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Philosophy of Science Workshop Programme

Course Description

These workshops are open to students from all disciplines, but they are especially designed for those engaged in scientific research who would like to have an opportunity to reflect on the aims and methods of science more systematically than they can in the course of their usual work.

Philosophy of science addresses fundamental questions such as the following:

  • What is science? 
  • Is there a valid scientific method?
  • Are scientific theories true? Or do they simply save the phenomena?
  • How do scientists choose between competing scientific theories?

These questions raise serious challenges to our normal understanding of science and scientific practice. The main objective of this introductory course is to cultivate your ability to think through these issues in a clear, novel, and critical way.

The full programme comprises (click on the heading for more details):

8th May: Is there a Scientific Method?

Course tutor: Dr Chiara Ambrosio & Dr Emma Tobin

Science is often upheld as an ideal form of knowledge in modern Western and global cultures. Why do we think science is so valuable — and why do some people disagree? What exactly does it mean to be "scientific" anyway? We will explore these questions through a critical examination of the views expressed by some leading philosophers of science. Popper saw the essence of science as the critical spirit that challenges orthodoxy; in direct opposition, Kuhn argued that what enables "normal science" to function was the community's adherence to a paradigm, reinforced by a rather dogmatic style of education and training. Feyerabend sided with Popper in arguing that openness was beneficial for science, but denied that science should be given any special authority over other systems of thought. This workshop will explore these philosophical positions on science, and discuss issues arising from their opposition to each other. We will also discuss the practical implications of how we "demarcate" science from non-science: for example, on the assessment of grant applications and publications, and on our attitude towards various controversial systems of thought ranging from homeopathy to intelligent design.

12th May: Scientific Realism

Course tutor: Dr Chiara Ambrosio

Should scientists seek to attain truth in their theories, or merely try to find theoretical models that will provide correct and useful predictions about observable phenomena? Scientific realism is the philosophical position that maintains that science does (or at least should try to) acquire the ultimate truth; in contrast, instrumentalists view scientific theories as convenient mental tools that help us in achieving other aims. The philosophical debate about realism may seem entirely abstract, but we will examine how scientists' attitudes about realism can actually affect aspects of their practice. Instrumentalists argue that an excessive concern with truth detracts from the pursuit of useful work in science; realists counter that without having the aim of finding out the truth about hidden realities, science would never venture out into domains that it eventually learns to conquer. We will begin to explore these philosophical positions with some historical cases, such as the caloric theory of heat and the 19th-century debates concerning the reality of atoms, and we will also address how and whether the realism vs. instrumentalism debate captures current scientific practice.

15th May:  Data and Classification

Course tutor: Dr Emma Tobin

This session will cover the topic of classification in science with particular reference to data. Data are the mobile pieces of information, which are collected, stored and disseminated in order to be used as evidence for claims about specific processes or entities (i.e. the phenomena) How can data be properly classified? We will look at the problems faced by scientists in classifying data in large datasets, problems with both the quantity and quality of data. We will also look at the use of incompatible classificatory systems for different purposes and discuss the philosophical implications of these pragmatic problems in scientific practice.

19th May: Theories in scientific practice

Course tutor: Brendan Clarke

What is a scientific theory? According to the syntactic view of theories, which was the dominant account of theories in philosophy of science between about 1930 and 1970, a scientific theory is a collection of sentences in some kind of logical language. Importantly, the best (most useful) kind of these sentences are scientific laws, which can be understood as universally true statements. More recently, this linguistic account of scientific theories has been rejected, in favour of a more mathematical interpretation. Here, this semantic view describes scientific theories in terms of their models, which are extra-linguistic entities of one kind or another. Under this view, a theory is to be identified with some collection of models.

In this session, we will set out these two views of scientific theories, and discuss their differences by reference to some examples of theories drawn from practice. We will also discuss the role of laws of nature in scientific theories and in scientific models. In particular, we will discuss what is meant by a scientific law; by examining different candidates for scientific laws from different disciplines.

Course reading:

Suppes, Patrick. 1967. What is a Scientific Theory? In Morgenbesser, Sidney. 1967. Philosophy of Science Today. New York: Basic Books. Chapter 6, pp. 55-67. 

22nd May: Causality and Mechanisms

Course tutor: Dr Phyllis Illari

Much of science aims to find and use causes. Does penicillin cure bacterial infection? How big a dose and how often should we give it for it to be effective? Mechanisms are most obviously important in the biomedical sciences, but are relevant far beyond them. For example, we seek to explain how penicillin cures bacterial infection by describing the mechanism by which it kills bacteria in the body. So finding evidence of causes and mechanisms is a core problem of science. Further, our fundamental view of the world we live in has been profoundly affected by the kinds of causes and mechanisms we discover.

This course will run in Term 3 - details and registration will be available before Easter

Ideally, the five sessions below should be followed as a whole series. However, each session is sufficiently independent to be attended on its own.

Booking preference will be given to those who sign up for all sessions. Please book your place below.

Preparation work:

Before attending, please check the course Moodle page to access required reading. Full access instructions can be found here.

Researcher Development Framework Categories

A1) Knowledge base
A2) Cognitive abilities
A3) Creativity

Course Recommended for

This course is particularly relevant to the following groups:

  • Students in Social & Historical Sciences
  • Students in Built Environment
  • Students in Mathematical & Physical Sciences
  • Students in Engineering Sciences
  • Students in Life Sciences
  • Students in Medical Sciences

Course Organisers

  • Course Tutor - Dr Emma Tobin - (Science & Technology Studies)
  • Course Tutor - Dr Chiara Ambrosio - (Science & Technology Studies)
  • Course Tutor - Dr Brendan Clarke - (Science & Technology Studies)
  • Administrator - Ms Kasia Bronk - (Organisational & Staff Development)

Course Links

Further Web Resources


Registration information will be available in due course.

Page last updated: 22nd July 2010