Defining “Science” (2)
Last time I introduced a topic in the philosophy of science known as the demarcation issue, or, the question of what science is. Before continuing with a discussion of some of the best answers people have given to this question, I’d like to talk in a bit more detail about why this topic matters to those interested in faith/science issues, and to offer some ground constraints on what would count as a satisfactory definition of science.
As I mentioned briefly last time, the main reason Christians should care about the precise definition of science is because of the way science functions as a “power word” in our society. Calling something “scientific” is usually a way of praising it, and anyone who wants to advocate for an idea or product would like to be able to say that it is scientific or “scientifically proven.”
We see the effects of the high status accorded to science in many ways: psychologists and sociologists fight to be seen as “real scientists” for the prestige and money associated with that status; politicians and advertisers try to use scientific sources to support their views or products; and whether something is “scientific” largely determines whether it is eligible for big pots of public research money, or can be taught in schools.
It’s this last area that has been particularly important to many American Christians, because of the continuing public debate over the place of young-earth creationism and intelligent design in school curricula. At the same time, many Christians have argued that evolution isn’t really scientific, and so shouldn’t get the respect in the education of our children that we typically give scientific theories.
Finally, Christians should be thoughtful about what we award the title “science” because important public debates are often affected by what we count as science. We only have to think about the number of times we’ve seen scare quotes around the word “science” when people discuss climate change, or research into human sexuality, or claims of paranormal activity.
These reasons we care about the definition of science suggest some ground rules to guide us as we search for a definition.
First, any definition should reflect our sense that science has, or should enjoy, a special status. When something is genuinely scientific, it should provide us with more reasons, or maybe reasons of a special kind, for believing it.
Second, a definition of science should reflect our everyday beliefs about what counts as science. Sure, we might need to make some revisions around the edges of our ordinary use of the term “science”, but if our definition says theoretical physics turns out to not be science, or studying football plays is science, then it’s time to find a new definition.
Next, I’ll toss out some candidate definitions to see if they can withstand these tests. Until then, grace and peace.
Does the issue of what counts as science matter to you personally? How?
Are my constraints on a good definition good constraints? How should they be changed or added to?
Tags: methodology, demarcation, climate change, evolution