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Paper 4: Philosophy and Scientific Practice

Paper manager: Riana Betzler

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

All lectures are held in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science.

Michaelmas Term
Philosophy of Economics
Anna Alexandrova (8)
Thu 10am (weeks 1–8)
Philosophy of Psychiatry
Riana Betzler (4)
Tue 10am (weeks 1–4)
Philosophy of Biology
Tim Lewens (4)
Tue 10am (weeks 5–8)
Lent Term
Metaphysics of Physics
Matt Farr (8)
Thu 10am (weeks 1–8)
Philosophy of the Biomedical Sciences: Concepts and Evidence
Jacob Stegenga (8)
Tue 4pm (weeks 1–8)

What philosophical puzzles arise in individual sciences such as physics, biology, cognitive science, medicine, economics? 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 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 Psychiatry
Riana Betzler (4 lectures, Michaelmas 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, Michaelmas 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.

Metaphysics of Physics
Matt Farr (8 lectures, Lent Term)

Modern physics has forced us to reconsider many basic propositions about how reality is structured. Relativity theory has led to new understandings of the nature of time and the relationship between time and space, and quantum mechanics has led us to question whether nature is deterministic and whether particles have definite trajectories between measurements. This course focuses on fundamental philosophical problems concerning our concepts of time and causality that arose in the foundations of relativistic, quantum and statistical physics, and their role in shaping our understanding of these scientific revolutions.

Philosophy of the Biomedical Sciences: Concepts and Evidence
Jacob Stegenga (8 lectures, Lent Term)

A fundamental goal of medical research is causal inference. Does eating meat cause cancer? Will this drug cure my disease? Is poverty a cause of heart disease? Medical science has a variety of tactics to provide evidence for causal hypotheses, and these tactics raise a plethora of philosophical questions. For example, many epidemiological hypotheses are based on animal research. What are the conditions under which we can extrapolate findings in animals to conclusions about humans? Another example: many statisticians and epidemiologists, especially in the evidence-based medicine community, claim that evidence from randomised controlled trials is the best kind of evidence for causal hypotheses, and other forms of evidence are less reliable. What's so special about the role of randomisation in medical research? Beyond such methodological questions, it is important to note that medical science occurs in a complicated social nexus. This social nexus forms the conditions under which medical science can achieve a degree of objectivity, but aspects of that social nexus threaten that very objectivity.

Preliminary reading

Resources for Paper 4 on Moodle