Michael Battalio


Friday, November 20, 2015

Serious conversations (part 65): What is science - part 3

This series is a continuation of my conversations with an atheist friend of mine.  These are my edited responses from that conversation.  The sixty-third – sixty-ninth entries deal with the nature of science.

We have defined science; now we considering the evolution of science.

In the 1600’s there was a great discussion about how science should be performed.  Robert Boyle proclaimed that the way to discover the nature of the world was by controlled experimentation, and the results were considered the “truth.”  Thomas Hobbes maintained that the way to discover truths about the world was via thought (e.g. the Ancient Greeks).  Controlled experimentation was a radical idea.  People 500 years ago didn't just know less than we do now; they would not have even trusted our methods for knowing things.  The scientific method wasn't a discovery.  It was an invention.
The Greeks certainly used thought to elucidate nature and did quite a good job for it.  It is amazing how much they learned given they couldn’t really experiment thoroughly.  In a way we still are having the fight between Boyle and Hobbes today.  Consider particle physics.  Theoretical physicists have been using the standard model to make predictions for decades, hoping to beat the experimentalists in “discovering” a new particle or at least to guide the experimentalists to where the new particle would be.  Many a Nobel has been shared between the team that theoretically predicted the particle and the group that found the particle.  The same thing could be said of the field of exoplanetary atmospheres.  It was presumed for a long time that planets outside the solar system had atmospheres, and attempts were even made to come up with categories for them.  And now we are starting to do it.  It’s what I want my post-doc to be in actually.  So, there is this constant pull between those who would use thought and those who experiment.  Admittedly, the analogy is poor because theoreticians invariably use the scientific tool of mathematics to aid the thought process.  In the end, isn’t the scientific method just an application of logic and thought to divine the nature of existence?  Again, theorists in any field are doing just what Hobbes advocated for.  I would argue that Boyle and Hobbs were both talking about two sides of the same coin.  Logical thought and the scientific method help one another and depend on each other in the same way theory and experiment need each other to advance.

I think it will usually be that the theory will drive experiment from the practical reason that it is much less resource intensive to theorize than experiment.  Unless that is, there is some unexpected discovery.  The problem lies in where the theory gets ahead of the experiment (reality) – so far ahead that it goes off the rails.  Theory needs experimentation to constrain and guide.  Theory that has no hope of describing reality is nothing more than a game.   Science requires observation to describe reality.  

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