What is science?

The following are reflections based on my years teaching introductory astronomy for non-science majors.  Few of my students take the class out of personal interest.  It fulfills a natural sciences general education requirement and sounds less scary than geology or chemistry.  Thus, the ultimate purpose of the class is to expose students to the scientific enterprise, so I put a lot of thought into the impression of science I’m giving them.  When I speak of “science” below, I will be using the word in its modern rather than its classical sense, according to which biology and sociology are sciences while philosophy and history are not.

Survey course textbooks in the branches of science usually include some discussion of the general nature of science.  Anxious to emphasize science’s quality as a process rather than a fixed body of knowledge, they often hold up the “scientific method” as the essence of science.  This, however, has disadvantages.  For one, actual science rarely follows the model given in these books.  More importantly, the scientific method is itself given no real justification, and the limits of its usefulness are left unclear.  What makes this problem pressing is that students may believe, and textbooks may even state, that the scientific method involves assumptions about the world and excludes a priori certain kinds of explanation, as for instance when scientific explanations are contrasted with assertions of miraculous or animistic spiritual causality.  The impression is given that science is at least methodologically naturalist, that when thinking scientifically we must pretend to be atheists.  This, I emphasize, is not a problem for religion; it’s a problem for science.  To tie oneself from the beginning to very questionable metaphysical assumptions threatens the credibility of the whole enterprise.

The subject matter of science

The alternative is to define science according to its subject matter and to derive the scientific method from that.  In this way, one can also show how certain things can be taken to fall outside the scientific purview without making questionable philosophical assumptions.  The subject matter of science, I would say, is the set of contingent patterns observed in the world.  That is, the key act of scientific intuition is to notice some regularity in the world that didn’t logically have to be there and yet is.  The first example I give my students is the motion of the stars in the night sky.  One can imagine all sorts of ways they might move, but in fact they all make circles around Polaris once per sidereal day.  Having noticed a pattern like this, one then goes on to posit an explanation, a reduction of the imaginable degrees of freedom of the world such that the observed pattern would have to happen.  For the night sky, one might postulate that the stars are all fixed onto a rotating celestial sphere, from which their common motion would follow.  Notice already that science makes no claim to explain everything about the world.  The celestial sphere model does not explain why the sphere’s spin period is what it is or why the stars are distributed about it as they are.  There are no discernible patterns here, so scientifically there is nothing to explain.  The general properties of spheres in Euclidean space also don’t count as science, although scientific explanations make use of them, because these properties are not contingent.  They are necessary, and therefore best studied by a discipline of pure reason, in this case mathematics.

There will often be more than one possible explanation for the observed facts.  For example, one can also explain the motion of the stars by assuming they are far enough away that their peculiar velocities are unobservable but that the Earth is spinning about an axis.  To decide which (if any) proposed explanation is true, one must then find some other set of observables for which the explanations make different predictions and see which (if any) is vindicated.  This is the core of the “scientific method”.  It is the logical way to proceed for the sort of questions science asks.

Does science assume (at least methodologically) that there is no God?

We can now see why God’s existence and actions are not matters of scientific reasoning.  God’s existence is not amenable to the scientific method because it is necessary, not contingent.  Ask a theist what sort of universe would have God as its Creator (thinking to then go do an investigation to see if our universe resembles it), and he will say “any sort of universe”.  An atheist who understands the issue (that if a necessary being is coherent and thus can exist, it must exist) would say “no sort of universe”, that the idea of God is nonsensical.  Either way, the methods used to discern contingent truths are not useful.

When one says that science does not accept miracles, one usually means acts of God that don’t follow general rules.  It is in fact the lack of pattern to miracles–the fact that God does not oblige Himself to perform them every time some set of conditions is satisfied–rather than their divine cause that makes them unfit for scientific study.  If one is an occasionalist and believes that every act is performed directly by God, but that He usually binds Himself to acting in regular ways, then these regularities can be analyzed scientifically like any other patterns.  (In fact, the occasionalist will deny that there are other patterns.)

Scientific reductionism

The general public’s impression of science is tied up with what is thought of as a distinctly scientific worldview.  According to this worldview, intelligibility proceeds from the bottom up.  Wholes are understood by enumerating their parts, rather than understanding parts via their relationship to the whole.  At the basic level are fundamental forces like gravity understood as a sort of insatiable striving, while the settled structures of the world are points of stable equilibrium between opposing forces.  This is an extremely powerful way of viewing the world, with many successes.  It wouldn’t be fair to say that it has been established as true, as if some alternative top-down set of theories had been ruled out by experiment.  It’s more true to say that these are the only type of truly predictive theories we know how to build.  Whether that says something about the world or about us I leave to philosophers.  In my classes, I put a huge emphasis on the ideas of equilibrium and stability, because I do think they capture some aspect of the truth about the physical world.

Of course, the romance of reductionism hasn’t stayed put in the physical sciences.  In the eighteenth century, we see it spreading to economics and politics.  An example would be the classical liberalism of America’s Founders, with its emphasis on checks and balances of power, as opposed to the Platonic-Ciceronian-Augustinian emphasis on ordering the whole toward the highest common good.  Many people feel alienated by an economic or political order that is merely emergent, that fails to address man at his moral center.  Both conservatism and Marxism appeal to this sense, and they are right to deny that society must be understood on a Newtonian model, whatever the structure of the physical world should happen to be.

The practice of science from a humanist perspective

Broadly speaking, one can identify two attitudes toward a discipline of knowledge, which I will call the scientific and the humanist.  Sciences are ordered toward the expansion of a body of knowledge.  Particular intellectual virtues must be imparted to those who would participate in  this process, but the accumulation of knowledge, rather than the habits of mind that foster it, must be the organizing principle.  Humanities, on the other hand, are primarily ordered to the refinement of those who study them.  They are not, and should not be, progressive in the way sciences naturally are.  Thus, philosophy is a humanity in this way of speaking, because, although there is knowledge to be had from philosophy, it is not detachable from the process of its elucidation in the way results of physics and mathematics are.  A person embarking on the study of philosophy may ask a question like “Does free will exist?”, and by the end of his study he may have an answer, but that answer could not have been handed to him before his study, because his understanding of “free will” will have been transformed by philosophizing.  In contrast, anybody can understand what Fermat’s Last Theorem states, although few could follow the proof.

Requiring non-science majors to take a science class means treating science in a humanist way.  I am not being asked to incorporate them into the process of scientific research.  That’s not really feasible for anyone below the upper undergraduate level.  I’m being asked to expose them to a particular way of thinking, to help them develop a scientific “sensibility” in the way that a survey class on literature might be expected to foster an appreciation for literature.

The usual claim is that we teach students a kind of problem solving skill, “scientific” or “quantitative” reasoning, which is one of the many species of the “critical thinking” that universities exist to foster.  Certainly I do force students to follow some pieces of scientific reasoning, mostly having to do with how properties of stars are inferred, to give them the flavor of it.  However, I don’t think it’s realistic to expect a survey class to turn students into scientific problem solvers.  It’s a well known observation that physics majors themselves don’t start thinking like scientists until they get deep into research.

I do hope to stimulate in them, at least a bit, a “scientific sense” of noticing contingent patterns in the world.  Simply noticing a regularity about the world, not taking it for granted but asking why it should be as it is, is a great achievement.  Sometimes the implications of an everyday fact are profound, an example being how we now regard the fact that the sky is dark at night as evidence that the universe is not static and infinitely old.  It’s exhilarating to think that other great clues about the cosmos might still be staring us in the face, waiting for us to notice.  Even if one just shrugs and says “I’m sure there’s some explanation for that”, this sort of noticing is a distinct way of appreciating the world, complimentary to the aesthetic sense fostered by a regular humanities class.

31 thoughts on “What is science?

  1. Pingback: What is science? | Neoreactive

  2. Bonald, thank you for this reflection. However, I wonder about your points in the first paragraph of “The practice of science from a humanist perspective,” where you distinguish the sciences (in the modern sense) from the humanities. Moreover, I question whether philosophy should be listed as one of the humanities. I hope that you will write more about this topic.

    You state the the distinguishing feature between the sciences and the humanities is that the ordering principle of the sciences is the accumulation of knowledge whereas the ordering principle of the humanities is the refinement of the learner. I am not sure what you mean by ordering principle. I am more comfortable in dividing the disciplines between the arts and the sciences like our ancestors did, where one learns the sciences for their own sake and the arts for the sake of something else. Therefore, natural philosophy (the physical sciences in today’s lingo) is a science, whereas applied science and engineering are arts since one learns them to make or to design things or to be used as a tool for the sciences. Of course, the sciences are usually (always?) useful to the arts, but they have value over and above their practicality. Likewise, ontology is a science, while logic is an art (studied for the purpose of making arguments and a tool that the rest of philosophy necessarily employs (excluding postmodern pretenders, of course).

    The “accumulation of knowledge” — that sounds so Comtesque to me — I am leery. “Truth” is less dangerous. By learning more, we conform our mind closer to reality, but that is more than the accumulation of knowledge — it involves structuring knowledge in certain ways. reflecting upon knowledge and seeing connections and patterns. That process forms the mind. By using the “accumulation of knowledge,” we risk going down the “information” path rather than the one of knowledge. So, does the discipline of physics aim at the accumulation of knowledge or at the human understanding of natural phenomena? The latter entails the former, but I don’t think that the reverse necessarily follows if by knowledge we mean information — a collection a facts. And if the real aim of physics is the human understanding of natural phenomena, then it seems that the pursuit of physics both requires and instills a particular refinement of the mind. Such is not the aim of physics, but it happens all the same, just as the advances in astronomy require advances in telescopes (thanks to Terry Morris’ contribution on another thread for this mental connection).

    Then, let’s examine philosophy — the “love of wisdom.” I certainly agree that the practice of philosophy shapes the mind, but the pursuit of philosophy is the pursuit of wisdom — of knowledge taken in the maximum sense. It includes natural philosophy (the physical sciences), which are also oriented to the truth involving a certain class of things. If the object determines the discipline, then philosophy is not one of the humanities because its aim transcends the particularity of human beings. The misologue will say that philosophy examines only human constructs (meaning divorced from reality), but following that same mental trajectory would unravel all disciplines and render every intellectual pursuit merely elaborate navel gazing. And that is what the misologues expressly say.

    A person embarking on the study of philosophy may ask a question like “Does free will exist?”, and by the end of his study he may have an answer, but that answer could not have been handed to him before his study, because his understanding of “free will” will have been transformed by philosophizing. In contrast, anybody can understand what Fermat’s Last Theorem states, although few could follow the proof.

    Is this right? I agree with your characterization of the process of thinking philosophically, but the same is not true of the mind that is able to understand mathematical principles? Learning math conditions the mind in a peculiar way. Forgive me for sounding like a Kraut, but mathematical learning opens the mind to a particular aspect of being. Delving into metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, and the other domains of philosophy does the same. It alters the learner in the process, thereby granting him access to a world of which he was not previously aware. Of course, mathematical reasoning seems far more intuitive and obvious (“anybody can understand what Fermat’s Last Theorem states”), but that does not mean that the study of other objects is a radically different undertaking. Aristotle noted that we cannot expect the same levels of precision or clarity in all disciplines, but that does not mean that knowledge is not to be found. Mathematics is beautifully clear, while human beings, individually and collectively, are complicated and obscure. Yet, anthropology is a worthwhile venture — there is knowledge to be gained of man.

    Anyway, I enjoyed the post and look forward to reading your thoughts.

  3. Pingback: What is science? | Reaction Times

  4. It’s an interesting question as to whether science confines itself to investigating regularities. Take, for example, the Big Bang. It obviously is not a regularity, yet it is usually regarded as within the purview of science, at least to speculate about. The same is true of the origin of life (a one-time event, as far as we are able to observe), the Cambrian explosion, and various other unique events in cosmological and earth’s history.

    Another interesting point concerns various forensic fields of endeavor which do concern personal causes and hence not only regularities. These include archeology and detective work, for example. If they are not strictly speaking science, there certainly are supposed to be better, because rigorous and scientific, ways to carry them out than other ways.

    One could distinguish science from non-science by its subject matter without reference to regularities. This would allow at least the things in my first paragraph (which are already willy-nilly regarded as the purview of science anyway) to be included. How about “The vigorous attempt to discover and make important and true statements about the physical world”?

    • In a truly orderly and coherent universe – the only sort that is amenable to scientific investigation in the first place – can there be such a thing, really, as an irregularity? In that sort of universe, there could be all sorts of *unusual* events, but no event could fail to be completely constrained by the order of that universe.

      • And you see this embedded in the way scientists think. When a scientist sees an anomaly (verified as such, let’s say), he exactly never thinks to himself “Oh well, so much for that law-like regularity crap; so much for science; time to become a cab driver.” Rather, he thinks to himself “Maybe there is a deeper law I don’t know yet.” And he sets about isolating the conditions under which the anomaly is reproducible or otherwise looks for patterns in it.

        Bonald’s main point above, I think, is not to define science. He has smaller fish to fry. Rather, his point is that science, encountering an anomaly, tries to reproduce it. If it cannot, then it is just an anomaly and is therefore outside the subject matter of science (and if those Roman-collared weirdos want to call the anomaly “The Miracle of the Sun,” then, whatever). If it can reproduce it, then it is no longer an anomaly but an as-yet-unexplained pattern which will someday yield to a deeper/better/more complete law-like explanation.

        I think the resolution to Lydia & Alan’s objection is simply to step down to a less grandiose purpose than solving the Demarcation Problem. All Bonald needs to do is to say that the subject matter of science is patterned phenomena—abandon the unusual idea that science is its subject matter. The Big Bang is, of course, outside the subject matter of science and within science. Just as numbers (or computers or paper) are outside the subject matter of accounting and within accounting. Hammers are not within the subject matter of house building and are within house building. A discipline is both its subject matter and its tools.

      • Dr. Bill, this is a helpful distinction. Scientific theories are not themselves the subject of science, but are rather numbered among its instruments. They are rather like units of scientific measurement (which are themselves expressions of scientific theories). Scientific theories are the subject of the philosophy of science.

  5. Hi Lydia,

    This is a good objection, and I worry myself that I may have been too restrictive. The Big Bang, at least, fits my model pretty well, because it exists to explain observed regularities like the Hubble flow and the uniform breakdown of hydrogen and helium. As science keeps postulating more and more universal explanations, it always gets to a point where it has only one instance (meant to explain lower-level regularities), which is not what it really likes. It would help cosmology if we could observe multiple universes, for example. Archeology I know very little about, but I imagine that it too is less interested in dating individual artifacts than in explaining multiple artifacts in some sort of bigger narrative way, such as by postulating some thriving prehistoric society.

    Still, even if all these cases can be fit into my model of science, it certainly takes some explaining, so one might ask why we should bother. Why not just have a very expansive definition of science? One thing that I wanted to draw attention to is this intuition we have that some things in the universe have explanations, and some don’t. “Why is there a Big Dipper?” is not a fruitful question, while “Why are planets round?” is, because we’ve seen lots of planets and they’re all round, so there must be some kind of universal reason. And, sure enough, there is. Maybe that’s too obvious to need such emphasis.

    • The Big Bang, at least, fits my model pretty well, because it exists to explain observed regularities…

      It’s the Big Bang theory (theories?) that exists to explain observed regularities. The Big Bang itself is the singular event that Lydia said it is.

      • Right: Alan is onto my meaning. Postulating an event which is itself *not* an instance of regularities to explain other things that *are* regularities is still not an example of science’s restricting itself to studying regularities. For example, scientists will suggest the conditions of the Big Bang and various facts about its alleged nature and trajectory, etc., but what they are studying there is an event which is itself singular. Moreover, scientists are admittedly curious about what caused the Big Bang, which may very well turn out to be a one-time event.

        Certainly archeology is going to try to look at patterns, but we definitely shouldn’t conflate patterns with regularities, especially when those are patterns of *human* activity. Moreover, they often are interested in drawing conclusions about history (“The city on this site was a military fort”), and it would be completely incorrect to see this as a study of regularities. They may _use_ regularities (pottery patterns and even physical regularities like soil level deposits) to draw their conclusions, but their conclusions are about particulars: What was this city like? Who lived here when? What kind of religious cult was practiced? Etc.

      • > Postulating an event which is itself *not* an instance of regularities to explain other things that *are* regularities is still not an example of science’s restricting itself to studying regularities.

        It certainly is. If the big bang did not predict observable regularities, science would have no handle on it, and it would not be a scientific theory.

        I don’t understand the distinction between “regularities” and “patterns”. “The city on this site was a military fort” is a good example of a reduction of conceivable degrees of freedom to explain a pattern. (“All sorts of artifacts might have been here, but in fact we only see military-related stuff.”) Perhaps part of the problem is that I’m using “pattern” and “regularity” in a very broad sense.

        Anyway, my critics must account for the fact that science is not interested in just any facts about the physical world. Otherwise, recording the shape of each piece of gravel in your driveway would count as “science”, whereas we actually call it “wasting time”. (Now, if each of those rocks had nearly the same size or shape, that would be a different story. Then we’d have a pattern to explain.)

      • It seems you are saying that science does study particulars, but only as instances of general patterns or, as in the Big Bang, as explanations (causes) of observable regularities.

        I recall the Christian philosopher J. P. Moreland reporting that within the academic discipline of the philosophy of science, there is a consensus that, judging by the practices of scientists, there is no single definition of “scientific method.” That is, every definition of science offered by scientists is violated at some point by the enterprise of science. I don’t know if your proposed definition (which makes good sense to me) has been subject to their scrutiny.

        Although your definition of science makes sense to me, I think we have to add that science aims at truth, and so if something non-scientific impinges on the recognized domain of science (such as when studying origins), we have to acknowledge it, even if its incorporation into the formal scientific enterprise may be difficult or even impossible.

      • > It seems you are saying that science does study particulars, but only as instances of general patterns or, as in the Big Bang, as explanations (causes) of observable regularities.

        Yes, thank you for helping me clarify my position.

    • Do you have any opinion on the recent headlines that read “Big Bang Debunked!”?

      Its not really the case, if you look at the actual research, but it apparently posits a theory where the universe could be past-infinite. I am not an expert in cosmology, so I am not sure as to the veracity of this model. My guess is that it gets quietly retracted in a few months.

      • As I define it, there being a beginning of time isn’t a requirement for there having been a big bang, only that the universe was once much hotter and denser than it now is.

      • The cosmological argument is not about a temporal first mover, but a first mover in the chain of causality where causes can be simultaneous to their effects.

  6. “Profane science, in seeking to pierce to its depths the mysteries of the things that contain – space, time, matter, energy – forgets the mystery of the things that are contained: it tries to explain the quintessential properties of our bodies and intimate functioning of our souls, but it does not know what intelligence and existence are; consequently, seeing what its “principles” are, it cannot be otherwise than ignorant of what man is.”

    – Schuon

  7. I believe that I suggested a definition of science as concerned with discovering *important* truths about the physical world. This would seem to rule out science’s being concerned with the causes of the random patterns on pieces of gravel. It would, however, avoid a possible confusion in which science rules out intelligent causation or one-time causal events because those would not be instances of a regularity.

    Let’s be honest: The idea that science concerns itself with regularities is often used to argue that, if we think that the first cell was made by an intelligent agent, we must be postulating a “non-scientific” explanation.

    Now, on Bonald’s further explanation of his criterion that science studies regularities this wouldn’t necessarily be the case, since the intelligent cause would be the _explanation_ of the subsequent regularity (e.g., of the later existence of self-reproducing cells), just as the Big Bang, even though not itself an instance of a regularity, is studied as the _explanation_ of later regularities that we find.

    That’s all well and good, but it isn’t how these kinds of demarcationist principles are typically used, and generally “Such-and-such a discipline studies regularities” is used to rule out extraordinary or undesired causal explanations a priori, which of course skews the discipline by allowing us to consider as possibly _true_ only a certain restrictive class of possible explanations, at least when we are wearing that discipline’s “hat.”

    Hence, abiogenesis theories, even if they are really bad science and make poor explanations, are considered “scientific” because they involve the _assumption_ that life arose naturally from non-life according to the action of underlying chemical and other regularities, whereas intelligent causation as a theory is considered “non-science” because it would involve a non-repeatable event. But as a matter of actual fact, either one might be _true_, and if what we want to know is the _truth_ about how life arose, considering this to be an important truth, it is a bad idea to rule an entire class of possible explanations out of consideration as “non-scientific.”

    By the way, a similar problem arises, surprisingly enough, in the study of history! Historians will solemnly declare that they cannot discuss miracles “qua historian” because, as historians, they can only discuss what usually happens. This is utter bosh, because Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon isn’t what usually happens! It is a unique event!

    Demarcationist principles are very liable to trip people up like that.

    It would be in my opinion better to talk about rationality and irrationality. The reason that what Richard Feynman called Cargo Cult Science and what Karl Popper called pseudo-science is bad is because it is *irrational*, not because it fails to meet an artificially constructed and narrow definition of science.

    But of course in saying all of this I am taking sides in a long-running dispute in the Philosophy of Science.

    • Hi Lydia,

      Thank you for providing this context. I wasn’t even thinking of origin-of-life arguments, having never paid them much attention. The opposing position I most had in mind was that by using or doing science I must implicitly be casting my lot with those who say that miracles don’t happen. Now that you bring it up, I do see how my demarcation of science might be open to this sort of abuse. Although actually I do think that any one-off cause of the origin of life would be something very difficult to study scientifically. I hope that it is not true, that we find life on lots of planets and can identify a reproducible mechanism. If life really is fantastically improbable, mainstream scientists will drift into anthropic arguments, which are arguably less scientific than intelligent design. I wouldn’t want biology to sink to the level of high-energy physics!

  8. God creates life and He created the universe, just as He said in Genesis, all scientific “evidence” to the contrary.
    Let God be true and every man a liar.
    Scientific inquiry is performed by man whose heart is desperately wicked and hostile to God.
    His reason is corrupt; where his conclusions conflict with God’s own Word, they are to be rejected; they are to be understood as reflections of man’s assertion of his own “superior” intellect over the mind of God himself. I would say that if they have faith in God, their God is too small, so small, indeed, that God could not possibly do all which He has told us in the Bible he has done.
    Reason — and scientific inquiry — must be subordinated to faith, to God, not faith to reason.

    Me thinks there is way too much stock given to intellectual brilliance, and too little given to humble belief in God’s true Word.

      • You are most welcome, Debra. View From the Right, the late Lawrence Auster’s blog, is a treasure trove, with not just Mr. Auster’s erudition and incisive mind, but also a host of stellar commenters, including both Kristor and Alan Roebuck, now of Orthosphere fame. I refer to it frequently.

      • Well, Wm. Lewis, I blush in embarrassment for having permitted you to assume that the writings of Lawrence Auster were new to me. (I am replying here to your comment posted at 4:04am on Feb. 15, since there is no reply prompt there.)

        I must tell you that I am well acquainted with Mr. Auster’s body of work and was myself among those commenters to whom you referred, which you may — if interested — see for yourself using VFR’s google search; but do note that at VFR Mr. Auster supplied the initial of my last name, “C,” while here I use my middle initial, “S.”

        Indeed, I had met Lawrence at the last of his Christmas dinners, in New York, on December 8, 2012, a high honor and unforgettable evening for me.

        I did not intend to give you the impression that I knew nothing of him or of his incalculable contribution to our civilizational fight; I only meant to say that the particular reference you cited provided much on which I could chew. And I have yet to start the meal, as it is; but I have it bookmarked. And again, I thank you for the reference. My own bookmarked files under the heading, “the Best of Auster,” is rather daunting!

        I kind of think that many of us here at Orthosphere are missing our Mr. Auster.

        I am very well-acquainted with Mr. Roebuck’s and also Kristor’s contributions to VFR. In one of my first notes, snail mail, to Lawrence, I mentioned my admiration for the high caliber of thought that his commenters exhibited; and yes, I cited Kristor!!

      • Ah. Well, I’m glad that you are familiar with Auster’s works. I, too, had the privilege of having my comments posted (under a different name), and individual e-mail dialogues with him. I wish I had had the opportunity to meet him. He is sorely missed.

  9. I always thought of science as studying things that have mechanistic causation. If it doesn’t find mechanistic causation, then science per se falls silent. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other forms of explanation to be had.

    • Of course, there is a distinction to be made between things that could have a mechanistic cause, but one which we just haven’t found yet, and things that cannot, even in principle, have a mechanistic cause.

  10. Pingback: This Week in Reaction (2015/02/13) | The Reactivity Place

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