An Introduction to the Sciences
Chapter One: Getting our Cultural Bearings
Some Features of our Contemporary Context Concerning ‘Science’
The aim of this course is to present an Introduction to the Sciences that recognizes science as a human enterprise involving a range of activities dedicated to the attempt to try to understand the world we live in in a certain kind of way – a theoretical way. At the same it is taken for granted that the understanding sought is one that is based upon our fallible human experience of this same world or cosmos. It is also understood that the scientific enterprise is but one of a number of cultural activities of humankind – others include the arts, politics, technology, commerce, health care, religion and philosophy. While each has their own sphere of competence, they are nonetheless inter-connected in a broader cultural enterprise to which they all contribute, with each having its own sphere of integrity.
We therefore begin with some brief comments on this modern Western cultural context:
C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures. In 1959, the British scientist and novelist, C.P. Snow, titled the first part of his influential Rede Lecture ‘The Two Cultures’. Its major thesis was that ‘the intellectual life of the whole of Western society’ was split into two titular cultures – namely the sciences and the humanities – and that this was a major hindrance to the solving of the world’s problems. The lecture, as well as the subsequent books and articles it spawned, has continued to provoke discussion until the present day. In 2008, for example, The Times Literary Supplement included Snow’s follow-up book entitled The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution in its list of the 100 books that have most influenced Western public discourse since the Second World War.
The Science Wars. In the wake of the countercultural upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s - expressed in the Hippie Movement, Sexual License, the protests against the Vietnam War and, as their extension into the broad alliance between Industry, Science, Technology, the University System and the State War Machine - several publications appeared challenging the self-assured picture of objective science academic as the only legitimate form of objective knowledge - leading to the risks of total war and the destruction of humankind and the world at large.. Arguably the most significant of these was Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, published in 1962. Together with such follow-ups in the history and philosophy of science as Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method in 1975, the advent of Postmodernism signaled in the publication of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge in English in 1984, there emerged, particularly in the United States, a series of intellectual exchanges that became known as The Science Wars.
This debate involved the nature and character of the relationship between facts and scientific theory and the nature of intellectual enquiry in general. It took place principally between scientific realists and postmodernist critics. The scientific realists contended that much the greater part of the body of scientific theories relates to the actual world of our experience, albeit that it is both incomplete and fallible. They accused the postmodernist critics of science as effectively rejecting scientific objectivity, the scientific method, and scientific knowledge. Postmodernists interpreted Kuhn’s ideas about scientific paradigms to mean that scientific theories are social constructs. Philosophers like Paul Feyerabend, on the other hand, argued that other, non-scientific forms of knowledge were better suited to serve other human needs.
It is inappropriate that we try to pursue these matters further in any depth at this point. Suffice it to say, however, that these introductory comments tap into a vast reservoir of issues, insights and problems that we inherit from our history and are far from easy to deal with. Nonetheless, we will endeavour to do so as the Course unfolds.
Science – Some Preliminaries
For much the greater part courses, particularly in ‘the natural and mathematical sciences,’ tend to steer clear of the underlying issues that we have sought to expose in our introductory section. This kind of omission simply further contributes to the Western cultural divide between the sciences and the humanities on the one hand, and the ongoing problem of what we might call ‘scientism’ and its periodic humanistic critics on the other.
One of the things that this course will attempt to do is to provide a genuine challenge and alternative viewpoint on the whole scientific enterprise – one that will try to break down the kinds of divisions that, arguably, have led to the kinds of problems that we have alluded to in our above introductory section. We will attempt to do this in stages. In this section, our focus will be to emphasize that the whole of what we call ‘science’ is a human cultural endeavour. As such it is but one sphere of cultural endeavour alongside others – such as commerce, industry, education, scholarship, technology (including computers and robotics), philosophy, gardening, farming, the arts, medicine and health, organized religion, sports and recreation, law and politics, family life and marriage.
Looked at this way, the enterprise of the sciences may, in a loose sense, be said to be but another one of the humanities. It may well be that both science and philosophy are cultural enterprises of an analytical theoretical character dedicated to the pursuit of truth. But, if one thinks about it carefully, it can be argued that other cultural realms are also concerned with truth. Indeed, in his answer to the question ‘Who is My Neighbour?’ in the gospel of Luke, Jesus gives something of an artistic and imaginative answer - in the form of a parable - illustrating the harsh and down-to-earth point that the much aligned Samaritans were not only geograhic neighbours, but real human beings with needs that are very similar to those of the Judaeans, illustrating the universal truth that all humans are called to love God and to love their ‘Samaritan neighbours’ as themselves.
In other words, the truth of the parable of Jesus we call ‘The Good Samaritan’ does not depend upon the positivist idea of truth requiring an actual set of circumstances in which the story, with all the characters and all of their actions, need to be able to be identified in concrete terms for it to qualify as being true.
Furthermore, as a glance at the history of these theoretical fields of human cultural endeavour make plain, they are not infallible in their pursuit of the kind of the theoretical truth they develop in their understanding of the world in which we live. In this respect, it should be born in mind that one of the aims of the Greek philosophical project was to seek theoretical certainty in the contents of the philosophical way of knowing (Gr. episteme) as opposed to the ways of the mythological, poetic and commonsense of everyday opinion (Gr doxa). As we will discuss later, this quest for certainty in science, coupled with the rejection of all other forms of knowing as uncertain, non-rational and unreliable, was the predominant feature of the nineteenth and early twentieth century positivist project that is associated with the name of Auguste Comte in particular. In the wake of this, in the city of Vienna, just after the Great War of 1914-18, this facet of the nineteenth century positivist project was linked to the project of the emerging Mathematical Logic associated with the work of Russell and Whitehead, in what became Logical Positivism. Interesting-ly enough, one of the major early critiques of this positivist project came from one of those who was a regular participant in this circle of Viennese thinkers. This was Karl Popper who, because of his Jewish heritage, left Austria in the 1930s, taking up a wartime appointment in the teaching and research in philosophy at the Canterbury College of the University of New Zealand during the years of World War II.
One of the more significant contributions that Popper made to our understanding of the way in which scientists, as well as other thinkers, actually proceed is not one that seeks to study a large body of observations without some prior idea of interest or focus that leads to the making of (inductive) generalizations. Rather, he points out that our observations are, to an important extent, already organized by means of a primitive, albeit ill-formulated hunch that may, on occasions, scarcely even warrant being called a theory.
We will illustrate this with a case from the late nineteenth century history of science involving the discovery of the spontaneous radioactivity of certain elements – such as uranium and radium.
The Case of Becquerel’s Discovery of Radioactivity
In 1896, the French physicist Henri Becquerel (1852-1908) discovered radioactivity, the process by which some atoms of some elements decay - in the sense of emitting both sub-nuclear particles and electromagnetic radiation (γ rays).
At that time two processes for the emission of electromagnetic radiation (largely visible light and X-rays) were known: fluorescence and phosphorescence. In both of these kinds of emission it was required that the material emitting the radiation had first of all to absorb it (or something like it) from another source. The difference is that in the case of fluorescence once the exciting agency producing the emission is removed, the emission of light or X-rays ceases. This occurs, for example, when the electric current to a fluorescent tube is turned off, the light quickly goes out. In the case of phosphorescence, on the other hand, the radiation continues after the exciting agency is removed. Common pigments used in phosphorescent materials include zinc sulphide and strontium aluminate.
Some two months or so prior to Becquerel’s discovery, another physicist, the German Wilhelm Röntgen, had published his findings on the discovery of X-rays. The latter had pointed out that these came from the spot on which the glass tube that the beam of cathode rays (electrons with a negative electric charge) was hitting. It occurred to Becquerel and others that both phosphorescence and fluorescence were in some way linked with X-rays. This was the kind of vague hypothesis that guided them in the making of their observations.
Becquerel, in particular, decided upon an experiment that would test whether or not a number of known phosphorescent substances emitted X-rays while phosphorescing. His idea was to expose the phosphorescent substance to the sun’s rays as the exciting agent, and then to test for the emittance of X-rays from it by means of their producing an image of a coin on a photographic plate shielded from everything else it by a thick layer of black paper preventing the plate from being affected by any visible light emitted. This experiment had no success with any phosphorescent substance until Becquerel tested a compound of uranium. This, after being exposed to bright sunlight for a day, did produce clear images of the coin on the photographic plate.
This result seemed to indicate a connection between the phosphorescing of the uranium compound and the radiation producing the images on the photographic plate and, as such could have been hailed by Becquerel as a confirmation of his, as yet, ill-formed theory of the supposed connection between X-rays and phosphorescence that had led to this experiment in the first place.
However, rather than jump prematurely to such conclusions, Becquerel continued his experiments over a series of days in which the periods of sunlight were scant. During the times of little or no sunlight he kept his arrangement of the uranium compound, the coin, the photographic plate and the thick black paper intact in the darkness of a drawer to protect the plate from visible light. After a few days of the uranium compound’s exposure to light, he developed the plate with an expectation of finding images of the coin that were very feeble. He was therefore greatly surprised to find them sharp and with great intensity.
He concluded that, because the uranium compound had not experienced a large exposure to sunlight as an exciting agent, it was not phosphorescence that caused the intensity of the image of the coin on the plate. Rather, he concluded that the agent producing the radiation (probably X-rays) came spontaneously from within the atoms of uranium itself. In this way Becquerel opened up the exploration of the big subject of the radioactive decay of certain isotopes of certain chemical elements as further developed by Marie and Pierre Curie and others.
Our major point with regard to this example is the understanding it sheds on the process of scientific discovery. The experiment to test the supposed connection between X-rays and phosphorescence was a complete failure. Or was it? It was because of the realization that the only positive result of radiation being emitted was not due to phosphorescence that the spontaneous radioactivity from with the atom (or rather some of them) was discovered.
Beginning our Attempt to Understand Science.
We begin, then, with a definition of science that few would want to quarrel with:
Science is a form of human knowledge (from the Latin scientia, meaning knowledge). As such it is an ongoing body of facts and theories that is based upon the ways in which we humans experience reality and come to a certain kind of understanding of the world in which we live.
We then proceed with some historical background:
Ever since the time of the Greeks, in the seventh to sixth centuries BC science, as a form of human knowledge has been closely linked to philosophy. Indeed, in the Western world from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries, much of the modern usage of the term ‘Science’ by the term was connoted ‘Natural Philosophy.’ For a time, these two expressions were used interchangeably. However, by around 1834, when William Whewell somewhat satirically first used the word ‘scientist’ the former term began to assume predominance.
Later, Whewell proposed the word again more seriously (and not anonymously) in his 1840 book The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, writing that
As we cannot use physician for a cultivator of physics, I have called him a physicist. We need very much a name to describe a cultivator of science in general. I should incline to call him a Scientist. Thus we might say, that as an Artist is a Musician, Painter, or Poet, a Scientist is a Mathematician, Physicist, or Naturalist.
During the time that ‘science’ connoted natural philosophy, other realms of human knowledge were also acknowledged – social and political philosophy, law, medicine and theology, not to mention mathematics (algebra and geometry), logic, grammar and rhetoric. Law, medicine and theology, however, were also considered as arts that were pursued after the completion of an undergraduate preparation provided by the seven liberal arts.
As we will discuss later, although the rejection of the phrase ‘natural philosophy’ in favour of the word ‘science,’ as described by William Whewell above did not, in and of itself, carry a great deal of philosophical or ideological prejudice it was, nonetheless, later associated with such bias or prejudice. This may be illustrated at this point by the citation of the so-called ‘law of the three (pre-scientific), stages of history’ due to Auguste Comte, in which the different ways of their knowing the world, humans have ordered their lives and social orders that has (normatively) progressed from (i) the religious or theological phase to (ii) the metaphysical stage (science intertwined with philosophy, eg Aristotle, Descartes) and then to (iii) the positive sciences free of religion and metaphysics.
This emphasis was very influential in Western countries in the latter half of the nineteenth century, spawning the popular myth of the war between science and religion. It had, as one of its most significant consequences, the adoption of the standpoint of a ‘scientism’ that greatly exaggerated the knowledge claims of the natural sciences of physics and chemistry and, at the same time, denigrating other sciences together with the humanities, thus contributing to the cultural symptoms of the 1960s-70s counterculture, the two cultures thesis of C.P. Snow and the Science Wars of the 1990s already mentioned.
It is from this broader background that we may understand the popular use of the word
‘science’ as it refers exclusively to ‘natural science’ that predominates in the Anglo-Saxon
world in particular. In German, for example, the sciences are collectively described as Wissenschaften, meaning both Natuurwissenschaften (literally nature sciences) and Geisteswissenschaften (literally, spirit sciences) without any need for qualification. In this latter case the German word ‘Geisteswissenschaften’ has more of the connotations of the English word ‘humanities’.
Now, we can offer a preliminary appreciation of the breadth of the modern usage of the word ‘Science’:
As a way of knowing, usually referred to as ‘the scientific method’.
As fields of enquiry – natural science, social science, etc.
Science as a way of knowing, usually referred to as ‘the scientific method’.
In the first place we need to appreciate that the word ‘science’ connotes a ‘way of knowing’. This is often referred to as ‘the scientific method’. However, as we have already pointed out, this can carry with it the residue of the claims of certain knowledge, as opposed to mere opinion. Although a great deal more can and will be said about the method and character of science as a body of knowledge in the sequel, we will content ourselves for the moment with saying that science is concerned with a body of facts and theories that are open to the ongoing scrutiny of critical discussion and observational evidence. This was illustrated in our earlier discussion of the case of Becquerel’s discovery of radioactivity. Furthermore, we may emphasize that a scientific theory – like any other claim to universal knowledge – may become dogmatic if it refuses to deal properly and fairly with critical debate.
The widespread influence of the Positivist movement under the leadership of Auguste Comte in the nineteenth century coupled with the Logical Positivism or Logical Empiricism of the early twentieth century involved specific and radical claims regarding ‘the scientific method.’ There were several principal features to this theory of method. The first is the emphasis upon observations as the actual content of sense data taken to be assembled as ‘the facts of the case.’ The second is the idea that a process of assembling these (relevant) facts led to a logical process of induction from these ‘facts’ to generalized scientific laws having a degree of certainty about them. The third is the idea that legitimate scientific observations were limited to the kind of sense data just described, and that all other claims to knowledge were dismissed as meaningless metaphysics. The fourth idea is that the veracity (or truth) of the scientific laws induced form the facts of observation in this way, were deemed true by virtue of their being verified in some kind of process (an experiment) involving empirical sense experience. Indeed, this was associated with the idea that any meaningful proposition had to be verifiable in this way.
After setting forth this kind of understanding of the scientific method in Part One of his book Perception, Theory and Commitment, Harold Brown then develops his understanding of what he calls ‘the new image of science’ in Part Two. This understanding is due to the various contributions of a range of scholars – including Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, Michael Polanyi, Paul Feyerabend, Imre Lakatos, N.R. Hanson and many others. In particular, we may again cite the influence of Karl Popper upon this movement, for it was he who first pointed out the asymmetry of the logic of falsification and verification in the ongoing activity of scientific discussion, particularly with regard to the conduct of experiments. We may point out, for example, that if Becquerel’s experiment, as discussed above, is looked at as an attempt to verify some relationship between X-rays and phosphorescence, then it failed. However, it was the genuine falsification of the universality of this hypothesis that paved the way for the fact that no external agent was required to produce the ‘phosphorescence’ of the uranium compound emitting the γ rays forming the image on the photographic plate, that proved to be the most decisive point of the experiment.
As the Content of a Field of enquiry – natural science, social science, etc.
In the second place we need to appreciate that one of the influences of Logical Empiricism was in the usage of the word ‘science’ without any further qualification, to mean the body of fact and theory associated with ‘natural science’. In these days, however, we are beginning to see many exceptions to this, with one such example to be found in a series of Wikipedia websites.
The idea behind the above diagram entails the scale of size in the universe as a partial means of mapping to branches of science into a ‘hierarchy’ of the sciences.
This case illustrates the point that science should be considered much more generally in its connotations. We might express this idea by saying that
There is field of subject matter, XYZ, that precedes the word ‘science’ in an attempt to categorize various realms of knowledge that the subject matter covers. Typically this XYZ can be the natural sciences; the social sciences; the formal sciences (like mathematics and logic); or the applied sciences. (such as engineering and medicine).
The word ‘science’ itself, in this context, then means the theoretical way of knowing these realms, as opposed to other ways of knowing (about) them.
With this in mind, we refer to the Wikipedia websites that attempt to give some specific content to the ways in which the sciences may be set out:
The branches of science (also referred to as ‘sciences,’ ‘scientific fields,’ or ‘scientific disciplines’) entailed with these Wikipedia Websites are set out without this hierarchy of size. As such they divide into four major groups:
The natural sciences, which study natural phenomena (including fundamental forces and biological life);
The formal sciences (such as mathematics, logic and theoretical computer science), use an a priori as opposed to a factual methodology;
The social sciences which study human behaviour and societies;
The applied sciences which apply existing scientific knowledge to develop more practical applications, like technology or inventions.
We emphasize that we are not endorsing the way in which the cited Wikipedia websites organize the various fields of science. At this stage of our enquiry, we simply wish to cite these web-sites as an attempt to give a needed corrective to the ways in which we have inherited the meaning of the word ‘science’. Later in the Course we shall seek to develop our understanding of the breadth, character and inter-relationships between the sciences in a way that is informed by Reformational philosoph
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