A Definition

Science is the process not the product. Ironically, science fiction writers best describe science:

Science does not purvey absolute truth, science is a mechanism. It’s a way of trying to improve your knowledge of nature, it’s a system for testing your thoughts against the universe and seeing whether they match.”  Isaac Asimov

Science is more than a body of knowledge. It is a way of thinking; a way of skeptically interrogating the universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility.” Carl Sagan

As the father of modern anthropology said in 1964:

The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he’s one who asks the right questions. Claude Lévi-Strauss

Science is a journey. Science began when Socrates walked around Athens asking questions like “What is justice?until the authorities put him to death for “corrupting the young”. While others argued what they knew to be true, he began by not knowing then defined and tested the alternatives, finding that those who claimed to know did not know at all. Socrates began the journey of science from ignorance to knowledge by not knowing. He invented thinking forward, going from agreed “facts” to conclude what wasn’t known before. The contrast is thinking backwards, going from what we assume to be true to find what supports it. Thinking forward creates knowledge while thinking backwards doesn’t, as we end up where we began So to say science is a state of knowing is like saying a journey is where you end up, while ignoring the harbor of not knowing where science begins. As Feynman explains:

We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress, we must recognize our ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty — some most unsure, some nearly sure, but none absolutely certain. Richard Feynman

Science is a way of asking questions about a reality. Following Socrates, science is seeking to answer questions about a reality based on evidence in a way that others can repeat. This means:

  • There must be a genuine question. Science as a journey begins with Socratic ignorance and ends with knowledge, so calling it a “state of knowing” ignores the journey. Science requires questions that have more than one possible answer, not fake questions like Why do objects that don’t sink in water float?This circular question contains the answer so it leads nowhere, and no journey means no science. Those who already know the answer to question are not scientists but priests. To call science a “body of facts” is to think we have the answers, as in 1894 when a physicist wrote:

“The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote… Many instances might be cited, but these will suffice to justify the statement that ‘our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth place of decimals.’” Michelson, 1894

How wrong he was! Only a few years later physics was upturned by relativity and quantum mechanics! The universe of knowledge, like the physical universe itself, is bigger than we think, or can even imagine. Any expert who knows their subject knows that we are nowhere near understanding everything.

  • There must be evidence from a reality. Socrates began with agreed propositions gathered from what was known at the time. His pupil was Plato, and his pupil Aristotle applied this approach to physics and ethics to set humanity on the path of science. Both cases involved working forward from evidence to conclusions, not backward from conclusions to evidence. By evidence is meant information generated by a reality and not selected by us, so choosing facts to support a case is not science. It is the difference between pushing a compass needle to a direction and letting it find true north by itself. So mathematics is evidence based because it’s conclusions are not directed by us but by a priori evidence from logical reality. A science may be evidence based but not empirical.
  • It must be repeatable. The beauty of a scientific approach is that others can take the same journey to verify its knowledge results. This lets a scientific community build upon each other’s work. Again, what cannot be repeated is not science.

This definition is general as it doesn’t limit science to the physical world we see. So mathematics and logic are formal sciences but not natural sciences. Linguistics is not based on the sensory world but is still science because language can generate evidence to test a theory. To require science to focus only on the natural world excludes the “unreal” data of computer simulations that generate evidence based on parameter propositions and so are science. Fairies are not accepted by science because they don’t generate repeatable evidence not because they are supernatural. To say what can’t be seen doesn’t exist is naïve, as physicists can’t see quarks but accept them based on repeatable evidence. Yet the multi-verse theory of physics is a fairy story since by definition we can’t gather evidence from other universes.

This definition is specific as it does not include the creative arts or skills. The artist conveys meaning to others by creative acts, of music, painting, poetry or pottery, but the scientist uncovers knowledge. This is not to say that art can’t be done scientifically, but a painter say who tried all the color alternatives of a painting to report the effect would be a poor painter. Equally a cook preparing a dinner who tried every option to see which was best would need many ovens, and even then could not guarantee a meal that night. While to apply knowledge is not science, any more than to know a fact is to be a scientist, there are applied sciences that test how knowledge can be applied to practical problems, e.g. architecture uses design science to explore how things can be built, but building things in itself is not science. Likewise computer science as the study of hardware and software design is science but programming per se is not.

Science is not just learning new things, as even monkeys do that. Nor is it being creative as that is art. It is not limited to the physical world, as mathematics gathers evidence in symbolic worlds. Nor does it require fixed universal rules, as the quantum theory conclusion that physical events are inherently random is a finding of science like any other. Science is the journey to discover new knowledge based on sharing evidence with others. The next section explores how the journey of science proceeds.

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