Computer Science and Philosophy at Oxford

Oxford University's degree programme in Computer Science and Philosophy ("CS&P") started in 2012, becoming our first new Philosophy degree programme since 1973, and representing a significant commitment by the University to this exciting area. For details, there are both University web pages and Departmental web pages about the degree programme.

Colleges currently admitting for CS&P are Balliol, Christ Church, Hertford, Lady Margaret Hall, Merton, New, Oriel, St Anne's, St Catherine's, St John's, and University. Hertford College standardly has 4-5 places each year; other colleges will typically provide up to 2 places each year, depending on the number and quality of applicants relative to other degree programmes. In 2017, there were 14 offers overall, from 82 applicants. Applicants must take the Mathematics Aptitude Test (MAT), which is used to select those invited for interview. As a rough guide, if you score 60% or more, you are likely to be invited, and of those who come for interview, 35-40% are usually accepted.

Why is this a great combination of subjects?

Computing and Philosophy are close intellectual cousins, sharing a focus on representation of information and rational inference across a wide range of fields. This website is devoted to the rich connections between Computing and Philosophy, so please browse it (perhaps with the aid of the Site Map from the Home menu) if you want to find out more. Some of these links might surprise you: see for example Philosophical Issues in Robot Design, Computer Models as Thought-Experiments, Evolutionary Computer Models, and Computer Models in the Social Sciences. The theme of these last pages is that philosophical reflection about the living world – both biological and social – is increasingly going to have to be informed by computer modelling of these highly complex phenomena. So philosophers of the future will be tremendously helped if they are able to program, and programmers of the future will have the opportunity to widen their horizons to all sorts of philosophically interesting fields.

Why are they fun to study?

Both Computing and Philosophy are intellectually exciting and creative right from the start: in Computing, through the design of computer programs, and in Philosophy, through the working out of arguments and systems of thought. So if you are a student with broad interests and mathematical aptitude, who prefers intellectual exploration and discovery to learning of established theory, this combination might be just what you're looking for.

Note that the only firm academic prerequisite for the course is study of Mathematics to A-Level (or equivalent), and you are not expected to be a "computer geek". On the contrary, we hope to attract intelligent students with broad interests, who might well be studying traditional Arts, traditional Sciences, or a mix of A-Levels (or indeed the International Baccalaureate etc.).

How can I know if it will suit me?

  • First, you need to be good at Maths, and to expect an A* at A-Level Maths (or equivalent). You won't actually need most of this Maths for the course – in this respect Computing is quite unlike Physics or Chemistry. But Mathematics is the closest school subject to the sort of systematic, rigorous thinking that is required.
  • To stand a realistic chance of getting in, you need to be able to achieve a decent profile of GCSE results and A*AA at A-Level (or equivalent qualifications, e.g. IB).
  • If you enjoy logical puzzles (such as thinking through paradoxes, or code-breaking) or playing analytical games like chess, you are also likely to enjoy both Computing and Philosophy.
  • You might already have done some computer programming, but if not, you could try out the Turtle System.
  • You can get an introduction to functional programming by designing interesting Escher-style patterns using GeomLab, another teaching system designed by a tutor involved in the new degree programme.
  • You might also enjoy playing around with the Elizabeth chatterbot program: try to write a "script" to enable it to converse about your favourite film or book characters, or about your favourite sports team!
  • If you want some suggestions for interesting Philosophy books to whet your appetite, take a look at Some Recommended Philosophy Readings.

Why Oxford?

Oxford is easily the top place to study Philosophy outside the USA, consistently in the top two worldwide (with New York University) in the influential Philosophical Gourmet report. Likewise in Computer Science, Oxford is consistently ranked as one of the top universities worldwide (as in this 2018 Times Higher ranking, which puts Oxford third after Stanford and MIT). Oxford has long pioneered innovative cross-disciplinary degrees in Philosophy, starting with Literae Humaniores and later the very famous Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) programme, then in more recent years combinations with Mathematics, Physics, Psychology, Modern Languages, and Theology. Everyone studying undergraduate Philosophy at Oxford is on an interdisciplinary programme, so there is no risk here that you will feel overshadowed by hordes of single subject students.

What are the employment prospects?

It would be hard to find a better degree programme from the point of view of employability. The External Advisory Panel of the Computing Laboratory – consisting largely of employers – wrote in support of the proposal: "We believe that the degree is likely to produce high-value graduates who combine technical and analytical skills with rhetorical and literary skills. These are just the kind of people that industry, and we believe society generally, wants. The degree will produce graduates who can potentially become members of executive boards of companies, where clarity of thinking combined with knowledge of technology issues will be vital. The United Kingdom is peculiar amongst developed countries in the paucity of Directors at Executive and main Board level who combine the two. It will also produce software engineers with the skills to analyse, and intelligently explain and document, complex problems. We believe that the new degree is likely to excite and attract strong, ambitious candidates."

This optimism has been fully borne out by the experience of our graduates from the degree so far, who have quickly found excellent careers, mostly in top tech companies (e.g. Facebook, Google Deep Mind, Hewlett Packard, Improbable, Microsoft, Palantir) or postgraduate study at top universities.

How can I find out more?

Go to the information pages through the links in the first paragraph at the top of this page. And please feel free to email me using the email address peter [AT] philocomp [DOT] net, with the subject line "Computer Science & Philosophy".

Peter Millican

Peter Millican

Fellow of Hertford College, Oxford, and author of this website