What is Science?

A BASELINE DEFINITION


The word "science" means "knowledge." It comes from the Latin word, "scire," "to know." The baseline definition of "science," then, is human knowledge.


The story, of course, is not so simple. While we go around using the term "science" and "knowledge" as if we were naming something for certain, in reality these two terms refer to concepts that are difficult if not impossible to define. Both of the terms have a long and varied history in Western culture, and it is almost impossible to find equivalent terms in other cultures. Whenever you find the word "science" or "knowledge' in a translation from another language, you're almost certainly dealing with a concept considerably different than our concepts of "science" or "knowledge."


In fact, try to come up with your own definition of science. Better yet, try to define the word "knowledge." What constitutes knowledge? Is an opinion knowledge? Is a belief knowledge? What is the difference between a belief and a piece of knowledge? Why is a physics course called a science, that is, a "knowledge," but an literature course isn't. Is there no knowledge in literature?


This is, of course, the problem that Western philosophers have dealt with since the time of the Pre-Socratic philosophers in Greece. In the classical world, knowledge is characterized by a certain level of certainty. Plato classified as knowledge only those things that are true all of the time; any "knowledge" we have that is true only some of the time, he called "opinion." Aristotle, on the other hand, believed that knowledge existed on a continuum. Some things, because they're simple and only have a limited number of causes, are true all of the time. Such things are mathematics and logic. Some things, because they have a number of causes, are true only some of the time. This includes physics, biology, ethics, politics, literary knowledge and so on. He called this latter category, "probable knowledge." This distinction would form the backbone of Western views of knowledge to this very day.


The word became a hotly debated topic again during the European Enlightenment. New methods of inquiry had been invented for understanding the natural world and its processes; these include empiricism and systematic doubt. Empiricism was largely developed by English philosophers and scientist in the seventeenth century. Empirical thought is founded on the idea that all knowledge of the world comes from sensory experience; this sensory experience can be trusted to give us an accurate picture of the world. From sensory experience, we can derive the principles whereby the world works by observing phenomena repeatedly and in controlled circumstances. Empiricism, then, is knowledge that is derived through experience. During the Middle Ages, human experience was not regarded as a valid way of arriving at truth; truth instead was passed on through authorities, particularly the authority of the Old and New Testaments. Sometime, we don't know when, Europeans began to value human experience as a valid measure of the truth. This is in part signalled by Leonardo da Vinci's claim that the human eye contains all the parts of the universe. British empiricism is not simple experience, however; it is controlled experience. Controlled experience is called an experiment (which is formed from the same word that gives us the word "experience"), and the science, or knowledge, that is derived from this controlled experience is called "experimental science."


Systematic doubt was originally theorized by René Descartes in the middle of the seventeenth century. The basic foundation of Descartes systematic doubt is spelled out in The Discourse on Method , one of the most influential books in the modern period. Everything, according to Descartes, should be doubted unless it can be proven to be true under all circumstances. All subsequent knowledge should be based on this true knowledge. When systematic doubt was applied to empirical science, it completed the entire picture of Western, experimental science. Since a controlled experience can produce knowledge, that means that any human being whatsoever should arrive at the same results, same experience, and same knowledge if they control the experience precisely in the same way. Controlled experience allows for that experience to be repeated; if the repetition of the experience leads to the same knowledge, then the original knowledge is confirmed. Experimental science, then, developed into a series of methods to control and limit human sensory experience so that this experience could be repeated by others who, following Cartesian logic, are bound to doubt all knowledge until they can prove it true.


These methods of knowing the world were primarily developed for understanding the natural world. The human world —ethics, politics, literature, and so on— had since the time of Aristotle been regarded as an area that yields only probably knowledge, that is, knowledge that is true only some of the time. In the Enlightenment, the principles whereby the natural world was understood was applied also to the human world. In particular, Enlightenment thinkers applied the following principles to understanding human behavior and phenomena: a.) all human behavior could be understood by observing it; b.) observation of human behavior would reveal the underlying laws of human behavior; c.) these laws are natural laws, that is, human behavior is simply a more complex natural system; d.) nature, and consequently humans, function like machines, that is, the universe is mechanical; e.) therefore, once one understand the underlying principles or laws of human behavior, one can engineer human behavior for the good of humanity.


Much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe were dedicated to turning the human sciences into something approximating natural sciences. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, thinkers such as Hobbes, Spinoza, and John Locke tried to convert ethical and political behavior into a series of natural laws. During the nineteenth centuries, scholars even tried to convert religion into a series of natural laws. Religion, for these thinkers, was a sociological phenomenon; it was a way of organizing society and articulating social values. As sociology, religion could be understood as operating under a limited number of mechanistic principles. Despite these efforts, the human world remained stubbornly impregnable to the level of certainty that was typical of experimental science in the natural sciences. So in the nineteenth century, Europeans began to theorize that human sciences were fundamentallly different from natural sciences. It was Wilhelm Dilthey, at the end of the nineteenth century, that fully spelled out this difference and his distinction is still carried with us today. He argued that natural sciences were based on demonstration and experiment; they yielded more or less certain and reproducible knowledge. The human sciences, however, were based primarily on interpretation, that is, human knowledge of all things human, is a combination of experience and the human imagination operating on that experience. That was why the human sciences were so uncertain. While one could postulate rules for interpretation, there was ample room for each individual to arrive at different conclusions regarding the same experience. Aristotle claimed that human sciences were only "probable" because human action and human phenomena are caused by a multitude of causes; Dilthey argued that the human sciences were only probable because each person trying to explain the phenomena are operating from different perspectives. This is the distinction which separates those disciplines we normally call "science" from other disciplines, such as English or philosophy.




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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 9-15-97