Penn Summer COVID-19 Update
Penn Summer staff are not onsite, but we are still available Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. by phone and online in case you need support: (215) 898-7326 or Visit, the University's dedicated coronavirus COVID-19 web page, for the latest updates.
close alert box button

A Stubbornly Persistent Illusion: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Cosmology

Session B: July 27 – August 6, 2020
9:30 a.m. - 12 p.m.
Philosophy and Society
Kaitlin Moore

What is space? What is time? What does E=mc^2 actually mean? What happens if someone gets pulled through a black hole? Is time travel possible? Does quantum mechanics prove the existence of parallel universes? Is the present metaphysically privileged in some way, or is the present just like the past and the future? Are pastness, presentness, and futurity objective properties of reality or mere human projections? This module will introduce the philosophical and intellectual history of astrophysics from ancient to modern times with special emphasis placed on Einstein's theories of special and general relativity, quantum theory, and structural cosmology. Other topics include the Big Bang, black holes, stellar structures, the metaphysics of substance, particles, fields, and superstrings, and grand unification theory. This module will give students the writing, speaking, and discussion tools that will allow them to think critically about some of the most pressing (and most interesting) metaphysical and epistemological questions facing modern physicists and philosophers of science. (Also… no prior experience with physics required)


  1. To introduce the basics of metaphysical philosophy, epistemology, paradigm shifts, and empiricism
  2. To gain a broad understanding of the history of natural philosophy, specifically the philosophy of physics
  3. To undertake critical discussion and debate regarding the philosophical dimensions of time, space, relativity, and quantum mechanics
  4. To construct a coherent, persuasive argument in the form of a philosophical hypothesis
  5. To engage with scientific writers and theorists in the form of academic scholarship and research
  6. To compile a well-sourced and properly-cited bibliography
  7. To learn more about the universe, our place in it, and what the future holds for humankind


  • Individual presentations: Students will choose a "cryptid" cosmological topic (time travel, parallel universes, alternate histories, aliens, etc.) and compile their research into a coherent presentation with their properly sourced bibliography. They will be expected to discuss their topic in a ten-minute presentation in front of their peers, who will then pose questions to the presenter.
  • Short response paper: Students will be expected to complete a short, opinion-based paper responding to or commenting on a reading for the module, a cosmological topic discussed in section, or a theory or paradigm of their own choice. The paper should be no more than two pages in length, double-spaced.
  • Bibliography: Students will be introduced to the basics of conducting independent research, and as part of their final presentation, will be expected to complete a properly-cited bibliography consisting of 7-10 accredited, academic sources
  • Readings: Students will be assigned readings for class discussion. Material may include excerpts from:
    • Robert Geroch's General Relativity from A to B
    • Gordon Belot's "Dust, Time, and Symmetry"
    • Henri Poincaré's "The Measure of Time"
    • Stephan Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow's The Grand Design
    • Thomas Kuhn's On the Structure of Scientific Revolutions
    • Various other articles and research papers