The best books about the philosophy of physics

Marc Lange Author Of An Introduction to the Philosophy of Physics: Locality, Fields, Energy, and Mass
By Marc Lange

Who am I?

My undergraduate physics textbook asked, “What is an electric field? Is it something real, or is it merely a name for a factor in an equation which has to be multiplied by something else to give the numerical value of the force we measure in an experiment?” Here, I thought, is a good question! But the textbook said that since electromagnetic theory “works, it doesn’t make any difference" what an electric field is! Then it said, "That is not a frivolous answer, but a serious one.” I felt ashamed. But my physics teacher helpfully suggested that I “speak to the philosophers.” I am very pleased that I decided to become one!

I wrote...

An Introduction to the Philosophy of Physics: Locality, Fields, Energy, and Mass

By Marc Lange,

Book cover of An Introduction to the Philosophy of Physics: Locality, Fields, Energy, and Mass

What is my book about?

The philosophy of physics did not begin with the notorious puzzles raised by the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. Those puzzles arose against a background of deep questions about classical mechanics and the 19th-century field theories of electricity and magnetism. What is energy? Is it some kind of stuff that flows through space? Are the electric and magnetic fields real things pervading all of “empty” space? Do fields actually cause bodies to move or are fields merely bookkeeping devices that we use for predicting our observations? How are electricity and magnetism “unified”?

This book investigates all of these questions so that when it finally reaches relativity and quantum mechanics, there is a philosophical context in which to appreciate the questions that those theories provoke.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Quantum Mechanics and Experience

Why did I love this book?

This is the most fun book that has ever been written about the famous philosophical challenges posed by the proper interpretation of quantum mechanics. It is extremely difficult to say what the real world could possibly be like considering that quantum mechanics is so accurate at predicting our observations of it. Albert is a wonderful guide to this problem. His book is genuinely funny and down-to-earth (yes, I mean it!) and it introduces only as much technical and scientific machinery as is absolutely necessary. There is no other quantum mechanics book quite like this one.

By David Z. Albert,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Quantum Mechanics and Experience as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The more science tells us about the world, the stranger it looks. Ever since physics first penetrated the atom, early in this century, what it found there has stood as a radical and unanswered challenge to many of our most cherished conceptions of nature. It has literally been called into question since then whether or not there are always objective matters of fact about the whereabouts of subatomic particles, or about the locations of tables and chairs, or even about the very contents of our thoughts. A new kind of uncertainty has become a principle of science.

This book is…

Einstein for Everyone

By John D. Norton,

Book cover of Einstein for Everyone

Why did I love this book?

This book has it all. It describes Einstein’s own fascinating path to both the special and the general theories of relativity. It explains why relativity theory involved such revolutionary steps and yet remains continuous with 19th-century physics. It examines (and, in some cases, debunks!) the philosophical morals (about spacetime and about the logic of scientific reasoning) that have sometimes been drawn from relativity theory. And it looks closely at the reasons for Einstein’s critical attitude toward quantum mechanics. Norton is not only one of the world’s leading Einstein experts, but also a superb writer and teacher.

By John D. Norton,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Einstein for Everyone as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

Book cover of Philosophy of Physics: Quantum Theory

Why did I love this book?

When a world-class philosopher of physics is also a spectacularly gifted writer, you have the makings of an extraordinary book. This book offers a comprehensive introduction to various interpretations of quantum mechanics, while Maudlin's companion volume on the philosophy of space and time is equally highly recommended. Maudlin is a (very) opinionated guide, which makes these books even more valuable (and enjoyable to read). I especially enjoy Maudlin’s refusal to tolerate any of the nonsense that one often finds in quantum mechanics textbooks that depict the “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum mechanics as indeed a genuine interpretation of quantum mechanics. Rather, as Maudlin forthrightly says, the “Copenhagen interpretation” amounts to a failure to offer any interpretation at all of quantum mechanics. Instead, it treats quantum mechanics merely as a device for predicting the chances of our making various observations.

By Tim Maudlin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Philosophy of Physics as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A sophisticated and original introduction to the philosophy of quantum mechanics from one of the world's leading philosophers of physics

In this book, Tim Maudlin, one of the world's leading philosophers of physics, offers a sophisticated, original introduction to the philosophy of quantum mechanics. The briefest, clearest, and most refined account of his influential approach to the subject, the book will be invaluable to all students of philosophy and physics.

Quantum mechanics holds a unique place in the history of physics. It has produced the most accurate predictions of any scientific theory, but, more astonishing, there has never been any…

Book cover of Philosophical Concepts in Physics: The Historical Relation Between Philosophy and Scientific Theories

Why did I love this book?

This book is a beautiful discussion of a theme that runs through my book as well: the intimate relations between conceptual innovations in physics and developments in philosophy. Cushing (a longtime professor of physics and philosophy at Notre Dame) organizes his survey historically and aims to show how time and time again, metaphysical and epistemological considerations have played important roles in scientific advances. I don’t believe that there is a sharp distinction between physics and the philosophy of physics. Cushing’s elegant and accessible book bears this out.

By James T. Cushing,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Philosophical Concepts in Physics as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book examines a selection of philosophical issues in the context of specific episodes in the development of physical theories. Advances in science are presented against the historical and philosophical backgrounds in which they occurred. A major aim is to impress upon the reader the essential role that philosophical considerations have played in the actual practice of science. The book begins with some necessary introduction to the history of ancient and early modern science, with major emphasis being given to the two great watersheds of twentieth-century physics: relativity and, especially, quantum mechanics. At times the term 'construction' may seem more…

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