Political and social dialogue about science abounds, especially concerning the nature of truth. It may come as a surprise to realise that the study of truth is not in the domain of science but rather of faith and philosophy. In this post I hope to introduce some of the elementary considerations of philosophy and science that explain why this is so. I will introduce some of the basic premises and philosophy of science to set a basis for further discussion on a variety of topics in the domains of science, politics, philosophy and religion.
First, a quick recap of some standard definitions of philosophy and science. Feel free to skip these if they are familiar to you. There should not be any surprises here!
Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems concerning matters such as existence, knowledge, truth, beauty, law, justice, validity, mind, and language. Philosophy is distinguished from other ways of addressing these questions (such as mysticism or mythology) by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on reasoned argument. The word is of Greek origin: φιλοσοφία, philosophía, “love of wisdom”. [Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophy]
Science (from the Latin scientia, meaning “knowledge”) refers to any systematic knowledge-base or prescriptive practice that is capable of resulting in a prediction or predictable type of outcome. In this sense, science may refer to a highly skilled technique or practice. [Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science]
All science is based upon certain foundational principles:
- predictability — the world is inherently predictable. With the right body of knowledge, correctly applied, it is possible to predict the outcome of a sequence of events. Quantum mechanics (and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in particular) has introduced some limitations to the application of predictability, however this limitation is itself predictable
- empiricism — especially empirical study, leads the scientist to determine conclusions based on his/her direct and indirect perceptions
- modeling — a scientist does not work directly with reality but rather with models that can be used to predict future outcomes (more on this in a bit)
- hypothesis — a scientist first constructs a hypothesis that he or she proposes to be true. Then, the scientist uses empirical studies in attempts to disprove the hypothesis. This focus on disproving the hypothesis is important as shall be seen
This can be summarised as follows:
Because the world behaves in a predictable way, a model of the world can be theorised, verified by empirical studies and later applied in order to predict the behaviour of the world at some future time.
Philosophy and perception
Before discussing science further, let me introduce a philosophical note that many scientists overlook or else choose to ignore. Most of us are quite happy with the following assumptions that we make:
- We exist
- We accurately perceive other people and our surroundings, including all living things. This is how we understand ourselves to live in a world populated with people like ourselves
These two assumptions are also foundational to science. However, science has been able to instruct us that perhaps we do not perceive our world quite as accurately as we thought we did. For example, we no longer consider the world to be flat… do we?
The important thing to understand here is that we have asserted that what we perceive is the real world. I personally agree with that position, but this is a question of belief and philosophy, not science. There is no empirical study that can be used to verify these claims because there is nothing other than our perception that we can use to assess the validity of them (or more precisely, there is nothing that our perceptions can provide that can disprove this hypothesis).
We believe that we exist and that we are able to perceive the real world, not on the basis of science but on the basis of belief and philosophy alone.
Science and philosophy in contact
On the basis of these beliefs and our experience of the predictable nature of the world (at least largely predictable on the macroscopic level), we can accept the scientific assertion of predictability and the approach of empirical study. Now, what does that imply?
First conclusion: A hypothesis that can be disproved can accurately inform us that the world does not behave according to that hypothesis.
We cannot deduce a truth, only a falsehood, because a hypothesis that does not fail is only as valid as any other hypothesis that also does not fail. Further, even if we cannot ourselves conceive of this alternative hypothesis, that does not imply that it cannot exist. However, the reverse approach does lead us toward a conclusion. If our perceptions accurately convey the world, and our experimentation fails to match the predictions of our hypothesis, then that hypothesis is at least insufficient to the extent that it has been disproved. As an example, Newton’s laws of motion predict outcomes successfully in typical scenarios but fail when applied to others involving near-light velocity, gravitational criteria and quantum scales.
Second conclusion: Our hypotheses lead to a set of models suitable for prediction but these are only models, not reality itself
This should not be a surprise. Because hypotheses can only be disproved, not proved, they cannot state matters of fact regarding the construction of the world. Instead, they should be seen as mathematical models providing a way of predicting how the world will behave. Another model that provides the same results is equally valid, even if it is signficantly divergent from the first. To state that a hypothesis indicates reality is to state that no other hypothesis could produce equally valid results. That is quite a claim. Imagine if Newton had made that claim…
What can we conclude and what does it matter?
Firstly, science is very useful. The models it produces are effective and lead us to new and exciting discoveries about how our world operates and indeed how we ourselves operate. However, it does not tell us why we exist, what the real world is like beyond models of how it behaves or any other such thing.
It matters because scientists are all to often quoted as describing facts about existence and reality, and doing so in the absence of a disprovable hypothesis. Scientists are subject to the same political influences that haunt politicians — struggles for power, for influence, for recognition, for value — like most of us in fact. In that context, it is all to easy to leave out the detail of an abstract model, something the general public have little interest in. However, it is this distinction that forms the basis for any meaningful debate on the main issues where science, morality, policy and religion combine.