Archive for February, 2012

What is science?

February 24, 2012 2 comments

Take a minute and ask yourself that question, get a pen and paper and try to write a succinct and accurate answer… Harder than it looks isn’t it? It helps to try to define science within specific guidelines for example:

– As a belief system (including comparing it to other belief systems)

– As a way of knowing (including comparing it to other ways of knowing)

– Science and Technology

– Philosophy of Science

– The Scientific Method

Now first of all what I have to say is by no means the be all and end all of science, I don’t think I’d ever have the conviction to claim to be an authority on anything I’ve studied, regardless of how long I could spend studying it.  Given the complex nature of this topic, I’m going to separate out these topics into separate posts that I will hopefully complete over the coming months.

This week, science as a belief system.

What can we truly say about the world around us? René Descartes famously stated “Cogito ergo sum”, the only real thing we can say is that our thoughts and feelings are real, that because we think, we must exist. But of course that’s not very helpful and not very practical, so humans have invented belief systems as ways of understanding our world, they may be based on a creed or dogma like religion, or they may be variants of various philosophies as defined those that dedicated their lives to thought.

Science as a belief system says that we can make certain statements about the world which we perceive. For example, the fact that it is built on rules and these rules do not change. If something seems to defy our rules then our rules are not accurate when compared to how the world actually is (or if you prefer our thoughts, theories and hypotheses do not fully explain what we perceive to be true). This is the basis of the Scientific method but I’m getting ahead of myself there. Science attempts to state and explain everything there is in the natural world, scientists seek to understand all the phenomena (Phenomenon (Singular): A fact or situation that is observed to exist or happen).

So science states that if something is tested over and over and there is a consistent result, then that is probably true, so if I jump up over and over, I’m going to fall back down and land (hopefully upright) again, this is true.

But why do things happen? Well that’s where we can bring in Occam’s Razor, that is, the simplest answer is often the right one, if there is a simple testable explanation, and it has been tested and evidence hasn’t contradicted it, then that is probably right. If something is a more complicated answer then it is probably wrong. This of course is secondary to the evidence. If two, as they are called hypotheses, have not been falsified, then the simpler one is probably the right one.

So what does science say about other belief systems? Well first off nothing in science says that you have to put to death anyone who doesn’t believe in science which in my mind immediately puts it above older more intolerant belief systems (if you get what I’m hinting at). Science makes no statements about other belief systems saving where those belief systems make statements about the observable universe. If a belief system makes a statement that is illogical then because science is based on logic it would reject that too.

Note that only where things contradict reason or have been shown to be not true is science at odds with alternative belief systems, believing science does not necessarily contradict a belief in any other belief system, religion or otherwise, it would be wise to have another belief system, for example a system of ethics and morals. While I am not religious, I don’t see any point in picking a fight with religion mainly because I see it as a futile ‘war’ on an extremely pervasive and ‘sticky’ ideology.

There is another branch of academic study that has not been discussed and that is the humanities. I know from personal experience that many believe and have believed myself for a time that Science was the greatest thing and anyone doing anything else were ignorant scum, harsh words. Where does this idea come from that makes science think it’s so much better than the arts?

Well a greater mind and speaker covered this concept in his wonderful book, “The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox” by the late Stephen Jay Gould published posthumously, this book looked at the ‘knowledge wars’ since the birth of modern science, he suggested that science, along with others follows the hedgehog in it’s style, having one very good way of doing things, this is good, but it restricts us in our ways of looking at the world so while it is important for scientists to be a hedgehog, humanity should be like the fox, using each different method for each different problem, science has no way of determining morals and so we should use a different method of ‘knowing’ something in order to decide morals.

This idea that we should see the different groups, not at war with each other, but complimenting each other, he called this idea consilience, I would highly recommend reading his book and deciding for yourself I may not have summarised his points as well as I could have. But the point of all this is that science is very good at what it does, the best in fact, but it cannot step beyond it’s bounds we have to find alternatives which are the most practical and useful. Where science cannot tread, we have to use a different vehicle for understanding.