Science is at a peculiar juncture. Despite all that has been written it has yet to be comprehensively defined both in contrast to earlier world-views and in terms adequate to include and discriminate its historical variations. And the distinction among what are called science, technology, and philosophy remains unsettled, if not neglected.
Science has held technology in such high regard and close association that they seem practically indistinguishable. Meanwhile science values philosophy much less, if at all. A likely and sufficient reason for the difference is that while technology is manifestly successful, it may be easily concluded that philosophy has been nothing but a history of baseless opinions. In a direct response to the perennial controversies of philosophy, science has sought to achieve demonstrable proofs, and can claim some obvious successes in doing so. But in the pursuit of objectivity, and in consequence of its relative success, science has arguably drifted into professional conceit, and has taken not just objectivity, but authority as its calling. Implicit beliefs and assumptions are not being adequately addressed, it often seems they have been placed beyond question, and there has been an increasing tendency to theoretical inertia and misdirection.
This article is an attempt to define science in contrast to technology and pre-scientific world-views, to identify science as a form of philosophy, and to make a case for the importance of a larger perspective and a more professional temperance in scientific society.
Science and Technique
Science, scientific practice, technology, and philosophy – these have not been sufficiently analyzed and defined in terms of their historical context and development. In particular, science and technology, or technique (to use a term that better encompasses both modern and primitive technology), are still poorly resolved.
Technique, which if defined as the endeavor to discover and improve the means of transforming natural objects into artifacts, is as old as humanity. Its emergence may be seen as marking the precise beginning of human culture. Science is of course a relatively recent development, and in practice, it is a distinctive, professional utilization of technique.
The technique of fashioning a hand-axe, one of the earliest ventures to appropriate nature to the human domain, is distinguishable from bioengineering mainly by its relative lack of sophistication. It is not unreasonable to think of a particle accelerator, or “atom smasher,” as a wonderfully elaborate hand-axe. But the technique involved in any form of production is not itself science. The search for optimal material for the crafting of a hand-axe is not science, nor is the collection of detailed facts about prospective sources, nor the coining of terms to classify rocks by their relative suitability, nor the experimentation with different techniques for sculpting a sharper and more durable implement. The same can be said of the various aspects of efforts to increase the energy of a particle accelerator, although the latter has certainly been guided by professional science, and has unquestionably been accomplished without the inadvertent and superstitious influences we can suppose would often accompany innovations on the hand-axe. In any case, all such human interactions with nature, from the fashioning of the hand-axe to the design and development of spacecraft, can be included under the heading of technique, as all consist of the intentional transformation of natural objects into human artifacts.
Science, when contrasted with technique, can be described as the endeavor to gain a perspective and deeper understanding from which to investigate nature as such, and from which to comprehend the significance of the relationship between the human and the natural. Just as technique presupposes a separation from nature – the realization of a distinct human realm to which nature is to be appropriated, transformed, and implemented – science presupposes a separation of inquiry from technique, a conceptualization of the relationship among the human, the natural, and technical applications. Science employs and improves technique, but science is not the technique itself. Science is not immediately practical, it need not even result in foreseeable usefulness. When employed by scientists, technique is the means of advancing hypotheses and confirmations, but technique in general is an immediate practical relationship with objects that may or may not be guided by scientific discipline. Technique manipulates and transforms natural objects; science interrogates nature and substantiates technique.
Science, negativity and the implications
Beyond the resolution of science and technique, a most comprehensive definition of science can be derived from considering it primarily in its original distinction from pre-scientific views of the world. In its virtual elevation from but connection with technical concerns, the scientific enterprise is based on a decided rejection of earlier forms of abstract thought.
First, and most fundamentally, science is not-religion. Nature is conceived by science to be specifically outside the realm of divinity, regardless of whether an individual scientist is a believer in a god or gods, as many have been. Science considers its object, nature, as the realm of the non-divine, as a non-miraculous world outside divine intervention, where questions of the existence or characteristics of divinity are irrelevant. The piousness of Newton comes to mind – he believed in God as an architect and first cause, but he regarded nature as a separate and automatic mechanism.
Science is also distinctly not-mysticism. The scientific demystification of nature is based on a belief that nature is without occult, incongruous or deliberate forces. A scientist may believe that nature is either lawful or random, but as not-mystical, it is held to be continuous, and regular, even if only statistically so, and therefore accessible to methodical discovery. A moderate notion of mysticism may subscribe to a belief in unspecified mystery, in obscure processes without continuous physical sequences; but this too is regarded by science as unacceptable and counter-productive superstition, because it allows timeless mystery to stand in place of explanations that are coherent and rational. The belief in astrology is a notable example of the mystical world-view and its hindrance to science: If events are believed to be determined or influenced by the stars there is little incentive to look for immediate natural connections. Another example of the distinction between science and mysticism can be seen in the contrast between pre-scientific and scientific mathematics: The Pythagorean fascination with number was highly technical, and in some ways remarkably sophisticated, but it was based on a belief in an occult numerology of mysterious patterns, indications and meanings. When a truly scientific mathematics emerged it was founded on a rejection of any but natural expressions of quantitative relationships. Demystification of the world may sometimes in practice coincide with a belief in a mystical other-world, but individual scientists have only been mystical when they have been inconsistent. Kepler is a prominent representative in this way, with his strange supernatural beliefs held alongside ingenious naturalistic mathematical constructions.
The distinction of science from religion and mysticism is a belief-structure shared with the earliest philosophy, but the commonality between science and early philosophy goes only so far as those shared exclusions. Science is in addition (and unlike much subsequent philosophy) resolutely not-speculative. Speculation, however non-religious and non-mystical it may be, involves metaphysical, non-empirical, non-demonstrable theories and explanations. Speculation is unjustifiable by critical thought, being grounded primarily on imaginative personal insight. Even before there was science, the ancient philosophies that reduced the world to some basic stuff had been exposed as mere opinion, as vulnerable to a philosophy of relativistic scepticism, and while rejecting the uselessness of relativism, science has upheld the objection to unverifiable or unjustifiable claims. As with religion and mysticism, an individual scientist might at times indulge in speculation, and indeed the increasing coherence of the scientific world-view has fostered tempting implications for speculative materialist hypotheses. But speculation can only be inconsistently combined with a perspective based on verifiable theories, and insofar as a scientist remains within bounds, theoretical assertions are expected to be strictly empirical, or at least justifiably resistant to sceptical-relativistic criticism.
Another aspect of pre-scientific thought which science is-not can be distinguished from speculation by the earlier disregard for nature which focuses instead on exclusively human issues. The word contemplation may best express this general aspect of philosophy. Socrates and Plato were among the most renowned of those associated with its early forms. It coincides approximately with what became known in the Middle Ages as the liberal arts, and more recently as the humanities – studies of rhetoric, literature, ethics and morality. As with religion, mysticism, and speculation, individual scientists might engage at times in contemplation, but such diversions are typically thought of as distinct, non-scientific branches of knowledge, understood to be bound by less rigorous standards, and kept carefully segregated from scientific investigations.
All of this is to describe science in its original, negative aspects relative to pre-existing forms of reflective thought. Of course, science has its positive aspects, but the fundamental positive aspects of science can be seen as already implicated by the negative. When scientists have been professional and conscientious, science has been not-religion in a negative aspect, and therefore exclusively concerned with the natural realm in the positive aspect. Science has been not-mystical in its negative aspect, and therefore exclusively concerned with predictable natural objects and forces. Science has been not-speculative and not-relativistic, and accordingly, exclusively and earnestly concerned with the observable and demonstrable. Science disregards the contemplation of human ideals and values, focusing instead on objective, value-free entities and relationships in the natural world.
With a definition of science in terms of its origination, the significance of its contrast with technique can be better appreciated. Technique, in itself, is unable to rigorously distinguish religion, mysticism, speculation, and contemplation from its exercise, whereas science has been instrumental in excluding those earlier world-views from technical applications, thereby liberating technique from their haphazard influences. When guided by religion, technique is constrained by unquestionable beliefs, and compelled to confirm, or at least not to challenge religious teachings; natural phenomena judged to be of divine origin or affiliation are held beyond investigation or question. When mixed with mysticism – as for example with alchemy, one of the last holdouts of pre-scientific technique – there is no methodical basis for the treatment and resolution of incongruities. The naturalization and demystification of the world and the distinction of knowledge from opinion were the achievements of scientific thought, not of inherently practical, fixated technique – they were not simply technical improvements, they were fundamental revisions. Science, in contrast to technique, involves investigation into the systematic manifestations of the world, and of our relation to the world as knowers amid a predictable realm of objects. It involves a critical reflection on the difference between the natural and divine, between the factual and the mystical, between knowledge and opinion, between objectivity and contemplation. Technique, by itself, is indiscriminate of such distinctions, or at least inconsistently attentive. Scientific technique, the application of science, begins when it is guided by the methodical exclusion of religious and mystical intrusions, and further refined to exclude unverifiable opinions and ideal contemplations.
Science and Philosophy
In its methodical pursuit of objectivity and validation, science has struggled to liberate itself from categorization as “natural philosophy” – from being considered a branch of what science considers undisciplined opinion. Although science shares with philosophy a not-religious, not-mystical approach to understanding the world, the determination to build an objective distance from speculative and contemplative opinions has precipitated a general aversion and a disavowal of kinship with the philosophical tradition.
In view of the long and arduous effort for separation, it is ironic that science has often been combined with super-scientific, actually speculative beliefs. It may be an understandable combination, as the characteristic analytic and reductionist features of science can readily trend toward an essentially materialistic metaphysics, where the functioning of each level of organization is explained by the interactions of its elements, leading ultimately – from the cultural to the psychological to the biological to the physical – to the level of subatomic particles, where reality seems to settle with finality. But though a metaphysical materialism may seem most plausible from a scientific world-view, it is not science, if science is defined by the strictly methodical investigation of the empirical world. The combination of science with metaphysics is all the more dubious when those who engage in it deny not only that science in general is philosophy, but even that their own metaphysical extensions are philosophical.
The frequent, indiscriminate association of science with metaphysics is an excellent example of how the attempt to escape from philosophy has actually been debilitating to scientific aspirations. Pre-scientific philosophy was often speculative, often contemplative, and often both, but it was also generally attentive to basic assumptions. In the attempted disassociation from philosophy, science has inhibited its own ability to focus on implicit assumptions, and hence, diminished much of its underlying theoretical coherence. When science denies that it is philosophy, when it disdains the examination of the most fundamental beliefs, and when it identifies indiscriminately with technique, it fails to adequately establish and develop its position and orientation. When, for example, Niels Bohr declared that the paradoxes of quantum physics are not just, perhaps, a reflection of current technical limitations, but insurmountable obstacles for all time1, a more philosophical community might have roundly objected that advances in technique, and resolutions of theoretical dilemmas, have always been unimagined in their prelude, that discouraging obstacles have often been overcome by revolutionary insights and techniques which were formerly inconceivable. Einstein was almost alone in his refusal to accept the apparent invalidation of causality, or regularity, on the subatomic scale as any more than a provisional necessity imposed by current technical limitations. Whether or not he is one day validated in his belief in regularity against quantum uncertainty, he was able at least to distinguish an evidently technical issue from a philosophical question2. Even today the limitations underlying quantum complementarity and probability are widely viewed as immutable – not as provisions of the moment, not as expressions of a philosophical predisposition to regard nature as a realm of chaos, and observation as a foreign imposition of form. In consequence, when the seemingly irrational readings of subatomic phenomena are treated as factual expressions of unavoidable paradox, as indications of profound transcendent meaning, when paradox is expected and accepted in emergent findings, the standard interpretations of quantum physics become irrefutable even in principle. The presumption of oddity makes reasoned objections irrelevant, and makes it impossible to distinguish conventional and acceptable interpretations from theoretical incoherence. Quantum paradoxes and complementary descriptions of physical phenomena may become increasingly persuasive the longer they persist as the best available explanations, but for science, if it is to be a disciplined and developing philosophy, the bounds of technical possibility and scientific interpretation must remain an open question, not a matter of orthodox belief.
The question of whether nature is inherently obscure, by its own constitution or by the inherent limitations of knowledge, is a philosophical question. Science in its history has had to develop philosophical positions on many such issues: what counts as objective knowledge; what is the role and the limits of methodical deduction; the role and limits of observation, experiment and induction; the role of the investigator in the constitution of experience; and the question of whether thought can be reduced to a natural object. There is no scientific reason to suppose that these issues have been finally resolved. They remain open to revision and refinement despite the most confident re-assertions of factual authority. And they are philosophical questions no matter what answers are proposed, no matter whether they are framed in explicit metaphysics, dispassionate technicalities, or implicit assumptions.
A philosophical system is subject to criticism and development, whereas a system of alleged facts is impervious to challenge by its critics, and beyond question by its adherents. The often strident denial that science is a philosophy appears like nothing so much as an attempt to strengthen scientific claims by raising them to a level of authority and hegemony. It’s difficult to see how such a program could be justified by anything but a felt imperative to reinforce and protect science against an insecurity of repute, and it’s difficult to see how it could lead in a consistently constructive direction.
If philosophy is the endeavor to understand the not-divine and not-mystical world, then science is a branch of philosophy, distinctive only in the way it seeks to exclude speculation, relativism, and contemplation. Science, just the same as other philosophies, is a system of rational (and always questionable) beliefs about nature. In all the ways that science arose as a negativity toward earlier world-views, science has been a philosophical perspective, and in consequence, an effective supervisory approach to technique.
The Science of Method
Given the distinction between science and technique, the long-standing controversy over whether the “inexact sciences” – sociology, psychology, economics, and the like – should be considered true sciences can be seen as a question only of whether and to what extent effective scientific techniques are possible in those fields. And the adherence of such putative sciences to scientific philosophy, in the mainstream at least, is beyond question. A recognized social science is one that embraces the scientific world-view and attempts, however successfully, to bring social phenomena within scientific understanding, and seeks to apply scientific technique to develop acceptable categorizations and hypotheses.
The “philosophy of science” as it is generally understood, given the definition of science offered here, would be better described as another social science, the science of scientific technique, or maybe less awkwardly, as science methodology. Whereas science as a philosophy studies nature as-such, and the fundamental relationship between knowing and nature, science methodology is primarily the study of scientists in the process of theory-making, theory-meaning, theory-consolidation, and theory-application, an examination of how scientific practice has come to be successful and useful – or unsuccessful, when that has been the case.
Only secondarily do scientific studies of science touch on, much less discriminate and evaluate philosophical beliefs. The nomination “philosophy” to distinguish the examination of scientific behavior from more immediately physical concerns seems to have been appropriated as if the term was lying at-hand without useful employment. But studies of the behaviors of microbes, mass-murderers, and economies are not philosophy – why should the study of scientists and their practices be so? The study of politics isn’t political philosophy at the level of the how and when – it’s considered political science. Science methodology is the how of science, whereas scientific philosophy is the what. When science methodology asks: How do we form hypotheses? How do we verify? How do we reach consensus? How is science successful? The answers largely depend on the more or less implicit whats of scientific philosophy: What is called knowing? What is nature, what is not? What is the reliable scope of theories about the relationship between knowing and nature?
Science is already philosophy. The “philosophy of science” is for the most part not philosophy in the conventional sense of the term, but rather, an application of scientific technique, like sociology and psychology, an application where the object of study is scientific behavior and accomplishment, treated as objects of nature. Science is a system of beliefs about the world and our place within it; science methodology is the study of how those beliefs are applied and the evaluation of results achieved.
When viewed historically, and when fully distinguished from technique and methodology, science can be seen quite clearly as a series of philosophical positions on the relation of knowing to nature, as variations on the fundamental scientific perspective on objectivity and the proper means of theoretical and technical validation.
A number of distinct scientific philosophies, each a redefinition of its predecessor, can be briefly described in this space, if only to illustrate the historical heterogeneity of what is called science. Aristotle was evidently the first to establish an actual science, although in his innovative negativity toward earlier world-views it was, understandably in hindsight, quite naïve. Aristotle conceived of science as a development of rigorously logical, comprehensive classifications and discursive proofs by deduction. However impressive his work now appears as a historical and cultural achievement, it proved indefensible in its presumption of a conformance of nature to logical ideals. A new form of scepticism emerged in opposition to such ideal premises and deductive proofs – in opposition to science as it was then conceived – and in consequence, Ockham, Bacon and others were inspired to develop a detached and inductive approach that presumed a fundamental difference between a dis-integral, chaotic world and the formal impositions of knowing. Subsequently, Galileo and others, influenced by Renaissance humanism, reaffirmed the affinity between reason and nature as epitomized by mathematics, but with the refined appreciation for the need to submit hypotheses to empirical verification. With Locke and his followers, the act of knowing itself was assimilated as a natural process, as a mere abstraction from natural experience, and the foregoing dualism between reason and nature was believed to have been resolved; the mental as a realm apart from nature has subsequently been reduced by mainstream science to the status of a meaningless mystical construct. With Hume, the presumed realism of empiricism was repudiated, and after a devastating exposition of an anti-empirical scepticism, he turned to a more tentative, equivocal, pragmatic approach to knowledge. Pragmatism has been found by many scientists to be unsatisfactory, if only for being insufficiently authoritative, and many have opted for a return to some earlier (scientific) philosophy, or to some combination of several. Today, much of science can be described as an eclectic and more-or-less tacit admixture of various philosophical schools. At its most counter-productive, science has combined with a pre-scientific numerology where abstract expressions of equation or approximation are considered the exclusive indicators of meaning and validation. But whether adhered to in one of the original forms or in some combination, every scientific philosophy has expressed the same general regard for nature relative to the pre-scientific world-views, while varying in their appreciation of knowledge and technique.
Science has been described here as a natural philosophy, a philosophy of the objective, methodical investigation of the natural world, and a supervision of professional technique, developed out of a recognition of the inappropriate intrusions of earlier forms of thought and practice on the discovery of nature.
The positive aspects of science have been shown to be implicated by the negative. Science is not-religious, therefore, science is naturalistic. Science is not-mystical, therefore, science is realistic. Science is not-speculative, therefore science is corroborative. Science is not-relativistic and not-contemplative, therefore science is objective.
The definition of science offered here is contextual and historical, rooted in its original and developing conditions. Given this definition and the resolution from technique, the general description of the scientific world-view can be seen to accommodate all the particular, historical scientific philosophies as variant perspectives on the bounds of nature and knowing, and the proper role and application of technique, from Aristotle to the present time.
The scope of this paper has been confined to a general resolution of science, technique, and philosophy. If these classifications are valid, the close identification of science with technique, particularly mathematical technique, has exaggerated the importance and reliability of isolated or abstract facts, as experienced in the absorption in immediate interactions with natural objects and/or their magnitudes. The denial of the philosophical basis of science has inhibited a full awareness of its presumptions, resulting in varying degrees of bias, dogmatism, disregard, and disorientation. If this is to be the situation, then science as conjoined with technique and cut-off from explicit philosophy can only become less vigorous, and more peculiar, as time goes on.
The prevalence of a more temperate, self-conscious and pragmatic scientific philosophy would be a more effective catalyst for discovery.
1 “a detailed causal tracing of atomic processes is impossible…” Bohr, N. (1934), “The Quantum of Action and the Description of Nature” (1929) in Atomic Theory and the Description of Nature, University Press, London, p100.
2 If, for example, a new, more fundamental level of particles is someday, somehow discovered, and if by some presently unimaginable technique we are able to manipulate them to detect the properties of subatomic particles without measurable disruption; and if the present inscrutability of the determinants of sub-atomic events is somehow rationalized, then quantum indeterminacy would be transformed from an alleged fact of nature to a relic of obsolete technology.