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Department of History and Philosophy of Science

 

Paper manager: Hasok Chang

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

Michaelmas Term
Realism
Tim Lewens (4), Hasok Chang (4)
Fri 11am (weeks 1–8)
Laws of Nature
Anna Alexandrova (4)
Wed 12noon (weeks 1–4)
Probability
Jacob Stegenga (4)
Wed 12noon (weeks 5–8)
Lent Term
Reductionism
Hasok Chang (4)
Fri 11am (weeks 1–4)
Evidence, Explanation and Models
Marta Halina (4), Matt Farr (4)
Wed 10am (weeks 1–8)
Pragmatism
Hasok Chang (4)
Fri 11am (weeks 5–8)

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, issues around the alleged unity of the sciences and of scientific method, and the relationship between scientific knowledge and practical interventions.

 

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.

 

Lectures

Realism

Tim Lewens, Hasok Chang (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.

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.

Probability

Jacob Stegenga (4 lectures, Michaelmas Term)

Probability is fundamental to many aspects of sciences, including statistics, explanation, causation and hypothesis confirmation. This short series of lectures will begin by examining the nature of probability. We then turn to a basic formalisation of probability. Finally, we study the role of probability in fundamental scientific notions such as explanation and causation.

Reductionism

Hasok Chang (4 lectures, Lent Term)

Evidence, Explanation and Models

Marta Halina, Matt Farr (8 lectures, Lent Term)

There are many common sense claims about science that enjoy wide acceptance. For example, that theories are supported by observations; that well-supported theories are more likely to be true; that scientists explain phenomena by accurately describing how they work. 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. Many well-supported theories have turned out to be false. Scientists sometimes explain phenomena using models that are intentionally distorting. Are there compelling accounts of scientific theory, models, evidence and explanation that overcome these problems? This series of lectures will address this and related questions, providing an introduction to key issues in philosophy of science.

Pragmatism

Hasok Chang (4 lectures, Lent Term)

The pragmatist tradition offers a valuable alternative perspective to the epistemology and metaphysics of science. While analytic epistemology focuses on an analysis of propositions and their truth-conditions, pragmatism takes a broader view of knowledge as a feature of the practices of life and inquiry. There are also metaphysical consequences of a pragmatist stance, which moves away from essentialism and understands reality as embedded in the activities of the knower. In this course we will explore the implications of pragmatism for the philosophy of science, focusing on the works of the classical pragmatist including Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, John Dewey and Clarence Irving Lewis.

 

Preliminary reading

 

Resources for Paper 5 on Moodle