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Paper 5: Philosophy of Science

Paper managers: Anna Alexandrova (Michaelmas & Lent Terms), Matt Farr (Easter Term)

Also offered as an optional paper in Part IIB of the Human, Social and Political Sciences Tripos (HSPS) and the Psychological and Behavioural Sciences Tripos (PBS).

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

Michaelmas Term
Realism and Reductionism
Matt Farr (4), Agnes Bolinska (4)
Fri 11am (weeks 1–8)
Philosophy of the Biomedical Sciences
Jacob Stegenga (8)
Tue 4pm (weeks 1–8)
Metaphysics of Physics
Matt Farr (4)
Mon 11am (weeks 5–8)
Lent Term
Theory, Laws and Evidence
Anna Alexandrova (4), Matt Farr (4)
Fri 11am (weeks 1–8)
Models in Scientific Practice
Agnes Bolinska (4)
Mon 11am (weeks 1–4)

This paper considers a series of central questions in the philosophy of science. Topics covered include whether we should believe that our best scientific theories are true, whether there are fundamental laws and what they might be, the role of various forms of simplification and idealisation in science, the nature of hypothesis testing, the pretensions of science to reveal a mind-independent reality, and issues around the alleged unity of the sciences and of scientific method.

Aims and learning outcomes

  • to develop in students a broad understanding of central issues in the philosophy of science and to inform them on current issues in the philosophy of specific sciences;
  • to develop in students the ability to engage topics in science and medicine from multiple critical perspectives and develop their own views on current problems and debates;
  • to strengthen students' analytic writing and communication skills, especially in relation to topics in science and medicine.


Realism and Reductionism
Matt Farr, Agnes Bolinska (8 lectures, Michaelmas Term)

Those who admire the achievements of modern science tend to express their admiration along the lines of scientific realism: scientific theories could only be so successful if they give us a really true account of nature. Scientific realists also commonly take a reductionist view: everything is ultimately made up of elementary particles, so all of our successful scientific theories must ultimately boil down to fundamental physics. In this course we will subject these popular views to close philosophical scrutiny, with reference to various specific cases in the physical and the biological sciences.

Philosophy of the Biomedical Sciences
Jacob Stegenga (8 lectures, Michaelmas 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.

Metaphysics of Physics
Matt Farr (4 lectures, Michaelmas Term)

This course introduces fundamental philosophical problems that arose in the foundations of contemporary theories in physics. We will focus on the dramatic implications of relativistic, quantum and statistical physics for our traditional notions of time and causality, and the role played by the metaphysics of time and causation in our understanding of these scientific revolutions.

Theory, Laws and Evidence
Anna Alexandrova, Matt Farr (8 lectures, Lent Term)

There are many commonsense claims about science that enjoy wide acceptance. For example, that theories are supported by observations; that scientists explain phenomena by accurately describing how they work; that the business of science is the discovery of laws. 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. Scientists sometimes explain phenomena using models that are intentionally distorting. The nature of fundamental laws is difficult to pin down and their availability outside fundamental sciences is far from clear. Are there compelling accounts of theory, evidence, explanation and laws that overcome these problems? This series of lectures will address this and related questions, providing an introduction to key issues in philosophy of science.

Models in Scientific Practice
Agnes Bolinska (4 lectures, Lent Term)

Models such as the Bohr model of the atom, the Lotka-Volterra model of population-prey dynamics, and Watson and Crick's ball-and-stick model of DNA are routinely used to investigate, explain and predict physical phenomena. They seem to be able to perform these functions because they represent or stand for these phenomena. But what does it take for a model to be representational? Given that models are abstract and idealised, omitting certain features of the systems they represent while deliberately distorting others, how is learning about the natural world using models possible? Are models merely heuristic devices, or are they a proper part of scientific knowledge? In particular, how are models related to theories? This series of lectures will consider the relationship between models, their users, and scientific knowledge.

Preliminary reading

  • Godfrey-Smith, Peter, Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003)
  • Mitchell, Sandra, Unsimple Truths: Science, Complexity and Policy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009)
  • Psillos, Stathis, Scientific Realism: How Science Tracks Truth (London: Routledge, 2005)
  • Rawlins, Michael David, 'De Testimonio: On the evidence for decisions about the use of therapeutic intervention' (2008) freely available in various publications online
  • Worrall, John, 'Evidence in Medicine and Evidence-Based Medicine', Philosophy Compass 2/6 (2007): 981­–1022

Resources for Paper 5 on Moodle