PHIL 460 (Philosophy of Science)
Disclaimer: I took this course in the fall of the 2014/2015 academic term at UBC. As such, this post may contain information that isn’t totally up to date. Nevertheless, I thought I would share what I fun course I thought this was!
Prof: Dr. Paul Bartha
PHIL 460 gives you insight into the philosophy that underlies science and changes in science. Naturally, since it is a philosophy course, there is reading and essay writing involved. I took it because it sounded interesting, even though I was worried about doing poorly because it’s 100% subjectively graded. In the end, I really really really liked PHIL 460! Also Dr. Bartha is a super cool person, and always willing to help you understand things better outside of class hours or discuss philosophy after class.
Short essay 10%
Take-home midterm test 20%
Term paper 35%
Final exam 35%
There were seven main topics covered:
- The problem of induction
- Science, values, and objectivity
- Probability and confirmation
- Explanation and causation
- Laws of nature
- Empiricism and scientific realism
- Thought experiments
I thought all of them were fascinating, and some of them were frustrating – not because I didn’t understand them but just because there was no conclusion! Like the problem of induction hasn’t really been solved – or hasn’t been solved in a satisfying way.
My favourite topic was scientific realism, because it was fun to pontificate about what was real and because it made me think in a different manner. E.g., most of the time we just assume that what we see through microscopes is real. BUT HOW DO WE KNOW IT IS?! Exactly.
Explanation and causation was also fun, because there were some funny examples of negative causation and whatnot. You can scroll back in the archives if you want to see some of the philosophising that was involved. I wrote those posts when preparing for the final exam!
Short essay and take-home midterm test
The first assignment for the class was a short essay (around 1200 words) on the problem of induction. For me, this was a test of my ability to understand philosophy and write philosophically. At the beginning I felt very out of place in the class, since there were many people in the class who seemed to already know how to reason in philosophy, and were asking all these great questions with fancy philosophical terms. So I had this persistent feeling that I was one step behind through everything and not understanding everything perfectly, since I couldn’t conjure such well thought-out questions. BUT this assignment and the solid grade I got gave me some confidence in future classes, and I was more comfortable joining in discussions.
Most of the course content is straightforward and will make sense if you pay attention in class and read the assigned readings before class. I.e., I actually was understanding things just fine.
Take-home midterms should never make you think you’ve got it easy. We wrote three short essays on different topics for this midterm, which we got ten days in advance. I did better on some than others, but it was challenging regardless of the fact that we had over a week to do them.
START EARLY. Best advice for any paper or study preparation, really. We got potential term paper topics over a month in advance, and in that time I caught up with all the reading and then began planning the paper 3 weeks in advance, and writing + editing multiple rough drafts in the 2 weeks before the paper was due.
I know 3 weeks sounds like a lot of time already, but depending on how decided you are on the topic you choose you may need more time to fully flesh out your ideas and your argument. We got a list of possible topics you could write about, or you could come up with your own question and get it approved by the prof for your paper.
I ended up writing about the argument surrounding scientific realism, and I think it was the most fun topic in PHIL 460. From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, scientific realism is:
… a positive epistemic attitude towards the content of our best theories and models, recommending belief in both observable and unobservable aspects of the world described by the sciences.
There isn’t much argument about the observable entities that science talks or theorises about, but there is a serious argument to be had – philosophically at least – over whether we can justify our knowledge of unobservable entities that scientists talk about.
Anyway, I’m getting sidetracked but the term paper is between 3500 and 4000 words and for the most part about a topic of your choice. You pull quotes from one of the class textbooks, or other philosophy papers you’ve looked up to more fully research and flesh out your paper. You absolutely should pick a topic you find interesting so you enjoy writing it a bit more, I think. The nice thing about picking a topic you’ve gone over in class, though, is that you’ll be an expert in that topic before the final exam rolls around. Scientific realism was one thing I didn’t have to review too heavily for the final exam
As you might expect, this was an essay-style exam. If I recall correctly, we did not get questions beforehand, although the questions given on the final exam were pretty much ones you could guess. My memory is a bit hazy on the details, but I know that the final exam was very heavily weighted towards post-midterm material and didn’t have anything on the problem of induction (which we were told beforehand). There was a question on the final about scientific realism, which I found super easy to write about because I had spent weeks researching that topic and fleshing out my opinion on it, using the writings of other philosophers to back up my point.
I reviewed by writing posts to take stuff we’d learned and put it in my own words, which also helped me develop stances on certain topics and – I think – remember the arguments of different philosophers more clearly. I do think writing practice is really important for the final, rather than just reading or re-reading papers we read for the class. You have to learn how to verbalise concepts and arguments of philosophers in your own words and form your own arguments based on their arguments.
I remember this course so fondly. It’s hard not to recommend it, although I think you probably shouldn’t take it if you’re not confident in your writing skills in general. I thought I was a decent writer when I started this course; even though I worried that my writing wouldn’t sound “philosophical” enough, I learned quickly from reading the writings of other philosophers. If this sounds like a course you’d enjoy and sounds like something you can do, too, I think you should totally take PHIL 460. It makes you think (or re-think) about a lot of principles in science we may sometimes take for granted. Personally, it made me appreciate the philosophical underpinnings of science and how science works.
Prof. Bartha is a wonderful person who put in a lot of time helping students understand topics and was always easy to reach via e-mail or during office hours. He’s very approachable and someone who really seems to care about student learning (in my opinion), and an overall awesome professor (and person, obviously).
My only recommendations for anyone who does take PHIL 460 is to stay on top of readings and start your papers early. Also, it helps to put the philosophical arguments you’re reading in your own words, just to make sure you are thinking about them in different ways and that you really understand them. For your term paper, if you ever need help clarifying your argument or you need help structuring your paper, go get help. Go talk to your professor or go to a writing help centre on campus. I definitely asked Prof. Bartha for a lot of help when I was writing my paper on scientific realism, and a large part of that was because I needed someone to listen and confirm that I was putting together a logical argument that considered all (relevant) points of view.
As of this writing, the course page from when I took PHIL 460 is still available. From what I can gather, just from looking at the SSC, the course has changed quite a bit. The course description now reads:
This course is an advanced introduction to some of the central problems of philosophy of science. After a quick introduction to several of the main topics in philosophy of science, we shall focus on questions of theory and evidence. We will relate philosophical concerns with theory and evidence to scientific practice in an era of big data and (sometimes faulty) algorithms to interpret such data, to widespread media reports of a crisis of replication in some sciences, to wide-spread skepticism about particular scientific claims in areas such as climate science and medicine, and to public engagement with science.
We will avail ourselves of UBC resources such as the Beaty Biodiversity Museum and the Story of Medicines exhibit in the UBC Pharmacy Building. There will be several small assignments and a group project on communicating an issue in understanding evidence to a non-expert audience.
It also looks like it may be taught by a different professor now. We did not cover scepticism about certain scientific claims or public engagement with science, when I took the course. We also definitely did not visit the Beaty Biodiversity Museum (but you should check it out if you’ve never been!). I don’t see it on the list of PHIL courses (at least, not listed as 460; PHIL 369 is labelled as Philosophy of Science, though).
With all that said… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I still wanted to at least write about how cool this course was. If it’s no longer offered at UBC, that’s really too bad since it’s an amazing class for getting students to think critically. And it’s fun to get caught up in all the weirdness that abounds in philosophy, of course.