skip to primary navigationskip to content
 

Paper 5: Philosophy of Science

Paper manager: Marta Halina

Also offered as an optional paper in Part IIB of the Human, Social and Political Sciences Tripos (HSPS) and the Psychological and Behavioural Sciences Tripos (PBS).

All lectures are held in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science.

Michaelmas Term
Realism and Reductionism
Tim Lewens (4), Hasok Chang (4)
Fri 11am (weeks 1–8)
Philosophy of the Biomedical Sciences
Jacob Stegenga (8)
Tue 4pm (weeks 1–8)
Lent Term
Theory, Evidence and Explanation
Marta Halina (8)
Fri 11am (weeks 1–8)
Metaphysics of Science: The Case of Biology
Tim Lewens (4)
Tue 10am (weeks 1–4)
Philosophy of Cognitive Science
Marta Halina (8)
Mon 11am (weeks 1–8)

This paper considers a series of central questions in the philosophy of science, including how these questions play out in the fields of biology and cognitive science. The sorts of questions covered include whether we should believe that our best scientific theories are true, the role of various forms of simplification and idealisation in science, the nature of hypothesis testing, the pretensions of science to reveal a mind-independent reality, and issues around the alleged unity of the sciences and of scientific method.

Aims and learning outcomes

  • to develop in students a broad understanding of central issues in the philosophy of science and to inform them on current issues in the philosophy of specific sciences, including the biological, biomedical and cognitive sciences;
  • to develop in students the ability to engage topics in science and medicine from multiple critical perspectives and develop their own views on current problems and debates;
  • to strengthen students' analytic writing and communication skills, especially in relation to topics in science and medicine.

Lectures

Realism and Reductionism
Tim Lewens, Hasok Chang (8 lectures, Michaelmas Term)

Those who admire the achievements of modern science tend to express their admiration along the lines of scientific realism: scientific theories could only be so successful if they give us a really true account of nature. Scientific realists also commonly take a reductionist view: everything is ultimately made up of elementary particles, so all of our successful scientific theories must ultimately boil down to fundamental physics. In this course we will subject these popular views to close philosophical scrutiny, with reference to various specific cases in the physical and the biological sciences.

Philosophy of the Biomedical Sciences
Jacob Stegenga (8 lectures, Michaelmas Term)

What is hypothesis testing? If a hypothesis is about causes and effects how can be it established? Testing, confirmation and causal inference are central goals of scientific research and old preoccupations of philosophy of science. Their nature is particularly controversial and consequential in biomedical sciences, where experiments are rare and often unethical and where being right is frequently a matter of life and death. This course discusses central issues in epistemology of science with special attention to medical sciences from biology to epidemiology.

Theory, Evidence and Explanation
Marta Halina (8 lectures, Lent Term)

There are many commonsense claims about science that enjoy wide acceptance. For example, that theories are supported by observations; that well-supported theories are more likely to be true; that scientists explain phenomena by accurately describing how they work. These claims have known problems, however. Observations are theory-laden, so it is not clear how they can be used to support theories in a non-circular way. Many well-supported theories have turned out to be false. Scientists sometimes explain phenomena using models that are intentionally distorting. Are there compelling accounts of theory, evidence, and explanation that overcome these problems? This series of lectures will address this and related questions, providing an introduction to key issues in philosophy of science.

Metaphysics of Science: The Case of Biology
Tim Lewens (4 lectures, Lent Term)

It is commonly said that the philosophy of science has been nourished on a unhealthy diet that contains too much physics. This course scrutinises this claim by focusing on metaphysical accounts of causation and laws of nature. We ask whether influential accounts of causation and law, built primarily with examples from the physical sciences in mind, can cope with the complexities of the biological sciences.

Philosophy of Cognitive Science
Marta Halina (8 lectures, Lent Term)

Cognitive scientists employ a variety of investigative and explanatory strategies in order to better understand and control the mind and brain. According to recent findings, these strategies have been used to implant false memories in mice, investigate whether dogs experience love, and detect consciousness through neuroimaging. In this course, we critically examine several key research strategies employed in cognitive science. We address questions such as: What constitutes a good explanation in cognitive science? What role should folk psychology (our common sense understanding of other minds) play in the scientific study of the mind? And is cognition a property of only the brain or does it extend to the body and world?

Preliminary reading

  • Bermúdez, José Luis, Philosophy of Psychology: A Contemporary Introduction (New York: Routledge, 2005)
  • Godfrey-Smith, Peter, Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003)
  • Mitchell, Sandra, Unsimple Truths: Science, Complexity and Policy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009)
  • Psillos, Stathis, Scientific Realism: How Science Tracks Truth (London: Routledge, 2005)
  • Rawlins, Michael David, 'De Testimonio: On the evidence for decisions about the use of therapeutic intervention' (2008) freely available in various publications online
  • Worrall, John, 'Evidence in Medicine and Evidence-Based Medicine', Philosophy Compass 2/6 (2007): 981­–1022

Resources for Paper 5 on Moodle