Back to:History and Philosophy of Science major

The aim of History and Philosophy of Science is to understand science; how it works, its historical development and its function in modern society.

History and Philosophy of Science thus integrates philosophical, historical and sociological approaches to the study of science. It provides you with an insight into scientific methods and objectives without actually having to do science. You will gain analytical skills in evaluating scientific (and non-scientific) knowledge as well as a broad understanding of the historical development of science in its interactions with philosophy, religion and society.

Careers

  • Academia
  • Government
  • History
  • Research
  • Social research
  • Teaching

Subjects you could take in this major

  • In this subject students will attend debates conducted by academics arguing about some of the most important issues in contemporary science and society. The subject places scientific debate in the context of current social and cultural issues, and illustrates how current social and cultural thinking is shaped by scientific controversy. Each week we will take up a contentious issue, and students will hear a lecture clearly arguing for one position, followed by a lecture clearly arguing for a different position. In each case your lecturers will do their best to persuade you of their position. The challenge for students in the tutorials and assessment tasks is to judge what is at issue, weigh the evidence, and determine which case is strongest.

    Weekly debates will be selected from among the following controversial propositions:

    1. Genetically modified crops are the only way to feed the masses.
    2. Nuclear fuel is the future of energy production.
    3. Science and technology is the path to utopia.
    4. Humans will become Post-human.
    5. The scientific method is the only way to truly know.
    6. Catastrophic climate change can be averted.
    7. There is a physical explanation for everything that exists and everything that happens.
    8. Digital media is making us stupid.
    9. A machine more intelligent than you will exist in your lifetime.
    10. Our history is fundamentally shaped by science and technology.
    11. This has been a waste of time: controversies cannot be resolved through rational debate.
  • In this subject, we embark on a fascinating journey through the history of scientific thought, exploring changing ideas about the physical world from antiquity to the present day. Beginning with the ‘Greek miracle’ in the sixth century BC, the subject traces the central place of Aristotle’s natural philosophy in the ancient and medieval world, before examining the dramatic transformation of natural knowledge during the Renaissance and early modern period. We then turn our attention to the emergence of the scientific culture of the Enlightenment, which gave rise to the quantitative and mathematical discipline of physics in the nineteenth century. We cover topics such as medieval and renaissance alchemy, the shift from the earth-centred to the sun-centred view of the cosmos, the rise of the mechanical philosophy, the Romantic ideal of the unity of forces in nature, and the changing conceptions of light, heat, electricity and gravity. Students will be introduced to the writings of major figures such as Plato, Aristotle, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Newton, Faraday and Einstein. This subject offers an introduction to the history of science and a deeper appreciation of the way in which it has been shaped by wider social, political and cultural movements.

  • Is there a good way to decide which ideas, theories and practices belong to science and which do not? This so-called demarcation problem is a central issue in the philosophy of science. This issue is much more than an academic debate, as modern societies rely on science, in daily lives as well as in policy decisions: Which kind of evidence should we trust and which kind of research should we spend money on? Should we discard knowledge that does not fulfil the standards of science? Is it justified to call such knowledge fields 'pseudoscience'? Does a demarcation between scientific and non-scientific knowledge say anything about the truth of both kinds of knowledge? This subject will discuss which (if any) criteria we should use to distinguish between science and non-science. We will scrutinise the claims for a scientific basis of various ideas and fields of knowledge, among them acupuncture, Darwinian evolution, creationism, string theory, and climate change scepticism.

  • This subject discusses central topics in human understandings about their environment in the Western world, particularly over the last 500 years. As Europeans began to venture out of their continent in the 15th century, they discovered new environments that challenged their received wisdom about themselves and their relationship to nature. Modern Science with the inherent idea of a mastery over nature is an outcome of this process. We will trace how in this history different interpretations of 'nature' have shaped science and have been shaped by science in return, including topics such as taxonomy, gardening, theories of life, and the rise of environmentalism. This subject should be of interest to students who would like to learn more about the origins of the environmental sciences, the dominance of scientific understandings of nature, and our ongoing attempts to live within a changing environment.

  • In many cultures the study of celestial phenomena has taken a central role in the attempts to understand the world they lived in. The apparent regularity of sun, moon and stars enabled observers to formulate rules for the behaviour of celestial bodies and derive predictions from these rules. The subject will study how astronomical knowledge has developed throughout the world. It combines simple astronomical observations with classes discussing the historical development of astronomy in different cultures ranging from East Asia via the Middle East and Europe to Central America and Australia.

    Central questions will be: How were the same phenomena interpreted in different cultures? How were astronomical observations done? What political and religious functions did astronomy have? How was astronomical knowledge transmitted between different cultures? Why did early modern Europe become the place that developed the idea of modern science and how did other civilisations react to the astronomical developments in Europe? The subject will thus give an overview of the origins of our modern world view while offering reflections on cross-cultural studies of science.

    Note: For students who need to graduate it is possible to finalise the result for this subject before the end of February 2016

  • Ideas don't come much bigger than Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection. Few books have had as large an impact as On the Origin of Species, published in 1859. In this subject we will not only explore the history of the idea of evolution before and after Darwin, we will analyse the impact his theory has had upon our world, exploring how Darwin and his followers not only transformed our understanding of the origins and development of life, but also our views of race, gender and religion. After Darwin, disciplines as diverse as anthropology, biology and philosophy would never be the same again.

  • The subject will combine an introduction to electrical theory and its past with a cultural history of Europe from 1750 to 1850. Students will learn about this by by studying and performing historical experiments from the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Many of these experiments were designed as public spectacle for the entertainment of enlightened audiences. They also produced problems in understanding what electricity was and they became centres of debates about the role of science in enlightened societies.

    Around 1700, electrical phenomena were considered to be marginal curiosities hardly worth studying; by 1850 electricity stood at the centre of modern science and its industrial applications. In between electricity became closely associated with enlightenment ideas, American independence, the French Revolution, the romantic fantasies about Dr Frankenstein and the industrial revolution. The subject will use the historical experiments and their replication in the classroom as a means to trace these connections and to learn about electricity in an unconventional way.

  • Recent popular debates over the relationship between science and religion have too often denegrated into shouted polemics between religious fundamentalists and new atheists. Yet many of the really important historical, philosophical and theological questions call for more careful scholarly attention. This subject examines the complex relationship between religion and the natural sciences. Historically, religious concerns guided the science of Kepler, Newton and many other pioneers of the Scientific Revolution. For them, studying the universe demonstrated the attributes of God. This view was eventually replaced by radically different ones: to some science and religion are necessarily antagonistic, to others they belong to separate realms, while others still see a mutually illuminating consonance between the two. We examine this shift, the reasoning (good and bad) behind it and its residues, and the way these views have shaped contemporary debates over God and the natural sciences. In the second half of the subject, we explore some of the metaphysical, theological and existential questions arising from Darwinian evolutionary and modern cosmology, before offering some final reflections on the relationship between the 'personal God' of religious experience and the 'philosophers God' posited to explain facts about the natural world.

  • This subject will examine a range of some of the most morally controversial issues that confront contemporary society. Are there limits we ought to respect with regard to the creation and destruction of human life? How should a society punish its criminals? What are our moral obligations to animals, and future generations? This subject will attempt to better understand and make sense of these controversies and many others.

  • Meaning is central to many issues in philosophy. The idea that the meaning of complex representation depends on the meanings of its parts is fundamental to the way we understand the mind, language, and logic. In this subject, we look at the different ways that this idea has been understood and applied throughout the 20th Century and into the present day.

    In the first part of the subject, our focus is on the concepts of necessity and possibility, and the way that ‘possible worlds semantics’ has been used in theories of meaning. We will focus on the logic of necessity and possibility (modal logic), times (temporal logic), conditionality and dependence (counterfactuals), and the notions of analyticity and a priority, which are central to much philosophy.

    In the second part of the subject, we will examine closely the assumption that every statement we make is either true or false but not both. We will examine the paradoxes of truth (like the so-called ‘liar paradox’) and vagueness (the ‘sorites paradox’), and we will investigate different ways attempts at resolving these paradoxes by going beyond our traditional views of truth (using ‘many valued logics’) or by defending the traditional perspective.

    The subject serves as an introduction to ways that logic is applied in the study of language, epistemology and metaphysics, so it is useful to those who already know some philosophy and would like to see how logic relates to those issues. It is also useful to those who already know some logic and would like to learn new logical techniques and see how these techniques can be applied.

  • This subject addresses some of the central issues in the philosophy of science. It will raise questions such as: What is the difference between science and non-science? Is there a universal scientific method? Or do the methods employed by scientists vary historically? Is scientific theory change a rational process? Is science objective? Do scientific theories inform us of the truth about the world? Students who take this class will have knowledge of the major themes of recent and contemporary philosophical thinking about science. They will also have experience of the methods of critical analysis and argument employed in the philosophy of science and a background on which to base further study in the area.

  • In this subject students will study a variety of contemporary and future technologies, and will examine the implications of these technologies for society, and for daily life. Topics covered include techno-utopian and dystopian visions; ethics and biomedical technologies; cybernetics, cyberspace, cyborgs and other 'cybers'; social networking systems; artificial intelligence; technology and crime; virtual reality; technology and the economy; privacy and surveillance; and technology and contemporary media. Students will participate in the theoretical work, supported by many examples and 'hands-on' experience. Students who successfully complete this subject will be able to critically analyse and evaluate controversial issues relating to technology in the social context, and argue credible positions in relation to these controversies.

  • This subject will cover central issues in the philosophy of mind, such as the relationship between minds and brains (e.g., dualism, behaviourism, physicalism, functionalism and eliminativism), the nature of mental states such as beliefs, desires and sensations, how mental states represent features of the world, and the relationship between the first-person perspective on oneself and the third-person scientific perspective on the mind.

  • This subject is designed to give students an understanding and knowledge of the variability of past civilisations by comparing their accomplishments and inner structures. Using a combination of texts and archaeology, it will compare the life cycle (rise and fall) of Egyptian, Near Eastern and Persian civilisations. Students will examine cultural elements such as belief systems, daily routines, gender roles, power and authority, which will provide an insight into the distinctive worldviews that shaped each civilization. Material culture, historical documents, language and literature, will be combined to address major issues such as the social evolution of complex societies and their eventual collapse, themes which resonate in the contemporary world.

  • In England, between 1750 and 1914, scientific testimony increasingly became a feature of the law. In particular, the scope given to the expert witness shaped the development of the common law. The forensic sciences, in general, became a tool for identifying the criminal, while forensic psychiatry, in particular, was integral to developing new notions of criminal culpability and responsibility. In the process, society's understanding of both crime and the criminal was significantly modified by the emergence of these new sciences.

    This subject will focus on the remarkable record-set that has been provided by the digitisation of the Old Bailey Session Papers (OBSP). As London's Central Criminal Court, the Old Bailey was the predominant theatre of crime and punishment in the largest city in the world. The OBSP provides transcripts of the trials which offer extraordinary insights into the workings of the law and the past lives of the long dead historical actors. At the same time, they allow us to chart the transformations wrought upon law and society by the emergence of the forensic sciences.

  • This subject deals with central questions of epistemology and some aspects of the relation between epistemology and metaphysics. The primary focus will be epistemological questions about the nature of knowledge and justified belief. In addition, we will explore questions of a metaphysical nature that have a bearing on epistemological concerns, such as the nature of truth and reality, and the relationship between knowledge, truth and reality. We will also consider meta-epistemological questions about the nature of epistemological inquiry, including recent work in experimental philosophy on the role of intuition in epistemology, as well as naturalistic challenges to conceptual analysis.

  • Questions about the nature of knowledge have long been central to both the history and philosophy of science. Yet over the past two decades, several new perspectives have emerged which have deepened our understanding of the process by which, and historical conditions under which, scientific knowledge is shaped and generated. These new perspectives, which signify a turn to ‘scientific practice’, draw on fields such as social and historical epistemology, the sociology of knowledge and cultural anthropology. In exploring the dynamics of scientific change, this subject draws on case studies from the history of physics, chemistry, geology, archaeology, biology and medicine since 1750. Here we examine such questions as: What constitutes the discovery of a new entity? How did the concept of the gene function in biology when there was no agreement on what genes were? To what extent did laboratory and field science emerge as distinctive epistemic cultures during the nineteenth century? How did the introduction of new symbolic tools transform fields like organic chemistry and theoretical physics? How did changing socio-political conditions lead to the emergence of new ways of conceptualizing disease and heredity? Can political values play a legitimate role in the construction of scientific theories and models?

  • This subject is a history of the intellectual, social, political and economic processes that produced the 'modern world' of the late eighteenth century. With a focus that is global rather than local, the subject deals with the European encounter with other parts of the world and the way encounters, conflicts, and colonisation related to the rise of modern science. It explores the many ways in which different peoples in different worlds interacted and asks how important these encounters were in shaping the making of the modern world, from immediately before Columbus went to the Americas in 1492 to just before the Seven Years' War and the beginning of the Age of Revolutions. It puts special emphasis on looking at both “magic” and “reason” and seeing whether the rise of science means that magic was replaced or not by the advent of knowledge regimes based on reason.

    Note: This subject is jointly taught by the History and History and Philosophy of Science disciplines and is an elective in both majors.

  • What is the mind? What does it mean for the mind to malfunction? And how should it be treated when this occurs? 'Minds and Madness' provides an historical over-view of responses to these questions by patients, medical practitioners and society as a whole. Once considered the seat of the soul, the human mind has been captured by science, reduced to a brain, 'a hard-wired' neural network. Metaphysical explanations of madness (theological and magical) have been superseded by scientific theories (neurological and material), thus reshaping our understanding and experience of madness. Therapies have transformed accordingly. In exploring these important issues, the subject will visit the spaces and places of 'Minds and Madness', including: the ship of fools, Bedlam, the asylum, the psychiatrist"s couch and GPs rooms, the battlefield, the operating theatre, and the padded cell. It will introduce students to a cast of thousands, including: the fool (from King Lear and elsewhere), Burton, Descartes, Locke, Pinel, Kraepelin, Cotton, Freud, Laing, Engel and Spitzer. It will analyse and critique changing conceptions of mental diagnoses. it will delve into the new world of our contemporary neurosciences. Finally, it will explore how historians have made sense of this story.

  • Science provides innumerable benefits in our lives but poses just as many urgent questions. The aim of this subject is to explore the role of science in our society by drawing on recent scholarly work in sociology and philosophy of science. The first part of the course will introduce several conceptions of scientific knowledge, and of the role of scientists and their knowledge in society. The second part of the course will apply these intellectual tools to some of the pressing questions about contemporary science. What is the relationship between science, technology and the market? To what extend should science be directed by values? What role do or should scientists play in policy decisions? What role should ‘the public’ play in setting research priorities? What is a scientific expert? Why do we disagree about climate change? Has science shown that race is a social construct?

  • This subject deals with the power and limits of logic. We will cover some of the great conceptual advances in logic in the 20th Century, which have revolutionised our understanding of logic and language, of models and meaning, and of concepts and computation. We will examine the conceptual foundations of logic and the way it can be applied, not only to develop theories in other domains, but how we can learn the limits of logic when we attempt to apply its power to logic itself. In the course we will examine fundamental results such as (1) the soundness and completeness of different proof systems of first-order predicate logic, (2) the boundary between the countably infinite and the uncountably infinite (3) the boundary between the computable and the uncomputable, and (4) Gödel's incompleteness theorem and its consequences. Concepts and results will be approached via both practical exposure to formal techniques and proofs and theoretical and philosophical reflection on those techniques. Students will be able to appreciate the philosophical importance of the major logical results and equipping them for further work in logic in philosophy, mathematics, linguistics, computer science and related fields.

Entry requirements & Prerequisites

This major is available through more than one course, both of which have their own separate entry requirements.

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Bachelor of Arts&Bachelor of Arts Extended