Posted by: dacalu | 3 March 2013

Science Explains the Natural World (Beyond Science? III)

This post continues with a theme I began in “Beyond Science?.”  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 the last post I ruled out C, at leas as the primary definition of science.  In this post, I discuss B.

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

This has been another popular tactic in defining science, usually some idea that science deals with explanations of the natural world or the physical world.  For example, many state school boards have this phrase when describing science:  “Science investigates the natural world through the use of observation, experimentation, and logical argument.” Note that there’s a subject matter restriction (B), but also a methodological restriction (A).  Kansas, on the other hand, switched a few year back to this: “Science seeks natural explanations through the use of observation, experimentation, and logical argument.”  There the restriction is only on the type of explanation (A) not the type of the subject matter (B).

Let us assume for a moment that science deals with material entities.

We have to ask ourselves if material explanations of immaterial entities would qualify as science.  For instance, what about controlled studies looking for ESP or life after death.  Both of these have been attempted and there is some debate about whether they should be counted as science.  Are they looking for something that cannot be found?  Is it possible to search intelligently for something that you may never find?

On the other hand, consider immaterial explanations for material phenomena – angels pushing planets or intelligent design.  Here the methodology has changed radically, but the subject matter has stayed the same.  Are they making illicit scientific moves or just trying to expand the range of science?

For me, materialism (of some stripe) is a core element of science, so I ask myself whether I apply that as a restriction on subject matter or methodology.  These examples convince me that it’s methodology.  You may have different ideas about science, but I think you can approach the question in the same way, no matter what the requirement is.  Ask, “am I limiting what I talk about, or how I’m able to talk about it?”  My experience has been that most of the time, I want to limit the way we talk about things – the methodology (A) of science.

I suppose this means that I think God can be approached scientifically (he said, surprising himself).  It does not mean I think this avenue will be productive, but I’m open to trying.  This will become a matter of methodology and specific context.  It turns out economics can be tremendously useful in studying the social behavior of insects.  On the other hand, I’ve seen people try to apply quantum mechanics and evolution (by natural selection) to just about everything.  They almost never succeed.

St. Paul might say all things are permissible, but not all things are desirable.  Just because it’s valid science, doesn’t mean it’s fruitful science.  Nor do previous failures dictate future failures.  I’m glad we kept trying to isolate bacteria.  I’m glad we tried physical explanations of planets and physical explanations of disease.  Science continues to find new things, so I’d be terribly uncomfortable mapping out knowledge and saying – “here lie dragons” – science cannot know this.

At the same time, our methodology may limit what we see, not because we are unwilling to look, but because our focus is off.  One might consider the question of smells on television.  Television provides useful information, but it has not been designed to transmit smell.  Or we could use the popular metaphor of fishing with a net.  The net has 10in gaps between the ropes.  Just because you don’t catch any 9in fish does not mean they don’t exist.  It doesn’t even mean that nets cannot catch small fish.  It just means that this particular net cannot tell you anything about small fish.

So, the question becomes, when we speak of science not knowing something, is it because it cannot be known by science because we have declared it off limits (B) or because we have set up science in such a way that it doesn’t do that kind of work?  And, more importantly, how much would we have to adjust our methodology to make it work?

As with C, I think we must say the B – defining science by it’s subject matter – will not do, at least not alone.  I think we must return to methodology, no matter how provisional and contextual it is.  The effects and subject matter may fall out as a result of our methods – often they do – but I’m unwilling to draw those lines before we try.  Nor do I think that any of the definitions I’ve mentioned so far match up with the common conception of scientists.



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