Philosophy of Science Workshop Programme
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):
Lecturers: Dr Emma Tobin, Dr Brendan Clarke 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.
Lecturer: Dr Brendan ClarkeOver the centuries, science has undergone many dramatic changes that have been dubbed "revolutions", starting with the Copernican Revolution and the Chemical Revolution. Other changes ushered in by the likes of Darwin, Einstein, and Watson and Crick have also been regarded as revolutionary. Exciting as they are, these drastic changes in science raise some serious questions concerning the nature of scientific knowledge. Kuhn famously argued that a scientific revolution was the replacement of one "paradigm" by another, the two successive paradigms being mutually "incommensurable"; therefore, a scientific revolution was not the replacement of a false theory by a true one. Whether or not Kuhn was correct about incommensurability, the possibility of revolutions raise a worry about whether our current best theories can be trusted: if some future revolution is likely to overturn the basis of our knowledge, how can we feel secure that our current beliefs are true?
Kuhn, Thomas. (1970) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
Lecturers: Dr Emma Tobin, Dr Brendan Clarke and 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.
1) Stanford Encyclopedia Entry on Scientific Realism
2) Chang, H. (2003), Revisiting Caloric, Philosophy of Science, 70(5).
Lecturer: Dr Emma Tobin
What is a scientific theory? Is it just a group of scientific laws? According to the syntactic view of theories, a scientific theory is a collection of sentences. Importantly, the best kind of sentence in a scientific theory is a scientific law, where laws of nature are understood as universally true statements. More recently, adherents of the semantic view of theories reject this linguistic account of scientific theories in favour of one where models are given a primary role, a theory according to the semantic view is just a collection of models. We will discuss the difference between these two accounts of scientific theories, by using some examples. We will also discuss the role of laws of nature in scientific theories and in scientific models. In paricular, we will discuss what is meant by a scientific law; by examining different candidates for scientific laws from different disciplines. Can laws of nature have exceptions?
Lecturer: 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”?
Suarez, M. (2010) Scientific Represenation, Philosophy Compass 5/1: 91–101,
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.
Researcher Development Framework CategoriesA1) Knowledge base
A2) Cognitive abilities
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 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 - (Graduate School)
- Dr Emma Tobin: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/sts/staff/tobin
- Dr Brendan Clarke: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/sts/staff/clarke
- Dr Chiara Ambrosio: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/sts/staff/ambrosio
Registration information will be available in due course.