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What is science? Part II: How do you know?

October 21, 2012 Leave a comment

This week I finally return to a task I set myself on my second blog post, to try to give a set of posts which cover the possible answers to the question “What is Science?”. This week I will attempt to blunder through my understanding of the differences between a scientific viewpoint, a religious viewpoint and philosophical viewpoints (plural because philosophy isn’t a single thing).

So, how do you know? How do you know anything? That is a complex question. How do we know some things? Some things such as our names and categories are simply identifiers we use, this blog is UrsusCetacea, but that isn’t necessarily *what* this blog is, it’s really an amorphous cloud of my thoughts ranted out of my fingertips onto the internet but it could just as easily be called “THE GREATEST BLOG EVER” but that would neither make the statement “The greatest blog ever is the greatest blog ever” true, nor would it make this blog any different besides the name at the top.

Bear whale (Ursus cetacea): The story of a bear swimming along capturing insects in it’s mouth inspired Charles Darwin to suggest (incorrectly) the origin of whales as a bear taking this strange behaviour to extremes. Source.

But there are things which we assume to be universally true, that are true regardless of what happens. I subtly and totally on purpose described one earlier, that my blog is an amorphous cloud et.c. et.c., it doesn’t really matter what I called this blog, it would still be what it is. Other things are also universally true, if I drop an apple it will fall towards the centre of the Earth (Unless I’m REALLY far away or going fast enough).

Still other things aren’t easily set into True and False categories, they may be simple explanations of True/False events, such as the answer to the question “Why does the apple fall towards the Earth’s centre?” we say the answer is because gravity pulls Earth and the apple together but the apple has a lot less inertia so it goes further towards the Earth than the Earth does towards the apple. How do we distinguish the difference between the gravitational explanation and, say, “The Flying Spaghetti Monster pushes objects back down onto the Earth“?


Intelligent Falling: The idea here is that the FSM pushes down on people keeping them attached to the Earth instead of floating away. Source.

What is the difference between such hypotheses (Quick note: A hypothesis is an expectation of what will happen in an experiment, a theory is a set of explanations, hypotheses and facts which fit together to provide a comprehensive understanding of the process described, such as Germ Theory, Atomic Theory, Theory of Evolution, Genetic Theory, Big Bang Theory, Theory of Gravity, Theory of Electromagnetism, et.c., et.c, all of these have the same level of strength, doubt one and you doubt them all.)? The difference is what makes science and what doesn’t. The scientific explanations quite simply may be tested by the scientific method and are abandoned if the method disproves the hypothesis.

Theories, hypotheses and facts: all neatly joined together, if only life was this easy. Source: me.

An important thing to consider here is that I have not mentioned when a hypothesis is accepted, nor when a theory is. This is because it’s unique for each hypothesis and theory. It’s also different for different sciences, for instance, in biomedical science it’s much more strict than any other biology, because human lives are at stake. As a general rule of thumb, when there’s a large body of testing and none of it has yet disproved the theory and/or hypothesis, then it is accepted to be true.

 

The scientific method according to UrsusCetacea: I had to draw this myself but it shows essentially how scientists fact check and develop our growing scientific knowledge.

Now, let us return to our example with the FSM vs gravity and take a look at what the scientific method can tell us about the two hypotheses. So, gravity predicts with great precision (through it’s use of mathematics) exactly what forces will act and the results will be under almost any circumstance. FSM intelligent falling makes no predictions (it’s not meant to, it’s not a scientific explanation). Ergo, gravity is a scientific hypothesis, FSM intelligent falling is a religious idea.

The fact remains that some things are beyond science, how should you behave in society? Is it morally acceptable to hurt another human? Another animal? Why does the universe exist? Why is the universe the way that it is? As yet, science has no way of answering these questions. Some may never be answered. I doubt there would ever be a way that we could determine morals from scientific truth, the old saying “You can’t deduce an ought from an is.”

These areas are were philosophy and religion develop their ‘ways of knowing’ as separate from the scientific ‘way of knowing’. Pre-emptive note to philosophers: Sorry I don’t do your subject proper justice, please comment with corrections/criticisms. So how do philosophers determine what truth is? Fundamentally, philosophical truth is based on reason. Does the internal logic of the statement work? Do the premises hold true under all cases? Do the premises actually support the conclusions? The reasoning is the path to truth and is how statements of truth are assessed.

How do religious leaders find truth? I would say that the religious truth is easier to describe, as religion gives it a word: Revelation. The divine gift of knowledge. The idea being that a supernatural being, a god say, implants the knowledge directly into a person’s mind. This sort of truth is difficult for a sceptical person, one who doesn’t believe in the supernatural being, to accept. Likewise, should a sceptic question the revelation, it would be impossible for the religious person to understand how the sceptic could doubt the revelation.

The difficulty of verifying the source combined with the fact that it isn’t based on reason but rather divine mandate dictating truth makes it difficult to trust without you being the individual who receives the revelation or it being revealed to someone who you would trust the authority of but the truth will not be a universal one that works for everyone.

To conclude, science is but one way of knowing and it is dependent on your own reasoning and beliefs to determine the truth of other ways of knowing. The fact that scientific knowledge is based on evidence however makes it unequivocal, it does no good to argue against what happens, nor does it make sense to argue against a reasonable explanation that has been shown to work. I don’t believe in any god, but I understand that people look for meaning where they will, if someone would choose to seek morals through a religion, that’s their choice. I myself would rather determine the moral action through my own thought and conversation with others. All I can hope is that I don’t come off too preachy in this post.

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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.