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Philosophers of science

Writing as Science


Quora Answer : What questions can science not yet answer?

Aug 28, 2010

I disagree that science can answer all questions about the natural world.

Science is a special kind of research program that only sees certain kinds of facts. Specifically, science is the knowledge of things qua members of types about which you can make generalizations. It can ask about things qua bodies with mass. Qua electrons. Qua carnivores. Etc.

OTOH, it can't answer questions like : "is Phil in London?", "where was Napoleon born?" or "why is the lamp over there?". Not because these are weird spooky phenomena that violate the laws of physics, but because they're questions about specific individuals qua spatio-temporal particulars and their historical trajectories. The proper study of entities qua particulars is "history" not science. (Ie. observation or appeal to witnesses or tertiary sources etc.)

Science can not check whether Phil is in London by doing an independent experiment in California. Nothing but observation of Phil qua Phil will answer that. Similarly, the way to find out where Napoleon was born is to read a book (or wikipedia page) written by someone who read a book by someone who ... etc. Once again, the cleverest experiment won't improve on that.

And to find out why the lamp is over there, just ask the person who moved it.

Everyday life is full of questions that science can't answer. And it's not a problem.

Quora Answer : Is science about thinking or is it about remembering?

Apr 28, 2014

Both. And more. The more is a big part of it.

Science is a social activity where the community as a whole try to come up with a working model of the universe. One crucial aspect of it is the attempt to compensate for any individual's flaws or biases through the use of experiments that other people can and do repeat. That means that scientific hypotheses have to be phrased in a way that other people can understand, and do independent tests of.

You obviously can't learn about the community's current best thinking without both reading and remembering it.

You equally obviously can't spot flaws in this current best thinking or invent new hypotheses and experiments to test your own ideas without doing your own original thinking.

But what's really crucial is doing BOTH in the context of the whole. If you're just reading and regurgitating a bunch of ideas you might be doing anything : science or religion or mythology or preparing for the trivia quiz in the local pub.

If you're just thinking, you might be doing science. Or you might be doing philosophy. Or mathematics. Or just nonsense.

What's important, in order to be doing science, is that what you're reading about is other people's models and hypotheses that have been explicitly designed as testable. And your criticial thinking is also directed towards inventing new challenges, hypotheses and experiments. An assertion that a current scientific hypothesis is wrong, without giving any kind of alternative that can be tested (at least in principle), is not "doing science" it's just carping.

And you should recognise that you're part of a "team". Einstein didn't invent the experiments that later corroborated his theories. But he certainly allowed for experiments that could corroborate or falsify them. And so other people did invent and run those tests.

Quora Answer : Is science just another religion?

Mar 31, 2014


Only people who don't understand what makes science interesting or so powerful think that science is, or should be, a religion.

The point of a religion is that it is a collection of beliefs about the world.

Science is NOT a collection of beliefs. It's a process for testing and correcting beliefs about the world.

Science is explicitly trying to substitute a commitment to "these are the true beliefs about the world" with "here is a good process for managing and improving our beliefs."

What's important in science is not the particular beliefs. You can be "follower" of science and be, not just willing, but happy, to throw out every single belief that's currently considered scientific "fact". That's not true of any religion, where facts are considered (literally) sacred.

Science is only committed to the process.

Quora Answer : What notable scientific discoveries went on to later be disproved with science?

Apr 8, 2014

Science delivers a series of improved models and theories rather than go in for big, dramatic reversals.

So one of the biggest scientific revisions is the way Newton's model of time and space got replaced with Einstein's.

But scientists didn't run around saying "ha! Newton, we proved you wrong!" They recognised that Newton was a good approximation under normal conditions but that it broke down at the boundaries and that Einstein's was the more general and powerful model. Einstein is "more right" than Newton. But Newton is still "more right" than Aristotle. And is rightfully venerated as a great scientist who advanced our knowledge.

Most times that newer science replaced an older scientific theory it's closer to this pattern. Occasionally we've dispensed with things altogether (aether, phlogiston) when we've later found a very different model that explains better.