The other day, Tristan and I were trying to ‘science’ and it became evident that the term has a stack of meanings. Those at the top arguably have the most day-to-day relevance, whereas those at the bottom are arguably more fundamental to the nature of science:
- At the highest level, science consists of the people and institutions generally considered to be undertaking scientific work. This includes today’s physicists, chemists, biologists, and so forth. In an earlier era, it would have included alchemists. It also includes universities, research centres, funding bodies, and the like.
- At the next level, science consists of a collection of theories that explain aspects of the world. Contemporary examples include special relativity, quantum mechanics, and the germ theory of disease. Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions is an enlightening text largely about how these emerge and change.
- At the next level, science is a set of key beliefs. Basically, these are that the universe operates in a manner that is consistent and comprehensible. In addition, it is at least theoretically possible to come to understand its workings through observation – using the mechanism of formulating and evaluating hypotheses.
The first two are very much affected by general trends in society and thought. The third is essentially assumed in the way through which our minds access the world. While we certainly cannot always understand the causal relationships involved (and random chance may always play a role that makes complete solution impossible), our mode of thinking fundamentally requires the assumption that things cause other things according to certain rules and that in the same conditions the same rules hold. We may never be able to track the course a hurricane will follow (or the hallucination a brain will have) on the basis of what atoms were where beforehand and what laws apply to them. Even so, a basic assumption of science is that such things are theoretically knowable, within the limitations created by random chance.
When it comes to the universe as a whole. it is quite possible that the collection of governing laws exceeds the human capacity to understand and/or discover. That becomes especially plausible if we accept the possibility that ours is just one of several universes, or that it is itself embedded in something far more complex.
Previous posts about the philosophy of science: