Philosophy and the Sciences

The University of Edinburgh

Learn about the historical and philosophical foundations of contemporary science. Explore cutting-edge debates in the philosophy of the physical sciences and philosophy of the cognitive sciences.

What is the origin of our universe? What are dark matter and dark energy? What is our role in the universe as human agents capable of knowledge? What makes us intelligent cognitive agents seemingly endowed with consciousness?

Scientific research across both the physical sciences and the cognitive sciences has raised pressing questions for philosophers. The goal of this course is to introduce you to some of the main areas and topics at the key juncture between philosophy and the sciences. The course is structured around two broad areas: 

  1. Philosophy and the Physical Sciences
  2. Philosophy and the Cognitive Sciences

Each week we will introduce you to some of these important questions at the forefront of scientific research. We will explain the science behind each topic in a simple, non-technical way, while also addressing the philosophical and conceptual questions arising from it. Areas you’ll learn about will include:

  • Philosophy of cosmology, where we’ll consider questions about the origin and evolution of our universe, the nature of dark energy and dark matter and the role of anthropic reasoning in the explanation of our universe.
  • Philosophy of psychology, among whose issues we will cover the evolution of the human mind and the nature of consciousness.
  • Philosophy of neurosciences, where we’ll consider the nature of human cognition and the relation between mind, machines, and the environment.

Learning Objectives

Gain a fairly well-rounded view on selected areas and topics at the intersection of philosophy and the sciences

Understand some key questions, and conceptual problems arising in the natural sciences and cognitive sciences.

Develop critical skills to evaluate and assess these problems.

The development of this MOOC has been led by the University of Edinburgh's Eidyn research centre.


Week 1. Introduction to the course

(Michela Massimi and Duncan Pritchard)

In this Introductory session, we introduce you to the broad field of 'philosophy of science' and clarify some of the central questions that philosophers ask about science. In particular, we briefly review the nature of scientific knowledge and debates about the scientific method, from induction to Karl Popper's falsification. We also discuss the problem of underdetermination, and Thomas Kuhn's view of scientific knowledge—both central to our following lectures on philosophy of cosmology.


Week 2. The origin of our universe

(Michela Massimi and John Peacock)

How did our universe form and evolve? Was there really a Big Bang, and what came before it? In this class, we take you through the history of contemporary cosmology and we look at how scientists arrived at the current understanding of our universe. We look at the history of astronomy, with the nebular hypothesis back in the eighteenth century, and in more recent times, Einstein’s general relativity and the ensuing cosmological models. Finally, we explain the current Standard Model and early universe cosmology and the experimental evidence behind it.  

Week 3. What are dark matter and dark energy?

(Michela Massimi and John Peacock)

According to the currently accepted model in cosmology, our universe is made up of 5% of ordinary matter, 25% cold dark matter, and 70% dark energy. But what kind of entities are dark matter and dark energy? In this class, we take you through a fascinating journey at the frontiers of contemporary cosmology and particle physics. We also look at alternative theories that explain the same experimental evidence without recourse to the hypothesis of dark matter and dark energy and we discuss the rationale for choosing between rival research programs. 

Week 4. The Anthropic Reasoning in Philosophy and Cosmology

(Alasdair Richmond and John Peacock)

Anthropic reasoning attempts to understand peculiarities of the physical universe via context-sensitive observers in a multiverse of different distinct universes. Anthropic reasoning can explain the dimensionality of space (and time), the ratio of gravitational and electromagnetic forces, the valency of carbon bonds, and the ages of the stars we observe in the night sky. Other anthropic explanations suggest that our universe ought to be a gigantic time machine and that we may live inside a ‘Matrix’-style computer-simulated reality. In this class, we review the problems and prospects of anthropic reasoning by drawing on cutting-edge research in galaxy formation.


Week 5. Stone-age minds in modern skulls: evolutionary theory and the philosophy of mind

(Suilin Lavelle and Kenny Smith)

This week, we will explore scientific interpretations of how our minds evolved, and some of the methodologies used in forming these interpretations.  We will relate evolutionary debates to a core issue in the philosophy of mind, namely, whether all knowledge comes from experience, or whether we have ‘inborn’ knowledge about certain aspects of our world.

Week 6. What is consciousness?

(Mark Sprevak and David Carmel)

One of the hardest problems in science is the nature of consciousness. We know that we have consciousness. We do not just blindly process information, make discriminations, take actions. It also feels a certain way to do so from the inside. Why do creatures with brains like ours have consciousness? What makes certain bits of our mental life conscious and others not? These questions form the heart of consciousness science, an exciting field to which psychologists, neuroscientists and philosophers contribute. This session will explore these questions, and introduce some recent progress that has been made towards answering them.

Week 7. Intelligent machines and the human brain

(Mark Sprevak and Peggy Series)

How does one make a clever adaptive machine that can recognise speech, control an aircraft, and detect credit card fraud? Recent years have seen a revolution in the kinds of tasks computers can do. Underlying these advances is the burgeoning field of machine learning and computational neuroscience. The same methods that allow us to make clever machines also appear to hold the key to understanding ourselves: to explaining how our brain and mind work. We explore this exciting new field and some of the philosophical questions that it raises.

Week 8. Embodied Cognition

(Andy Clark and Barbara Webb)

Cognitive Science has recently taken a strongly 'embodied turn', recognizing that biologically evolved intelligence makes the most of the opportunities provided by bodily form, action, and the material and social environment. This session explores the way this impacts our vision of minds, brains, and intelligent agents, and asks whether there can be a fundamental science of the embodied mind.

Recommended Background

No background required.

Suggested Readings

Optional reading

To accompany 'Philosophy and the Sciences', we are pleased to announce a tie-in book from Routledge entitled 'Philosophy and the Sciences for Everyone'. This course companion to the 'Philosophy and the Sciences' course was written by the Edinburgh Philosophy and the Sciences team expressly with the needs of MOOC students in mind. 'Philosophy and the Sciences for Everyone' contains clear and user-friendly chapters, chapter summaries, glossary, study questions, suggestions for further reading and guides to online resources.

More details are available here.

Please note, this companion book is optional - all the resources needed to complete the course are available freely and listed on the course site.

Course Format

The course is designed as a free open access course. The goal is to introduce learners in a simple, non-technical, accessible way to selected scientific topics across cosmology and the cognitive sciences, with their associated philosophical and conceptual issues. The course comprises seven weeks, and will be run by an interdisciplinary team of philosophers and scientists, who week-by-week will clarify the scientific background and explain the conceptual and philosophical problems.


  • Will I get a certificate after completing this class? 

    Yes. You can register for the Verified Certificate option when you sign up or during the first two weeks of the course. This is an optional paid-for certificate which provides ID verification of your learning, and may be desirable if you wish to demonstrate your learning in a professional context.

    If you prefer to do the course for free, you do not need to sign up for the Verified Certificate. There is alternatively a free Statement of Accomplishment for those who complete the course. Information about the requirements for completion will be available once the course begins.

  • Do I earn University of Edinburgh credits upon completion of the class?
    No. The Verified Certificates and Statements of Accomplishment are not part of a formal qualification from the University. However, it may be useful to demonstrate prior learning and interest in applying to a further or higher education institution, or potential employer.
  • What resources will I need for this class?

    No resources needed.

  • What are the learning outcomes of this course and why should I take it?

    You will learn about the historical and philosophical foundations of contemporary science through cutting-edge debate.

  • 21 September 2015, 8 weeks
  • 20 October 2014, 8 weeks
Course properties:
  • Free:
  • Paid:
  • Certificate:
  • MOOC:
  • Video:
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  • Language: English Gb


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