Defining science


in Geek stuff, Science

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:

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan August 21, 2008 at 3:41 pm

“it is quite possible that the collection of governing laws exceeds the human capacity to understand and/or discover.”

The notion that there is a single set of governing laws which our laws approximate is an assumption. In fact, it is a relatively unscientific one, as it goes against empricism (the idea that what basically exists is a set of ideas is a Platonic idealist notion). Modern science prefers to assume what exists is that which is observable. i.e. perception/observation is reality. Why do we think laws endure? Because we observe them enduring, not because we think they are malformed copies of the perfect, undying laws which exist in a form world, or this world but outside of our ability to perceive it.

Milan August 21, 2008 at 3:52 pm

Actual laws of the universe are assumed to be perfect and enduring. Indeed, that may be tautological. If there aren’t perfect and enduring causal relationships that exist in all realms of existence (dimensions, universes, etc), then it cannot be said that the universe operates according to laws.

What we call ‘laws’ are tested phenomenon that operate in certain ways under certain conditions. One reason for which the laws we use to explain the world might never become identical to the ones that actually govern the behaviour of particles, energy, space, and time is that they might involve phenomena and situations so exotic that we could never imagine or understand them. If such things were also too distant to observe, we would forever be left with a set of very good understandings about causal relations in our little nook of the universe (or metaverse) but never achieve the kind of comprehensive understanding ultimately aspired to by physicists.

Milan August 21, 2008 at 3:53 pm

Modern science prefers to assume what exists is that which is observable. i.e. perception/observation is reality.

This is ‘level two’ science, as described above. It assumes that ‘level three’ science is true.

Milan August 21, 2008 at 3:57 pm

The point I am trying to make is approximated by some lyrics from a song you once sent me:

Although for Newton’s findings we to Newton give the glory
Newton never could have found them if they weren’t known a priori.

The relationship between massive bodies was always there for Newton (and later Einstein) to observe and describe mathematically. Science assumes the same to be true of all the physical relationships between entitites in the universe.

Tristan August 22, 2008 at 2:05 am

Citing from the Kant song confirms what I said about your position. You are mistaken to think that science is Kantian – this is exactly what Kuhn’s argument that science is a human activity is a argument against. For Kant, the transcendentals (concepts, he calls them the catagories) by which we grasp reality themselves have an unquestionable reality, as the only philosophical truths we can know. For Kuhn, these transcendentals, or categories, are products of human history – they are contingent. You are assuming some perfect conceptual grasping of the phenomena to be hidden in the phenomena, which we approximate in Science (this is what makes you a Platonist and not a Kantian – Kant believed that the catagories were themselves inherent in the human understanding, not in the world without us).

Milan August 22, 2008 at 10:03 am

I still don’t understand what the alternative view is. My basic assumption is that the universe is governed by consistent laws that are, to some extent, comprehensible by people. Are there people who assert that the universe operates with no underlying order?

Tristan August 22, 2008 at 3:04 pm

The alternative view is to operate without that basic assumption. There are people out there who think you have no business assuming things that can’t be tested. It’s true that you have to assume the truth of some theoretical framework in order to do an experiment, but believing that you have the right answer to an experiment and believing that you have the right theoretical framework is very different. The theoretical framework as such cannot really be tested, because its what makes testing possible. As such, it is not empirically appropriate to “believe” that your theoretical framework is “true”, but rather just acknowledge that its the one that works right now. Arguing that it is “true” will make you look like an idiot as soon as it gets replaced by another framework.

As such, there is no need for a scientist to hold anything at all to be true of the world in itself, in abstraction from our observations.

Milan August 22, 2008 at 3:11 pm

Arguing that a particular theory is “true” might later “make you look like an idiot.” Assuming consistency in the universe seems to be a necessary precondition for theorizing at all.

Presented with data that seems to show a contradiction in our theories, the first step is to check the data, the second is to revise the theories. Accepting that the universe actually doesn’t follow laws would require data that demonstrates contradiction and can never be rectified through refining theories or developing new ones.

Until such data emerges, operating on the assumption that the universe obeys universal laws seems sensible.

As for whether scientists need to hold things to be “true of the world in itself,” it seems largely like the kind of broad philosophical issue that actual scientists never consider. The philosophy of science is really the domain of philosophers, not scientists.

How would you define ‘science?’

. August 22, 2008 at 3:14 pm

Models of scientific inquiry

Pragmatic theory of truth


“Science (from the Latin scientia, meaning “knowledge”) is the effort to discover, and increase human understanding of how the physical world works. Through controlled methods, scientists use observable physical evidence of natural phenomena to collect data, and analyze this information to explain what and how things work. Such methods include experimentation that tries to simulate natural phenomena under controlled conditions and thought experiments. Knowledge in science is gained through research.”

. August 22, 2008 at 3:18 pm
Tristan August 22, 2008 at 5:34 pm

I would define science: “the effort to discover, and increase human understanding of how the physical world works.”

The assumption that the universe has this kind of platonic lawful endurance is part of the theoretical structure by which we inquire into worldly phenomena. Although it may appear more permanent than newtons laws in the history of science, it is ultimately just as much a theoretical assumption, and something which itself can be put in question during a paradigm shift.

What if the physical world does not, in fact, obey laws that endure over time? What if laws come into and go out of being over long periods? For example, what if gravity was waning, but over a very long time scale, and very slightly, would we have necessarily noticed that? It seems unlikely since we assumed that since gravity is a law, it is permanent and enduring. However, it seems to me that if the data started to suggest it, the permanence of the law might be called into question.

Milan August 22, 2008 at 10:10 pm

It is perfectly possible that ‘laws’ like gravity as we understand it change. What is hard to imagine is that the laws that govern the ‘laws’ like gravity could. Space seems invariant when speeds and masses are low. It becomes variable when they are high.

This is part of why I am cautious to bracket ‘universe.’ The universe which we are able to access at present might be a small part of something far more vast. Just as comprehension of relativity and quantum mechanics does not come intuitively to us, comprehension of higher orders of reality might be extremely difficult or impossible.

That being said, I don’t see how you can do any productive science without the assumption of consistency at the deepest level of ‘reality’ – a thing potential far more vast than the ‘universe.’

Tristan August 25, 2008 at 2:46 am

It seems quite easy to do productive science without beliefs about the ultimate basis of reality. Principally, because such questions (about the ultimate basis of reality), never come up in science. Science is concerned with problem solving.

You say, “It is perfectly possible that ‘laws’ like gravity as we understand it change. What is hard to imagine is that the laws that govern the ‘laws’ like gravity could.”

If it’s possible to understand how laws like gravity can change, why isn’t it possible to understand that the laws that govern the change of gravity themselves change – so long as there is some higher set of laws which don’t change. If you can do that, then you can keep levelling up the set of ultimate laws ad infinitum, and avoid the problem of the “in itself” entirely.

tristan August 25, 2008 at 2:49 am

Put otherwise, belief about the unchanging nature of ultimate reality could never become the subject matter of a scientific inquiry – since every scientific inquiry is by its social nature subject to revision and challenge at two levels – the level of data correctness and the level of theory correctness. Neither of these concern the ultimate reality of the theory, as its always tacitly acknowledged that the theory currently in use will probably be replaced, and that that one will be replaced. As such, since scientists have no use for theorizing about ultimate reality, they have no need to claim any properties to its existence.

Milan August 25, 2008 at 4:44 pm

“It seems quite easy to do productive science without beliefs about the ultimate basis of reality.”

Unless there is some consistency on a deep level, our processes of hypothesis construction and testing (a) would not work and (b)m would not be useful.

The fact that they seem to work and be useful suggests that the assumption is correct though, as I said above, it would be possible for observational evidence to draw that into question. For example, if identically operated experiements started to produce different results at different times (for reasons we could never work out), we could begin to question the fundamental consistency of the universe (a characteristic akin to possession of universal laws).

The idea of a ladder of ever-higher-order laws is a disconcerting one. Indeed, it is one of the reasons why an appeal to the limits of human thought and imagination makes sense. We cannot hope to see all the way to the top of the ladder from the bottom rung. What we can hope for is to make some progress, at least until we reach a gap between rungs that is fundamentally too wide for us to cross.

. September 3, 2008 at 12:07 pm

Science is rational; scientists are not

Just a small point. I do not believe scientists are particularly rational people as compared to the normal human. The chart to the left illustrates a “stylized” conception; the numbers are less important than the relations. Because the average scientist has a higher IQ than the average artist I am willing to grant marginally higher rationality to an average scientist. Their ability to decompose and abstract any given conceptual system is greater. That being said, the contrast between the disciplines of art and science are far greater than those of individual artists and scientists. Why?

. May 23, 2009 at 9:49 am

“Science is nothing but trained and organized common sense, differing from the latter only as a veteran may differ from a raw recruit: and its methods differ from those of common sense only as far as the guardsman’s cut and thrust differ from the manner in which a savage wields his club.”

Thomas H. Huxley

Tristan May 23, 2009 at 1:22 pm

“Unless there is some consistency on a deep level, our processes of hypothesis construction and testing (a) would not work and (b)m would not be useful.”

This ignores the fact that the idea of “consistency on a deep level” is an idea in your head, a presupposition which we make for the purpose of profitable calculation. It’s quite clear the world never “is” as stable as we constantly assume it to be, and yet that assumption is useful for us nonetheless. Why would we assume that the unproblematic contradiction between how we speak of things in everyday experience as stable (i.e. I say the coffee cup is solid, but of course it is mostly empty space), would somehow vanish at the m0st fundamental level? Why is it inconsistent to believe that the assertions we make about being “at the most fundamental level” are just as false yet useful as assertions we make about beings in everyday experience? To put it another way, why should we care what beings “really are”, so long as what we assume about them “really works”?

. January 27, 2010 at 11:42 am

“Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.”

Richard Feynman

Milan March 1, 2010 at 1:34 pm

Migrating a conversation about the nature of scientific laws that started on a thread about a largely unrelated book

Another amusing quotation on the laws of thermodynamics:

The law that entropy always increases, holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of Nature. If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell’s equations — then so much the worse for Maxwell’s equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation — well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.

Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World (1927)

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