Alastair Wilson works in the emerging subfield of Metaphysics of Science, a branch of philosophy that takes advantage of contemporary scientific discoveries to help answer ancient questions about the underlying nature of reality. Having studied Physics and Philosophy at the University of Oxford and pursued postdoctoral research at Monash University, he moved to the University of Birmingham where he is currently Senior Lecturer and Head of Philosophy. From January 2018, he will be Principal Investigator on a major project on explanation in physics, funded by a €1.5m European Research Council Starting Grant. This project, FraMEPhys, will explore how physics helps us to understand the world in ways that go beyond the familiar model of causal explanation, and will cast light on some of the deepest puzzles of physics including the role of spacetime in explaining the motion of matter, the behaviour of ‘time-travelling’ systems in the presence of closed timelike curves, and the mysterious connections between entangled quantum systems.
In addition to explanation in physics, Alastair’s research focuses on the philosophical consequences of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. Familiar from science fiction, the many-worlds interpretation envisages a huge plurality of parallel universes: the quantum multiverse. If something is physically possible – if it’s permitted by the laws of nature – then it occurs in one of the universes. This is a radical cosmological hypothesis, and seems to have profound consequences for the way in which we fit into the world around us. Do our actions matter, if the multiverse will be the same whatever we decide to do? If all possible worlds exist, then how can anything be a matter of chance – isn’t the probability of there being a multiverse equal to one and the probability of there being anything other than a multiverse equal to zero?
These sorts of questions threaten to undermine the coherence of the many-worlds interpretation. But a subtler approach, drawing on conceptual tools and distinctions from analytic philosophy (especially metaphysics) offers a new way of understanding the many-worlds picture. Perhaps alternative parallel universes, while just as real as our own universe, nonetheless constitute genuine alternative possibilities, being both real and non-actual. ‘Actual’ might turn out to be an indexical term, like ‘here’ or ‘now’, referring to the world that we happen to occupy. This new approach to understanding the many-worlds interpretation promises to make clear sense of the most popular approach to quantum mechanics amongst theoretical physicists and cosmologists, reconciling it with our manifest world of probabilities, expectations, and moral value.
Education, Employment and Specializations
2007-2011 University College, Oxford: D.Phil Philosophy.
2005-2007 Linacre College, Oxford: B.Phil Philosophy (Distinction).
2001-2005 Balliol College, Oxford: B.A. Physics & Philosophy (1st).
Current Employment: Senior Lecturer & Head of Philosophy, University of Birmingham.
Specializations: Metaphysics, Epistemology, Philosophy of Physics, Philosophy of Science.
External Funding and Awards
FraMEPhys: A Framework for Metaphysical Explanation in Physics (PI). Frontier research grant, European Research Council. (2018-2022, €1,481,184)
Probability and Time Travel (PI). Collaborative grant, New Agendas for the Study of Time Project, Centre for Time, University of Sydney. (2014-5, AU$14,300)
Sir Peter Strawson Scholarship in Philosophy, University College, 2007-2010.
John Locke Prize in Mental Philosophy, Oxford University, 2006.
Gibbs Prize in Philosophy, Oxford University, 2005.
1. Philosophy of Physics: A Contemporary Introduction (with Eleanor Knox).
Under contract with Routledge, expected 2019.
2. The Routledge Companion to the Philosophy of Physics (with Eleanor Knox).
Under contract with Routledge, expected 2018.
3. “Metaphysical Causation”, forthcoming in Noûs.
4. “Grounding Entails Counterpossible Non-triviality”, forthcoming in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research.
5. Chance and Temporal Asymmetry (editor), Oxford University Press, 2014.
6. “Chance & Context” (with Toby Handfield), in Chance and Temporal Asymmetry.
7. “Objective Probability in Everettian Quantum Mechanics”, The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 64 (4): 709-737, 2013.