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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

Michaelmas Term
Philosophy of the Biomedical Sciences: Concepts and Evidence
Jacob Stegenga (8)
Week 1: Online on Teams
Weeks 2–4: Hopkinson Lecture Theatre
Weeks 5–6: Online on Teams
Weeks 7–8: Hopkinson Lecture Theatre
Tue 4pm (weeks 1–8)
Laws of Nature
Anna Alexandrova (4)
Arts School Lecture Theatre A
Wed 12noon (weeks 1–4)
Lent Term
Philosophy of Psychiatry
Matt Farr (4)
Weeks 1 & 3: Online (pre-recorded lectures on Moodle)
Week 2: Hopkinson Lecture Theatre
Week 4: Cancelled
Tue 4pm (weeks 1–4)
Philosophy of Biology
Tim Lewens (4)
Hopkinson Lecture Theatre
Weeks 3 & 4 (9 & 16 February): Online (pre-recorded lectures on Moodle)
Wed 12noon (weeks 1–4)
Philosophy of Cognitive Science
Marta Halina (4)
Arts School Lecture Theatre A
Weeks 5 & 6 (22 February & 1 March): Online (pre-recorded lectures on Moodle)
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

Jacob Stegenga (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 conceptualizations 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?

Philosophy of Biology

Tim Lewens (4 lectures, Lent Term)

It is commonly said that the philosophy of science has been nourished on an unhealthy diet that contains too much physics. This course scrutinises this claim by focusing on causation, explanation and laws of nature as they feature in the biological sciences. We ask whether influential accounts of these aspects of scientific practice, built primarily with examples from the physical sciences in mind, can cope with the complexities of the organic realm.

Philosophy of Cognitive Science

Marta Halina (4 lectures, Lent Term)

In a talk at the University of Cambridge in 2016, Stephen Hawking said, 'I believe there is no deep difference between what can be achieved by a biological brain and what can be achieved by a computer.' Artificial Intelligence raises many important philosophical questions: What is the relationship between the brain and the mind? Could a robot ever think? Is artificial consciousness possible? What do advances in AI teach us about human cognition? This course will cover core topics in the philosophy of cognitive science through the lens of questions raised by work in AI and robotics.


Preliminary reading