THE SCIENTIFIC APPROACH

This is the dominant approach at the moment. At its best, it combines inductive method (observation and experiment) and deductive method (e.g. theories, mathematical findings) and produces reliable explanations of natural phenomena.

 

SOME COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT SCIENCE

Science is a modern Western invention - there is a widespread belief that science was invented in Europe and did not exist before the 17th century. In fact, science has thrived in various parts of the world (e.g. in the Arabic, Indian and Chinese cultures) since ancient times. The science of the present day is influenced and partly based on their findings. Ancient and Middle Age Europe had science too (although, following St Augustine, the observation was rejected in favour of deduction). What modern science that started in the period of Enlightenment did, was to shift the emphasis to inductive method[1]. Its original aim was to dispose of speculations and place science on firmer foundations. However, over time, only the observation of natural phenomena and experiment have become a legitimate science.

 

Science and technology are the same - although they may contribute to each other, science and technology should not be equated. Science is about increasing human knowledge and understanding, while technology is about producing tools, more often on the basis of trial and error than scientific discoveries[2] (Edison, one of the greatest inventors, for example, was not a scientist). Technology existed before science and thrived even when science was suppressed (for example in Byzantium and occasionally in China). Science and technology have sometimes even been in conflict in the Western world. When the first commercial trains were produced, scientists warned that people could not tolerate travelling faster than 30mph. While the pioneers of air flights were struggling to make the first aircrafts, scientists (and journals such as the ‘Scientific American') stubbornly resisted the possibility that a heavy solid object could fly, and refused to acknowledge the success of the Wright brothers even after many demonstrations. William Preece, one of Britain's most distinguished scientists at that time, declared Edison's attempt to produce the electric bulb ‘a completely idiotic idea' and rejected Bell's telephone. There are many other examples of technology advancing not because of, but despite official science (and there are also examples of scientific discoveries that have much preceded their practical applications or technological devices that would support them). In practice, the difference between science and technology is clear. The patent law, for example, ‘draws a sharp distinction between a discovery, which makes an addition to our knowledge of nature, and an invention, which establishes a new operational principle serving some acknowledged advantage' (Polanyi, 1958, p.177). The latter can be patented; the former is the property of all. In recent times, however, for whatever reasons, identifying science and technology has been encouraged.

 

Science is only compatible with materialist ideology - this is often taken for granted by many scientists and non-scientists alike. Yet a materialistic position is not innate to science. Science was linked to materialism in the 19th century Europe to secure the supremacy of a particular method[3]. Many of science's greatest names were not materialists: Copernicus was a priest, and Mendel, the founder of genetics, was a monk; Newton was deeply religious (occasionally using theological arguments in science, such as when he suggested that the world has an atomic structure because it is most conducive to God's purpose). Even Galileo never had a quarrel with God, only with the Church; astrophysicist Lemaître who first proposed the idea of the Big Bang in the 1920s, was also a priest. The inventor of the laser and Nobel prize laureate for physics, Chares Townes, had spiritual inclinations, as well as Faraday, Joule, Kelvin, Maxwell, Tesla and even Einstein. Science neither has proved nor can prove that reality is only material. There is nothing intrinsic to science that would preclude the possibility of non-material aspects of reality, although studying such phenomena would possibly require a different method. In fact, some branches of science (e.g. quantum physics) have already moved away from assuming that matter and the laws that govern it make the basic fabric of the universe.

 

Science is about collecting data, classifying and describing observable phenomena - this is only one form of science. An attempt in the 19th century to reduce science to such endeavours did not succeed. In fact, there are three distinct aspects of science: theoretical insights based on rational principles and using methods such as mathematics, geometry and logic; empirical research based on observation and experiments; and the interpretation of data. These three aspects do not always go together. Some landmark theories were even based on incorrect data (e.g. Galileo's work, or the theory or relativity in relation to the Michelson-Morley experiment of 1887[4]). Einstein famously said that ‘it is theory that teaches us what observations are and what they mean' (Honderich, 1995, p.807).

 

Science is fully objective - scientifically ‘objective' means that a number of experts agree about the likelihood of certain claims. So, the objectivity of science is valid only within an already accepted framework (that itself cannot be objectively justified[5]). For example, what sort of experiments are carried out, what is looked for in an experiment, how the data is interpreted and so on, depend on the experimenters' pre-assumptions. Moreover, as historians and sociologists point out, ‘scientists often depend on patronage and choose their problems and their methods accordingly' (Honderich, 1995, p.808). Even if this is put aside, an ambiguity remains: how do scientists know that an experiment has been done in the right way if they do not know the right outcome? Relying on stringent procedures may not be enough. For instance, experiments on gravitational radiation suppose to establish whether these tiny fluctuations exist or not, but there are so many factors that can effect such experiments that any conclusion can be questioned. Although science strives to be objective, in many cases scientific certainties are not so much the result of experimental method, but rather the way often ambiguous results are interpreted. Perhaps not surprisingly, scientists tend to dismiss measurements or outcomes that do not fit with the established theories. The famous physicist Robert Oppenheimer allegedly commented: ‘We can't find anything wrong with it, so we will just have to ignore it'.

 

Scientific knowledge is proven knowledge - science heavily relies on and is biased in favour of inductive method (observation and experimentation). However, in the 18th century, the philosopher Hume pointed out that inductive method, though attractive and useful, was logically invalid. It is not only that the predictions one can make on the basis of induction are not fully reliable, but also that they are not even the only predictions consistent with the accumulated evidence. This is not to say that induction is not valuable, but that relying on this method alone is not sufficient. In an attempt to get around this problem, the philosopher of science Karl Popper argued that science is not about proving that a conjecture is true, but proving that it is false. This is called falsificationism. Science progresses by attempting to falsify theories rather than by proving them to be true.

 

Science provides a coherent, unified perspective - no branch of science provides a complete picture of its field. There are still many fundamental questions that remain unanswered (how the physical forces relate to each other, the origin of the universe and life, how proteins unfold and how an embryo is formed, what is consciousness and how it relates to the brain etc.). Some accepted theories are not even mutually compatible (e.g. the theory of relativity and quantum physics). Even within the same field certain phenomena are interpreted in contradictory ways (light, for instance, is sometimes considered a wave and sometimes a particle, although their properties are irreconcilable). Scientists among themselves often disagree, as the existence of many competing theories shows. In fact, according to the philosopher of science David Chalmers, there is no single category ‘science' (1980, p.166). Attempts to apply the same method to every branch of human knowledge have failed to produce the desired results.

 

The scientific worldview is timeless - despite the tendency to present scientific results and theories as timeless, they are in fact not. In the 1960s Thomas Kuhn famously proposed that science evolves through paradigm shifts - one dominant view is replaced with another, and this process does not depend only on scientific discoveries. An obvious example is a shift from the Maxwellian Electromagnetic view to the Einsteinian relativistic view, but there are many other albeit less grand cases in every branch of science. The concept of paradigm shifts in its original form may be open to some criticisms, but the validity of its basic tenet is hard to dispute. 

  • [1]. An inductive argument involves a generalisation based on a number of specific observations. A deductive argument, on the other hand, begins with particular premises, and then moves logically to a conclusion which follows from those premises. Therefore, deduction is more theoretical.
  • [2]. The following observation may be illuminating in this respect: ‘... up to [the mid nineteenth century] natural science had made no major contribution to technology. The industrial revolution had been achieved without scientific aid. Except for the Morse telegraph, the great London Exhibition of 1851 contained no important industrial devices or products based on the scientific progress of the previous fifty years. The appreciation of science was still almost free from utilitarian motives' (Polanyi, 1958, p.182).
  • [3]. The claim that all reality is physical was explicitly expressed even later, in 1963 by philosopher J. J. Smart, who stated that ‘there is nothing in the world over and above those entities which are postulated by physics' (1963, p.651).
  • [4]. According to Einstein's own account, the Michelson-Morley experiment had, in fact, a negligible effect on forming his theory. The philosopher of science, Polanyi, claims that ‘its findings were, on the basis of pure speculation, rationally intuited by Einstein before he had ever heard about it' (1958, p.10).
  • [5]. The following statement is still relevant: ‘Ernest Nagel writes that we do not know whether the premises assumed in the explanation of the sciences are true; and that were the requirement that these premises must be known to be true adopted, most of the widely accepted explanations in current science would have to be rejected as unsatisfactory. In effect, Nagel implies that we must save our belief in the truth of scientific explanations by refraining from asking what they are based upon. Scientific truth is defined, then, as that which scientists affirm and believe to be true' (Polanyi, 1969, p.73).