Sunday, February 22, 2015

Introduction: What is Science?

What is science?

In our every day lives, this question seems uncomplicated, perhaps even uninteresting. Science is what scientists do - experiments, math, research, things like that. Are scientific theories true? Ofcourse they are. They produce results, so they must be. "If you don't think gravity is real, try flying off a building - if it doesn't work, there's your answer."

In their work, scientists aren't content with the kind of every day, obvious explanations that satisfy the man on the street. They want to dig beneath the surface, and discover the unifying principles of reality. Philosophers and other scholars are the same way. When someone asks them, "what is science?", they don't stop with what everyone knows. Just like scientists, they are always looking for the deeper meaning behind observation.

In general, their answers to the question fall between two poles. The first is the traditional view of science - that it is a process of discovery which, performed correctly, faithfully reveals the mysteries of the universe. Science produces objective knowledge, and that is why it is special. The second, which dates roughly to the 1960s, holds that science is a social process which invents, rather than discovers, models of the universe. Like any human activity, it is governed by institutions and assumptions that are historically conditioned, and there for in some sense contingent. According to this way of thinking, context matters in science for the same reasons it matters every where else - because we are bound by time and space, circumstance and personality, and cannot escape their limitations.

Scholars have come together to explore the nature of science in a relatively new field, called Science, Technology, and Society (STS). It attempts to address questions that surround science. For instance, what is the difference between science and pseudoscience? When we have competing theories, and they both explain the evidence, how do we choose between them? How have inventions and theories transformed our lived experience, and the course of history? Which conditions help scientists do their work, and which hinder them? Why does science work? When it doesn't, why doesn't it? Does gender, race, and class meaningfully effect a researcher's work? If so, is that a good thing that we want to encourage, or a bad thing we want to suppress?

Given the tremendous prestige of science in our culture, and the power it's theories give us, these are important questions. I would like to persuade you (if you are not already so persuaded) that, contrary to the every day wisdom, science is a philosophically interesting topic. In our last series, we looked at the Enlightenment in order to understand some of the historical background out of which the modern practice of science emerged. For this series, I would like to explore contemporary perspectives on this activity, which is so central to our every day lives.

An introduction to philosophy of science:…/6-philosophy-of-science-r…
The painting is "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp", by Rembrandt (1632). You can find a discussion of it here:…/

Part of a series on Science, Technology, and Society (I of XX)

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