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Tag Archives: Science

sciences in general, what they are and their methods

Conventions and properties

Everything in science is a combination of conventions and properties. For example, frames of reference have certain conventions in common and particular properties that each individual frame has. The definition of a frame of reference is the first convention. Every frame of reference has an origin and at least the possibility of one or more coordinate axes. But the particular origin of a frame need not be in common with other frames; it is a particular property of one frame.

Definitions and postulates are conventions. Stipulations and measurements are properties. Physical laws are conventions with the appropriate supporting definitions and postulates. Interpretations of events become conventions when they are widely accepted.

The SI metric system is the international convention for measurement (i.e., metrology). Individual measurements are properties of things. Kinematics and dynamics have a convention for simultaneity (as well as simulstanceity). The orientation of orthogonal axes follows a convention for the order of the axes and the direction of positivity.

Science and Hypothesis excerpts

What follows are excerpts from the book Science and Hypothesis by Henri Poincaré, translated (1905) from La Science et l’hypothèse (1902).

p.xxiii The latter [definitions or conventions] are to be met with especially in mathematics and in the sciences to which it is applied. From them, indeed, the sciences derive their rigour; such conventions are the result of the unrestricted activity of the mind, which in this domain recognises no obstacle. For here the mind may affirm because it lays down its own laws; but let us clearly understand that while these laws are imposed on our science, which otherwise could not exist, they are not imposed on Nature. Are they then arbitrary? No; for if they were, they would not be fertile. Experience leaves us our freedom of choice, but it guides us by helping us to discern the most convenient path to follow.

p.xxv Space is another framework which we impose on the world. Whence are the first principles of geometry derived? Are they imposed on us by logic? Lobatschewsky, by inventing non-Euclidean geometries, has shown that this is not the case. Is space revealed to us by our senses? No; for the space revealed to us by our senses is absolutely different from the space of geometry. Is geometry derived from experience? Careful discussion will give the answer—no! We therefore conclude that the principles of geometry are only conventions; but these conventions are not arbitrary, and if transported into another world (which I shall call the non-Euclidean world, and which I shall endeavour to describe), we shall find ourselves compelled to adopt more of them.

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Science, unity and duality

It is a Christian concept (or at least a theistic concept) that the world we inhabit is a universe. The existence of the universe requires there to be a perspective that encompasses the whole of the world, which is the perspective of a transcendent divinity. The universe is thus the whole of creation.

It is said that natural science studies the universe, but natural science today does not recognize a transcendent being, and so cannot genuinely recognize the universe. What can natural science recognize as the world that it investigates?

Natural science recognizes law and chance, the regular and the stochastic, but what determines the mix of law and chance? There are three possibilities: (1) the mix of law and chance is determined by law, in which case science investigates a cosmos; (2) the mix of law and chance is determined by chance, in which case science investigates a chaos; or (3) the mix of law and chance is determined by another mix of law and chance, which, if this duality continues at every level, indicates a dualism of law and chance as two independent principles for science to investigate.

Natural science seeks unity, so option (3) is distasteful. Option (2) is distasteful for aesthetic reasons, as well as for its lack of meaning. Option (1) is the least distasteful, and the science community increasingly states that they investigate a cosmos, a world of order that we inhabit. But mere law and order seems fatalistic, and the reality of chance keeps rearing its head, which undermines (1).

This pattern of seeking unity and finding duality occurs in other ways, too. Space and time are duals, but can they be unified by space or time? Either space alone is real (and time is unreal), or time alone is real (and space is unreal), or there is a duality of space and time that cannot be unified. Again, the first option is the most popular, though it has the same weaknesses as above.

The most satisfying answer for these dualities is that science investigates a universe, a unity that can be fully grasped only transcendently, but may be glimpsed by us. This gives us confidence that there is a unity, even if we haven’t yet found how that unity is shown by observation and experimentation. It is a qualified unity, which is not troubled by duality, and does not seek to force unity on a diverse universe.

Historians and scientists

Historians establish the facts of history, of what happened in the past. They do this with a variety of sources, some documentary, some physical, and whatever else they find is relevant. Key particulars are more significant than universals in establishing the facts of history. Historians may consider scientific theory in doing this, but they may also conclude that some things happened that don’t fit well with current scientific theory. Whether or not there was an earthquake in 1755 that destroyed Lisbon is a matter of history, not science.

Scientists are dependent on historians for the facts of history. Scientists do not get to establish the facts of history, nor the limits of what could have happened in the past. The latter restriction is difficult for scientists to observe. If historians establish facts that don’t fit well with current scientific theory, then scientists are likely to react defensively rather than revise their theories.

Biblical (or creation) scientists consider the Bible as the key to history, and limit science to that which is consistent with biblical chronicles. As with all scientists, they depend on historians for facts about the past but not all historians have a high view of the biblical record. Disagreements among historians lead to variations in science, since they are working with different facts about the past.

The different rôles of historians and scientists are often confused. Astronomy is a case in point. Astronomical historians may work with documents produced by those who could be considered scientists from the distant past. But the interpretation of ancient or medieval scientific documents is not part of science. Astronomical historians deal with the particulars of history, in which universals play only an indirect rôle.

Astronomical scientists deal with universals, as all scientists do, and make use of the facts of history along with recent observations. Scientists may advise historians but science is dependent on history for facts about the past, not the other way around.

Physical history

At the highest level of classification, history may be divided into human history (better known simply as ‘history’) and physical history. The former is a large subject with many subdivisions, while the latter is usually turned over to the physical sciences. This is a pity since science and history are different disciplines (see posts here). What follows is a description of physical history as distinct from physical science.

History requires an agent of some kind. The environment is the proxy for an agent in evolutionary science. In physical history the agent is either humanity or one or more non-physical beings that connect to the physical world at its boundaries. The metaphysics of the latter are of no interest here, only their possibility. In other words, the physical universe has boundary conditions that are given; they are not a result of physical laws or processes.

But this sets up a potential conflict between a boundary condition which could have been the result of physical laws or process but was not. It would be simple to assume that all boundary conditions are such that they could not have been the result of physical laws or processes. But that assumes the limits of physical laws or processes are known, when they are to be determined rather than assumed.

Accordingly, the limits of physical laws and processes are themselves a matter of investigation. In other words, such limits are an open question. A good example of this is the argument for the existence of design in the physical world apart from human design. From human design we know something of what design is; if the physical world exhibits the features of human-like design but were not designed by humans, then a boundary condition has been found.

Otherwise, physical history is like human history. Physical particulars of the past are at the forefront, and universals of physical science are in the background. Whatever might be determined by physical science is acknowledged but the significant changes, the physical catastrophes and surprises, are granted a much greater rôle. There will no doubt be controversies between those who place much weight on key events versus those who look to the slow accumulation of little changes but such is usual for history.

Cycle of science

There is a well-known alternation of induction and deduction in science (click to enlarge):

induction-deduction cycleThe induction phase consists of data collection, data analysis, and model development. The deduction phase consists of taking the model, making hypothetical inferences, and following up with experiments that lead to new data collection. Then the cycle repeats.

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Isaiah Berlin on history and science

The following (long) excerpts are from Isaiah Berlin’s article “History and Theory: The Concept of Scientific History”, published in History and Theory 1 (1):1 (1960). Republished in Concepts and Categories: Philosophical Essays. NY: Viking Press, 1979. (online here).

HISTORY, according to Aristotle, is an account of what individual human beings have done and suffered. In a still wider sense, history is what historians do. Is history then a natural science, as, let us say, physics or biology or psychology are sciences? And if not, should it seek to be one? And if it fails to be one, what prevents it? Is this due to human error or impotence, or to the nature of the subject, or does the very problem rest on a confusion between the concept of history and that of natural science? These have been questions that have occupied the minds of both philosophers and philosophically minded historians at least since the beginning of the nineteenth century, when men became self-conscious about the purpose and logic of their intellectual activities. But two centuries before that, Descartes had already denied to history any claim to be a serious study. Those who accepted the validity of the Cartesian criterion of what constitutes rational method could (and did) ask how they could find the clear and simple elements of which historical judgements were composed, and into which they could be analysed: where were the definitions, the logical transformation rules, the rules of inference, the rigorously deduced conclusions? While the accumulation of this confused amalgam of memories and travellers’ tales, fables and chroniclers’ stories, moral reflections and gossip, might be a harmless pastime, it was beneath the dignity of serious men seeking what alone is worth seeking – the discovery of the truth in accordance with principles and rules which alone guarantee scientific validity.

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History and science combined

For previous posts on history and science, see here.

History and science are different kinds of knowledge. History is based on the particulars that go into narratives. Science is based on the universals that go into theories.

History is focused on the matter and science is focused on the form, in the Aristotelian sense. The nature of something is its essence, its participation in universals, which is why there are natural sciences. Social sciences look at the form of human interaction. The term natural history is an older term for a scientific investigation into the natural world, especially biology, not a history in the modern sense.

The matter of something is its key particulars. Physical history is the investigation of the key particulars of physical objects in the past resulting in a narrative. This might be called natural history, but that term has meant science so it would be confusing. The investigation of the key particulars of documents in the past resulting in a narrative is simply called history.

History and science can be combined to explain something in the past. Yes. This is often called science but it is mainly history, with science assisting. For example, the investigation leading to the conclusion that the extinction of the dinosaurs was caused by a large asteroid or volcano is physical history that is commonly called science. Key particulars explain what happened. Science provides support. The result is a narrative, not a theory. (See here.)

The explanation of an event or series of events is history, since the particulars of events are history, even if science takes a supporting rôle. The explanation of a phenomenon or multiple phenomena is science, since their explanation depends on their nature, even if history takes a supporting rôle.

Repeating events entail universals that require science for explanation. Non-repeating events entail particulars that require history for explanation. Ancient mythology tried to explain repeating events through particulars, e.g., Zeus’ anger explains lightening, as if their nature was irrelevant. Modern mythology tried to explain unique events through universals, as if their substance was irrelevant.

“Creation science” concerns created universals. “Creation history” concerns created particulars.

Intellectual hierarchies

Societies have an intellectual hierarchy reflected in their academic hierarchy that exhibit their scale of concepts and values. There are basically three groups of intellectual disciplines: the study of divinity (theology), the humanities, and the sciences. There are six possible ways of ordering these three, which shows the intellectual state of a society.

(1) Theology, humanities, sciences: This is the medieval and Renaissance order.

(2) Theology, sciences, humanities: This is the early modern order, which is deistic with scientific realism.

(3) Humanities, theology, sciences: This is the conservative Catholic order, which is humanistic and traditionalist.

(4) Humanities, sciences, theology: This is the liberal Catholic order, which is humanistic with scientific realism.

(5) Sciences, theology, humanities: This is the conservative Protestant order, which is scientistic with theological realism.

(6) Sciences, humanities, theology: This is the late modern order, which is scientistic and humanistic.

Order number (1) is the proper one because it places the highest truth (God) first, then humanity second, then the world after these are properly understood.

Deep time postulate

This subject was previously mentioned, e.g., here.

James Hutton proposed introducing deep time into modern science in 1788. In the early 19th century it was accepted for the geologic time scale. Biologists followed with Darwinism in the late 19th century. Astronomers accepted it to explain cosmology.

What’s wrong with the deep time postulate (DTP)?

The DTP is a large expansion of explanatory resources. It may be compared with explaining crimes by assuming that everyone has access to a large amount of cash. That may make it easier to explain crimes, but such an assumption leads to poor quality explanations.

Similarly, the DTP makes scientific explanations easier, but not better. The more time there is, the more time that one has to fit all the events that might have happened to bring about some state of affairs. But easier does not make better.

This is most egregious in evolutionary biology, in which the possibility of the extremely unlikely happening becomes seemingly more likely the more time there is. It leads to the evolutionary imagination running riot with possibilities. Such a science turns away from what actually occurred.

The DTP invents a whole history that is discontinuous with history based on documents and testimonies. Such a time is not the time of memory but of calculation. It obscures the difference between science and history. History seeks key particulars, whereas science looks for universals. It will not do to replace history with science, as the 19th century ideologues tried to do (Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, Karl Marx).

Science is based on induction, not explanation. The slow accumulation of evidence, the incremental formation of hypotheses and laws, and experimental testing are the hallmarks of science. Grandiose postulates are contrary to this careful effort. The DTP should be rejected.