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What Is Science? Part I

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. Science and Art

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.

18 thoughts on “What Is Science? Part I Leave a comment

  1. “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, who fundament will be belief in certain non-empirical truths, will also describe what we should see empirically (with little or no error).”

    But the only scientific way to check whether that particular “theory of everything” is indeed true, is by comparing it with all the things which are happening in the real world. Which as physical as one can get.

  2. I recommend the book “The Beginning of Infinity” by David Deutsch which directly addresses this topic. He contends, and I agree, that good explanations are what science strives for, not removing observational dependencies. Observations are critical to science because they are what the explanations are about and are necessary for falsification. Good theories are better than their competing theories because they offer a better explanation (i.e Einstein’s theory of gravity versus Newton’s). To that end, there never will be a final theory nor will everything eventually be explained.

  3. 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.”

    The green philosophy of science (or perhaps just general policy) is “Say X; Do Y”

  4. 1. Mathematics constructed? (!!)

    2. The opus of which existence I learned from you, E.T. Jaynes “Probability theory” has a subtitle: The logic of science. Is logic a science? Can science exist without logic? By the way, the book is delightful. Oh, and who formalized logic?

    3. Isn’t it safer to say that philosophy (particularly epistemology) and science live in symbiosis, in the sense that they are feeding each other from their “worthy” branches (not all of them are , or turning to be “worthy” over time ).

    4.Do we know any rational theologians? If we do, and there were some, should we cross out the attribute of rationalism from the discussion about science?

    5. Since “climate science” does not withstand the scrutiny — why waste one’s time on lengthy polemics. Astrology also used mathematics, but it did not make it more scientific.

  5. Briggs:

    Usually you are firing on all cylinders: all sixteen cylinders that is.

    This post is a moderate to serious mess. I seriously believe it would have Wittgenstein spinning in his grave.

    Have a couple of cups of strong coffee (black, no milk, no sugar) and reread the second last paragraph.

    “Once we have, if we ever do have, a theory of everything, physics will like mathematics be a pure metaphysical theory. That theory who (sic) fundament (sic) will be belief in certain non-empirical truths, will also describe what we should see empirically (with little or no error).”

    Baldly stated as it is this is your attempt at a tautology. If I (Briggs) remove all the empirical content about 2 and 2 being added together I get 4 and this will be a theory about the world and tell me what I will see.

    All you’ve done is imagine that you can jump from empirical content (“it’s raining outside my window”) to imagining a world theory (not a theory about the world) with no empirical content.

    Nice try.

    Your problems begin with paragraph 5 (“Let’s begin with a working definition ..) which is where you go off the rails. Science as you know is considerably more complicated than this, more sophisticated than this.

    Your recent post on induction was one of your 16 cylinder posts. This one needs some serious work.

    Lubos Motl has a post about the need to relate theory to reality (c.f., back ground independence).

    Keep up the good work.

  6. David,

    Well, nobody bats 1000. I don’t love this essay either—some mornings are worse than others—but we’ll see how it ties together.

    In my favor, not one sic: fundament is a perfectly good word. The first sic is a typo, though: I meant whose.

  7. I liked your essay Mr. Briggs, and disagree with Mr. Black on a matter that is fundament. 😉

    First let me state that I define science (noun) as a catalog of observations, interpretations, and the beliefe that -some- “truth” can be discovered through this catalog. I choose this definition because I think it is what the media, and many “bodies”, mean when they say “the science”.

    Immediately we come upon the obvious; It does not describe the belief or experience of one persons subjective view, rather the consensus of beliefs held at the time as interpreted through the consensus view at the time. In this way what Isaac Newton did was not the “science” until it was incorporated in to the consensus view. As long as he was guessing and measuring in private he was just some strange guy who seemed way too interested in numbers.

    Of course stating “the science” appears more complex and sophisticated than simply stating “guess, measure, record, compare guess to measurement”. To be that simple we would be describing a specific set of acts, rather than an entire belief system (cosmology)

    Face it; you need faith if you want to practice “the science”. I am not smart enough to understand most of the work that goes in to “the science” but I have faith that it’s right, and that let’s me use other people’s tools (like volt meters and ohms law) for effect without actually understanding how they really work.

  8. I’m hoping you are going somewhere with this, because, well, I don’t know anyone who would accept your definition of science…..

    Gremlin question: Is a definition of science scientific?

  9. By all means weigh in with your own definition. As Briggs already pointed out it can’t be so broad so as to include my morning bathroom routine as being a scientific endeavor.

  10. Science the product of the application of the scientific method. So it would seem the more important question is — what is the scientific method?

    It’s an important question because, obviously, the method does not produce truth. Most science (scientific theories) eventually are shown to be wrong. Why do we have such great faith in a method that produces abstractions of uncertain truthfulness?

  11. Exactly, Briggs, mon Capitan.

    My friend Will committed the grievous error to which I referred, in the following sentence: “I liked your essay Mr. Briggs, and disagree with Mr. Black on a matter that is fundament.”

    I told my girlfriend about you, and mentioned that you are a modern rarity, a true Renaissance man, brilliant and very entertaining. She asked if you were single.

  12. Slightly off topic, I’d like to relay my favorite use of the word “sic.”

    A teacher published some of her more interesting notes from parents, notes intended to explain their children’s absences and late arrivals. She rendered one item thusly (paraphrased):

    Please excuse Little Johnny’s absence. He was il (sic).

  13. From the fundament – two questions and two observations:

    For thousands of years humans have struggled to develop methods to deal with the world. One method is called, loosely, the scientific method, where we compare our ideas about what is going on (theory if you will) with what is going on (observations). This led, amongst other things, to the conclusion that physics is a science and astrology is not because astrology cannot be falsified. So, if “removing dependencies on observations makes a subject more metaphysical” does it make any sense to say that astrology is a type of metaphysics?

    To be considered scientific a theory has to be related at some point to the world and at some point dependent on at least one observation or series of observations. If this dependence on the observational element is removed it would no longer be considered a scientific theory. I’m not sure where this post is going but how is removing all dependency on observation to be attained and still have what we call a scientific theory or theories?

    In my mind, one problem with this post is that it tries to covers so much in 750 words (metaphysics, philosophy, science, theology, “removing dependencies on observations” and so on) that it is difficult to make a comment that contributes to the discussion.

    That said, these minor cavils and captious comments aside, a great blog.

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