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Department of History and Philosophy of Science


Paper manager: Matt Farr

Also offered as an optional paper in Part II of the Psychological and Behavioural Sciences Tripos (PBS).

Michaelmas Term
Philosophy of Economics
Anna Alexandrova (8)
Mill Lane Lecture Room 9
Thu 9am (weeks 1–8)
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)
Lent Term
Metaphysics of Physics
Matt Farr (4)
Weeks 1 & 3: Online (pre-recorded lectures on Moodle)
Weeks 2 & 4: Hopkinson Lecture Theatre
Thu 10am (weeks 1–4)
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)

What philosophical puzzles arise in individual sciences such as physics, biology, cognitive science, medicine and economics, and how can they be resolved? This paper explores the ways in which different scientific projects might exhibit different methods and paradigms, how they relate or fail to relate to each other, and whether they assume different approaches to testing, measurement and concept formation depending on their proximity to technology, medicine and policy.


Aims and learning outcomes

  • to develop in students a broad understanding of central issues in the philosophy of specific sciences;
  • to develop in students the ability to compare and contrast methodological and metaphysics issues in different sciences;
  • to strengthen students' analytic writing and communication skills, especially in relation to topics in philosophy, science and medicine.



Philosophy of Economics

Anna Alexandrova (8 lectures, Michaelmas Term)

Economics is to some 'the dismal science' and to others 'the queen of social science'. But before it can be either criticized or defended it should be understood. The guiding question of this course is what sort of science is economics? We explore two key projects of contemporary economics – model-building and social evaluation. The first project is positive, aiming at providing explanation and understanding of social phenomena by means of simple models typically involving ideally rational agents. Can such models provide explanations despite their apparent falsity? If so, how? If not, what else are these models good for? The second project is normative – to evaluate different social states and policies for their effect on human welfare. We shall see that typically economists define welfare as efficiency, and efficiency as the optimal satisfaction of preferences of all involved. Is this a defensible theory of well-being? What should happen when preference satisfaction conflicts with other values such as justice and equality? If welfare economics is a project that assumes certain ethical and political values, what does this mean for objectivity of economics as a science? As we explore these questions we touch on such classic topics in philosophy of science as what it takes to confirm a theory or a model, the nature of scientific progress, whether explanations must state the facts (and even better fundamental facts) and whether science should be free of values.

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.

Metaphysics of Physics

Matt Farr (4 lectures, Lent Term)

Modern physics has forced us to reconsider many of our basic concepts about the nature of reality. Relativity theory has led to new understandings of the nature of time and the relationship between time and space, and quantum mechanics appears to suggest that nature is neither deterministic, local or causal. This course focuses on whether and how physical theories should inform our metaphysics. Each lecture addresses a different metaphysical question and how it has been informed by developments in the foundations of classical, relativistic, quantum and statistical physics.

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


Resources for Paper 4 on Moodle