Faculty of Arts

PHIL 260

Philosophy of Science

Please note: this is archived course information from 2012 for PHIL 260.


What makes science a distinctive way of discovering knowledge about our world, whether natural, biological or social? Ever since science started in Ancient Greece, a number of different theories about the worldview, methods and rationality of science have been proposed that distinguish it from religion, pseudo-science and myth. The course examines some of these accounts of the nature of science.

Course content
This course in the Philosophy of Science presupposes no prior acquaintance with philosophy or with any particular science. However to ensure that there is some common scientific background, some episodes from the history of science will be discussed, in particular Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.  The course will be conducted at an advanced undergraduate level. What is science? How is science to be defined?  There are several different definitions of science depending on the conception of scientific method that is adopted.

We will explore several theories some of which will be selected from the following list:

  • scientific method as proof or disproof (i.e., verifiability and falsifiability)
  • the problem of induction and the naïve inductivist model of science
  • hypothetico-deductivism, its strengths and its weaknesses and some applications
  • inference to the best explanation (this will be illustrated in several ways including Darwin’s defence of his theory of natural selection against special creationism)
  • Popper’s theory of critical rationalism
  • Thomas Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions
  • Lakatos’ theory of scientific research programmes
  • Probabilistic modes of reasoning in science as well as the theory of random clinical trials
  • Newton’s conception of science
  • How the above bear on the issue of pseudo-science

Further issues that can be discussed include:

  • What are laws of nature? (as distinct from ‘what are the laws of nature?’)
  • What is causation in science (including Mill’s methods of test)?
  • Can science give a picture of what the world is really like (i.e., the debate between realism and antirealism)?
  • The clash between science and religion (in particular the case of Darwinian evolution).
  • Can science answer all questions or does it have limits?
  • What are explanation and prediction in science?

Goals of the course:

  • To provide some knowledge of important episodes in the history of science;
  • To illustrate ways in which scientific method bears on those episodes;
  • To give an account of the variety of scientific methods and their application in the case of particular sciences;
  • To examine when claims can be deemed to be scientific and when not, in particular the nature of pseudo-science;
  • To show what bearing philosophy can have upon science.
  • To show how science relates to other non-scientific matters such as religion.

Learning outcomes
By the end of the course students will be expected to:

  • Display some knowledge of the variety of scientific methods;
  • To show how these methods apply to some episode in science;
  • To have an appreciation of the different ways in which science can be defined and be able to critically examine these;
  • To determine what is rational about science and how its rationality is exhibited;
  • To obtain a grasp of probabilistic reasoning so essential in science;
  • To be aware of some episodes in the history of science and why they might be judged to constitute an advance in science;
  • To be analytic and logical in one’s approach and to show some mastery of the principles of reasoning and method that are used in science (and elsewhere);
  • Be able to present an argued case in writing about philosophy of science.
  • To be able to correctly and cogently organise your thoughts in writing exercises, the essay and the final examination.

Students will be required to attend two lectures per week and a one hour tutorial. Attendance at the tutorial is essential as students will be required to complete the writing exercise component of the coursework in the tutorials.

Other relevant undergraduate courses
Phil 261 or 361, a course in metaphysics;
Phil 266, a course in logic, probability and rationality.

Availability 2012

Semester 2


Coordinator(s) Professor Robert Nola

Recommended Reading

Alan Chalmers, What is This Thing Called Science? (Queensland University Press, St Lucia, third edition 1999).


Coursework: One essay (20%) and tutorial writing execises (20%)
Examination: two-hour exam (60%)
However plussage applies; that is your grade is the higher of either (i) your final examination, or (ii) where the coursework is higher than the grade for the final examination, this grade is raised so that your final grade is [40% coursework + 60% final examination mark]. Thus your coursework mark can increase your final grade.


PHIL 260: 15.0 points


30 points in Philosophy or any 60 points


PHIL 360

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