How Science Works

Science is such a beautiful thing.  It has been the mode of discovering so many deep and mysterious truths about existence.  It has given us so much understanding about how the world works and functions.  It has been used to bring about inventions, medicine, advancements, and just general truths about the physical world.  The success of science to come through on its promises has earned it its place as an avenue to finding truth.  Unfortunately, we have begun to put too much weight on its shoulders.  We have started attributing authority and power to science, that science itself doesn’t even claim to have.  We want to make science something that it isn’t.  We have romanticized the power of science and its scientist to making them an infallible source of wisdom, where their findings and conclusions are unquestionable.  To put it bluntly, we have made science the only means to find any sort of truth, and if there’s no “facts” or “evidence” or “proof” (by this, many people mean scientific information), then it doesn’t hold any sway in claiming truth.  I want to take the time here to express how I see science works, and how we should view and understand its findings.

To get all the cards on the table right away, science doesn’t prove anything and doesn’t try to prove anything, it’s just not structured that way.  Now, I’m using the very strict sense of proof, that which is found in mathematics and philosophy.  In more general and loose terms, science does prove things and gives us reasons to believe something.  However, in the strict sense of the word, science doesn’t prove anything.  What do I mean by this?  What I mean is the scientific method isn’t truth preserving.  It isn’t set up in a way where you are guaranteed that you will never go from a truth to a falsehood.  The way the scientific method and scientific experiments are set up, you aren’t guaranteed that you will end with a true conclusion.  The way philosophic arguments and mathematical proofs are set up, are that you structure your premises in a way that if they are true, then it is impossible for the conclusion that follows it to be false.  This is what is meant by truth preserving.  You have arguments set up in a way if the premises of the argument are true, then the conclusion follows immediately from that and cannot be disputed.  This is the very strict sense proof that I was talking about.  Here’s a very common example that gives you some insight to how these arguments actually look.

Premise 1:  All humans are mortal.
Premise 2:  Socrates is human.
Conclusion:  Socrates is mortal.

It’s easy to see here that if premise 1 and 2 are true, then the conclusion has to be true, there is no other option.  This is how philosophical and mathematical proofs are truth preserving.  The structure of the mode of discovering truth, doesn’t allow you to have true premises and end up with a false conclusion.  Now, the effectiveness is highly dependent on the premises that you have and the conclusion you derive from it, but the point is, for any sort of argument to be accepted as finding truth, it must set up in this sort of strict way that guarantees the truth of the conclusion must be derived from the truth of the premises.  This is what suffices as an acceptable argument or proof in philosophic and mathematical terms.  This sort of logic is considered to be deductive reasoning.  You start with some facts or truths, and from there deduce a conclusion from those premises.  This is the complete opposite type of reasoning that science uses.

Science goes about discovering truth by inductive reasoning.  This means that it takes a general body of data and infers from that some sort of truth or fact.  Here’s an example.  If you see a high school student going to the office with their shirt torn and stretched out, they have a bloody nose, and a fat lip, it’s reasonable to conclude they got in a fight.  Now, as logical as that may seem, that isn’t a truth preserving argument.  Let’s lay it out more clearly.

Premise 1:  Student has a torn and stretched out shirt.
Premise 2:  Student has a bloody nose.
Premise 3:  Student has a fat lip.
Premise 4:  Student is being brought to the office.
Conclusion:  Student got in a fight.

Now if we remember, in the very strict sense of a proof, the truth of the premises have to guarantee the truth of the conclusion.  It has to be impossible for the premises to be true and the conclusion false.  If the premises are true, then the truth of the conclusion must be indisputable, and in some ways obvious.  However, with our example, there are other conclusions that could be arrived at through these premises.  Just to give one, it could be the case that the student fell down the stairs and is being brought to the office because they are hurt, not because they are in trouble for fighting.  This is largely how scientific conclusions are arrived at.  They are able to produce data from constructing testable, and retestable experiments, and from the resulting data, they make conclusions about what the experiment has discovered.  Now, this is a very good and reliable way at finding truth, but I can’t stress enough, it isn’t a proof.

To put it simply, science produces data and gives us information to look at.  From there, scientist, not science, interpret the data and decide what is the reasonable conclusion.  This is why there are disputes in science over results.  It’s because everyone has the same data, but thinks the data implies different things.  Now, in philosophy, there are disputes about things, but the disputes are generally over the truths of premises, and sometimes conclusions.  They would agree that any good argument would provide the truth of the conclusion, given the premises be true and so this is where most of the battles are waged.  In science however, they wage war over the meaning of data, not necessarily the data itself.  This is a critical distinction because it is science that provides data, but not science that determines the consequence of the data.  That is done by people, namely scientist.

This is why we need to be careful in how much weight and authority we give to science itself.  Science has been a wonderful means of collecting data that points to some conclusion, but science doesn’t tell us what the conclusion should be, it just gives us data and we interpret it from there.  This is also why science has been wrong so many times over the years.  We get data, and with the knowledge we have, we draw the most reasonable conclusion from there.  Once new data and information is introduced, it likely changes our interpretation and understanding and forces us to change our conclusion.  Sometimes it’s as simple as changing between fact 1 or fact 2, but sometimes it makes us rethink the entire way we have viewed the world and the way we have gone about doing science itself.  It’s also valuable to point out that science is only useful on physical things that we can measure and quantify.  If it isn’t measurable, quantifiable, physical, or retestable, then science has nothing to say on it, and in principle can’t have anything to say on it.  This is why philosophy is so important, because it can handle and deal with things that science isn’t equipped to discuss.

I’m all for science and the explanatory power it possesses, but it’s important we understand exactly what that power is and is not.  Science is what gives us the data about how fast things fall.  But it is scientist, not science, that declares there is a rate of gravity.  Science is what provides us with the data on how cells operate when we observe them.  But it is scientist, who decide from this data that this is how cells always, and ought to operate.  I understand that at times it can feel like splitting hairs in distinguishing between what science does or does not provide and “prove”.  This distinction is indubitably important though, when we start looking at more profound and foundational questions about life.

I’m afraid we’ve started to think science will answer some of these questions, when in principle, science doesn’t even have an ability to answer the questions.  One of them, for example, is does God exist?  Because, for the most part, God is meant to be thought of as immaterial and infinite, science can’t even access Him.  This is among other difficulties science has in determining the existing of God.  Another example is what is the meaning of life?  How can you put that question into a quantifiable and measurable experiment that can be tested multiple times?  There are so many urgent questions like these that are fundamentally outside the reach of science, but for some reason we continue to posit that science itself has a strong grip on these answers.


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