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Science & Philosophy

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 "Is Science 'true' because its powerful or 'powerful' because its 'true'

During the second and third year of my college degree we had to carry out a module called the History and Philosophy of Science. This component of the curriculum had a major and profound effect on what I thought Science was and more importantly, how it worked. We learnt about all the usual stuff: Bacon, Descartes, induction, deduction etc. but it was not until we read about Thomas Kuhn's book published in 1962 "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" that I actually sat up and started to take note of what was going on, both inside the lecture room and outside it. Kuhn described the why and how of Science as consisting of a series of stages, (a) paradigm /normal science, (b) anomaly, (c) scientific revolution, (d) mature stage and (e) paradigm /normal science.

 Kuhn says that a paradigm represents a base of existing knowledge whose fundamentals are not questioned but is sufficiently open-ended that normal research can still be carried out. A paradigm defines a scientific community at ease with itself and the paradigm can be thought of as a pyramid of knowledge, methods, ways of thinking in which 'Normal Science' can be carried out. Hence Kuhn says of 'Normal Science' that it "is predicated on the assumption that the scientific community knows what the world is like". This state of affairs continues and is fine until an anomaly (a contra-indication to the dominant scientific theory) occurs or is discovered. Kuhn refers to this state within Science as a "Scientific Revolution" or the beginnings of a paradigm-shift in which the old and new theorists fight to displace each other's theory. For those scientists defending their old position (theory) this is a time of enormous change, doubt and uncertainty, for many it is truly 'earth-shattering'. Eventually, the new science replaces the old science. The new science then becomes 'institutionalised' i.e.it reaches the "Mature Science" stage and eventually attains the status of a theory. When this stage is reached, the focus of research turns inwards within the confines of that particular theory. This new paradigm reigns supreme until yet again, another anomaly challenges the supremacy of the existing paradigm. In this way, Kuhn argues, Science progresses. The 'Normal Science' stage has powerful implications for the shaping, defining and moulding the research agenda for those caught up in its logic.

 The implications for any scientist working in the "Normal Science" phase of Science is that the fundamental assumptions inherent within the theory become quite literally accepted knowledge. The recently acquired theory quickly spreads throughout the scientific community and its fundamentals are taught to students who in turn become fully-fledged researchers or tutors and in turn pass down 'the knowledge' unhesitatingly to their students. The point I make here is that in this stage of the scientific process, any question asked or any experiment undertaken is moulded within the confines of that particular theoretical model. In effect, it is a period of consolidation of existing data, no more than a refining or tweaking process to support and re-enforce the paradigm. Factors outside the parameters of this paradigm are not even considered. Most scientists, myself included, undertake the bulk of this type of research. The implication of this for Science is that, for much of the time, scientists follow a predetermined line of enquiry where questions posed are framed within the confines of that particular theory. If the existing theory is 'wrong' it will not show itself until a new conflicting bit of knowledge or anomaly rolls into view and this usually happens by accident, rarely by design. A good example of a recent scientific revolution is the overturning of the theory of shifting continents by the more recent theory of plate tectonics.

 

At this time I was also interested in some aspects of sociology e.g. that bit that deals with Ideologies. Karl Marx put forward the notion that we think and operate within a chain of ideas that fix our world view of how the world really is. These ideas influence and determine a person's world view of a situation or problem and more importantly, how that problem can be solved. I cannot see any fundamental differences in the processes defined in Marx's theory in how ideologies work and the processes inherent within Kuhn's 'Normal Science' stage in determining an accepted world view of a particular situation. It is clear to me that Science, like established religion, is grounded within a particular way of looking at the world. Therefore, it is 'true' only within the circular logic of its particular paradigm. Unfortunately, Science, like religion, is able to sustain and replicate itself through time because it has powerful foundations and links within the established socio-economic and political /military structures of society. Associations such as these 'legitimate' much of what Science produces and does. These powerful societal structures also add a further layer of conservatism within Science for any form of new enquiry or even seeing the 'box', never mind thinking outside the box.

Our final exam essay title was called 'Is science 'true' because it's powerful or powerful because its 'true'. I argued in my essay that, in the ultimate analysis, Science is largely funded by Big Business and its 'truth' is questionable because it can only ask questions of a particular nature i.e. that defined within the existing view of the world and also the views od its benefactors and funders. Also, if Big Business sponsors most of the research undertaken in the developed countries, these companies will not ask questions that may later compromise their particular industrial process or area of work. Superimposed on all these factors is the fact that Science is by definition a conservative venture and the over-turning of a scientific paradigm takes time and is fraught with much difficulty. Needless to say I remember not getting a good mark for my essay!!

 During my post-graduate work, I carried out research within the framework of 'Normal' Science and I started a Ph.D in 1992. I never dreamt that during this time I would experience (in a very small way) some of the problems postulated by Kuhn when a researcher tries to 'think outside the box'. Suffice to say, the last couple of years of carrying out my practical research were not a happy time for me but it was an opportunity to see and experience what goes on at the 'coal-face'.

PhD sampling sites around the perimeter of the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant Cumbria (1992)

The why and how of science has powerful implications for the eventual fruits of its use. Some people would argue that Science appears to operate outside the 'accepted' laws of normal society e.g. take issues of cloning and genetically modified crops as recent examples. That is, Science has opened a few boxes prior and without proper debate and consensus. Once these 'boxes' are opened, it will be difficult to pop these issues back in the box. However, within the logic and model of their world, scientists working in the area of cloning animals 'see the world' in a completely different light to most other scientists and indeed, to most thinking people. This is because that part of human endeavour that involve ethical, moral and 'does it ring right with you' issues are missing from this and many other areas of Science.

In summary, Science, like religion, is based on a belief system which operates firmly within its own chain of logic. The chain of ideas defined by the logic of the theory (defines and )determines what is and what is not worthy of research. However, if we are using a 'one dimensional model' to investigate and provide answers of the natural world, clearly our understanding of what is really occurring will be limited by the imposed parameters of an 'incomplete' theory. I think it is time we acknowledged that we do not have all the answers, accept that our true knowledge of any system is limited, and be more open to new ways of interpreting the natural laws in which we operate and find ourselves. In other words, Science is just one way of looking at the world and to identify the unifying principles of all there is may involve the insight of other approaches such as spirituality. The exquisite nature of Life cannot be revealed through the prism of one approach.

 

The nature of Science and its methods: a potted history

People often ask me what science stands for, what it is, and just occasionally, ask me to describe the scientific method. This is an interesting set of questions and I start with the notion of how we described the natural world before science was around, say, before 1500 AD. I follow this with how our world view changed from that period to what we have now which is based on, arguably, a reductionist and mechanistic view of the world viewed through the prism of observation, quantification, measurement and proof. Descartes and Francis Bacon laid the foundations for the scientific method from the 1500’s onwards but I start with a ‘pre-science’ description of our world view based on the nature of society at that time.

Up until the 1500’s, the philosophical orientation of European thought was defined by the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384 – 322 BC). Aristotle in particular, was a man who looked for the underlying laws of nature and his encompassing thoughts on natural philosophy dominated European thinking for thousands of years. His ideas on natural philosophy blended symbiotically with that of the established Church who in later years became his champion and endorsed his world view .

Prior to the 1500’s, societies were more loosely based and organic in nature: small was beautiful and societies were community-led. The Church up until this time was an influential system of thought that dictated a particular set of beliefs, ethics and values. Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) combined Aristotle’s natural philosophy with Christian theology to define a system of inquiry based on reason and faith with a focus on understanding the meaning and significance of things rather than its prediction and control (Capra 1982). It has to be pointed out, however, that the Church at this time held sway over the thoughts and everyday philosophies of ordinary people and of course, the Church was not slow to ex-communicate and burn to death those intellectual thinkers who disagreed with its doctrine because this was an age in which almost anyone who disagreed with the Church were branded ‘heretics’. To go against the Church in them times meant certain death as witnessed through the bloody episodes of the Inquisition and the burning to death of anyone (mostly women) accused of following the ‘old ways’.

Enter stage left, Copernicus (overturned the geocentric view of the world, died 1543), the brilliant Giordano Bruno, astronomer and mathematician (1548-1600) and Galileo. These individuals were revolutionaries in the true sense of the word because they opposed and overturned key religious dogma. One such dogma was the belief that the sun revolved around the earth, i.e. geocentric view (espoused by Aristotle). Copernicus in particular, proved by careful detail to astronomic tables that in fact, the earth revolved around the sun. This shattered the Church-held view that we are at the centre of the Universe and that everything was put before us and revolved (literally) around us.

Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) and Isaac Newton (born 1642) set the stage for a new way of looking at the world known as the ‘scientific method’. Francis Bacon’s method of induction coupled to the acute reasoning power of Descartes defined a period in our history called ‘The Age of the Scientific Revolution’. This period onwards dramatically changed our relationship to the Earth, ourselves and our reason for being. The new scientific method was based on prediction and consequent control. Bacon said that the new scientific method would enable us to tame our world so that “…nature has to be hounded in her wanderings, bound into service and made a ‘slave’ and ?that the? nature of science was to torture Nature’s secrets from her”. Thus, Science as we know it from this time onwards had a certain ‘mechanistic’ feel about it and brilliantly put into human perspective by R.D. Laing who said of modern science “Out go sound, sight, taste, touch and smell and along with them has since gone aesthetics, and ethical sensibility, values, quality, form: all feelings, motives, intentions, soul, consciousness and experience”. I now briefly describe the scientific method, induction, deduction and finally argue for a more holistic world view for understanding our place in the Grand Scheme of Things.

The Scientific Method

Bacon defined the rationale for the scientific method as “a sequence of steps that guide our attempts to understand a behaviour or phenomenon”. These steps are (1) observation, (2) hypothesis - prediction, (3) experimentation, (4) conclusion with independent verification.

Science begins with observation or indisputable experience or evidence of an event. Observation of phenomenon can be either through personal experience of a phenomenon or via some form of black box tool. Either way, some form of quantification or measurement is normally required thus operational definitions of an observation are defined and deemed to be true. These operational definitions can be ‘tweaked’ in response to the nature of what we are investigating. The next step is to make a hypothesis to explain the observation or phenomenon and the hypothesis must be falsifiable i.e. it must be constructed in such a way that the hypothesis can be falsified or proven wrong. The hypothesis must also make a prediction or a series of predictions based on what we think are the causal effects of an observation. The hypothesis is tested by experimentation and this is a crucial step for many experiments because we need to make sure that we understand all the variables that may impact on an observation. The results of the experimental work refute or validate the hypothesis i.e. it either confirms our explanation of the cause of an observation or it does not. The experimental work must be reproducible and verifiable by other scientists. The work is also evaluated by peer-review i.e. a panel of scientists usually but not exclusively in the same area of work and then published into the scientific world via journals etc. These are the basic ‘nuts and bolts’ of the scientific method but these steps have generated an awful lot of debate within the academic world and rightly so, because there is a lot of controversy with regards to the ‘why’ as opposed to the ‘how’ of the scientific method. One such area is the problem of induction which has fascinated philosophers of science for hundreds of years.

The problem of induction:

Bacon argued that the only knowledge of importance to man was empirically rooted in the natural world. "There are and can be only two ways of searching into and discovering truth. The one flies from the senses and particulars to the most general axioms: this way is now in fashion. The other derives axioms from the senses and particulars, rising by a gradual and unbroken ascent, so that it arrives at the most general axioms last of all. This is the true way, but as yet untried”.

Inductive reasoning is a process whereby a rule is ascribed to a series of observations and then to formulate a statement on re-occurring events. One famous example is the sentence that says “this swan is white” which leads to a general proposition that “all swans are white”. Therefore, it is fair to say that induction makes general conclusions from specific observations. Clearly, we have a big problem here in that we hold as ‘true’ the statement that all swans are white, until we see a black swan. Therefore, we cannot have some form of finality i.e. a general law in inductive reasoning because it describes only that which it observes and any observation can only be based on probability. Thus, the statement that all swans are white may be correct in some parts of the world but not in others where, indeed, black swans are found e.g. China. But if you have never seen a black swan then you could agree with the statement that all swans are white but still say to yourself that it is not impossible for black swans to be found somewhere on planet Earth. David Hume questioned the nature of induction saying that “they possess credibility, but they are not certain”. If not induction then, what about deduction? Fast forward to 1934 to Karl Popper (1902 - 1994) when he wrote his book ‘The logic of scientific discovery’ in which he criticised inductive logic as a valid means of scientific inquiry.

Popper rejected the method of induction and insisted that all conclusions be drawn from deductive reasoning. Moreover, the theory under investigation should be internally consistent and falsifiable, and that any theory cannot be verified by experimentation, it can only be used to prove the theory wrong.

Deduction, therefore, is the polar opposite of induction in that an axiom (general law that is undisputed as in say a mathematical proof) of what is being investigated is assumed to be true and discovery of connections between that axiom and its internal workings. In other words, for deductive reasoning you start from the general law backwards to the observations and phenomena. In many respects, the differences between induction and deduction are irrelevant in that we use both inductive and deductive processes when formulating a hypothesis and carrying out experimental work. What is annoying, I think, for the majority of philosophers of science is that there appears to be a theoretical limitation or 'dead-end' within the process of induction and consequently, it is not theoretically or philosophically elegant. I guess one way of looking at this discourse within the philosophy of science, is that we formulate our ideas and assumptions on what we observe and think may be happening. In the course of investigating these phenomena we, by necessity, ‘switch’ from induction to deduction and vice-versa. I guess that this is the natural and human component of our thinking processes which we cannot get away from (nor do we need to). It is this aspect of ourselves that make us homo sapien sapien because we are not machines ruled by binary codes of 0 and 1's, nor can we be fully dispassionate about the nature of who we are.

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