Department of History and Philosophy of Science

Paper 6
Metaphysics, Epistemology and the Sciences

Paper managers: Hasok Chang (Michaelmas Term), Marion Godman (Lent & Easter Terms)

Michaelmas Term
Primary Source
Anna Alexandrova
Wed 10am (weeks 1–4)
The Nature of Scientific Knowledge
Hasok Chang, Anna Alexandrova
Tue 12noon (weeks 1–8)
Lent Term
Metaphysics of Science
Marion Godman, Jonathan Birch
Tue 10am (weeks 1–8)
Languages of Science
Christopher Clarke, Hasok Chang
Thu 12noon (weeks 1–8)

This paper provides a canonical treatment of a series of traditional questions in the philosophy of science. The sorts of questions covered include whether we should believe that our best scientific theories are true, the issue of the general nature of scientific knowledge, the role of various forms of simplification and idealisation in science, the pretensions of science to reveal a mind-independent reality, and issues around the alleged unity of the sciences and of scientific method.

Primary source

The Stanford School
Anna Alexandrova (4 seminars, Michaelmas Term)

Is there a unified method to science? And does this method reveal a unified reality? These are the questions that preoccupied philosophers of science from the so-called Stanford School. Their approach arose in the 1980s as a counterweight to the then conventional philosophy of science. As well as questioning methodological and metaphysical unity of science, the Stanford School philosophers advocated a greater engagement with the details of scientific practice, its history and sociology. We will study three particularly influential papers that came out of Stanford School:

  • Ian Hacking, 'Do we see through a microscope?', Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 62 (1981), pp. 305–322; it is also reprinted essentially in the same form as chapter 11 of Hacking's Representing and Intervening
  • Nancy Cartwright, 'Fundamentalism versus the patchwork of laws', chapter 1 of The Dappled World: A Study in Boundaries of Science, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); previously published in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 94:279–292 (1994)
  • John Dupré, The Disorder of Things: Metaphysical Foundations of the Disunity of Science (Cambridge, MA & London: Harvard University Press, 1993), chapter 10, 'The Disunity of Science', pp. 221–243


The Nature of Scientific Knowledge
Hasok Chang, Anna Alexandrova (8 lectures, Michaelmas Term)

This course investigates some classic epistemological questions concerning science. What is the process of scientific discovery? What kind of perception constitutes scientific observation? How is observation used to test theories? How should scientists choose between competing theories? What do successful scientific theories achieve? Can we have reliable knowledge about unobservables?

Metaphysics of Science
Marion Godman, Jonathan Birch (8 lectures, Lent Term)

Can the world be carved at its joints? How are we to understand causal relations? Do all sciences aim to find natural laws? In this course we undertake a critical examination of these and other metaphysical issues, which appear to be informed by work in science. Attention will be focused on biological and biomedical sciences, and especially on the challenges they pose to views of the sciences inspired by a diet of examples taken from the physics. Topics covered will include natural kinds, essentialism, causation and laws of nature.

Languages of Science
Christopher Clarke, Hasok Chang (8 lectures, Lent Term)

In this course we consider the 'languages' of science, namely the ways in which the content of science is expressed. Is there a pure observational language, as the positivists maintained, or is observation inevitably 'theory-laden'? What determines the reference of theoretical terms? And how stable is the meaning of these terms as a result? What are we to make of scientists' talk of probabilities? What is the nature of models used in science, and what kind of knowledge can we gain from modelling and simulation? Do theories and models rely essentially on analogies and metaphors?

Preliminary reading

  • Curd, Martin and JA Cover (eds), Philosophy of Science: The Central Issues (Norton, 1998)
  • Dupré, John, The Disorder of Things: Metaphysical Foundations of the Disunity of Science (Harvard, 1993)
  • Godfrey-Smith, Peter, Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science (Chicago, 2003)
  • Hanson, Norwood Russell, Perception and Discovery (Freeman, Cooper & Company, 1969)
  • Morgan, Mary and Margaret Morrison (eds), Models as Mediators: Perspectives on Natural and Social Science (Cambridge, 1999)
  • Ortony, Andrew (ed), Metaphor and Thought, 2nd edn (Cambridge, 1979)
  • Psillos, Stathis and Martin Curd (eds), The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Science (Routledge, 2008)
  • Rosenberg, Alex and Daniel McShea, Philosophy of Biology: A Contemporary Introduction (Routledge, 2008)

Further resources are available on the HPS Part II CamTools site.