establish philosophy of cosmology as a specific, interdisciplinary field of study. Collaborating institutions include Columbia University, Yale University, New York University, and the University of California at Santa Cruz.

Cosmology is the study of the nature of the universe. The philosophy of cosmology concerns philosophical issues arising from cosmology and the relationship between cosmology and science, social sciences, religion, mythology, and other human activities. Among the specific issues the group will explore are the meaning of space and time, whether our universe is unique, how and why the universe came to be, and the role of human beings in it.

“What we want to do is establish a community of scholars interested in exploring the big questions about the universe, and we want those scholars to be multidisciplinary,” said Barry Loewer, professor  of philosophy at Rutgers University. The grant will be administered from the Center for Philosophy and the Sciences at Rutgers.  Loewer and David Albert, professor of philosophy at Columbia, are the project’s co-leaders.   

“We’ve got a fairly detailed scientific picture of the evolution of the universe as a whole,” said David Albert, professor of philosophy at Columbia and co-director of the project. “Once you have a picture like that, foundational questions can be raised in a much crisper, clearer, more focused way than was possible before.”

The grant encompasses nine scholars: Loewer, Dean Zimmerman, Sheldon Goldstein and Roderich Tumulka of Rutgers; Albert and Brian Greene of Columbia, Tim Maudlin of New York University, Priya Natarajan of Yale, and Joel Primack of the University of California, Santa Cruz. Loewer, Zimmerman, Albert and Maudlin are philosophers; Goldstein and Tumulka, mathematicians; Greene, Natarajan, and Primack, physicists.

“The question of how the universe began is one that we've pondered, in one way or another, for millennia,” said Columbia’s Greene, best known to television viewers as host of the program The Fabric of the Cosmos, based on his book and part of the Public Broadcasting Corporation’s Nova series. “By bringing together researchers from diverse disciplines within physics, mathematics, astronomy and philosophy, we envision achieving new insights that would escape any single perspective working in isolation.”

In addition to supporting the scholars’ research, the grant will support conferences, a public website, and a summer school for graduate students and events for high school students.

 

 

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