Space and Time


Space, Time and Infinity


Spring semester 2015

Prof. Dowden

(Do not trust this syllabus until this sentence is removed.)

 Albert Einstein





Catalog description:

Introduction to significant philosophical issues involving space and time. An investigation into the current state of these issues. Note: No background or work in mathematics or physics is required. Prerequisite: 6 units in philosophy or instructor permission. 3 units.


Three essay assignments (21% each), one class presentation (10%), and a comprehensive final exam (27%).
  • Essay assignment 1 due Feb. 21 (week 4).
  • Essay assignment 2 due Mar. 14 (week 7).
  • Essay assignment 3 due May 2 (week 13).
  • Final Exam May 23, 12:45 P.M. (week 16).

Depth of philosophical insight, accuracy, and quality of argumentation are the paramount factors affecting the grades, but English writing skill is also a significant factor. The final exam is open book and open notes. The class presentation is your giving a lecture to the other students on your selected topic for about fifteen minutes, followed by leading the class discussion on that topic for about five more minutes.


: The Metaphysics of Time: A Dialogue by Bradley Dowden, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009.

dialogue BOOK COVER

Introducing Time by Craig Callender and Ralph Edney. 2001, 2005. Any edition of this book is OK.


Some other required reading and viewing assignments are available on the Internet, as indicated below in the weekly schedule of assignments. In addition, you will occasionally receive printed class handouts or postings in SacCT, which you should consider to be required reading.

More detailed course description

Our course is about space. What sort of space? If you have a cubic box, and you fill it with marbles, then how much space is there left in the box? There are two answers. (1) A cubic foot. (2) It depends on how big the marbles are. Our course is about space in sense (1).

Our course is also about time. We don't mean free time. We mean what clocks are used to measure.

Our course is about infinity and the infinite. To prepare you for what is to come on that topic, here is a quotation from the Argentine write Jorge Luis Borges: “There is a concept which corrupts and upsets all others. I refer not to Evil, whose limited realm is that of ethics; I refer to the infinite.”

Here are four examples of philosophical issues that we will explore:

  • Time has an arrow. We see this arrow when events "unfold" in a one-way direction. For example unbroken eggs turn into omelets, but omelets never turn into unbroken eggs. A rock leaves your hand and falls into a pond causing expanding waves. However, contracting waves on the pond never reach a point where they eject a rock into your hand leaving a smooth pond surface. Why does the universe have this unidirectionality? And if time's arrow reversed direction in some far off corner of the universe, would the people there walk backwards up steps while remembering the future?
  • Without minds in the world, nothing in the world would be surprising or beautiful or interesting. Can we add that nothing would be in time?
  • If all the matter and energy were to be removed from all of space, would empty space still be left, or instead would even empty space be gone?
  • Is the concept of "the infinite" such an awesome concept that we finite humans cannot understand it? Or is it sufficient that we understand the finite, and then the negation of that?

These and many other issues of ours will be placed in historical context, but they won't be covered in chronological order. Still, the course's historical range is broad.  For example, working with the infinite is tricky business. Zeno’s paradoxes first alerted philosophers to this in 450 B.C.E. when he argued that a fast runner such as Achilles has an infinite number of places to reach during the pursuit of a slower runner. Since then, there has been a struggle to understand how to use the notion of infinity in a coherent manner. We will also consider the impact of 21st century theories of quantum gravity on our civilization's understanding of space, time and the infinite. The relevant scientific theories will be introduced as needed, but only informally.

Regarding the philosophical issue of travel through space, the most important point to remember is that wherever you go, there you are. Your luggage is another story. 

OK, let's get back on track. Our course is a seminar, so it's not wholly a lecture course. You will be required to give a fifteen-minute presentation to the class at some time of your choosing during the semester. In other words, you are the professor for 15 minutes. During this time, you might present a summary of some of the required reading for that day. Another option is to expand on one idea concerning that week's topic; you can do this by reporting on an unassigned article you've read. These aren't your only options; feel free to be creative, but do not spend much time presenting biographies of people. After your presentation, allow about 5 minutes for class discussion and questions from other students, before I take over and continue the discussion or go on to another topic.

Schedule of Topics and Assignments:

The schedule of weekly topics, reading and viewing assignments is here.The schedule of class presentations will be created during the first week and then posted in SacCT.


Prof. Bradley Dowden. My office is in Mendocino Hall, room 3022. My weekly office hours are TuTh 11:45-12:30 and online in SacCT every Wednesday evening from 8 to 10 P.M. If those hours are inconvenient for you, then we can arrange an appointment for an alternative time. Also, send me e-mail any time at or call my office at 278-7384 or the Philosophy Department Office at 278-6424. The fastest way to contact me is by email. My personal web page is at


picture of Prof. Dowden

click photo to expand

Late work, and make-up assignments:

I realize that during your college career you occasionally may be unable to complete an assignment on time. If this happens in our course, contact me as soon as you are able. If you promptly provide me with a good reason for missing a test or homework assignment (illness, accident, etc.), then I'll use your grade on the final exam as your missing grade. There will be no make-up tests nor make-up homework. I do accept late homework with a grade penalty of one-third of a letter grade per 24-hour period beginning at the class time the assignment is due. Here are some examples of how this works.  If you turn in the assignment a few hours after it is due, then your A becomes an A-.  Instead, if you turn in the same assignment 30 hours late, then your A becomes a B+. Weekends count, so scan your late, but finished work on the weekend; then email it as an attachment. No late work will be accepted after the answer sheet has been handed out (often this will be at the next class meeting) nor after the answers are discussed in class, even if you weren't in class that day.


To add the course, try to do so by using the CMS system. If the course is full, then see me about signing up on the waiting list. To drop the course during the first two weeks, use the CMS system. No paperwork is required. After the first two weeks, it is harder to drop, and a departmental form is required, the "Petition to Add/Drop After Deadline." As with any university course, make sure you are dropped officially (by CMS or by the instructor or department secretary); don't simply walk away into the ozone or else you will get a "U" grade for the course, which is counted as an "F" in computing your GPA (grade point average).


If you have a documented disability and require accommodation or assistance with assignments, tests, attendance, note taking, etc., please see me early in the semester so that appropriate arrangements can be made to ensure your full participation in class. Also, you are encouraged to contact the Services for Students with Disabilities (Lassen Hall) for additional information regarding services that might be available to you.

Plagiarism and Academic Honesty:

A student tutorial on how not to plagiarize is available online from our library. The University's policy on academic honesty is at

Food in class:

Except for water, please do not eat or drink during class time. You are welcome to leave class anytime if the need arises.

Student outcome goals:

The goal is for you to acquire a broad understanding of the major philosophical issues that involve the nature of space and time. You will know what is controversial about various important claims that have been made, and you will be able to carefully express and to defend your own views on these topics.


Laptops and cell phones: No photographing during class is allowed without permission of the instructor. Audio recording is OK. During class, turn off your cellphone. Your computers may be used only for note taking, and not for browsing the web, reading emails, or other activities unrelated to the class. If you use a computer during class, then please sit in the back of the room or in a side row so that your monitor's screen won't distract other students.

Testing protocol:

For in-class tests, you may use your books and notes but not your computer or phone.

Here are some helpful suggestions from Prof. McCormick.

time flies


Updated: October 1, 2014