Science is an uncompromising master which if obeyed becomes a powerful servant · Can we recommit to following Science's unyielding but powerful principles?
Invented, or Discovered ?
Are we in charge of Science or vice versa?
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What is and is not scientifically valid?
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Science and Causation
Is everything in the universe predetermined?
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Science and Naturalism
Are all causes in the universe strictly internal?
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What is Science, anyway? How do we define it? Science is a method of discovering trustworthy empirical knowledge about the universe. It may be surprising to learn that it is built on other more fundamental ways of knowing. Scientists who are experimentalists depend largely on experiential knowledge from their experimental observations. Scientists who are theoreticians rely heavily on reasoning from prior scientific theories and experimental results. Scientists also rely on authoritative sources of knowledge to provide a starting point for their work. And every practicing scientist has experienced intuitive knowledge, where ideas that later prove highly fruitful seem to synthesize in their thinking out of nowhere.
In the end, the core measure of Science is consistently-correct prediction of the universe's measurable behavior. There is no higher criterion. There are, however, foundational criteria that make this achievement possible. These criteria include logical consistency, theory falsifiability, theoretical and experimental repeatability, and the expectation of exactly-correct predictions. Failure to meet any of these and other foundational criteria at best undermines research efforts' likelihood of success and at worst makes them unscientific.
Science rings loud in our culture today, but do many of today's prominent scientific voices wear Science's mantle without following its rigorous principles in their claims? If so, then it's up to us as we listen to those voices to know those principles and evaluate what we hear by them. That, after all, is what a genuinely scientific perspective would require. We can practice Careful Science by listening for clear adherence to scientific consistency, theory falsifiability, experimental repeatability and prediction correctness when prominent scientists represent Science to us. After all, should we not seek to be as careful in our thinking as we ask our scientists to be?
Was Science invented or discovered? As a way of understanding the world, has Science been there all the time, just waiting to be found, or did we human beings create it ourselves like we'd build a tunnel through a mountain? It definitely seems like we discovered it, but then what did we discover? First, perhaps, that the universe is self-defining. It has a clear consistency that makes the idea of a "law of the universe" meaningful. Even the quantum weirdness we've discussed is always the same weirdness. (Follows the laws of weirdness, I suppose.) Then, second, we discovered this thing called Logic that seems to sit at the top of the way the universe works. It seems like we had to discover that too: we didn't invent it, it looks like it was already there the whole time. The universe as a whole behaves in precisely logical ways. But there's a third thing. And that third thing breaks both those rules. This thing rules over reality in a limited way, and defies the control of logic in the normal course of events. You can guess by now what that class of things is: it's living beings, and particularly humans.
Here's the twist: it's only our freedom from the universe's complete control that enables us to explore and understand that universe through Science. When we do explore our universe, however, it seems clear that we can only do it by bringing ourselves under the authority of those first two rules, by respecting the reality of the universe and the logical principles that lie above it. Outside of Science, we can choose whether or not to behave in a logical manner, and we can even refuse to believe in some or all of the real world that's right before our eyes. But when we do Science, that requires us by definition to submit our own thinking and action to these two truths, that reality and logic set the rules completely.
So Science is not ours to define: it must be done carefully and in accordance with the truths of the universe it studies. Careful Science, it certainly seems, must avoid promotion of theories of the universe that can't be disproved, or that are logically inconsistent with scientific data,, or that are declared correct by virtue of scientists' authority alone. If Science fails to meet these rigorous requirements, it appears to risk reverting to long-rejected prescientific thinking that led humankind nowhere. We should be concerned that a careless approach could risk damaging the very core functionality of Science itself.
Science uses two disciplines that depend on each other, called theory and experiment. Experiments' results help drive the development of theories to explain those results. But theories in turn then drive experiments to test whether those theories' latest predictions are correct. Scientific investigations cycle through these two steps to refine Science's understanding of the Universe. The process as a whole is called "Scientific Method". Any issue with the theory or experiment that interferes with this cycling feedback process basically stops scientific progress until things can be fixed and the process restarted. Examples of such issues or problems are theories that can't be "falsified" (that is, tested conclusively by experiment), experiments that can't resolve the details the theory predicts, and theoretical derivations or experimental results that can't be duplicated by other researchers.
The tremendous investments of the last several decades in outstanding tools like the Large Hadron Collider in Europe and the many powerful ground-based and satellite telescopes around the world have brought amazing new scientific discoveries. But we're frankly running out of resources because the next steps in experimental development add another huge jump in investment costs. So in the loop that runs between theory and experiment, the experiment side is slowing down its rate of results.
What's a Careful Scientist to do? Well, what a scientist ought not to do is abandon experiment as the final test of a theory's correctness. That, however, seems to be what is happening. More and more unfalsifiable explanations are being promoted as solid scientific theories, even though they can't be tested due to experimental limitations or, what is worse, due to the very design of the theory itself. It seems very important to reassert the core principles of Science, and ask for definitive clarity and distinctions among the various degrees of explanations for the universe. We can distinguish among ideas, explanations, theories, scientific theories, verified scientific theories and well-verified scientific theories, and if we do so, Science can become much more Careful again.
We've talked about the three categories of things in the universe: the first category whose behavior is exactly predictable, the second category that is predictable in the average, and the third category that is intrinsically unpredictable. In this panel we delve deeply into a simple example that helps describe and define that third category more clearly.
Here's the question: flipping coins randomly as fast as possible, how many heads in a row does it take before the time needed to get that number extends beyond the age of the universe? Let's explain: when you start flipping a coin at random, it will come up heads sometimes, and tails sometimes. Sometimes it will come up heads twice in a row. Even less often, it will come up heads 10, or 20, or 50 times in a row. As you keep flipping, the wait time for these large numbers of heads-in-a-row gets longer and longer. So how many heads in a row would make you wait longer than the age of the universe, 13.8 billion years? The answer? Only 202 heads in a row.
But make one little change, and getting 202 heads in a row takes about three minutes. What's that change? Ask a human being to do it. (The videos above give you an idea of the difference.) This helps us clarify our point that living beings routinely achieve arbitrarily improbable results. Nonliving processes are bound by 100%-probable cause-effect relationships, and require extraordinary conditions to create those arbitrarily-improbable results (like 202 heads) that living beings create all the time. Recall too our point that other human-caused phenomena like skyscrapers, space flights to Jupiter, or medicines, are so extremely improbable that we don't ever expect natural law alone to create them.
Some scientists look at the extreme regularity of the nonliving universe and conclude that living beings simply "must" be completely governed by those laws of the universe like everything else is. But Careful Science recognizes living beings as a third category of things in the universe, whose cause-effect capabilities seem to differ fundamentally from every other type of thing in the universe. Just put down 202 heads in a row and you'll be demonstrating that Careful Science fact.
Naturalism generally presents the idea that the universe is "causally closed," that is, everything that happens in the universe, every effect, has its cause within the universe. Nothing outside the universe under this view, whether outside in time, in space, or in any nonphysical dimension, ever has any effect on the universe. Although this idea can't be proved, it serves a very important function in Science. Before this commitment to look only for natural explanations of events, scientific explorations often short-circuited when inconsistencies in observations and results occurred. In a causally-open universe, it was always tempting to invoke outside causes when the best natural-cause theories failed to explain events. Only when scientists discarded the idea that outside causes could ever be involved did they find the discipline to discover natural processes that were responsible for the observed events. So naturalism became a powerful, important foundation that drove outstanding successes in Science.
There's at least one scenario, however, in which Naturalism could begin to work against Science. Remember our description of Newton's theory of Gravity? It explained everything perfectly. Until, that is, Science had two centuries of progress in theories and experimental capabilities, and a little tiny discrepancy in Newton's predictions showed up in our best experiments. But when that little discrepancy was finally explained, the theory that did the explaining, Einstein's General Relativity theory, also uprooted every concept of the universe scientists held at that time. No idea or theory, not even Newton's, was above question. Had it been, Science would never learn the truth about reality.
So in Careful Science is it wise to shield any of our assumptions from questions, testing or investigation? There do seem to be some significant discrepancies, as well as significant correlations, that put pressure on the assumption of a closed universe. One difficulty is the breakdown of determinism as an explanation of living beings' behavior. (We discuss this under the Life page.) Another is that the best scientific results appear to build a strong logical correlation between living beings' arbitrarily-improbable events and the universe's improbable events. (See the Cosmology page.) In light of these, if Careful Science is to be preserved, must we not be willing to test the unproved assumption of Naturalism?