What is Science?

A long time ago, Bud Uzoras of the excellent, now semi-retired blog Dead Logic invited me to do a post on science — specifically, my answer to the question "What is science?". Well, I got sidetracked, forgot about it several times, drafted several posts, forgot about them, and it just never materialized. But, the idea was good. And in my last post on the mind, I offered up a definition on what science is that I thought was concise and complete. So I'm going to take a break from my mind series and talk briefly about what, in my opinion science is.

I think science can be defined simply as follows: the search for stable truths.

In my experience, most define science as the study of the empirical, or of the "natural world", or of physical things. But all these definitions are wanting. What, exactly, is the natural world? Near-death studies attempt (and fail) to quantify the experience of disembodiment and demonstrate that the mind can exist without the body. If they could be successful with such experiments, wouldn't the fact of this disembodiment simply become part of our understanding of the mind — part of our science of the mind?

And what about, say, cognitive sciences? Are image schemas physical? What about semantics, or domain mappings? These are conceptually integral to the empirical science of cognition, but we can't point at a picture of the brain and say "there's an image schema". We can point to parts of the brain that correspond to image schemas and the like, but conceptual abstraction and metaphor are fundamentally integral to the practice of science.

I think it's much less ambiguous to define science as the search for stable truths. What is a stable truth? Simply a reliable, repeatable pattern. We observe the patterns through our sensory experience; then we create a theoretical model which attempts to map the patterns in such a way that we can accurately predict them.

Importantly, this definition does not operate on the assumption that the only truths are scientific ones. However, it does follow that unscientific truths are unreliable — they cannot be replicated, modeled, or predicted. It may be that an angel appeared to Joe in a dream and revealed to him some profound truth about the universe. But since this can in no way be independently verified, it is not a stable truth.

Stable truths are particularly powerful in that they can be demonstrated to others, and others can discover them independently. Scientific discoveries are often made independently, and once they are made the evidence supporting them can be shown to rational skeptics to demonstrate the reliability of the claims. It's telling that philosophical claims about the nature of reality are almost never discovered independently — did anyone else "discover" Aristotlean causality or Platonic realism who was not intimately knowledgeable of those philosophies? Is there any way to independently corroborate the claims and demonstrate that they are stable truths?

I'm fond of Sean Carroll's statement that if you want to know what reality is, you have to get out there and look at it. The process of human reason, as I'll be discussing in the next few posts in my series on the mind, is fundamentally metaphorical. Stable truths cannot be arrived at through reason alone. Science has been successful because it's given us a means by which to identify stable truths, and we've seemed to suffer no loss at all through our abandonment of things like 'metaphysical' causality and abstract realism. There will always be those who insist that science is a narrow domain that cannot reveal deep truths about reality. But if those deep truths are stable truths, then they necessarily fall under the purview of scientific inquiry. If there is some "other way of knowing" that can be shown to be reliable, no one has discovered it yet.


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