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 (posteriori) 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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Searching for Truth

I was raised a Christian of Protestant persuasion. After a number of years of Sunday school my parents sent me to membership classes which I attended faithfully and was confirmed by a concluding communion service as a full-fledged member.

I remember that during the membership classes I was troubled by a reoccurring thought that I couldn’t seem to get out of my head. I would sit there listening to the instructor (the minister’s wife) tell us the “right” way to believe, and I would imagine a similar class taking place on the other side of the world where a Hindu instructor was telling little candidate Hindus the “right” way to believe. I was sure that these two “right” ways were probably different enough that they couldn’t both be “right.” I suppose some people would simply pass off this difficulty by saying that we are right because we are who we are (naturally superior) and they are wrong because they are who they are. Somehow I could never bring myself to use that argument, not even in my own private thoughts.


There are, of course, many “right” ways to believe, and many of them are contradictory or mutually exclusive. When I raised this problem in the membership class I was told “what they believe is right for them, and what we believe is right for us.” This didn’t make me feel much better. It made truth entirely subjective, and it seemed to me that a great word like “truth” deserved better than that. I could understand how a certain amount of cultural relativity must be necessary concerning the laws needed to govern a civilized society, but when it came to defining the ultimate nature of reality I was convinced there could be only one right answer.

None of my fellow students seemed to be bothered by this problem, or if they were, they kept it to themselves. I went ahead and completed the indoctrination to please my parents, but it became clear to me at that time that I would be unable to swallow any predigested orthodoxy in its entirety. I would have to decide for myself those tenets which I would believe and those which I would reject. And where I couldn’t decide, I would just have to reserve judgment for a while. It was going to be a long process. So I became eclectic in my beliefs, picking and choosing as I gained experience and hoped that someday I would be able to see a pattern that would make things easier.

Right from the first I discovered it was not easy to be eclectic. You had to think. Plus, it took some fortitude to say “I don’t know,” when everyone else was buying the canned answer. But after a while, I grew interested in the problem, and actively pursued my own personal research. I noticed that most religions seemed to have two major parts. There was the system of morals and ethics which they advocated as proper behavior, and there were the reasons why. The latter usually included an explanation of the ultimate nature of reality and some incentives, both positive and negative, for proper behavior.

I observed that, on a very basic level, proper behavior was defined in a very similar manner by most of the religions I looked into, but the reasons were quite different. Since there didn’t seem to be much argument about what proper behavior meant, I initially took to carefully examining their various ultimate realities. Here I was confronted with a bewildering cast of supernatural characters playing their roles on various metaphysical stages. I was lost and confused. I was sure there was only one truth concerning the ultimate nature of reality, but which one was it? I remained in a state of suspended judgment for quite some time. There just didn’t seem to be any good way of coming to a decision. I also doubted myself, and was bothered by a nagging sense of guilt. Had I not disobeyed my parents and teachers? What if they were right? If they were, then the Christian God, who was included in my doubts, would surely know and disapprove of my thoughts. But no punishment seemed to be forthcoming. Perhaps I would “catch Hell” in the end.

Eventually, as I obtained a better historical perspective, I thought I detected an evolutionary trend in the concept of supernatural beings. It appeared to me the more primitive a people, the more specific was the spiritual content of their world as they perceived it. And, by contrast, the more advanced a civilization was, the more general was the concept of spiritual beings.

Early or primitive people saw a spiritual presence in almost everything that occupied their environment. There were tree spirits, animal spirits, river spirits, and so on. More advanced cultures such as the classical Greeks and Romans tended to lump things together by categories and put a god in charge of everything relating to that category. There was Neptune for the sea, Mars for war, Diana for the hunt, etc. In both cases the spirits or gods were used to explain actions or circumstances which people could not explain in any other way. As time progressed and people became more sophisticated, they began to realize that most things in nature were interrelated and one phenomenon could often be explained in terms of another. At this point monotheism came into being. If most things were related, you really didn’t need all those gods. One would do nicely.

Some things remained the same, however. The single god was still used to explain things that could not be explained in any other way. “It’s God’s will.” People imagined God as a being who consciously designed, built, and operated the universe, much as humans designed, built, and operated machines. The interrelatedness of nature reminded people of a very complex machine.

Along came the scientific revolution. Humans beings became much more knowledgeable about the nature of things and much better at explaining the world they experienced. Evolution could explain earth’s diversity of life in terms that made the story of creation seem quaint and old fashioned. The concept of God became more abstract. Perhaps God wasn’t a being after all. Maybe people had been designing God in their own image instead of the other way around. Maybe God was something more fundamental that lay at the very root of the existing universe, a basic unknown force of some kind.

“Unknown” is the key word in the last sentence. It struck me that God always began in people’s minds where knowledge left off. As knowledge advanced, God retreated. However, the more we knew, the more we realized we didn’t know. God was not diminished, but simply became more abstract. The retreat was in the sense that God was less immediate to our everyday lives.

This was about the state of my personal thinking on the subject of religion at the time I entered college in 1956. It remained at this status quo for about two years while I struggled through the demanding first half of an engineering curriculum at Oregon State University. Finally, in my junior year, engineering students were allowed to take a few electives. I immediately opted for philosophy and art much to the disgust of my engineering counselor. I took a course entitled An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis taught by Professor Peter Anton. I found that course utterly fascinating, and still count it as the course that influenced me the most during my university career. I hung on Professor Anton’s every carefully chosen word. That was quite a contrast to my engineering courses where staying awake was usually my problem. Strangely enough, I didn’t do well from the standpoint of grades. Totally inept when it came to writing an essay exam, I was used to engineering exams which were problem solving, true or false, multiple choice, etc.

I considered changing my major to philosophy at that point, but I was well into my junior year and in those days it also would have meant a change of universities since Oregon State did not have a full-fledged philosophy department. Eventually, I decided to “stick it out” with engineering, but my heart wasn’t in it and my mind was elsewhere.

What did I learn in Professor Anton’s class? As the course title indicates, it was an introductory course. We got a little syntax, a little semantics, some logic, but my favorite was epistemology, the study of knowledge. As I think back on the subject many years later, I am pleasantly surprised at how much I retained. I am sure Professor Anton would be surprised too since I only got a “C” in the course.

If pressed to do so, Professor Anton classified himself as a “logical empiricist” and as he led us through the distinctions between inductive and deductive logic, a priori and posteriori knowledge, synthetic and analytic statements, I suddenly realized that this was the philosophical underpinning of science and engineering. This was the general theory from which the Scientific Method is derived. How short-sighted of my counselor to try and steer me away from this course! It was the foundation on which their various disciples were built and fundamental to their existence. I was amazed by the irony. It made a huge impression on me. It also made my industrial engineering curriculum a little more bearable because I began to see it was “applied philosophy.”

To this day, I do not understand why the subject of epistemology is not more broadly taught. Especially for students of technical subjects, but really for everyone. I have encountered high powered scientists with doctorate degrees who do not understand in the most fundamental way what they are doing, and I think that is a shame.

How do you know what you know? This, to me, seems like the most fundamental of all philosophical questions. If you can’t pin down the nature and basis of your knowledge then everything else you think you understand is really on a pretty shaky footing. What is the mechanism or procedure by which human beings accumulate knowledge? Are there some things that are beyond knowledge (not knowable) and how do you know that? The name of the field that addresses these questions is epistemology.

I find this a difficult subject to write about. It is not that the subject is elusive, as when writing about art, the distinctions and definitions are fairly clear. The problem is that I started out with the intent of setting down my views in an interesting and readable way, and I can’t see how to deal with this subject in that manner. This probably represents a limitation on my part, but I know from the experience of trying to explain it, that it is not a subject that a lot of people find fascinating. I do, but then I’m  a little. . . On the other hand, I consider the subject to be of critical importance. It is the trusty foundation which has served me well now for many years.

The Philosophical Roots of Science will probably require a little study. At it’s core is what I learned from Professor Anton almost fifty years ago. It has been on the back burner of my mind ever since. Occasionally I have brought it forward, stirred it, tasted it, added a little seasoning, and put it back on low heat to bubble away. But now I think it’s time to serve it up. I hope it’s not overcooked.

R. L. Mason

On the road in Alaska, 1986

Revised 2009

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Monday, March 9th, 2009 Searching for Truth No Comments