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At first glance, Computer Science and Philosophy is a very strange combination. You might think they have completely opposite reputations: that philosophy is for old men in tweed smoking pipes, and that computer science is for flashy Silicon-Valley types. But it’s actually a fascinating and rewarding degree.

Which universities offer Computer Science and Philosophy?

Computer Science and Philosophy is a joint honours degree offered at Oxford but not Cambridge. It is offered as a combination at some other universities across the country, such as Durham, Exeter, St. Andrew’s and Liverpool.

Why study computer science and philosophy together?

The course combines two fields that may initially seem disparate in their nature, but actually have a large overlap. For example, the incredibly relevant and contemporary field of artificial intelligence raises a number of pertinent ethical questions, that are not strictly studied within the domain of computer science. For example, could a machine ever be a person?

This degree is also a fantastic stepping stone towards potentially working in cognitive science later in your academic or professional career. Cognitive science studies the human mind and brain from a computational angle. It’s a rapidly growing field and will most likely increase in importance as both neuroscience and computing technology advance, since it provides a useful bridge between these areas.

Finally, the discipline of logic is essential to both the studies of computer science and philosophy, with set theory forming a key part  of both disciplines. Logical techniques and systems are used to understand and program systems, and logical reasoning is an essential part of philosophical discourse. 

What A-Levels do I need for Computer Science and Philosophy?

The only compulsory pre-requisite for this course is Maths A-Level, with Further Maths recommended. Although an essay-based A-Level is not compulsory, it is preferable. You will be expected to write sound and cohesive weekly essays, and if this is not a skill you have developed since GCSE, it may be difficult to begin with (although definitely not impossible!) 

What will I study from Computer Science?

In your first year studying Computer Science at Oxford you will take courses in: 

  • Functional Programming
  • Design and Analysis of Algorithms
  • Imperative Programming
  • Discrete Mathematics 
  • Probability 

These are the same courses that the Computer Scientists study. For more details, see our guide to the Oxford Computer Science course.

From your second year on, there will be compulsory Computer Science modules that you have to study, overlapping with the pure Computer Science students, as well as an opportunity to study some of the diverse range of optional papers.

What will I study from Philosophy?

  • General Philosophy: an introduction into the key contentious issues of the discipline, studied by all first year philosophers. You will cover a wide range of philosophers at surface level, from Descartes to Kant, and this course will give you an indication of the areas of the philosophy you want to pursue in more depth in future years. 
  • Elements of Deductive Logic: This is a paper that introduces you to basic logic, and also allows you to prove conjectures and hypotheses about the logical system within which philosophers reason. It is fairly mathematical in its proof-style nature, and is compulsory for all first years studying Maths/Computer Science/Physics and Philosophy. 
  • Turing on Computability and Intelligence: This course touches upon some of the key philosophical issues in computer science. It contains information on the famous computer scientist and philosophical revolutionary Alan Turing, focusing on his 1936 paper On Computable Numbers and his 1950 paper Computing Machinery and Intelligence, which introduced the Turing Test. It also offers an introduction into different types of numbers, and other important figures in the intersection of philosophy, logic, maths, and computation, such as David Hilbert and Kurt Gödel. 

You can also study philosophical topics that have numerous repercussions within computer science, such as knowledge, the philosophy of mind, and ethics. 

If you’re interested in philosophy, why not check out our recommended reading for philosophy?

Conclusion

Although it might not seem obvious at first, there is in fact a great deal of overlap between Computer Science and Philosophy; the two disciplines have important interactions. However, the main appeal of the course is the variety it offers – you can go from studying complex algorithms one minute, to Descartes’ theory of the mind the next.

 

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