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Paper 5: Epistemology and Metaphysics of Science

Paper manager: Tim Lewens

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), Tim Lewens (4), Agnes Bolinska (4)
Fri 11am (weeks 1–8)
Thu 2pm (weeks 5–8)
Theory, Evidence and Explanation
Marta Halina (4), Matt Farr (4)
Wed 12noon (weeks 1–8)
Lent Term
Laws of Nature
Anna Alexandrova (4)
Fri 11am (weeks 1–4)
Models in Scientific Practice
Agnes Bolinska (6)
Wed 12noon (weeks 1–6)

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, Tim Lewens, Agnes Bolinska (12 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.

Theory, Evidence and Explanation
Marta Halina, Matt Far (8 lectures, Michaelmas Term)

There are many commonsense 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 theory, 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.

Laws of Nature
Anna Alexandrova (4 lectures, Lent 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.

Models in Scientific Practice
Agnes Bolinska (6 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)

Resources for Paper 5 on Moodle