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Monday, August 7, 2017

What is science? (first version)


Photo source: Wikimedia Commons, Claude Monet, View At Rouelles, Le Havre


(Update: I realize that there are some problems with my definition of science in this post. The revised version of this post can be found at this link: What is science?)


What is science? This is a very hard question. Many philosophers have tried to establish their own criteria to separate science from non-science. The problem with the word 'science' is everyone has their own internal idea of what this word should mean. Here is my definition:


Science is the systematic analysis of reality


This is not a precise definition because the word 'systematic' is subjective. One could even argue that all language and sentence structure is systematic therefore any statement could be considered scientific. Therefore, I believe drawing a strict boundary is impossible between science and knowledge. But I still think it's important to place meaning to the word 'science' because it articulates a particular type of knowledge. The concept of science is a real thing and deserves its own word.


Many people think that science has to do with proven facts. I disagree with this for two reasons. First, the word 'fact' creates too of high of a standard for what science is. I philosophically believe there are no proven facts (except the cogito). For example, you cannot be 100% be sure that the sun will come up tomorrow because there could be a supernova or black swan event. Second, science is more of a process than a finished product. By limiting science to only facts, a person in lab testing unproven theories is not doing science. Instead, we should think of science as trying to paint a detailed picture of reality.


Where does astrology fit into my definition? Astrology does not qualify as science because it is incompatible with much of the existing evidence we already know about reality. As long as an endeavor is oriented toward explaining reality in a systematic manner, I believe it qualifies as a science.


The rest of this post is a collection of definitions of science from philosophers. I agree most with the definitions provided by Paul Feyerabend and Larry Laudan.


Definitions of science from philosophers


Karl Popper (1902-1994)

1. "...statements or systems of statements, in order to be ranked as scientific, must be capable of conflicting with possible, or conceivable observations." (Conjectures and refutations. The growth of scientific knowledge, 1962)


Thomas Kuhn (1902-1996)

2. "...the role in scientific research of what I have since called 'paradigms'. These I take to be universally recognized scientific achievements that for a time provide model problems and solutions for a community of practitioners." (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962)


Paul Feyerabend (1924-1994)

3. "...the separation of science and non-science is not only artificial but also detrimental to the advancement of knowledge. If we want to understand nature, if we want to master our physical surroundings, then we must use all ideas, all methods, and not just a small selection of them." (Against method, 1975)


Larry Laudan (1941-now)

4. "...there is no demarcation line between science and non-science, or between science and pseudo-science, which would win assent from a majority of philosophers. Nor is there one which should win acceptance from philosophers or anyone else." (The Demise of the Demarcation Problem, 1983)


Paul Thagard (1950-now):

5. "A theory of disciplines which purports to be scientific is pseudoscientific if and only if it has been less progressive than alternative theories over a long period of time and faces many unsolved problems; but the community of practitioners makes little attempt to develop the theory towards solutions of the problems, shows no concern for attempts to evaluate the theory in the relation to others and is selective in considering confirmation and disconfirmation." (Quoted in Science Education by John Gilbert)


William Cecil Dampier (1867-1952)

6. "[Science is] ordered knowledge of phenomena and of the relations between them." (Wikipedia)


Marshall Clagett (1916-2005)

7. "[Science is] first the orderly and systematic comprehension, description and/or explanation of natural phenomena and secondly, the mathematical and logical tools necessary for the undertaking." (Wikipedia)


David Pingree (1933-2005)

8. "Science is a systematic explanation of perceived or imaginary phenomena or else is based on such an explanation. Mathematics finds a place in science only as one of the symbolical languages in which scientific explanations may be expressed." (Wikipedia)