Science says this, science says that. There is no more loquacious entity these days than science. What is it?
Climatologists talk of the science. Physicists compliment by saying a fellow does good science. James Randi chases after those who do pseudoscience. Pundits say science isn’t a thing, but a method.
It appears as if people have a definite, concrete idea just what science is. So what is it?
We might think we know it when we see it. The guy fiddling with test tubes is “doing” science, as is the guy building climate models on his computer. But is the librarian figuring a unique way to stack books doing it? How about the sociologist who just discovered a new form of discrimination?
Let’s begin with a working definition and see how far it gets us. Science is the collection and organization of facts, rules, and measurements of concrete, empirical things.
It’s easy to see how physics, chemistry, medicine, biology, and all the rest of the fields we commonly associate with science are science by this definition.
But it would make “library science” a science, too. Because the best way to stack books so that the most people can find what they’re looking for in the shortest order is a tangible, empirical question. Rules can be found to bring this result, and these rules will be based upon measurement of actual events.
Politics also conforms to the definition, as does economics. But then so does baking, manufacturing, policing, everything, really, that touches on the empirical. Even literature, art, and music, at least partially, can be considered sciences because what men think beautiful or ugly is an empirical questions. Nearly every field of study, it seems, is a science.
Mathematics doesn’t fit the scheme. Nor does (some of) theology and (most of) philosophy. These disciplines start by assuming truths, or by adopting beliefs which are thought true; truths for which there is no empirical evidence, truths for which there can be no empirical evidence. Truths which are just felt to be true.
They each also assume certain rules the validity of which is taken for granted, and for which no empirical evidence of this validity exists. Yet with the fundamental truths and rules in hand, further truths are deduced.
All of mathematics is constructed on top a tiny handful of beliefs, which everybody who cares to think about them feels are true. There are a few, however, who question one or two of these fundamental beliefs (the axiom of choice being one of these).
The dichotomy among the disputants is an almost imperceptible crack compared to the chasm that separates the different schools of philosophy and theology. Philosophers begin just as mathematicians do, but their set of fundamental beliefs evince loud, vociferous, and sustained disagreement between camps.
This is important to understand because the philosophy that is derived from a set of beliefs is usually true given the foundation is true. That is, philosophers rarely make mistakes in their reasoning. When a school comes to seem wrong, it is usually because (one or more of) the fundamental beliefs which underlay that school are seen to be false and not because somebody identified a hole in an argument. (Exceptions, of course, exist.)
A school of theology might seem to fit into the science framework where that school relies on empirical events. Christianity, for instance, began with a singular empirical event. Events also formed (or informed) Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Shinto and every other religion.
It is the direction that is important here. Just as philosophical theorems might be used to inform (empirical) behavior, so can theological theorems. The extent empirical observations inform schools of religion is not clear. I mean, just which observations can be removed so that the theology remains is difficult to figure, and must be done on a case-by-case basis.
Removing dependencies on observations makes a subject more metaphysical, adding them more physical, the realm of science. But just think: it is the goal of science to remove as many observational dependencies as possible, that is, to make each (physical) science into branch of metaphysics.
Once we have, if we ever do have, a theory of everything, physics will like mathematics be a pure metaphysical theory. That theory, whose fundament will be belief in certain non-empirical truths, will also describe what we should see empirically (with little or no error).
Philosophy also has this aim—to describe what we measure empirically, though we typically recognize this in a contingent fashion, as in “Do X, see Y.” There are subtleties here beyond what can be described in this limited space. We leave these for another time.