Department of History and Philosophy of Science

Paper 6
Metaphysics, Epistemology and the Sciences

Paper manager: Anna Alexandrova

This paper is also cross-listed with the Philosophy Tripos.

Michaelmas Term
Primary Source
Marina Frasca-Spada
Wed 10am (weeks 1–4)
Theory, Evidence and Explanation
Marta Halina
Tue 12noon (weeks 1–8)
Laws of Nature: Between Regularities and Powers
Anna Alexandrova
Wed 10am (weeks 5–8)
Lent Term
Philosophy of Biology
David Crawford
Tue 10am (weeks 1–4)
Learning and Discovery
Hasok Chang
Tue 10am (weeks 5–8)
History of the Philosophy of Science
Marina Frasca-Spada, Nick Jardine, Christopher Clarke
Fri 11am (weeks 1–8)

This paper provides a canonical treatment of a series of central questions in the philosophy of science, including the history of how these questions were formulated and answered since the 18th century. 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

Hume's Treatise
Marina Frasca-Spada (4 seminars, Michaelmas Term)

  • David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Book 1, Part 4, 'Of scepticism and other systems of philosophy', sections 1–2 and 5–7

This seminar is an introduction to Hume's scepticism covering demonstrative knowledge, knowledge of the external world, personal identity, and meta-scepticism.


Theory, Evidence and Explanation
Marta Halina (8 lectures, Michaelmas 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.

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.

Philosophy of Biology
David Crawford (4 lectures, Lent Term)

Biological sciences raise distinct philosophical problems the resolution of which affects our understanding of the living processes. Topics of this course may include: How can organisms and species be defined and partitioned? What is fitness if evolution is survival of the fittest? Are all features of the living world evolutionary adaptations? Can some social phenomena be given evolutionary explanations? Does evolutionary theory have any moral and political implications?

Learning and Discovery
Hasok Chang (4 lectures, Lent 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.

History of the Philosophy of Science
Marina Frasca-Spada, Nick Jardine, Christopher Clarke (8 lectures, Lent Term)

This course looks at the origins of the discipline of philosophy of science and its history in the modern age. Topics covered include the classical empiricist and rationalist approaches to knowledge from the 17th and 18th centuries, and the 19th and 20th century development of positivism and neo-positivism, conventionalism and pragmatism.

Preliminary reading

  • Chalmers, Alan F, What Is This Thing Called Science?, 4th edition (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)