What is Science?

Researcher-test dsLast week I started a series of posts on a new book by Gerald Rau Mapping the Origins Debate: Six Models of the Beginning of Everything. The first chapter lays the groundwork for his exploration of the origins debate. In this chapter Rau looks first at philosophy and worldview and the way these can shape the debate over origins and then turns to the question of science. Although we all use the term science, it is not clear that we all understand the term, or have the same definition for it. Thus it is a hard term to get a handle on.

Rau first defines science at its root as the quest to understand the natural world. There are, he suggests, many different types of science – and he lists examples such as theoretical, experimental, observational, and historical.

Although the methods of these “types” of science do vary somewhat (although they also blur together in the answer to any given question) is there really any fundamental distinction?

Rau gives the following definitions (see the glossary in the book):

Empirical evidence is anything that can be observed using our five senses, with or without assistance.

Experimental science – Study of a repeatable phenomenon by manipulating a variable to determine its effect, while holding other conditions constant; includes prototypical laboratory science, but is also used in field settings.

Observational science – Study of naturally occurring situations, often used for phenomena where manipulation of conditions is not feasible. In the text he gives examples such as investigations of stars, earthquakes, and disease spread.

Historical science – study of unique phenomena that are historically contingent, based on empirical traces of modeling; includes ancient history such as paleontology and recent history such as forensics. In the text he gives examples of ice ages and origins.

Theoretical science – Study of phenomena that have not yet been observed but can be predicted based on mathematical modeling; includes many subfields within physics and cosmology. These predictions can be tested by one of the three above empirical approaches.

Rau then goes on to look at logical inferences and necessary presuppositions. Deductive and inductive inferences draw conclusions from the empirical data. “Deduction typically involves reasoning from the general to the specific, from a model to the expected data, while induction typically involves reasoning from the specific cases to general conclusions, or from actual data to an inferred model (Gauch, 2003 157-59)” (Rau p. 24-25)

Rau also mentions abductive inference, sometimes called inference to the best explanation. This, he notes, is almost always involved in any decision, but is not quantifiable the way deduction and induction are.

There are always necessary presuppositions as well – at very least the belief that the physical world is real and that we can trust our senses. He suggests that beyond this there are local presuppositions related to the particular field of study. Given this (and it can, of course, be disputed) the necessary presuppositions are independent of philosophical perspective.

It must be emphasized here that the objectivity of science, its independence from particular worldviews, may be true of science as a whole, but is not when it comes to individual scientists. Certainly in the area of origins, which deals with what Gauch calls “deep answers,” objectivity of individual scientists is not possible. It is widely accepted that the data “underdetermine” the theory, that is, there are any number of theories that could explain any particular set of data. Each scientist is working from the perspective of one particular theory, which affects both data collection and interpretation. It is also likely that objectivity and consensus will be easier to obtain in the experimental sciences than in the historical sciences, particularly those like origins, that are closely connected with our philosophical commitments. (p. 26)

A few thoughts. There are a number of aspects of this that are worth a little discussion.

I agree that science is, at its root, the quest to understand the natural world.

It is certainly based on the assumption that the physical world is real, that we can trust our senses (when properly understood), and that natural world is explicable rather than capricious. Randomness, I should note, is not necessarily capricious – rather randomness can be explicable and part of explanation.

I don’t think it is particularly useful to refer to experimental, observational, and theoretical approaches as different sciences (although I realize that this term is often used this way). To say that “something” is an experimental science (or an observational science or a theoretical science) is really only saying that this something falls within a particular methodological part of this overall quest to understand the natural world. I am an experimentalist. We do experiments in the lab. But these experiments are worthless without theory (whether we completely understand the theory yet or not). We must combine theory and experiment. Our experiments (combined with theory) may help make sense of observations in astronomy or climatology or biology.

Experimental and observational “sciences” are methods to collect data. Science (as I think about it) is the quest to make sense of this data. “Theories” make sense of the data. Theories are based on the minimum possible number of assumptions, from which everything else follows. Ultimately the laws of physics – which are not reductionist.

In my opinion historical science should not be a separate category. Historical “science” is really only observation – from which a story can be told because of the understanding that comes from theory and experiment. While it is true that different histories may be possible because the data underdetermine the system, these histories must be consistent with the constraints of theory, observation, and experiment. Ultimately we wish to narrow down to the actual history of our world, of course, but the fact that this may not be possible doesn’t mean that anything goes.

Science is fun because it is a giant puzzle. Because the physical world is real and explicable (necessary presuppositions) there is ultimately a true solution.

How do you understand the term science?

What is science?

What is historical science? Is this a useful designation?

How does our understanding of science help shape the debate about origins?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

If you would like to comment please see What is Science? at Jesus Creed.

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