At the Edge of Science

In universities where they are taught, there are two subjects which are usually combined into one department: the history of science and the philosophy of science; and they can make strange bedfellows. The history of science, reconstructing the problems with which great men of science of the past were confronted, and paying due attention to the state of knowledge then attained, studies the way in which they solved those problems, if necessary repeating the observations and the experiments which they made. Such studies can be as objective as the work that they retrace; in a sense they are verifications of old data, and can qualify as science.

With the philosophy of science, the situation can be different. One distinguished leader in this field has said that scientific observations and experiments do not really tell us anything about the universe, but only suggest to us how to draw a picture of the universe. The trouble with this is that it lets the door wide open to considerations which are not scientific but subjective. This is how there has come to be a Roman Catholic philosophy of science, of which Galileo once fell foul, which placed Montesquieu’s and Erasmus Darwin’s works on the Index of prohibited books, and which has still not reconciled itself to facts of human ecology. On the other side there has arisen a Marxist history of science in the name of which Nicolai Ivanovitch Vavilov was murdered and a whole science—genetics—for a time stifled. These are some of the reasons why scientists are suspicious of the philosophy of science, for since the conclusions to which it comes can rarely be subjected to experimental tests, it may be philosophy but may also not be science.

And yet the problem cannot be shrugged off easily. However hardheaded and objective the scientist may be in the laboratory, the time always comes when he must make sense of his results. In any scientific discipline, say chemistry, it is usually the case that the data can be arranged in the framework of more than one hypothesis. Eventually, if he is lucky, the scientist decides on one of these hypotheses in preference to the others. Was the reason why he preferred that hypothesis to the others a chemical reason? No; it was because, in his view, it accorded with more data than did the others, and encountered fewer obstacles. In other words, it seemed to him to approximate more closely to, to what? We must avoid saying “to the truth,” because that may involve a moral judgment, but we can say, to the accurate description of whatever phenomenon of nature was being studied. This preference for refinement of accuracy is not itself chemical; nor was the preference for the Copernican as opposed to the Ptolemaic system itself astronomical; nor is the preference for the theory of evolution by natural selection of heritable variation, over the mysticism of special creation, itself biological. What has come in here is a sense of …

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Letters

Vulcanists & Neptunists October 6, 1966