Michael Battalio

Friday, December 11, 2015

Serious conversations (part 66): What is science - part 4

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 are exploring what exactly is science in this subseries.  So far we’ve given a formal definition of science (a systematic observation of nature to elucidate facts with the goal of describing laws or formulae to generalize some phenomena), we’ve considered the evolution of science and its current ubiquity.  Now we take specific examples to consider who exactly is a scientist.

I would consider a detective a scientist.  This one really caused me to think, because at first I was torn over the requirement that the scientist must uncover some fundamental truth about nature or the universe.  But, if am to consider a social scientist a scientist, I must consider a detective a scientist as a detective is solving problems created by other humans.  A social scientist ascertains how humans change and are changed by the environment; similarly, as crimes must be committed by humans it could be argued a detective is part social scientist.  Additionally, I imagine the scientific method is oft applied in testing hypotheses by detectives.  It seems more obvious to me that a medical doctor is a scientist.
What about an historian?  I think history is a type of science, though I put it on the low end of the science hierarchy and almost in a wing of its own.  History is a unique subject in that it is not defined by laws or truths but is merely the description of how those laws were made manifest in the past.  Historians use the scientific method to study history.  Evidence is collected from artifacts and records to understand what happened and why.

Can a machine be a scientist?  For now I would say no.  There aren’t machines that are smart enough to perform the discovery required to be a scientist.  Machines can only do what they are told to do.  They can’t act on new information by drawing inferences or conclusions.  I suspect I will have to change my answer in a few years/decades as artificial intelligence becomes more adaptive.  It could very well be that the singularity could be defined by when machines become better scientists than humans.  For all I know I could be one of the last generations of human scientists because the speed with which computers can perform science will be so much great than humans.  We will never be able to keep up, assuming we can actually program a computer to adapt as it would be needed to perform science.

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