Centre for Continuing Education

Philosophy for Science Course II: What Must the World Be Like?

Philosophy. Study the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality and existence.

Learn about philosophy the smart way with Philosophy courses at the University of Sydney.

Science is a ‘methodology’: a particular way of observing and explaining the world, of answering the one big question: “What must the world be like, in order that it produce the phenomena we observe?” This course is part two of a four part Philosophy for Science series which applies the language and logic of Science to the task of distilling from our observations of worldly affairs the fundamental elements of ‘reality’ – of what the world must, or at least must not, be like – and to construct from them a reasonable model of the physical world. With surprising results: for it turns out we know more than we think, but things are not as they seem!

This course is part of a series and should ideally be completed in sequence.

Course content

This philosophy of science course covers the following topics:

Review of the Language and Logic of Science

  • What is Science?
  • What is “out there”, and what must it be like?
  • Physical vs semiotic existence
  • Detection and observation
  • Description, prediction and explanation
  • Emergence and Supervenience
  • Causal reductionism and descriptive holism

Heterogeneity – What there is

  • Descartes’s “cogito”, and why there is something rather than nothing
  • Solipsism
  • Heterogeneity and spatial extension
  • Atomism: corpuscularity and finitude on the elementary scale
  • Infinite divisibility
  • Locality, continuity, and isotropy: why space is three dimensional
  • Uniformity of space
  • Curvature of space
  • Why light travels in straight lines
  • Objects in space vs space between objects
  • Mereology: big things made of little things
  • The “physical” Universe, multiverses, and beyond

Dynamism – What things do

  • Dynamism and temporal extension: motion and interaction on the elementary scale
  • Vacuum and plenum
  • Dynamic 'states of affairs'
  • Entity-based vs event-based interpretations of change
  • State-based definitions of “cause” and “effect”, and the ‘Arrow’ of Time
  • Causal ‘efficacy’ and 'mechanisms'
  • Formal description vs causal explanation
  • Constancy over Time: Conservation of Energy and Momentum


  • Arbitrariness, Randomness and Choice
  • Equipoise and Buridan’s Ass
  • The Principle of Least Action
  • Universal causal determination
  • Ontological determinacy vs epistemic determinability
  • The puzzle of Free Will
  • Experience and expectation
  • Bayesian conditional probability

Feedback & Complexity

  • Iterations and loops of interactions
  • Amplification & attenuation
  • Self-interaction
  • The emergence of complexity
  • Definition of ‘complicated’ vs 'complex'
  • Spatial complexity: Mandelbrot sets, fractals, and fractal dimensions
  • Dynamic complexity: the Three-Body Problem, double pendulum and dripping tap
  • The Edge of Chaos
  • Irreducibility and unpredictability in complex systems


  • Observation as physical interaction
  • The tripartite nature of observation
  • Granularity in substance, motion and interaction
  • Observing change vs observing 'things'
  • Observation thresholds, and what is actually observable
  • Error and uncertainty in both observables and beables
  • What we can safely infer from observation – beables, observables and unobservables

Subjectivity and Objectivity

  • Describing what we see
  • Aristotle, Kant and Schopenhauer: ‘Categories’ of reality and understanding
  • ‘A priori’ vs ‘a posteriori’ knowledge
  • Objectivity vs Subjectivity
  • The Rationalism vs Empiricism debate
  • What we do know – a priori – about the world: dynamism, heterogeneity, corpuscularity

The Different Faces of Science

  • How Science describes the world: a world of things doing things – of beables and observables
  • Entity-based vs event-based descriptions
  • ‘Levels’ of description
  • Science as a body of ‘facts’ – of conceptual frameworks; patterns and regularities; errors and exceptions
  • Science as the pursuit of the knowledge of ‘causes’ – of how and why
  • Science as model building and theory-making – as observing and interpreting worldly phenomena
  • The descriptive, predictive and explanatory power of Science

Course outcomes

By the end of this philosophy of science course, participants should be familiar with:

  • The essential heterogeneity, dynamism and corpuscularity of the physical world
  • The role of infinities and infinite divisibility in the physical domain
  • Locality, continuity, and isotropy – and why spacetime is ‘3+1’ dimensional
  • The nature of interaction, feedback, and the emergence of complexity and chaos
  • The limits to observation, and the difference between observables and beables
  • The rational and empirical foundations, and predictive and explanatory power, of Science

Course suitable for

Though rigorous and intellectually demanding, this course is designed for a lay audience and no prior knowledge of philosophy, mathematics or physics is needed. This course is part two of a four part series entitled "Philosophy for Science: A Guide to Understanding the Physical World." While not strictly essential, participants are strongly encouraged to take each part of the series in order, as later courses draw on material presented in earlier ones.

Course reading

The following readings are recommended, but not required.

  • Briggs, J. P. and Peat, F. D., Looking Glass Universe – The Emerging Science of Wholeness, London: Fontana, 1985
  • Chalmers, Alan F., What Is This Thing Called Science?, 3rd Ed., Qld University Press, 2000
  • Gleick, James, Chaos, London: Macdonald & Co., 1987
  • Maddox, John, What Remains to be Discovered, London: Macmillan, 1998
  • Prigogine, Ilya; and Stengers, Isabelle, Order out of Chaos, London: Flamingo, 1988
  • Quinton, Anthony, The Nature of Things, Routledge, 1980
  • Reichenbach, Hans, The Philosophy of Space and Time, New York: Dover, 1958


  • Expert trainers
  • Central locations
  • Small class sizes
  • Free, expert advice
  • Student materials – yours to keep
  • Statement of completion

What others say.

  • Exceptional course and tutor. Fulfilled the promise of getting me to look at the world differently, while opening my brain to a whole new way of thinking and observing. I can’t wait for Part 3!

  • The course is life changing.

  • The presenter of this course knows how to engage an interest or curiosity into enlightenment.

  • If anyone would like to learn in a free but structured format, this is the place to go.

  • Just as interesting as the first in the series, Philosophy for Science II is even more stimulating and thought-provoking.

  • The course was fabulous. It was thought provoking, confronted our long-held and deep-seated beliefs, and presented a well-structured and consistent set of concepts that will enable us to deeply examine scientific processes and conclusions.

  • Great content with depth, breath and clarity. It will change the way you look at science.