Sunday, March 2, 2008

What is "Science"

I perceive that many people do not understand what the word "science" means, and that scares me. So I will explain "science" here, hopefully someone will benefit from what I have written.

Science is an ideal state of mind that is unattainable by humans. Science is the exact logical opposite of faith, in the same way that left and right are opposites. Faith means you take some things to be fact because you believe it without evidence, and science means you take nothing to be fact unless there is direct evidence of it. Science is the state of mind that is constant skepticism, and it is the most fundamental act of human intellect. Faith and science are the opposite sides of the same coin -- the coin of human intellect.

My interpretation of the scientific method is this:
  1. Observe the world (universe) around you.

  2. Observe a phenomenon: notice that there is a natural order to some aspect of the world.

  3. Ask yourself why the world is like that.

  4. Create a hypothesis: define a possible answer to your question.

  5. Test your hypothesis: make an experiment to see if your hypothesis correctly describes the natural order of the world you observe.

  6. Interpret results: if your experiment produced results that were predicted by your hypothesis, your hypothesis becomes a valid scientific theory.

  7. Try to disprove your own established theory so you can discover new questions about the universe.

  8. Repeat this process forever, as our knowledge of the universe must never be complete. We must always improve upon our scientific knowledge, we must always be working to make mankind's knowledge better and better.
Once a scientific theory is "proven" it is considered a fact until a new and better theory replaces it. Still, that doesn't mean the old theory is bad. Newton's physics were shown to be inaccurate (i.e. they were disproved) by Einstein, but we still teach Newtonian theory in schools because it is still accurate in every-day life situations.

Some people think believing in science requires faith. This is wrong. You do not "believe" in science. Look at the scientific method, never once is the word "believe" mentioned. Everything you do in science requires observation, everything relies on your own five senses. To believe in something means you understand something to be true without evidence of it. Not a single aspect of science entails believing.

You can even observe with your own mind, without the need for belief or faith, that you have the ability to observe and logically explain your universe using science. You do not need faith to know that you can observe and reason about the universe. You do not need faith to be a scientist.

Some people say, "Why is the world observable? Why is there a natural order in the universe? Surely God must have created that natural order." But people who say this clearly do not understand what science is. The very question, "why is the world observable?" can be reasoned over scientifically and without faith. Indeed, the answer that says "God made the universe" is a hypothesis, but there is no way to test that hypothesis, so this hypothesis is inherently unscientific.

While to this day, we do not have a scientific answer to the question of the origin of the universe, it is a scientist's duty to discover the answer through rigorous observation and reasoning. For example, two-thousand years ago we didn't know why the sun rises and sets, nor why it happens regularly. Now we know better. Today, we don't know why the universe exists, tomorrow we may know better. In short, there are two answers to the question "why does the universe exist?" -- the scientific answer is "we don't know yet," and the unscientific answer is "because a God put it there."

A scientists is a person who always asks why, and never accepts any answer to be absolutely true, even if there is evidence. In science, there are no absolute truths. In science, there are only well defined theories, which are different than absolute truths. All scientific theories are made to be broken by new and better ones. Our knowledge of the universe is never complete, and never will be, and a scientists expects that. That there are no absolute truths is the fundamental understanding of the scientific mind. Any theory is never proved to be true, it is only proved to be accurate. In the same way that Einstein's ideas replaced Newton's, any theory we know today can be disproved with counter-examples, and any theory can be improved upon with more accurate ones.

A scientist must only accept an answer to his or her questions knowing that the answer is temporary. A scientist only accepts an answer temporarily when there is evidence, and a scientist knows they may some day learn observe new evidence that changes their answers. A scientist must never be satisfied with the answers he or she knows, and always be ready to ask more questions and to learn more. And never, in any situation, must a scientist accept "magic," or "a miracle," or "God made it so" as any answer to any question because these answers imply that there is no proof and no evidence. Every scientific answer must lead to more questions.

If the answer "because God made it so" were an acceptable scientific answer, the very concept of science would be changed to something it is not. This is because "God made it so" answers all possible questions. With this answer, there is no reason to ask any more questions as every question is already answered. A scientist must ignore the "God made it so" answer as it does not lead to more questions. In other words, a scientist must ask "why did God make it so?"

Even if a scientist were to witness a miracle with his or her own eyes, they must deny it. If you are a scientist, you must say "that was not a miracle, there must be a reason for it." It is demanded of a scientist to deny magic and always seek an explanation. It is much like telling a young child not to be afraid of ghosts because there is no way they could exist. If a scientist accepts magic as an explanation, then one is not doing their job as a scientist.

I say that being a scientist is a state of mind; it is a state of constant skepticism towards everything, including yourself and your own beliefs. There are no ideal scientists as humans can't ignore their emotions or survival instincts. So I believe that people can be scientists and still have faith in some religion, as long as that person is willing to admit that the two mind-sets are mutually exclusive. When you are a scientist, you have no faith, when you are faithful, you are not being scientific. That is how the word "science" is defined.


James said...

A very nice summary of the scientific process, and for those who know you, the method you personally apply to your analysis of the world.

Thomas said...

Nice essay, you did a good job in the first paragraph about what science actually is. But I have to disagree with you toward the end. You assert that a scientist must automatically rule out "magic" and "miracles" and look for a clear explanation. But this is a bit self-contradictory. If no theory could ever be proven, only verified, then there is always the possibility that the theory could be wrong. This works the same way with disproving a theory. We don't believe in the wizard of oz why? Because we have never seen or met him. But could a scientist rule out his existence? There is so much in this universe that we haven't seen; how do we know he's not living in some far off galaxy that we will never know anything about? The same works with magic and miracles. Just because we have never had access to these mechanisms to experiment with does not mean they could not exist, as a scientist must always keep an open mind even to something that seems ridiculous.
That's just my opinion though...

Ramin said...

Thanks for continuing the conversation.

I don't really understand your explanation as to why my idea is self-contradictory.

First of all, you seem to be saying that a scientists can never prove or disprove anything. I think this is absolutely true and my essay does not deny this fact. I specifically said, "Any theory is never proved to be true, it is only proved to be accurate." (9th paragraph).

Secondly, the Wizard of Oz is a fictional character, and whether or not he really exists in our minds or in some other form elsewhere in the universe, and whatever the odds are that he does exist -- this is an ontological problem and has absolutely nothing to do with the definition of science.

Finally, indeed we do not have the ability to experiment with magic and miracles. But why? Because of the definition of "magic" and "miracle" -- if we saw a miracle and could experiment and explain how it works scientifically, that means we can predict exactly what caused it and we can reproduce those results -- this is the definition of "experimentation". So if we have a scientific cause-effect explanation for our "miracle" that is verifiable by experimentation, you cannot call it a miracle. Why? Because the definition of a miracle is something that happened because God made it happen against all laws of nature.

Therefore, my definition of "Science" is consistent in saying that there is no possibility for miracles. If you see a miracle, you must demand an explanation, you must hypothesize, then experiment to reproduce the miracle. Then you define a new scientific theory and expose the "miracle" as not miraculous, but simply another law of nature.

James said...

I'd like to add more but to tell the truth most of it is kinda going over my head, or at least past my shoulder.

Ramin said...

Well I really appreciate you commenting James, even if you merely acknowledge my post. Incidentally, I should probably do the same on your blog...

If the word "Ontological" threw you, it is a philosophical term that describes questions on the nature of existence. For example, questions like "What is real?" -- Is the wizard of Oz real or imaginary, is imaginary a subset of real or the other way around? Is it possible that he does exist in this universe or some other parallel universe?

But like I said, these questions are beside the point, and have nothing to do with the definition of Science. So don't worry about it :) .