Phil. 4


What is science?  





Science creates machinery of destruction. It spawns mutants. It spews radiation. It murders in order to dissect. Its apparently objective pose is a cover for callous indifference. Its consequence will be the annihilation of us all. Edward Rothstein said this….

Oops. Wait a minute, a message just arrived, and I need to make an announcement: "Dr. Frankenstein, Please call your office."

OK, where was I? Oh, yes, well, enough of this glowing praise of science. "Science" is the Latin term for knowledge. By "science" we will mean pure empirical science, the kind of science that makes observations and runs experiments trying to make predictions, create explanations and produce theoretical understanding of the physical world. This rules out mathematics and formal logic, and it rules in physics, chemistry, and biology.

At any particular time in history, science has what it claims is a body of knowledge, but actually science is more a way of getting knowledge than it is a body of knowledge.

Creating science is not what doctors, engineers and inventors do. These people apply science, but usually they do not do science in the sense of create science.

Consider engineering. Unlike scientists, the engineers primarily want to improve existing things that have been made by humans, such as tractors and X-ray machines, or they want to improve human beings' abilities to move faster and to communicate more easily with people who are far away.

Scientists often make use of advances in engineering, but they have different primary concerns. Pure science is concerned primarily with understanding, explaining, and predicting. Engineering isn't. Engineering is focused on creating technology and controlling it, on getting machines to function as we want them to in a particular situation. That is how scientists are different from engineers. Inventors and doctors are more like the engineers than like the scientists.

OK, enough with the stereotypes. What about precision? Is precision is important in science? Yes, proposing precise questions and seeking precise answers is one of the keys to successful science. With precision comes sophistication.

Although the scientist's vocabulary is often so technical that the rest of us cannot read a scientific research paper, science is not as distant from common sense as many people imagine. Science isn't the only way to know the world around us. They don't have a "lock" on knowledge. But scientists, like the rest of us, look around the world, try to explain what they observe, and are careful to back up what they say. Science is a slowed-down and more open and accountable image of what we normally do in coming to know about the world around us. Nevertheless, science isn't just common sense. Science is more cautious about what it claims to know, and it often explains the familiar in terms of the unfamiliar, and it often overthrows traditional common sense in favor of new beliefs that can better stand up to testing.

Everybody agrees that science is important, even Edward Rothstein whose sarcastic remarks inspired the first paragraph above about science spawning mutants and spewing radiation. But some people think science is much more important and valuable than others do. According to the distinguished historian of science Herbert Butterfield, the rise of European science in the 17th and 18th centuries

...outshines everything since the rise of Christianity and reduces the Renaissance and Reformation to the rank of mere episodes....It changed the character of men's habitual mental operations even in the conduct of the nonmaterial sciences, while transforming the whole diagram of the physical universe and the very texture of human life itself.

The scientific revolution Butterfield is talking about was noteworthy for promoting the notion that scientific knowledge should be produced by the process that we now call "the scientific method." This new method was very different from the medieval method of attempting to acquire knowledge from careful reading of ancient texts. At its heart, the scientific method is the method of testing hypotheses. The idea is that the true hypotheses will stand up to repeated testing while the false hypotheses eventually will get refuted.

Stamp collecting is a science. Here is why. Stamp collectors are careful; they use tools; they explain; they predict; and they make generalizations. These are marks of good science.

Stamp collectors are careful, like scientists. They measure and use tools such as rulers. They can explain why stamps have perforations and why they aren't cubical. They can predict that most collections will have more three-cent stamps from 1944 than seventy-four cent stamps from 1944. They make generalizations, such as "There are more European stamps than Australian stamps." So that's why stamp collecting is a science.

No, think again. Quit believing everything your professor tells you. Stamp collecting is definitely not a science. It's a hobby. All that reasoning I just performed was making the same kind of error as if I had argued like this:

A woman has two legs, one nose, and breathes air.
Prof. Dowden has two legs, one nose, and breathes air.
So, Prof. Dowden is a woman

More is involved in being a woman, right? Similarly, more is involved in being a science than being careful, using tools, explaining, predicting, and making generalizations. The difficulty is in being more specific about just what else is involved. Many philosophers of science would say that science also requires using the scientific method. In addition, science is an activity that assumes a background of no miracles and no supernatural causes. It is unscientific to say there was a hurricane in the Philippine Islands because God was angry with the people there. Science also continually makes inferences for new predictions. It's not stagnant like astrology and alchemy. And science has theories that are held tentatively and are falsifiable. That means science is opposed to dogma, and it requires science's claims to be true or false depending on what the evidence is. If you have a theory that couldn't be shown to be false no matter what happens, then you are not doing science. Freud's theory of psychoanalysis has that defect.

Back to the syllabus.