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Department of History and Philosophy of Science


This paper is part of the BBS Major Subject History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine

Lectures are held in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science.

Michaelmas Term
Philosophy of the Biomedical Sciences: Concepts and Evidence
Tom McClelland (4), Michael Diamond-Hunter (4)
Tue 4pm (weeks 1–8)
Laws of Nature
Anna Alexandrova (4)
Wed 12noon (weeks 1–4)
Lent Term
Philosophy of Psychiatry
Matt Farr (4)
Tue 4pm (weeks 1–4)
Scientific Explanation
Marta Halina (4)
Wed 12noon (weeks 1–4)
Philosophy of Cognitive Science
Tom McClelland (4)
Tue 4pm (weeks 5–8)

This paper provides students with the conceptual tools to explore the epistemological challenges which arise in pursuing medical research. The core lecture series explores some of the philosophical issues which arise in medical research, ranging from the definition of health to the strengths and limitations of Evidence Based Medicine. This close focus is supplemented with study of philosophical issues in neighbouring scientific disciplines, and with a broader grounding in core concepts in the philosophy of science. Students who take this course will gain a unique insight into how medical science relates to other sciences, its strengths and its limitations.


Aims and learning outcomes

  • to acquaint students with fundamental issues in the metaphysics and epistemology of medicine, psychiatry and epidemiology;
  • to provide students with an understanding of the relationship between medicine and other sciences, including biology and cognitive science;
  • to introduce students to the major tools of philosophical analysis;
  • to encourage students to reflect on the ways in which medical knowledge is and ought to be generated.



Philosophy of the Biomedical Sciences: Concepts and Evidence

Tom McClelland, Michael Diamond-Hunter (8 lectures, Michaelmas Term)

Medicine is among our most important institutions. Though its aim is practical, medicine is shot through with conceptual commitments and theoretical assumptions, its basic tools rely on causal hypotheses supported to varying degrees by inductive inferences, and medical research is developed in a complex political and economic nexus. Thus medicine is a prime subject for philosophical analysis. This eight-week sequence of lectures will examine conceptual, normative, epistemological, methodological, metaphysical and political questions underlying medicine and medical science.

Laws of Nature

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 Psychiatry

Matt Farr (4 lectures, Lent Term)

Philosophy of psychiatry stands at the intersection of philosophy of medicine, philosophy of psychology/cognitive science, and philosophy of mind. This course considers various topics within philosophy of psychiatry, focusing on how the study of psychopathology interacts with the study of mind and brain. We will consider several key questions, including: What are mental disorders? Are they disorders of mind, brain or society? How are conceptualisations of mental disorder influenced by culture? How are they influenced by developments in neuroscience? Is there such a thing as a 'normal' mind? What can psychopathology tell us about 'normal' mental functioning?

Scientific Explanation

Marta Halina (4 lectures, Lent Term)

Science is often said to be in the business of explaining the natural world. But what is explanation; is it a goal of science; and how can scientific theories and models explain? In this course, we look at different accounts of scientific explanation, including 'covering law' models of Hempel, and causal theories of explanation. We consider the role of explanation in science, how it relates to the notion of understanding, and query in what sense scientific theories aim to provide explanations. Moreover, we consider how false theories in the past were explanatory, how intentionally simplified and distorting models can explain real-world phenomena, and in what sense we can have 'non-causal' explanations, such as mathematical explanations, in science. In so doing, this series of lectures will provide an introduction to a range of key issues in the philosophy of science.

Philosophy of Cognitive Science

Tom McClelland (4 lectures, Lent Term)

The cognitive sciences invite a variety of pressing philosophical questions. What is the mind and how does it fit into the natural order? How should the mind be studied and what methodological problems does it present? When, if at all, should we attribute mental states to non-human animals or to AI? What value do different kinds of mind have and how should this shape our ethical conduct? We explore how these questions play out in relation to four key topics: folk psychology, mental representation, consciousness, and the self.


Preliminary reading


Resources for Philosophy of Science and Medicine on Moodle