The Philosophical Roots of Science

The word “science” comes from the Latin scientia “knowledge,” but in its modern English usage it has come to mean more than that. Also implied is a system or method based on observation. Here is my definition:

Science is an empirically based system for the acquisition, compilation and dissemination of knowledge about the physical Universe.

Inclusion of the word “empirical” denotes observations acquired by the senses. The branch of philosophy dealing with this is known as epistemology. What follows is a description of a particular epistemology, the one that makes the most sense to me:

First, a basic assumption: all objective knowledge, or any thought that carries intelligence, can be put in the form of statements. It can be communicated, or lifted from one individual’s brain, put into words and transmitted to another’s brain orally, or in writing. And this is possible regardless of truth or falsehood, how you got it, or where it came from.

With all objective knowledge or intelligence in the form of statements, we can examine their structural content. We can do some sorting and pigeonholing. The first distinction to be made is between analytic and synthetic statements:

An analytic statement is knowable (either true or false) without reference to the world. You know it in your head (a priori) and no observation is necessary.

Example:   All brothers are male siblings.

We know this statement is true because the definition of brothers is male siblings. It is true by definition. You could take the words “male siblings” out of the statement and plug in “brothers” and the statement would read: all brothers are brothers. We can tell this is true simply from the structure of the statement itself. There is no need to go out and look at brothers. It doesn’t tell you anything about the nature of brothers. Another name for such a statement is a tautology. Some tautologies are quite famous.

Example:   What will be will be.

At first, this sounds like a profound statement, as if it were telling you some basic truth about the nature of reality. In fact, it is true, absolutely true, but its truth comes from the structure of the statement not from some long, hard-earned experience with the world.

The truth (or falsehood) of tautologies and all other analytic statements is necessarily absolute; they are set up by us to be so. They are true by definition but they do not address the nature of reality.

Synthetic statements, on the other hand, do speak of the nature of the world outside your head.

Example:   It is raining.

We don’t automatically know a priori the truth or falsehood of that statement. Its’ truth or falsehood is contingent upon whether, in fact, it is raining and that determination requires a verification process. we must go to the window and look out, or we must listen for the sound of rain on the roof, or we must feel the dampness in the air. In other words, we must gather sense data from the world in order to confirm or deny the statement and only then (posterior) can we determine its truth or falsehood. Moreover, such a determination is not absolute as it is with analytic statements. Sense data is fallible and not every observation necessary for a determination can always be made. If it is night, going to the window and looking out may not help. The sound we thought was rain on the roof might, in fact, just be some dry leaves blowing about, and the dampness in the air may come from the kettle on the stove.

Consequently, the determination of the truth or falsehood of a synthetic statement must always be expressed as a probability. The truth of a synthetic statement may be very highly probable.

Example:   Gravity exists.

But since every possible observation has not been made (and never will be) the existence of gravity must remain very highly probable, but not absolute.

On the other hand, even though the truth or falsehood of synthetic statements cannot be determined absolutely, they do tell you something about the world. They are useful in dealing with reality. Exhibit A lists the characteristics of analytic and synthetic statements and displays them in summary form.

(click on image for larger view)

Since it is very highly probable we human beings exist, and since it is also very highly probable the world, nature, and the universe also are a reality, it is important that we develop a system for determining the relative truth (or falsehood) of synthetic statements, a kind of test of their reliability. In fact, we have done just that and we couldn’t have succeeded in nature to the degree we have if such a process had not become a manifest part of the human experience.

How do we arrive at important synthetic statements in the first place? There is a process labeled induction by enumeration which begins with observations of reality. Initially, this is a random process, but eventually observations start to lump themselves together into categories and frames of reference.

For example, I see an animal. Eventually I see another that looks like the first, and then I see a third and a fourth. These observations become a frame of reference centered on that kind of animal. I give it a label, “cat.” I notice the first four cats all had tails. I see a fifth and a sixth cat. They have tails too. And now I make an inference. Based on my specific observations, I make a generalized statement about cats:

Example:   All cats have tails.

This kind of synthetic statement is called a hypothesis, and the process is induction by enumeration or inductive logic. Inductive logic always moves from the specific to the general and is synthetic in nature. Having made the hypothesis, I now treat it as true. But if I am realistic, I realize its truth is only probable to a degree, and that degree is tied directly to the number of observations I have made (namely six). However, I proceed merrily along as if the hypothesis were true. I make a prediction. I conclude that the next cat I see will have a tail. This is deductive logic. Deductive logic always moves from the general to the specific. I see a seventh cat. It has a tail. This observation confirms my hypothesis and my confidence level rises. I continue on in this manner growing more and more confident until— oh no!— a cat without a tail! Woe is me! But all is not lost. I really do not need to start all over at the beginning. My observations are still good; it’s just my hypothesis that is flawed. It needs a little work. How about this:

Example:   Most cats have tails.

This process of moving from the specific to the general, from the general to the specific and back around again is the cognitive cycle and is the basis for what is known as the Scientific Method. Scientists call hypotheses that are very highly probable facts. But even facts are not held to be absolute. A diagram of the process is shown in Exhibit B.

(click on image for larger view)

We think this way naturally, without making a conscious effort. The Scientific Method is simply an elaborate formalization of the way our heads work automatically. I would go as far as to say any intelligence that gathers knowledge of the Universe empirically (through the use of senses) would necessarily function in the same way.

Exhibit B is a fairly good representation of the cognitive cycle, with one shortcoming. It shows the realm inside your head (the brain) as isolated and separate from the universe outside. When, in fact, you and your brain are in the Universe as well. Thus we are able to make observations of our own mental activity, which may be at the root of consciousness. In fact, a pretty good argument can be made for a “sixth sense” on this basis. My feeling is that if a sixth sense exists, it is one that looks “in” instead of “out” like the other five.

The examples I have used are absurdly simple ones, and I don’t mean to give the impression that the process is always so straightforward. It can become immensely complex, but no matter how many variations on the theme you find, it’s still the same basic process.

Up to this point I haven’t said anything very controversial. I think most philosophers would largely agree with what I’ve stated so far. But there is a big split in philosophy and we are rapidly approaching that point. So, if you will look again at Exhibit A, you will note I have drawn a heavy line between the characteristics of analytic statements and the characteristics of synthetic statements. Philosophers generally lumped together as empiricists say there is no crossing that line. Synthetic statements cannot be knowable a priori, (in your head without reference to the world). Philosophers usually gathered under the general heading of rationalists claim at least one such statement and they may claim more. They go on to claim that starting with such a statement as a given and using pure reason (deductive logic), all of reality can be derived.

Such statements are usually termed metaphysical (beyond physical) or supernatural which conveniently releases them from the constraints Mother Nature places on the rest of us. Probably the classic metaphysical statement of all time is: “God exists.” So much controversy has swirled around just this one metaphysical statement that the various positions have their own labels. There are theists, atheists and agnostics.

A theist is a rationalist who claims a priori knowledge that the statement “God exists” is true. An atheist is also a rationalist, but claims knowledge that the statement is false. All true empiricists are agnostic. They claim knowledge is not possible concerning the truth or falsehood of this statement, or any metaphysical statement, since such statements do not lend themselves to observation and verification by the senses. An agnostic would maintain that such statements are matters of faith, not knowledge.

Agnosticism is really a much broader category than most people realize. For instance, one can have faith that “God exists” is true and still be an agnostic. Or you can believe the statement is false and be an agnostic. Only the claim of knowledge will move you out of the agnostic category one way or the other.

Other metaphysical statements abound and usually concern the existence of things such as souls, spirits, gods of all kinds, large and small, ghosts, poltergeist, goblins, etc. In fact, the field is wide open. You can dream up your own. All you have to do is claim knowledge that they exist, but that they do not lend themselves to sense observation. Talk about free enterprise! This is really an unregulated industry!

The trouble with human beings is we have very active imaginations and, although this can be entertaining and useful when properly channeled, it often runs wild and tempts us to create answers where voids in our knowledge exist. These answers form the dogmas that differ from one religion to the next. They differ because they are not based on common experience of the senses. Whole wars have been fought and unspeakable atrocities committed in the name of these differences. As a species, and as individuals, we need to discipline ourselves to reserve judgment where voids in our knowledge exist. We need to learn to say, “I don’t know” without feeling inadequate. We must be patient.

In conclusion: all objective truths or “facts” are simply matters of high probability and all knowledge about the physical nature of the Universe is of this nature.

“I think that in discussions of physical problems we ought

to begin not from the authority of scriptural passages, but

from sense-experiences and necessary demonstrations…

Galileo Galilei

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Stepping Stones and Stumbling Blocks (Science vs Religion)

To the extent that people think for themselves they will be of differing opinions. These opinions, expressed without fear, form a free market place of ideas. In such a market one may go shopping for an ensemble of thoughts to fit one’s own personality. This is as it should be; collecting a wardrobe of philosophical vestments can be a personal growth experience, and no two shoppers will end up identical.

“Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea never regains its original dimensions”

Oliver Wendell Holmes

When, however, you run across a body of people whose opinions are largely consistent, then you have found people who do not go shopping. These people wear the philosophical uniform of some thoroughgoing creed or orthodoxy. New ideas are not welcomed, and the orthodoxy provides one-size-fits-all answers to most questions. Followers need only don the habit of belief.

This dichotomy is closely congruent to the contrast between science and religion. When two scientists disagree about some aspect of Mother Nature they go back to the physical Universe and make further observations until one theory or the other gains a higher probability of being true. In other words, there is a way of resolving scientific disputes. Once a scientific dispute or question has been settled, it becomes a “stepping stone” for further inquiry, and usually generates a whole set of new questions. Proceeding in this manner since the inception of the scientific revolution, a vast body of knowledge has been produced. Open the class catalog of any major university and look under “Science” to see the extensive scope of current scientific investigation. Scientific theory or “knowledge” is continually being upgraded and expanded by a self-correcting process. In addition, the process is civil in nature; no one is likely to die because of a scientific dispute.

On the other hand when adherents of differing religious attitudes disagree on some metaphysical or supernatural tenant, there is no way of resolving the issue. No data can be collected that will shed light on the problem. Consequently, religions tend to be rigid and very slow to change. Furthermore, the total documented content of major religions is comparatively small so the same ground is plowed over and over again. In the past some religious advocates have become so frustrated with their inability to gain the upper hand for their particular beliefs that they resorted to the uncivil process of simply eliminating those who believe differently. This represents an extreme course of action but, unfortunately, history is replete with examples.

“Men differ daily about things which are subject to sense. Is it likely then they should agree about things invisible?”

Benjamin Franklin

Even so, if religions would only stick to the metaphysical and supernatural then conflict with science would not really be a serious problem. Science, after all, is scrupulously careful about dealing only with the physical Universe. Only data collected via the senses is considered valid for scientific use. Mathematical constructs are sometimes hypothesized, but they don’t gain acceptance until confirmed by observation. Religions, on the other hand, often takes issue with science concerning the nature of physical reality. Typical examples include human origins (anthropology), the validity of evolution (biology), and the age of the Earth (geology). A dispute of this sort is difficult to resolve short of a court order. Such a ruling, however, usually leaves one party or the other unconvinced even though it may settle the matter legally. Court rulings usually favor the scientific point of view because, like science, the rules of legal evidence are, at their most fundamental level, based on perception of the senses. In court, testimony is the most basic form of evidence, and consists of what is said by a competent witness. A witness is deemed competent when, among other things, he has perceived something with his senses that is relevant to the case.

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) is widely acclaimed today as one of the founders of modern science. Yet he was censured by the Inquisition and placed under house arrest for expounding his views on astronomy and physics. Today Galileo is almost a household name, but not many people could tell you the name of the Pope who was responsible for his banishment from Italian society. This is not just an ancient story, similar conflicts are going on today. The only difference is religions, at least in the West, no longer hold the same positions of power as four hundred years ago. Assuming that the human race continues on into the future, what will our descendants four hundred years from now consider to be the major achievements of our times? One likely candidate would seem to be that, for the first time, humanity figured out how to escape Earth’s gravitational field, and not just with a prayer.

R. L. Mason
Mendocino, California

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