The
Philosophy Hammer
Philosophy, Economics, Politics & Psychology Tested with a Hammer

17: Philosophy of Science:
Conceptions of Science

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

         The activity we call science today was not always called science but the activity does have some common characteristics with activities preformed in other times and places. Throughout the history of the world science has to some degree or another had some or all of the following characteristics: Science is the type of knowledge that deals with the natural world and it is often divided into 2 types 1) empirical, experimental, descriptive and inductive; and 2) rational, abstract, explanatory and deductive.
         We can compare various conceptions of science based on their relative commitments to each of these four dichotomies:
        
         Empirical versus Rational Science
         What is the guiding principle for thought on the science?
         A science that is empirical is guided by practical experience and not theory. An example would be the development of the first airplane: the Wright brothers, who were essentially bicycle manufactures and who had no knowledge of aerodynamics or avionics built the first airplane by trial and error. The problem with empirical research is that experience can be deceptive and therefore certainty cannot exist.
         A science that is rational is guided by doctrine or theory and not experience. An example would be Euclid's Elements. His book, the earliest surviving document on geometry, begins with axioms and through rational application and some definitions arrives at some incontestable results. The problem with rational thought is that it can be totally divorced from reality and therefore meaningless.
        
         Experimental versus Abstract Science
         What is the guiding principle for the verification of results and theory?
         A science that is experimental will be supported or destroyed depending on the accuracy of its predictions. Or, in other words whether it can be falsifiable. Physics is an experimental science because it makes predictions that we can test with experiment and that will either support or destroy the current paradigm of physics. The problem with experimentation is that the tools are often designed to find what they are searching for and therefore the interpretations are forms of circular reasoning.
         A science that is abstract abstracts an interpenetration to makes sense of the phenomenon. Freudian psychoanalysis is a science that seeks to explain everyone's human behavior according to a certain theory. Such sciences are not usually falsifiable. The problem with abstraction is that you can cut out or ignore relevant information that could be used in alternative and perhaps better explanations.
        
         Descriptive versus Explanatory Science
         Does the science describe reality as it works or does science explain reality as it is? Isaac Newton was famous for saying that he did not know what gravity was nor whether it was a real 'thing' but only how it worked. Newtonian science was a descriptive science and viewed explanations as metaphysical or religious notions. Most modern chemists actually believe that there are tiny little things that we cannot see called atoms and molecules that exert immaterial forces at distances on each other. These atoms and molecules are believed to be truly what the world really is. Description claims practical certainty but lacks truth; explanation claims truth but lacks certainty.
        
         Inductive versus Deductive Method
         What is the most important or the most common method for the development of new knowledge? All science use both methods but all sciences have a preference for one.
         Induction: the process of deriving general principles from particular facts. Modern physics seems to me to favor induction more than deduction because it claim the existence of many unobserved particles, substances and processes such as the 'Higgs boson', 'dark matter' and 'quantum entanglement'. All of these seem to be induced from particular experimental findings.
         Deduction: the process of making particular judgments from general principles. Economics is a deductive science because it starts with general principles such as 'all people are rational' and then makes prediction of behavior in different particular situations.
        
         Plato and Aristotle:
         Science is that which gives us certain, necessary and universal knowledge. Geometry and mathematics were the highest knowledge because of their certainty, necessity and universality. All other knowledge was ranked relative to these ideals. Science for them was rational, abstract and explanatory.
        
         The Sophists:
         They believed that all knowledge was uncertain, contingent and particular. This bias extended to natural knowledge or science. Science was for them rational, abstract and descriptive.
        
         Auguste Comte
         Auguste Comte, the founder of Positivism, the leading theory of science until the 1960, declared that science is knowledge of fact which can be verified only empirically. Science is therefore empirical, experimental and explanatory.
        
         William James
         William James claimed that the scientist describes the phenomena in the world but does not explain them; any explanations are metaphysical. Science is empirical, experimental and descriptive.
        
        
         Questions
        
         1. What is your understanding of science?
        
         2. What do you see as the goal or end of science?
        
         3. In order to achieve your ideal vision of science in question 2, which side of each dichotomy is more important? Why?
        
         a. Empirical versus Rational Science
         b. Experimental versus Abstract Science
         c. Descriptive versus Explanatory Science
        
         4. Can science give us anything certain or necessary or universal? Or is scientific knowledge always uncertain, contingent and particular?
        
         5. What is gained and what is lost with your answer to question 4?
        
         6. Could ethics or morality ever be scientific? If so under what combination of dichotomies?
        
         7. Could history or literature ever be scientific? If so how?
        
         8. Hangul, the Korean alphabet is often described as a scientific alphabet, what can this mean?
        


© 2008 - 2017, James Jeff McLaren