Department of History and Philosophy of Science

Paper 6
Metaphysics, Epistemology and the Sciences

Paper managers: Marion Godman, Hasok Chang

Michaelmas Term
Primary Source
Marion Godman
Wed 10am (weeks 1–4)
Christopher Clarke
Tue 12noon (weeks 1–4)
Laws of Nature: Between Regularities and Powers
Anna Alexandrova
Tue 12noon (weeks 5–8)
Learning and Discovery
Hasok Chang
Wed 10am (weeks 5–8)
Lent Term
Confirmation, Observation and the Nature of Evidence
Christopher Clarke, Marion Godman
Thu 12noon (weeks 1–8)
Metaphysics of the Sciences: The Challenge from Biology
Marion Godman
Tue 10am (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
Marion Godman (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


Christopher Clarke (4 lectures, Michaelmas Term)

Scientists do not merely predict phenomena; they explain them. But what does this amount to? This course will explore three suggestions. The first is that an explanation tells us what would have happened if things had gone differently. The second is that an explanation shows that the phenomenon was to be expected given the laws of nature. The third is that an explanation unifies our picture of the world and thereby provides understanding. This exploration will also raise the question of the relationship between causation and explanation.

Laws of Nature: Between Regularities and Powers
Anna Alexandrova (4 lectures, Michaelmas Term)

The discovery and confirmation of laws have long been considered the crowning glory of modern science, but specifying exactly what these laws are has proved a thorny task. In this course, we consider three sides of the contemporary debate. The first side claims that laws are few and not nearly as important as first thought and instead science is after more modest and less universal truths such as mechanisms. The second side disagrees and defines laws as stemming from fundamental causal powers inherent in objects. The third side also believes in laws, but defines them as mere summaries of events that do not govern the world. We will evaluate these options by considering both their metaphysical presuppositions and their ability to make sense of methodology of science, including practices such as modeling and explanation.

Learning and Discovery
Hasok Chang (4 lectures, Michaelmas Term)

Philosophers of science in recent years have tended to neglect the processes by which scientists acquire knowledge, focusing more on the justification of already-gained ideas and beliefs. In this course we investigate the processes through which scientific knowledge is learned, both from other people and from nature. Much of our attention will be focused on the development of knowledge in the absence of certain foundations, and on the tacit and metaphorical dimensions of learning. The main authors whose ideas will help us include Kuhn, Polanyi, Wittgenstein, Hesse, and Lakoff and Johnson.

Confirmation, Observation and the Nature of Evidence
Christopher Clarke, Marion Godman (8 lectures, Lent Term)

When does a piece of scientific evidence support a given scientific hypothesis over its competitors? How common is it for our scientific evidence to be unable to confirm which hypothesis is the correct one? The first part of this course examines four influential approaches to testing scientific theories: the inductive approach, the hypothetico-deductive approach, the Bayesian approach, and the super-empirical approach associated with 'inference to the best explanation'. The second part examines the nature of evidence and sets these approaches in a broader philosophical context. Can observation really be a neutral arbiter between theories? Is knowledge about observable entities really less problematic than knowledge about unobservable ones and is there even a reasonable distinction between 'observables' and 'non-observables'? Finally, why should we privilege observation as the primary source of evidence – could it be that testimony is both a more common and sometimes more reliable source of evidence?

Metaphysics of the Sciences: The Challenge from Biology
Marion Godman (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.

Preliminary reading

  • Chalmers, Alan F, What Is This Thing Called Science?, 4th ed (Maidenhead: Open University Press, 2013); earlier editions are fine
  • Musgrave, Alan, Science, Common Sense and Scepticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993)
  • Godfrey-Smith, Peter, Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003)
  • Lakatos, Imre, and Alan Musgrave (eds), Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970)
  • Hitchcock, Christopher (ed), Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Science (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004)
  • Rosenberg, Alex, and Daniel McShea, Philosophy of Biology: A Contemporary Introduction (New York: Routledge, 2008)
  • Cartwright, Nancy, The Dappled World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)
  • Curd, Martin, and JA Cover (eds), Philosophy of Science: The Central Issues (New York: WW Norton, 1998)
  • Psillos, Stathis, and Martin Curd (eds), The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Science (London: Routledge, 2008)

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