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Bridging Science and Humanities:
Faculty feature with Stephen Downes

By Corinne Clarkson


Stephen Downes

Science and the humanities seem to be the oil and water of academia. In a black-and-white world, these two fields are opposites, two fields of study with not just a picket fence dividing them but a concrete wall. A man crossing this divide and blurring these lines is Stephen Downes, professor of philosophy and adjunct professor in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Utah. During his distinguished career in the philosophy of science, Downes has bridged the gap between the humanities and science by studying the logic and ethics behind scientific research. His pride in the philosophy department is apparent, and his passion and hard work have been instrumental in creating the world-renowned, diverse department the U is honored to have today.  

Downes’ long and accomplished career started in the UK. After getting an undergraduate degree in philosophy at the University of Manchester, he graduated with a MA in philosophy from the University of Warwick. He then moved to Boulder, CO where he finished his doctorate in science and technology studies at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. He began his teaching career as a visiting professor at the University of Cincinnati and soon after received several job offers, including one from the University of Utah. At the same time, he was offered an incredibly prestigious one-year postdoc appointment at Northwestern University, allowing him to work with two exceptional scholars and influential philosophers of science. The U, however, saw the benefit of this opportunity and supported him in postponing his employment. He completed the postdoc philosophy work, joined the U’s faculty and has been on campus for 30 years.

Downes takes pride in the current projects and achievements of his colleagues. His dedication to the philosophy program is evident, and the support he gives his fellow philosophers is clear in the department's accomplishments. Carlos Santana, associate professor of philosophy at the U, attributes much of the department’s success to Downes. “Our department is one of the most supportive and inclusive philosophy departments anywhere,” he said. “Much of the credit goes to Steve, who has worked for decades to shape that positive departmental culture. He is a formal or informal mentor to almost all our junior faculty and grad students. Joining the department and adapting to being a professor was a smooth process for me largely because of his guidance and willingness to go to bat for me.”

In his years at the university, Downes has been involved in hiring all six philosophy of science faculty members. He emphasizes the unique gender diversity within the department – more than half of the faculty are women, a feat almost unheard of in most philosophy departments. This diversity is crucial to the department’s success – having the voices of a diverse groups of people, especially groups that are typically overlooked in the philosophy world, is essential to producing ethical and accurate data. Downes believes that his department’s diverse faculty has contributed to its prestige while attracting very interesting and ambitious graduate students. “The department is much better for [this diversity], and the university is much better for it,” he explained. “It also makes us stand out in our field. Because if you have faculty who work on various subjects and represent different groups of people, you create a more diverse group of grad students and more interesting research.”

Though he started as a philosopher of cognitive science, Downes has since transitioned to working more with the sciences of anthropology and the biology of human behavior. He has spent a significant amount of time working to create relationships with scholars across campus in these fields and teaming up with scientists to discover the issues and ethical questions that arise in these areas. He has also conducted substantial research into cognitive science, heritability, epidemiological modeling, and, most currently, genetic causation. He recently received a National Institutes of Health grant through the Utah Center for Excellence in ELSI Research to pay for two graduate students to assist with what he calls the “Genetic Causation Project.” They will take surveys of scientists asking how they understand “genetic causation” and Downes predicts that there will be many diverse responses, showing how the many biases and perspectives of individual scientists greatly impact the work that they do. Downes is excited to work with his graduate students and hopes the work leads to presentations to a wide range of audiences and publications. 

Downes’ expertise, not only in philosophy but in science, is astounding. He stated that in the past, philosophers of science thought there was one kind of logic underlying all science. But now, these philosophers must study each area of science to discover the unique problems confronting scientists in their respective disciplines. Downes spent years studying molecular and evolutionary biology, and this immersion gave him insight into philosophical issues in those fields. He believes that this kind of “deep diving” enhances his course material and makes his classes more interesting, well-rounded and more relevant to students in the growing Philosophy of Science Major.

Downes quotes his colleague Joyce Havstad, associate professor of philosophy at the U, calling this new kind of scholar an “embedded philosopher of science.” This mutual understanding between scientists and philosophers enabled greater collaboration and productivity. Havstad herself is grateful for Downes’ influence and support. “Professor Downes’ stellar work on communities of scientific practice utilizing ancient DNA inspired my own work on the same topic,” she explained. “I could talk shop with him all day, every day. I don’t think I’ll ever stop learning from him for as long as I’m lucky enough to have him as a colleague.”

Becoming an embedded philosopher of science seems to come naturally for Downes. Many of his colleagues are not philosophers but scientists who work with him to solve their theoretical questions. Eric Turkheimer, psychology professor at the University of Virginia, has worked closely with Downes and appreciates the genuine interest he displays in his work. “When a working scientist such as myself collaborates with a philosopher, it is important that they see me as more than an example for their latest philosophical theory,” Turkheimer said. “Working with [Downes] doesn’t feel like a translational effort across boundaries; it feels like collaborating with a colleague immersed in the same knowledge base as myself.”

Crossing disciplines is not an easy task, but Downes makes bridging the gap between science and the humanities look effortless. He puts in the work, using his expertise and years of experience to improve not only the field of philosophy, but biology, psychology, genetics, epidemiology and numerous other fields. His ability to collaborate and his dedication to diversity and inclusion has helped create the prestigious philosophy department in place today. Downes shows that the divide between the humanities and science is not as stark as one may believe, and working with both can produce remarkable results.


Jana Cunningham, University of Utah College of Humanities | 801-213-0866

Published March 14, 2023

Last Updated: 3/14/23