PhD position: 3-year PhD position in philosophy of physics at the Warsaw University of Technology, Poland

Call for applications
Starting date: 4 May 2020

The International Center for Formal Ontology (ICFO) at the Warsaw University of Technology invites applications for a 3-year doctoral position within the NCN funded project “Self-subsisting structures in quantum gravity” (Principal investigator: Antonio Vassallo; see below for the project’s description).

The successful applicant will conduct their research in relation to the project under the supervision of Antonio Vassallo, and is expected to actively participate in the activities of the philosophy of physics group at the ICFO.

The ideal candidate has a good knowledge of the main debates in the philosophy of spacetime and quantum physics; a relevant background in physics (especially in shape dynamics) is preferable.

This is a full-time position based in Warsaw. The annual salary is 60,000.00 PLN gross plus extra funding for research-related traveling.

N.B.: There is the possibility to hire a PhD student already enrolled at another institution.

To apply, the following documents should be sent to as a single pdf file:

1. Cover letter,
2. CV,
3. One-page research statement describing how the applicant will contribute to the project.

Furthermore, two letters of reference should be sent to the same address directly by the referees.

Review of the applications will start on 14 April 2020 and will continue until the position is filled.

For any further question, please contact Dr. Antonio Vassallo:


Self-subsisting structures in quantum gravity

Modern physics rests on two firm theoretical pillars, namely, general relativity and quantum theory. Both theories enjoy huge empirical success and have wide technological applications. It is then natural to inquire into the possibility to merge these two theoretical frameworks into a unique theory of quantum gravity, in order to acquire a deeper understanding of the physical world. The project’s aim is exactly to lay down the physical and metaphysical foundations of a novel approach to quantum gravity, which is able to provide qualitative and quantitative answers to the main questions regarding the nature of space and time and the origin of the “quantumness” of the world.

The need for such a novel approach is justified by the huge and seemingly unsurmountable conceptual problems that all “orthodox” approaches to quantum gravity have so far faced. In a nutshell, no quantum gravity program has yet been able to come up with an ontologically clear characterization of how spacetime looks like at the Planck scale -i.e. the physical scale at which quantum-gravitational effects become relevant-, and this conceptual obscurity is a huge obstacle towards a concrete physical articulation of the theory. For example, one of the most thorny issues that still has to be addressed is how the stable spatiotemporal structures described by general relativity can be recovered from a “fuzzy” quantum-gravitational regime.

The project will tackle these conceptual problems by adapting a primitive ontology approach to quantum physics to an alternative theoretical framework for the dynamical description of the general relativistic gravitational field, which is dubbed shape dynamics. The project will provide a detailed metaphysical characterization of a primitive ontology in terms of self-subsisting structures, that is, a set of fundamental physical elements whose individuation and behavior is described in purely relational terms, without any need for an external embedding spacetime. This goal will be achieved by revising the doctrine of ontic structural realism under the light of shape dynamics. Moreover, the project will inquire into the nature of the dependence relation underlying the “emergence” of the general relativistic spacetime from the ontology posited at the fundamental level. Such a metaphysical analysis will exploit the formal methods of the structural equation modeling framework.

The research methodology will involve a conceptual investigation firmly routed in the analytic philosophy tradition. The basic research questions tackled by the project originate from the framework of modern physics: hence, the type of philosophical inquiry conducted will reflect a naturalized attitude towards metaphysics, that is, the conviction that a fruitful metaphysical research must be motivated and informed by science. More precisely, a stance known as natural philosophy will be adopted, which maintains that physics and metaphysics must be treated as a seamless whole, meaning that the development of a physical theory must take place in conjunction with a metaphysical elaboration of its conceptual foundations. This approach is appropriate for the current situation in the field of quantum gravity, where many important physical results are already well-established in spite of there being no fully worked-out theoretical framework as yet.

The search for a physical theory of quantum gravity raises a number of philosophical issues concerning notably the nature of space and time. Among them, the most compelling puzzle regards their existence: does space and time “disappear” at the Planck scale and, if yes, how are they supposed to “emerge” from the quantum regime? By providing a coherent ontological picture at the Planck scale, the project has the potential to render the above questions easier to answer, thus having a remarkable impact not only in the development of modern physics, but also in our everyday understanding of concepts such as “space”, “time”, or “change”.


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