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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):

What Does it Mean to be "Scientific"? Critique vs. Orthodoxy

Course tutor: Dr Emma Tobin and Dr Chiara Ambrosio

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.

Models in Science

Course tutor: Dr Brendan Clarke

This session explores the concept of models in the sciences. Models are simplified representations of systems that play a wide variety of roles in the sciences. Their ubiquity poses a puzzle to the traditional philosophical view of scientific realism, which claims that science deals (in some manner) with literally true claims about the world. Yet models, because they are simplifications, are not literally true in this sense. For much of the twentieth century, philosophers therefore regarded as rather peripheral to the core business of science. More recently, however, models have become the subject of intense philosophical interest. In part, this change has occurred because of a change in the prevailing philosophical climate. Contemporary philosophers of science tend to be more interested in the details of actual scientific practice than they have been in the past. This session will explore the ways that models are understood in contemporary philosophy of science.

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.

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.

Scientific Representations

Course tutor: Dr Chiara Ambrosio

The view that one of the aims of science is to represent the world is fairly established in philosophy of science. What representation amounts to, however, remains a contentious issue. Recent debates on the nature of scientific representations often draw on a comparison with artistic representations and present both as instances of a single general concept. From this viewpoint, unravelling the nature and functioning of artistic representations should help us cast light on scientific representations (and vice-versa), but here is where agreement ends among philosophers. In this session we will discuss various philosophical approaches to scientific representations and test their merits and drawbacks against examples from the history of science and the history of art. Working with an exciting range of visual materials, we will address philosophical questions such as: do scientific models represent, and if so, what do they represent? What counts as “accurate” and “objective” representation? When and how can we treat images as “evidence”?

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.

"This course really helps to keep you fresh and actively thinking about your research. You end up uncovering assumptions that may be critical in later years, and have an enjoyable time being educated."

"Great course, another point of view of what does it mean being a scientist, maybe the only course that gives the meaning of why we are studying a Doctorate in Philosophy."

"These were the best series of lectures I've ever attended. Please pass my thanks to Hasok, and organise more similar courses!"

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 Development)

Course Links

Further Web Resources


Registration information will be available in due course.

Page last updated: 23rd April 2015