Ambiguity of the Word “Science”

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The word “science” takes on several senses. For the sake of clarity, let’s try to disentangle them.

1. Science can mean the actual practice of science. This includes the process of trial and error, experiment and observation — in other words, empirical science. Science involves data. Even if the data is correct, it still has to be interpreted. The data can be incomplete, and one might not even know it. This can affect one’s reading of the data as well as the conclusions drawn. In a certain sense, the data is always incomplete, since we don’t know what the All is. Knowing what the All is can transform our understanding of, say, what an atom is. None of this should be taken to mean that there is no such thing as scientific progress. Nevertheless, consensus among scientists is no guarantee of correctness. Not only are errors possible in science, the history of science shows that scientists can be wrong en masse. Where we should have least expected it, there are trends and even what can be called fashions (or “group think”).

Finally, to further clarify this sense of the word “science,” we note that the term “hypothesis” can be misleading for the following reason. Hypotheses can acquire the character of firmly entrenched, widely accepted conclusions overturned only by unforeseen discoveries.

2. The word science can also be understood as the ideal system of all interrelated true and logical objective laws and propositions.

3. Closely related to (2), but not quite the same, is the sense of science as “a systematically organized body of knowledge.” Consonant with what we said in (1), this body of knowledge is subject to reevaluation. Even the most secure scientific facts are, in theory, capable of new illumination due to discoveries that result not only in a simple revision but an entire “paradigm shift.” This vulnerability is not the same as falsifiability. It’s not that the established principle or law is proven wrong. Rather, how we comprehend it is revolutionized. At least theoretically, the possibility exists that there will one day be a discovery in physics so fundamental in its implications, so far-reaching in its consequences, that it causes a crisis in relation to the discipline’s most basic underpinnings. Again, this doesn’t mean that the laws or principles in question are necessarily found to be false; the problem is in the way they had been understood or interpreted. The concept of matter itself is vulnerable to such a revision. At the same time, scientific laws and principles can be perfectly capable of being applied and of achieving positive practical results. To a certain extent, this was the case in astronomy when workably correct predictions were made on the basis of the geocentric model.

4. Though it usually refers to the natural sciences, “science” can also apply to other disciplines (sociology, economics, politics qua political science). Also to be considered under this heading is the transfer of principles, concepts, methods and discoveries from sciences proper to the humanities. Whether the methods of the natural sciences are appropriate to all phenomena, or whether certain phenomena require different modes of access, has been the subject of intense philosophical controversy, particularly within what is called Continental Philosophy.

5. People sometimes say “science” when they mean the objective state of affairs that science tries to ascertain. This is intimately related with an old philosophical problem relating to the locus of truth. Is truth located in the correct cognitive judgment, in the eternally valid ideal proposition, or in the thing or state of affairs judged about?

6. Applied science in the form of technology and engineering, as opposed to the idea of pure science, is so closely associated with the overall concept of “science” that it falls within its scope.

7. Science is loosely believed to be something associated with the truth in general, with “the facts.” Some kind of exclusive claim on the truth is assumed here for science.

8. Science can refer to knowledge in general (science as scientia, logos).

All these meanings run into each other, turning science into something quite ambiguous. When I refer to science, I usually mean the natural sciences rooted in physics and biology, particularly their influence on the way human beings understand their own existence and how they understand being in general. However practical they are in their experimental techniques and in their ramifications, the natural sciences have their source in a theoretical view of the world. The specific manner in which they prescind from the primordial way in which we encounter both ourselves and the world in everyday life (and as what we encounter both) and instead turn everything into an object of investigation is a mode of access to reality perfectly suitable to science and technology but altogether distorting when it becomes one’s predominant way of looking at the world. Given technology’s power to reconfigure, it is potentially catastrophic were it to become humanity’s prevailing comportment toward the earth and toward life in general.

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