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A Suggested Simple Definition Of Science

  1. Sep 12, 2005 #1

    Another God

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    "Science is nothing more than the continued observation and improvement of observing techniques of a given phenomenon for the application of philosophical reflection."

    This incredibly simple definition of science occured to me the other day, and so I needed to come back to good old physics forums and get some criticism on it to see where it stands.

    It seems like so much argument has been put into what science is, and how it is special and better than standard philosophy etc, while other people question how it is any different, observing that the conclusions may be just as biased etc.

    Such discussion and confusion may be simply avoided by dividing the traditional view of science into the two parts which necessarily exist. There is the observation, and then there is the consideration of what that means. There is no question as to the fact that that is what science is...but if we remove the consideration part and just call that philosophy (for that IS what philosophy IS) then science is enigmatic no more.

    Science is crucial to the continued understanding of our world. Philosophy CAN be done without real world observations and data, but more and more philosophy is being done based on such observations. These observations come from scientific enquiry. Seperate them. Science observes, philosophy attempts to understand. Scientists are philosophers. Philosophers need not be scientists, yet they frequently interpret what scientists have said.

    "Science is nothing more than the continued observation and improvement of observing techniques of a given phenomenon for the application of philosophical reflection."
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  3. Sep 12, 2005 #2


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    So according to your definition developing theories to account for observations is not a part of science?
  4. Sep 12, 2005 #3
    Firstly, I think this definition lacks one of the most important aspects of science - predictability. Among other things, science creates theories that are designed to predict observables. Secondly, suggesting that science is done for the "application of philosophical reflection" is probably naive. The vast majority of science done today is in hopes of applying the findings to technologies that hopefully improve the plight of humanity. Or make someone rich. Usually both.

    That phrase "nothing more than" is a dangerous phrase to use when dealing with something as vast as modern science.
  5. Sep 12, 2005 #4

    Another God

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    Essentially, yes. That is what I am proposing, but don't get too excited and think that this means anything need change. I am suggesting a simple redefinition of what is already happening, for the ease of understanding.

    Take a scientific paper: Introduction, methods, results, discussion.
    Introduction = Background philosophy. Why are u interested in this topic, what has been observed before and what was interpretted from these observations.

    Methods = How the observations were conducted. Explained so as to justify the next section:

    Results = The observations themselves. What was seen, at what times, in what conditions etc.

    Discussion = The philosophical part once again. What do the results mean in light of the methods and the results obtained by previous papers? What are the potential implications? Where can this research lead? What technology may be derived from it? how can money be made from it...? :smile:

    That is all I am saying: That the traditional acceptance of science, the combination of all of the elements above, makes it more enigmatic than it needs to be. I guess attempting to limit science to just the observation element is underselling it, but ignoring the philosophy involved is the blinding part. Too often do I hear scientists dismiss philosophy, never to realise that that is all scientists really are. Philosophers of observed phenomena.

    As long as philosophy is the intellectual consideration of an idea or collection of ideas in an attempt to come to a greater understanding, then science is simply the version of that which relies on observation of phenomena.

    So in reply to locrian too, there is nothing contradictory between predicting observables and philosophy. Philosophy is not just the abstract and unknown. For whatever reason, the pursuit of science has somehow managed to change the paradigm of our society into seperating science from philosophy and placing science as a higher ideal vs that impractical non-productive philosophy mumbo jumbo. This is not in fact the case, and it need not be seen that way.
  6. Sep 14, 2005 #5
    Philosophy has no given goal. It doesn't necessarily want to increase our understanding, some philosophers may want to decrease our understanding as "understanding" may not be such an interesting goal. Some philosophy likes the purely artistic view of things hence there is no relationship with science. Some philosophy likes to be completely wrong on everything because they are not using right and wrong concepts or non contradictions as taken for granted.

    Philosophy, in the wider sense, is very much more general and abstract than science, it questions every conceivable assumption, demolishes every conceivable logic and thought process. Real philosophy is truly non social and has no use whatsoever. It is this that makes it so much grander than science.
  7. Sep 14, 2005 #6
    I never said there was anything contradictory betwen predicting observables and philosophy. I said any definition of science that lacks mention of predictability is inadequate.

    On top of that I pointed out that in your definition you give an application of science that is simply not the primary application for almost anyone who works in science. The definition is simply lacking.
  8. Sep 20, 2005 #7
    Let us hold that the holy book in my hand is a "given phenomenon". Now, day after day, year after year, I "observe" my holy book, and improve my observations by reading yet more and more. After reading I sit in my chair for a time of "philosophic reflection".

    So, my question--where exactly is the "science" in the above ? --yet the process exactly meets your new "definition" of the "concept" we call science. By this definition my priest is as much a scientist as Einstein.

    Here is where I find your definition to be 1/2 lacking. Your definition only goes to 1/2 of the essence of science--it looks at the "repetitive" nature of science--"continued observation" of a given phenomenon.

    But there is another 1/2 essence of science that your definition misses, it is the aspect we can call "looking for constraints" (or redundancy) of the given phenomenon in question. Constraints of reality derive from laws of nature, from the fact that invariants may exist over a "set" of phenomena, and every law of nature implies that an invariant exists. Such laws exclude many options available for any observed "given phenomenon", predicting they will never be found. So, the second 1/2 essence of science is that it looks for laws of nature, it looks for constraints, it looks to predict, it looks to ask why the actualities of the observed "given phenomenon" should be restricted to some portion of the total possibilities.

    Finally, Science is not conducted for the application of "philosophic reflection" (which by definition means "thinking"), Science is a very specific type of "thinking" that is conducted to gain "knowledge" of that which exists, which is but one aspect of philosophy. The scientist wants to "know" and is always wanting when thinking about a given phenomenon leads to a dead end of "belief" or "supersition".

    So, here is my revision of your definition...

    Science is the modus operandi of epistemology, and it seeks to understand the repetitive and redundant aspects of given phenomenon by application of the laws of nature.
  9. Sep 21, 2005 #8
    Rade all that you can observe about the holy book by reading it every day are things like the texture of the paper and the weight of the book.
  10. Sep 22, 2005 #9
    Of course, your comment requires a definition of the word "observe", since you seem to suggest that words cannot be observed in books :confused:
  11. Sep 23, 2005 #10
    You're right, there are words in the books. This means that you can also comment on the font size and print quality. Anything else is not direct observation. The 'holy book' only contains anything of scientific value if it's contents can be repeated and verified directly. This is the difference between faith and science.
    Last edited: Sep 23, 2005
  12. Sep 23, 2005 #11
    The "words" in the book are visual symbols used to represent concepts, e.g., one word = one concept. Suppose in the holy book they use the word "earth". Its existence can be "repeated" and "verified directly" each day we awake from sleep. Most would hold that the contents of the earth have scientific value. Thus the logic of your argument is lost to me, of course there are many different "words" in the holy book that may have scientific value, but, as I stated in my first post, the process of reading those words (which demands observation) over and over cannot be the "definition of science", which was suggested by Another God in his/her initial post on this thread. Thus, while there may be facts of science in the holy book in the form of words which translate to concepts held, the process of observing those facts (and the concepts they connect to) over and over ending in reflection (of the concepts, not the words) is not what "defines" science. But, perhaps we are just talking past each other ?

    How about you take a stab at providing your definition of science, then I might better understand your prose.
  13. Sep 23, 2005 #12


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    What about people who don't observe "phenomena" but just the static properties of some class of objects, like people who study various species of birds and write down their average wing span, their colour, their bone structure, etc.? Of course, such a person might also study phenomena like how these birds digest food, how they reproduce, how they achieve locomotion, etc. But those that don't study these phenomena, but simply classify and describe various bird species would still be considered scientists, woudn't they?

    What about people who observe society, and find general patterns in behaviour and correlations among social variables? These people make no reference to natural laws, but these people are surely scientists.

    What about a person who saw a bright light, and with no justification, says it was a UFO. He tried to explain a phenomenon, but he's certainly not a scientist. He's not even a bad scientist or a pseudoscientist, he is no scientist at all. However, if we take a class of similar phenomena, like all the "strange" occurances of bright lights, and then say that (still without justification) these are due to UFOs, has this become science and/or bad science and/or pseudoscience, or is it still not science?

    I think that rather than trying to approach the problem of defining science in a top-down manner, giving one or two vague sentences which one attempts to stretch over everything we call science by exploiting the flexibility in the meaning of words, a synthetic approach is better. I think two things scientists do is:

    1) explain various classes of similar phenomena in a way that allows us to make predictions about such phenomena
    2) categorize and describe things that take part in phenomena, generally for the purpose of doing 1)

    If you can think of more things, please add them. We're attempting to build up to a definition of science, not forcibly squeeze everything we might call science into one of the above two options. Now a mathematician might try to classify and describe, say, groups. But groups don't take part in phenomena. A historian might try to classify and describe various wars of the past, but wars don't take part in phenomena. But wars are phenomena, and if studying the general properties of war helps us to explain and predict the behaviour of wars in the future, then a historian might be considered a scientist of sorts, but normally historians don't study wars for this purpose, so they fail the second criteria (in general). Those who study literature might be interested in categorizing and describing works of fiction, but works of fiction don't take part in phenomena. On the other hand, we might be interested in how works of fiction effect people psychologically, and in this case someone who classified works of fiction in order to study how they effect people might indeed be considered a scientist.

    Why "classes of similar phenomena?" Because the person attempting to explain why a specific electron went the way it did when it collided with another electron (and never again attempts to explain the dynamics of electron collisions) and the person attempting to explain why his friend "lost it" (and never again attempts to explain why anyone "loses it") are not scientists.

    Explaining phenomena means saying why it happened, giving causes or reasons. These causes or reasons are supposed to allow us to make predictions, because if we explain B by saying that A causes B, and we observe A, then we should predict B. Someone who explains why wars start scientists, specifically a sociologist or political scientist. A person who explains why electrons interact the way they do is a scientist, specifically a natural scientist, more specifically a physicist (more specifically, an electrodynamicist?).

    Good science is science that does a good job of explaining, and this means that the predictions it would have us make are often accurate. The scientific method allows us to do good science. Explaining phenomena as results of the mood that "the gods" are in is not science, because although it explains phenomena, i.e. it gives reasons for phenomena, it doesn't even allow us to make predictions because we don't know the moods of the gods.

    The idea is to build up to a definition of science, so if anything needs to be added to the above, please mention it. Of course, if something needs to be taken out, mention it too. Once we have a good definition, then we can work on simplifying it, but we should only simplify it as much as is reasonable, and no further.
  14. Sep 23, 2005 #13
    Rade I think the problem lies not in our definition of science but rather that of observation. Dictionary.com defines it as 'The act of noting and recording something, such as a phenomenon, with instruments' Sure you can gain wisdom from books but that is not the same as measurable observation in a scientific sense. What shape is the earth? How do you know have you ever flown around it from space? You have to accept the writings of other people that have, satelite data and whatever else. But to actually be one of those people who tell others you have to experience it for yourself.
  15. Sep 27, 2005 #14

    Another God

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    This will be hard to accept at first, but just try this for a moment:
    What is so unscientific about your opening paragraph???

    The studying of a bible, koran, torah etc for philosophical purposes, reflection, consideration can be just as scientific as the study of anything else. I will need for you to spell out what it is about studying the bible, and considering/reflecting/analysing its contents which makes it automatically unscientific before i can really work at showing you why this is not the case.

    I don't think i understand exactly what you mean here.
    Yes i am claiming that the major aspect of science comes down to the close inspection of a thing, and often repeating this observation with increasing technology/skill/ability: better design etc.

    AS for the second paragraph... I dont think that that need be say in the single sentence definition of science. That eventuality will fall out of 'good' consideration when it belongs. I mean, if nature does in fact put constraints on a set of phenomenon, for instance: Things with mass move towards each other, then careful consideration of thousands of years of obseravations on all things falling, and the movement of the astral bodies may eventually lead someone to conclude this sort of constraint. That is nothing special which needs particular mention. That is one possible outcome of reflection from collected data.

    If the data shows that no matter how hard we try, we cant measure the speed and location of a particle at once, then we conclude that these really small particles are actually in several places at once...they are not determiend, they are not constrained...

    Maybe that is a bad example, but my point is that good application of consideration to colected data will lead the thinker somewhere, whether the conclusion is to come up with a law of nature or anything else is ...just part of the whole picture. It isn't THE defining thing about it.

    Thinking doesnt lead to a real gain in knowledge, its the observation that leadds to a real gain in knowledge. Logical deductions are handy, but far from concrete. it isn't until a theory has been verified independently many times that one persons logical deduction is truley taken seriously. So observe, record, measure; consider and reflect on the data. If the data is good, if you rmind is in the right frame and you are on the ball you might come up with an idea/conclusion/theory etc. Propose the theory, and then if you dont try to verify it for yourself, other people will inevitably tell you why it wont work etc, and eventually it will be ignored/forgotten/accepted/ridiculed.

    AS for the death of beleif and superstition, this is precisely the sort of nonsense "belief" people have about science which i am partly trying to correct here. Science will always be driven by beleif. Thats what Thomas Kuhn was on about all that time. His basic premise was that a particular beleif system drove all research and lead to its own conclusions, and science would push down that path until it go so far down it that the technology or the experiments/observations had improved to a point where more and more anomalies came up and inevitably someone would point out that the overriding belief must be wrong, and scientific revolution will follow.

    Virtually every "great scientist" in history changed the world because he had a different paradigm to that of the common populace. It was their difference in beleif that lead them to challenge common beleif. They were the nut jobs, and i guarantee that nothing has changed in our day and age. Every great bit of science being done right now is probably being ridiculed and mocked because of the claims being made, and the beliefs of the person doing it.

    Apart from confusing me much more than my own definition did (i was trying to keep it simple), putting 'the laws of nature' in the definition seems to be circular to me. The whole point of science (philosophy) is to derive the laws of nature: to understand our universe. How can u apply the very thing you are trying to derive?
  16. Sep 27, 2005 #15

    Another God

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    Doch. Ignoring the words themselves and their meanings simply because you don't know their origin is ridiculous. What is your purpose for studying the book? If you want to understand typesetting and book binding in the 21st century, then sure, by all means ignore the words. But if you want to understand what the purpose of the book is, then study the words.

    Seriously, there is no need to approach this topic stupidly simply because i have given a really simple definition. When it comes to a topic like the bible, then it can be assumed that no one in their right mind would pick up the book, and isolate that thing and study it in a bubble. Just as no scientist studies a bird by itself. All phenomenon exists in relationship to its environment, and as such will always be studied thus. And so, with the bible, reading the descriptions of civilisation, the wars fought, the times of kings etc, and then comparing to history as told outside of the bible is relevent. But meh, i can't be bothered going into any more detail on how one could study the bible scientifically.

    I guess the point, moreso, is that the readings of a religious person who reads for their beleif is either being scientific (by my definition) because they are improving their understanding of the book as they go (reading more closely, noticing new things etc), and then they are ACTUALLY considering the things they are reading, putting them in context to other things they have read in the book etc, and trying to understand. There is nothing un-scientific about that. That is precisely what science is all about now, and forever no matter how u define it. Either they are doing that, or they are reading because they enjoy it, and there is no critical evaluation going on in their head.
  17. Sep 27, 2005 #16

    Another God

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    I'm partly inclined to try to answer your questions and justify why person X is a scientist, and person Y isn't, but then i am also partly inclined to say that it doesn't really matter what you want to call anyone or any activity which may or may not be science, what matters really is that the pursuit of knowledge which is based on real world phenomenon continues to be called science, but is done so in a way which is true to its nature, and is neither defamed or idealised. Science is great, I love it, I am a molecular biologist (therfore a scientist), and more importantly to me: I want to understand my universe. But I HATE people who speak badly against science because they dont understand it, and I HATE just as much people who pretend science is god like in its ability to tell truth from fiction. it can't. Scientific knowledge is just a sum of small human actions: Humans are fallible.

    So in response to who is and who isn't? Well, I don't know any better than is currently able to be decided on our current working definitions of science, but generally i think many of the 'arts' pursuits can be just as scientific as the chemistries and physics, while fields like psychology (renowned for fighting for its classification as 'a science') completely miss the point of being a science and waste way too much time trying to tick off all the 'science definiton' check boxes in their research: Look we have our observations, our hypothesis, our (scientific) method, our experiments, our statistical analysis, and our falsifiability, this study is therefore scientific, and all results MUST be true. QED. I hate that crap.

    Science = continued observation and improving techniques in observation. So the definition well covers day to day human behaviour, such as seeing one thing and trying to explain it to ourselves. As for the many occurences, then sure it may be bad science. I havent tried to seperate good science from bad science. Lessons learnt, intelligence and history will help do that for us.

    Remember: The desire to actually understand and explain things doesn't come from 'what science is'. What science is comes from our desire to understand. How we come to that understanding is where my definition comes into it, and whether people will be stupid or not is beyond the scope of a simple definition or even an entire forum discussion. If people want to see something 'strange' and instantly say it is unexplainable, and must therefore be flying saucers from alien planets, then that is their own stupidity, and up to the stupidity of other to beleive such flimsy evidence. Historically it is quite clear that there will always be some who will believe with no reason, and some who will prove otherwise, and some who will dismiss without knowing why etc. This all happens without need for reflection, it seems to be part of population statistics. Even when it comes to something like evolution. One group say it is well and truly conclusively proven without doubt, another say that it is all false, and they can prove it, most say that sure its true, the scientists have told us so, while many also say that its crap, because monkeys cant turn into people. Is it evolution good or bad science? Whatever you do, don't take a vote, because that won't tell you whether the science was good or bad. All you can do is beleive it, or don't beleive it, (with or without knowing everything about it you can) and then continue researching accordingly.

    I will have to reply to the rest of your psot later. It is late now.
  18. Sep 27, 2005 #17
    Another God I think your original definition is fine and I don't disagree that philosophical reflection is what gives us the meaning behind what we observe. Reading is not observation however. If your Holy Book says that someone walked on water have you then scientifically documented that surface tension is great enough to keep a man from sinking? You haven't done anything remotely resembling science until you repeat what is in the book for yourself and document the measurements that you take.
  19. Sep 27, 2005 #18

    Another God

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    But verifying the possibility of walking on water is not necessarily what it is about. IN fact, precisely the point of that book is to claim that such a thing is impossible except for this one time where the son of god was given the ability. Trying to recreate the conditions of that scenario and verify the possibility is simply impossible. And thus we have to resort back to internal references of text.

    The best example i can think of to try to parallel with the bible is the idea of cutting open a cat to understand how cats work. We may theorize that the heart pumps blood to the rest of the body providing it with oxygen, but to then try to replicate this with elaborate pumps and oxygen exchange thingies and miles and miles of tubing won't really help our understanding of how the arterial system works, at least not how it works IN THE CAT. It was one of aristotles biggest problems with his science: To understand how a cat works, the last thing you want to do is pull it apart, because then you have precisely what you don't want: A non-working cat.

    Now to try to relate this to the bible: The point is that the bible is a much simpler thing to take in holistically. You don't have to pull out individual things to test them, you can actually use its own internal references to find consistencies, inconsistencies, claims, statements of fact which can be verifieid or denied and so forth. So when the book says jesus walked on water, we can't test this directly, but this claim is made to show he is in fact special because he was the son of god. So what we can do is actually check the book vs things that can be checked: check out how historically accurate it is. You can then also check out how accurate it is predicting the future: something it is supposed to be able to according to itself. If they are accurate, then you can start to have a little confidence in the honesty of it, and thus have more faith it what else it says. If there are contradictions, then that is a problem for it's reliability. and so forth.

    I guess the point I am making is that this is just as much a matter of looking, paying attention and taking everything in and then being critical enough to understand what it means, how it claims to work and how it actually does, and to make a judgement from these things as observing the movement of 'heavenly' bodies.
  20. Sep 27, 2005 #19
    There are many different areas of study which help the overall development of mankind such as art, poetry, theology and philosophy. Each can help us gain insight into the universe and ourselves in different ways. Each has it's own principles that define it.
    I do think that your approach has merit but the word science has a specific meaning and you are misusing it. When you say that proving some things in the bible lets you "have more faith it what else it says" that is the difference. Faith. Not science.
    I don't presume to claim that anything in the bible is untrue but in order to have scientific value it has to be reproducable which is the basic tenet of what science means. Even if one were to somehow gain all the knowlege of the universe through reading a book they will still not have done anything scientific.
    Last edited: Sep 27, 2005
  21. Sep 28, 2005 #20

    Another God

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    yeah, you are probably right.

    I just know that you can analyse a book scientifically, the words included, but you are probably right that there is very little that can be done with that analysis outside of the book.
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