The Philosophy of Science
Updated: Oct 5, 2020
Author Credit: Rutvik Marathe
F=ma, E=mc². The mitochondrion is the powerhouse of the cell. Many people have heard these famous formulas and facts before. For some they can be the source of great inspiration; for many, a source of fear and anxiety (relating to the complex topics around them). This is what the vast majority of people think of when they look at science — I know I did as well. They see it as equations and principles to study about in school (and maybe some cool facts you can use to impress your friends). Before I started studying the history of scientific ideology, I appreciated the uses of science beyond just interesting trivia — like its applications in rocketry, computing, bioengineering, and many other fields. But I didn’t really get what the ideology behind science itself actually was. What I appreciated was not the concept of science itself, but rather its findings and applications.
So what is this ideology behind science, if it isn’t about the parts of the cell or the electrons in an atom? Science is a method or process, used in different fields to make discoveries, answering some of our most fundamental human questions. Everyone has pondered the quintessential philosophical questions like “how am I here?” or “why do things happen the way they do?” Without using a clear-cut thinking process, the things that happen on Earth or in ourselves may just seem random and unconnected. To make any substantial discoveries, we need to have a way to evaluate our ideas and determine which theories are right and which aren’t. That process is the famous scientific method.
What’s so great about the scientific method? Most remember it in school as a tedious list of writings when in science class. Students are often made to memorize the different parts of the scientific method — hypothesis, control group, instructions, results, analysis, etc. What’s more fascinating and essential to science is the reasoning and thought process behind the scientific method. Why do we even look at the handful of steps in an experiment when evaluating a hypothesis? It’s not meant to be busywork or a handwriting exercise. The main idea of going through those steps is this critical idea: when you are considering an idea, you must try as hard as possible to prove it wrong. That’s why one must painstakingly make measurements, calculations, and evaluations on whether the results fit the hypothesis. After performing experiments, or observing the actions and behavior of the topic of study, you must prove without a doubt that the hypothesis really holds. If you find reasonable evidence that goes against the idea, you will inevitably have to go back to the drawing board. Passing a strenuous number of tests is the major requirement for any theory to be considered valid. By doing so — being very careful in checking over all your assumptions — you can be sure (within a certain amount of error) whether the idea stands or not. This is the base thinking behind the scientific method, and its power is what has led to so much technological and societal growth in the last few centuries. It’s unfortunate that students have to just perform the steps in an experiment rather than learn this kind of scientific ideology; the reason we practice science in the first place.
In a complex world, we need a way to think and analyze the way things work around us. As discussed earlier, science is not about interesting facts, but a clear-cut thinking process that connects the mysterious and unknown to understandable ideas. And by doing it right, you are bound to unlock some of the mysteries of our existence. Discussions in the book Cosmos look into the idea that left alone with the scientific method, any civilization would discover the same laws of biology, chemistry, or physics. Ancient civilizations in Europe, Asia, and the Americas were on track to each become scientifically advanced if the world hadn’t become connected before they had the chance. That’s because these findings are prevalent wherever you look. It shows why the method of science is so important — if followed correctly, you have a high chance of achieving progress.
That’s good and all — the scientific method is an effective process of making new discoveries and growth. So why is it important to study today if you don’t plan on becoming a scientific researcher? Why should we need to understand or think through it at all? To answer this, we should take a look back in history. Hindsight is known as being 20/20, meaning that we can learn well from history the mistakes of the past — and how to avoid them today.
The origin of the scientific method was in Ionia, located in present-day Greece. Starting in the 6th century BC, famous philosophers like Thales, Democritus, and Anaxagoras focused on the stars, as well as the chemical properties of matter (Democritus is famous for coining the term “atom” as the smallest building block of matter). Ideas of performing experiments to validate theories became popular among these early scientists. Many studied the motion of stars and sought to understand how it worked. Though they made important discoveries and proposed questions that would lead to the rise of modern science, their way of thinking — the scientific way — was shut down quickly, due to society’s views. People did not believe in “silly” ideas such as the fact that the sun may actually be larger than the Earth, or that the moon reflected the light of the sun. You can’t blame them — it isn’t obvious to those who haven’t studied the matter. Looking at the sheer size below their feet, and at a small ball in the sky, it should be obvious that the Earth is the largest, grandest structure that exists. Not many appreciated the scientific method of conducting tests or collecting data to check their understandings. For these reasons, early scientists were often banished or even killed because of their controversial statements. This shut down major scientific progress for nearly 2000 years, a period which included the Dark Ages. This time period was known for illness, poverty, and a very disconnected society — in part because of the destruction of knowledge. Barbarian tribes destroyed many book collections throughout European cities, and the majority of people had no education or access to the works of thinkers like Aristotle. Overall, people were very fearful in this period as they didn’t know what to think of their situations, and many turned to hoaxes or strange practices in their daily lives. It wasn’t until the Italian Renaissance in the middle of the second millennium AD that this changed. When the ideas of the early scientists were once again followed by those who challenged conventional thinking (Copernicus, Galileo), the Scientific Revolution began, leading to where we are today. I don’t need to emphasize how important the modern scientific and technological revolutions have been for us — we see it everywhere we look. Looking back at this time period reveals how growth in scientific thinking is very strongly associated with societal growth and improvement.
I hope through this article you can understand that the scientific method is more than just a list of busywork to go through — and is actually a mindset that is absolutely essential if you want to make progress and discoveries. It is because of this very process that we have made so much growth as a society. It is easy to understand why the famous astronomer Carl Sagan once said that the method of science is more important than scientific discoveries. Additionally, it is imperative that this thought process — the scientific thought process — continues to thrive in society. It will only be to our benefit if more people are educated in its ways, especially because we don’t want a regression to a time period like the Dark Ages. Scientific growth connects to the evolution and benefit of society. While we still have much to learn about how everything around us works, if we stay on our current track, we can be optimistic about the future of human civilization.
Sagan, Carl. Cosmos: Carl Sagan. Ballantine Books, 1985.
Spencer, J. Brookes, and Margaret J. Osler. “Scientific Revolution.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 26 Nov. 2019, www.britannica.com/science/Scientific-Revolution.
The Philosophy of Science, undsci.berkeley.edu/article/philosophy.