Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


What is Science? A philosophical overview
Lorraine Wilson & Michael Dillman


Summary by John O'Brien

What is Science?

The Point of this lecture was to discover how philosophy and science are related. Questions were asked like “What aspects of science do you find unique to the field?” and “how did philosophy evolve into science?” The presenters focused on what can be considered science and what is considered philosophy. They also mentioned that the two could be hard to differentiate. First, the presenters shared an image of a chart that that laid out the scientific method and how we typically follow this method. The class concluded that this image is important in guiding how questions are asked but plays no role in what questions scientists will ask. The presenters stressed that there is a progression of ideas in science, meaning that the questions scientists ask are sometimes developed from a philosophical theory. Science can also create its own theories or from the need derived from history or another field. It was pointed out that Aristotle and Plato were philosophers, but through their work in philosophy they played a major role in the development of scientific ideas. The presenter gave several examples of philosophers and scientists who have bridged science and philosophy.

Bellarmine and Galileo
The Presenters talked about the famous dispute between cardinal Bellarmine and Galileo. The dispute was presented as an example where philosophy and science clash. Galileo was brought to court over his claim that Earth was not the center of the universe. Bellarmine was given the task to prove him wrong by the Vatican. Bellarmine and Galileo used different forms of epistemic evidence that could not prove either wrong. Galileo was using observational evidence, while Bellarmine was using textual evidence, such as the word of God, which he considered as law.

The presenters talked about the following philosophers and their claims on scientific theory.

Popper claimed that science needs a question or a conjecture. Otherwise coincidences could be counted as supporting evidence in the sciences. Professor Davis pointed out that in biology, there is always an explanation that fits within evolution.

A philosopher who believed that human knowledge of laws in nature, even the most profound and universal, rely on the experiences of individuals and that truth is “Woven in a man-made fabric” .

Science is NOT an incremental process nor linear. Science is a web that connects ideas to create a foundation for further exploration and discoveries to create a new foundation on top of that. Paradigm shifts are heavily associated with Kuhn’s ideas. Paradigm shifts were one of the biggest topics of discussion during this presentation. The presenters began the discussion by asking the question “How did people not believe in things that are so obvious today? And began to answer their own question by saying “There was not enough information at the time so there were more paradigms.” One commenter said that part of Kuhn’s idea is that the old generation will die off and a paradigm shift will then occur when the new generation’s theory becomes the norm. And it was also pointed out that every physics student still learns Newtonian physics because it is still valuable even though it is not the whole truth.

The Presenters wanted to know what the class thought about modern or even future paradigm shifts.  And it was first decided that they cannot be seen coming, but one class member pointed out the some shifts can be sensed like the Higgs Boson particle that was theorized for years but only recently discovered. Whether the discovery of the Higgs Boson truly led to a paradigm shift was still up for debate because there are still so many questions surrounding it.

The presenters claimed that Kuhn’s term “Web” explains that paradigm shifts will not be instant. Paradigm shifts must involve looking at things in a different way. No description of observations, experiments or evidence is so complete that you can immediately have explanations.

The presenters brought up scientism in their lecture to talk about how important science is in our culture. This view starts from the premise that there is no good or reliable knowledge except through science. Professor Möbius said that scientism is dangerous because you can always have new paradigm shifts and scientism typically leads to scientific stagnation. Being scientifically honest also requires scientists to admit that there are possible problems with accepted theories.

Defining Science
One of the presenter’s goals for their lecture was to see if we could define science. Professor Davis defined science as “Descriptive science provides the necessary basis to explain the world, other fields can also do this because there can be patterns in history for example.” Professor DeVries added, there need to be testable predictions.  These can be tested by observations or experiments. The presenters asked “Will science ever end?” Professor Möbius answered, “No, each discovery comes with new questions. Science, if it is done right, i.e. keeps asking questions, will never end, because it automatically begets new questions. We simply should not be afraid to ask them.” The discussion ended with a comment about a Charles Deull, Patent official from 1900 and his claim that the patent office would close soon because there were not many inventions or discoveries left.