Fundamentals of Science

Philosophical Reflections XXX

In past Philosophical Reflections we have looked at basic epistemology (the theory of knowledge) and delved deeper into concept formation and the rules of inductive reasoning. That leads us to science, our most successful product and system of inductive reasoning.

Our basic tool of survival is the mind. This principle is eloquently exemplified by science, our most powerful method for applying the mind to discovering the facts of reality and thereby improving our lives. In a mere few centuries, science has led to an astounding explosion in basic knowledge, from which have followed unprecedented improvements in technology. The result has been a huge and sustainable increase in population, life span, health and quality of life.

Hence we live in a technological society born of science and relying very much on science for its continued functioning and improvement. As philosophy underpins science (and all human activities), a sound philosophy of science is important because science itself is so important to us.

The philosophy of science includes questions such as the nature of science, how reliable it is, and the criteria of valid science. We have touched on elements of the philosophy of science previously, such as science and ethics, and the philosophical implications of quantum mechanics. Now we approach the subject more directly.

What is Science?

Fundamentally, science is concerned with the questions “What is?“, and “Why is it so?” The latter is itself a form of “What is?”, because explanations of the nature of particular existents can only be found in the nature of other existents. For example, the qualities of materials are explained by the qualities of atoms, the qualities of atoms by those of subatomic particles, and so on.

The word “science” has two main usages, referring to both a specific process by which knowledge of the world is acquired and the resulting body of knowledge. These two meanings naturally follow from what science is: a procedure whose purpose is generating knowledge. Philosophy is mainly concerned with the process: the validity of which determines the truth and value of the results. That is, the primary purpose of the philosophy of science is to determine the principles of good science, and it is then science, not philosophy per se, which discovers the detailed facts of reality.

The animating principle of science is truth: the discovery of the nature of reality. All that makes science what it is derives from and serves that principle.

In Philosophical Reflections 2, I wrote that our fundamental Inquiry Method into the nature of reality, stemming from our nature as human beings, is the interactive use of senses, memory, reason and experiment. Fundamentally, science is no more than that, but what makes it science is that it goes far beyond the method’s everyday use. Science improves the senses we are born with (e.g. microscopes and telescopes), adds to them (e.g. radio and x-ray detectors), and demands objective measurements of the best possible precision (from balances to spectroscopes). It records its methodology and results, and demands and invents ever better recording technologies (e.g., computers). It opens the interpretation of its results to the reason of all who care to look. And it devises methods and instruments for experiments of great power and subtlety, far beyond standard capabilities.

Thus science is characterised by a particular emphasis and approach to the Inquiry Method, and by its nature tends toward requiring specialised training and instrumentation. Hence it differs from other uses of induction in degree rather than kind – which is why what are now scientific disciplines, such as physics, began as part of philosophy.

I define science as a systematic, objective method of induction and deduction for discovering the nature of the world, by observing the facts of reality, generating theories to explain those facts, and testing those explanations via reproducible experiments and/or further observations. “Reproducible” means in principle repeatable with the same results by anyone with the requisite skill and equipment.

The Science Toolkit

We will now look more closely at those specific tools of science – data collection, theoretical analysis and experiment.

The most basic part of the pursuit of truth is just looking around: seeing what is. Such data collection is the starting point of all science. Explanations can’t exist without facts to explain, nor can experiments be designed in a knowledge vacuum – but data collection can stand on its own. For example, observing animal behaviour in the wild, or finding and analysing fossils, can provide a body of knowledge even without theory or experiment.

However, truth comprises not merely knowing what is, but why it is: hence explanation not mere description is fundamental to science. Theoretical science is the starting point of explanation, aiming to explain the facts of reality in terms of causation by more fundamental entities and actions. For example, Newton’s theory of universal gravitation explains the falling of objects and the orbits of the planets by a single force of attraction between all matter that has a specific dependence on mass and distance.

But if observation without theory is mere cataloguing of facts, theory without testing is mainly empty guessing. Experiment is the main engine of science. A theory attempts to explain observations A in terms of entities B, so a useful theory will make predictions about other things Bimplies. Experiments can apply the relevant conditions and see if the results match the theory. They can also be used for data collection unrelated to a specific theory, simply by finding out what happens under a variety of conditions.

Controlled Reproduction

Results can happen by chance, effects can have multiple or interacting causes, and errors can be made. Hence the importance in the scientific method of controlled experiments, statistics, precise measurement and reproducibility.

Controlled experiments confirm that the experimental result wouldn’t just happen anyway: a result proves nothing about the conditions applied if it happens even in their absence. For example, to test whether a fertiliser affects the growth of wheat, one needs replicates with the same kind of seeds in the same soil and water etc., some with and some without fertiliser. In cases where the preconceptions of the experimenter or subjects might influence the results, further refinements of controlled experiments are blind and double-blind trials, where the subjects (and in the latter, experimenters) do not know which are the tests and which the controls.

Statistics are especially important with complex or subtle causality. For example, organisms are not identical genetically, which adds uncontrollable variability to biological or human experiments. Proper use of statistics (see Philosophical Reflections 27) allows proving or disproving apparent patterns in the midst of such variability.

Accurate and precise measurement is important for detecting subtle effects or small deviations from theoretical predictions. That a theory is proved approximately correct doesn’t prove it is exactly correct, and that a theory is true does not mean there can be no other influences. The better the measurements, the better we are able to test this and the more complete our knowledge becomes.

Reproducibility is critically important because if a result is real – if the existents involved and the chain of cause and effect have been correctly identified – then it will always happen under the same conditions. Thus, reproducibility guards against sources of error from chance, to errors, to fraud. If an experiment or observation is not reproducible, then we know there are some other cause(s) involved in the original results.

The Paper Trail

Science can be practised alone. However, as in most things produced by human beings, division of labour and exchange to mutual benefit greatly amplify productivity and progress. Thus the exchange of ideas through publication (written and verbal) is a central part of science as a collaborative endeavour.

Publication is important in the pursuit of truth for two reasons. It opens personal findings to the reason of all, thus maximising checking for errors and finding new implications. And it forms a repository of accumulated knowledge, important in its own right and as the foundation upon which further knowledge can be built.

Newton famously wrote that if he saw further than others, it was by standing on the shoulders of giants. While this is overly modest – the giants were there for all, but it took Newton to do the seeing – to a greater or lesser extent, it is how all science progresses. Each scientist’s contributions are enabled by and build upon those that came before, and raise the foundation for those who come later. One person can only do so much, know so much, and blaze a trail so far. Publication makes the process open-ended.

To achieve its purpose, publication requires full disclosure. As noted earlier, reproducibility is critical, and to attempt to replicate someone else’s findings requires knowing exactly what they did, in both thought and action. This includes the questions addressed, the methods used, the results found, and the conclusions drawn. All science must obey the fundamental rule of knowledge, which is to have an unbroken chain of reason and evidence linking any claim to the facts of reality: no amount of authority or prestige can justify arbitrary claims in any field, least of all science.

A Jury of Your Peers

Publication requires a publisher, who needs to decide what to publish, usually in the absence of personal expertise in the field. Hence peer review has become a major force in how science is conducted, not only for publication but also for funding. But unlike the other aspects of science, which are concerned directly with the pursuit of truth, peer review is only indirectly related to truth: the needs of third parties for advice on what is true and worthy of their support.

However, truth is not a matter of vote or popularity, but a matter of what is, in reality. Deciding things by vote, and a limited one at that, can lead to works of genius being held hostage to mediocrity, and originality to orthodoxy. Perhaps if referees ignored orthodoxy and personal preference and judged only by the rules of reason – whether the work was logically consistent, used appropriate methods, and properly addressed any conflicts with existing knowledge – the residual errors would be acceptable, given there is no monopoly on publication. Unfortunately, what little scientific investigation there has been into the value of peer review as practised indicates little if any superiority over random decisions!

Yet, funders do need to spend their money wisely, and publishers do need to maintain the quality of their product.

Regarding funding, the proper function of government is protection of individual rights, not taking and spending other people’s money (Philosophical Reflections 1618). Thus funding of science should be private. Under such a system, money would be spent according to the uncoerced judgement of its owners, and ultimately, the best advisers and those with the best judgement would succeed.

Regarding publishing, the internet provides an opportunity for very cheap supplementary publishing on the web. That opens the possibility of web publishing of rejected papers that meet minimum standards. It also enables publishing referees’ comments (under their names) and authors’ rebuttals, for both accepted and rejected submissions. This would provide maximum information for readers – to judge both the paper, and the referees.

We have now looked at the fundamental nature of science: its animating principle of the truth about the world, and how its particular practices serve that aim. In future articles, we will look at more specialised aspects of the philosophy of science, including incorrect views of science, ethical questions, and the relationship between science and mathematics.

© 2004 Robin Craig: first published in TableAus.