Some Initial Stabs
Here are some very widely-held beliefs about what does and does not count as science:
- Physics, chemistry, and biology are sciences.
- So is geology.
- Astrology isn’t science.
- Studying football plays to learn football strategy isn’t science either (sorry, sports fans).
- History isn’t science.
- My knowledge that my parents love me isn’t science.
This list leaves out a lot of grey areas (e.g. what about the social sciences?), but that’s OK; this list is only supposed to contain more or less agreed-upon ideas, paradigmatic cases of science and non-science for us to use in evaluating definitions of science (per the second constraint mentioned last time). So, with list in hand, let’s get to it.
One rough possible definition of science is “the empirical study of the natural world.” A problem with this definition is that it lets in too much. For astrology is allegedly the study of how the celestial bodies influence our everyday lives on earth by making certain situations more likely to happen (e.g. when Venus is in the sky it is supposed to be a good time for romance). This is a kind of empirical study of the natural world: it involves trying to figure out just what kinds of influences the heavenly bodies (empirically visible objects) have on our (very much empirically observable) fates. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence for such influences, but the study is in principle scientific on this definition, thus showing that the definition also runs afoul of our first criterion from last time, since it awards the high-value status of science to astrology without any supporting evidence. I also worry that studying football plays would turn out to be science on this definition.
Another very different potential definition is “science is anything that we can know with a high degree of warrant.” But again, this definition is too expansive. For however high the amount of warrant we may have for something in chemistry or physics, I would argue that I have just as much warrant for my belief that my parents love me—but that’s not a scientific belief.
A variant on this definition avoids the problem of my knowledge of my parent’s love by stipulating that only “publically accessible” knowledge counts as part of science. Now this idea of public accessibility is a bit too vague for my tastes, but even if we grant this idea for the sake of argument, we still don’t get a good definition of science. For history is publically accessible knowledge, but it isn’t science. For that matter, I believe that some kinds of theology are highly warranted, publically accessible knowledge (since God can be seen in what is made), but I’m not sure I’d want to call any part of theology science. So I don’t think this definition can work as a description of our idea of science.
Now these failures do not imply that we cannot achieve a good definition of science; but it is trickier than it looks. Fortunately, there has been a good deal of philosophical discussion of the issue over the last century, and that’s where we’ll turn next. So next up in this series, how one of the 20th Centuries greatest philosophers of science, Karl Popper, tried to solve the issue—and how his criterion still misleads us today. Grace and peace.
What other possible definitions of science have I missed? Do you think either of the definitions I considered can be salvaged? Does the list of our beliefs about what counts as science accurately describe your circle?