Posted by: dacalu | 27 February 2013

Science as Truth Seeking (Beyond Science? II)

This post continues with a theme I began in my last post.  In brief, I suggested that science requires boundary conditions.  In other words, we need to have an idea of what is and is not science – what science can and cannot do – for the term to be at all useful.  I suggested three possibilities.

A) Science uses a specific methodology.

B) Science includes explanations of a specified class of phenomena.

C) Science produces a specified kind of result.

In this post, I discuss C.

Let us try on the idea that science is defined by it’s ends.  A number of ends present themselves, but I think common opinions can be summed up in two categories.

C1) Science is that which produces truth.

C2) Science is that which produces results (predictions, power over the natural world, skill to create).

The first is probably the most common, but also the most easily refuted, so let’s start there.

C1) Science is that which produces truth.

This definition fits well with the ancient definition of scientia (Latin “knowledge”).  It also fits well with the incredible, growing, and seemingly endless benefits of scientific inquiry.  Unfortunately it is logically equivalent to defining truth as that which is produced by science – and nothing else.  Some will be happy with that definition, but let’s unpack it.

What do we do with people reason poorly but, through random means, come to know the truth?  If I throw the dice and interpret the results to mean that Beijing is the capital of China, I have come to truth, but not in good way.  I’m not willing to call that science; nor, I think, would any of my readers.  A magic 8 ball would be just as scientific as the Large Hadron Collider.  That won’t do.

Someone conditioned by Enlightenment thinking, would adjust the definition a little.

C1a) Science is that which produces knowledge, where knowledge is justified true belief.

In this case, we think of science as any type of reason that not only gets you the right outcome – the correct representation of reality – but also gives you cause to be confident it is the right outcome.  Better, no?

Alas, it still presents us with serious difficulties, notably having to do with what does and what does not exist.  Not everyone has the same standards of evidence.  Even within the natural sciences we find differences.  Physicists have a much lower opinion of the ability to reason from correlation to causation than do biologists.  This is a common line of thought among evolutionary biologists who want to “know” things about past events in family tree of organisms.  It is, however, prone to certain types of error.  So how justified does this justification need to be for our definition?

Even worse, we see the problem on the other side.  What if we thought we were justified – we reasoned very carefully using the information available – but decided later that our belief was not true.  Physicists once thought that there was no such thing as a vacuum and space must be filled with particles of ether.  This notion held out in some form or another until special relativity gave us a way to think of light waves that did not require a medium for them to travel in.

Worse still, this definition opens the door for anyone to declare their thoughts true and their reasoning sufficient to give us confidence.  Without some methodological distinction, we will be powerless to stop these people from claiming that they are fully scientific in their reasoning (See my post from 2011 called Knowledge).  I cannot support any definition of science as the pursuit of truth or knowledge.  I’m too invested in the question of what those things are in the first place.  If I want science to help me define knowledge, I cannot define knowledge in terms of science without circularity.  If I want a broader view of knowledge, I will never be happy equating science with it’s pursuit.

C2) Science is that which produces results (predictions, power over the natural world, skill to create).

I think this possibility has much more promise.  Francis Bacon, the father of empiricism (the core philosophy of “modern science”) felt that power was key.  God, he said, gave us science to restore our proper relationship of dominion over creation (see Bacon’s Novum Organon, or commentary in Phil Dowe’s book, Galileo, Darwin, and Hawking).

Power may be the strongest rallying cry of modern pro-science activists.  It works.  It gives us stuff, from indoor plumbing to modern medicine, from iPods to spacecraft.  Personally, I think power is the gold standard in science.  As much as predictions and abstract knowledge are valued, I think any theory that allows you to manipulate the world will be favored (by scientists) over an equivalent one that does not.

This is a good boundary condition for science, but I don’t think anyone will be willing to buy it, at least by itself, at the end of the day.  It suffers many of the same problems as the idea of science as the pursuit of truth.

It’s too inclusive.  Dale Carnegie’s book, How to Win Friends and Influence People has been tremendously useful to me.  I think it gives me and others power to influence our relationships with people around us.  It’s useful.  And yet, I would never call it science.

It’s not inclusive enough.  String theory and cosmology both produce highly limited power within the field of physics, but most people consider them to be sciences.  Similarly, I spent many years looking at questions of evolution in the early development of photosynthesis billions of years ago.  It would be funny if theoretical and “pure” science failed to make the cut.

No, I think we will be forced to say that science has to do with knowledge and power, but that the boundaries, the essential character of science will need to include some other constraints, either having to do with the methodology or the subject matter.



  1. […] means.  I’ve spoken elsewhere about the intricacies of a formal definition (here and here). None of that is necessary for my current argument, however.  For now it is sufficient to divide […]

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