History and Philosophy of Science

(Course website: http://www.hps.cam.ac.uk/studying/undergraduate/partib.html)

This stands out from the other part 1B subjects as it is an arts subject. There are three lectures a week at 5pm on Mill Lane and each week you will have both History of Science and Philosophy of Science lectures. You will have one supervision every week, alternating between History of Science one week and Philosophy of Science the other, for which you will be required to write one ~1500 word essay. For each essay you will have to spend a considerable amount of time reading up beforehand but the material will be suggested to you by your supervisors and lecturers. Your essays will be invaluable when you come to revise and trading essays with others is a good way to see things from a different perspective.

The History half of the course is separated into three topics, the first is History of Natural Philosophy, is 12 lectures long and occupies the whole Michaelmas term. You will study the various ways in which different groups of people have investigated the natural world with a focus on Early Modern Europe. This lecture series covers the development of natural philosophy, the cultural and technological changes that had an effect on the study of nature and how these changes helped to form ‘science’ as we know it.

In the Lent term you will study the History of Science and Medicine, also 12 lectures long. This topic covers the 19th and 20th centuries and maps the rise of the scientist. The creation of new disciplines like physics and geology, the establishment of new institutions like laboratories and hospitals and the radical theories devised like evolution and relativity are all covered. The elevation of science is studied in the wider context of industrial and political revolution and with respect to its effects on religion, philosophy and everyday life.

In the Easter term you will study Cross-Cultural Reflections which is only 4 lectures long. Here a much wider view is taken of what science is and what it has been to different societies throughout time. Ancient Iraq is focussed on and its influence on western perceptions of ancient Greece. Also the question of ‘When did science begin?’ is pondered.

The Philosophy of Science half of the course is divided into five sections, the first of these five is Induction, Causation, Explanation and Laws which is 8 lectures long. Science seems to identify causes and effects, e.g. smoking causes cancer, but what is the nature of causation? Is causation something we ever really observe? If not then why do we trust our sense of causation so much and is it really rational? These problems of induction and causation are looked at with particular reference to the work of David Hume who first set out many of these questions. In the second half of this topic laws and explanation are discussed. What are the laws of nature that science seems to search for, are they just mere pattern? Can we only explain things with reference to these laws? All these concepts are heavily inter-linked and you will study the difficulties of trying to find a solid definition for just one of them.

The second is Popper, Kuhn and Confirmation which is also 8 lectures long. Popper and Kuhn were two philosophers who studied the questions of: Is science better than other human thought? Is there a unifying scientific method? Is science a linear cumulative process or something different? How is science confirmed by evidence? And is science even as rational as we think?

Philosophy of the Physical Sciences is the next topic and also 8 lectures long. Modern science depicts a world very different to the one we live in and comprehend, for example particles of mass can be probability distributions that will pass through two slits at the ‘same time’ and the concept of the ‘same time’ and simultaneity is destroyed by special relativity. Also chemists are happy to use concepts such as orbitals which are ruled out by fundamental physics. So what are the methods by which scientists learn about unobservable entities like superstrings? And should we really believe the ever changing theories science presents us?

In the Easter term Philosophy of Biology is covered, which is four lectures long. Darwin’s claim that the theory of evolution through natural selection is the inference to the best explanation is discussed as is the concept of Human Nature.

Ethics in Science is the other topic covered, also four lectures long. What are the proper roles of social, political and ethical values in science? This question is divided into four parts: Who should decide what scientific research should be pursued and on what grounds? Secondly what ethical considerations should limit scientific research, for example how much harm can we expose humans to in the name of science? Thirdly what ethical considerations should guide scientists’ interactions with one another and the public? And lastly should political and ethical concerns have an effect on scientific proof?

The Natural Sciences Society of St John's College