The Scientific Method: The Logic of Deductive Reasoning & Inductive Faith?
Science, Philosophy & a New Religion?
Science can be defined as being the systematic study of nature,
based on experience and the observation of facts, and the association
between these facts. Chalmers(1976) identified the commonly held view
of science with the statement “Scientific knowledge is reliable
knowledge because it is objectively proven knowledge.” A popular
systematic approach to scientific research is the “scientific method”,
a basic recipe that scientists follow when developing their scientific
laws and theories. It is a process that has drastically changed our
knowledge of our world and the universe since its introduction in the
Seventeenth Century and has had the effect of distinguishing science
from other sorts of knowledge (such as philosophy or religion) as the
only reliable form of knowledge. Some of the main principles that
characterize the method are empiricism, induction, deduction,
prediction, and verification. Most scientists today conduct their
research using one or more of these distinguishing characteristics,
although there are those who question the reliability of the knowledge
that is produced by this method, and some who argue whether scientific
thought should be set apart from other sorts of knowledge,
particularly philosophical thought. Yet I wonder if (for us mere
mortal non-scientists) just how much difference there really is
between science, philosophy and religion.
The scientific method was designed, and its use initiated, in the 1600’s by scientific revolutionaries such as Galileo, Newton and Francis Bacon . These pioneers of a more modern view of science argued that scientific knowledge should be based on experience and observation (empiricism) and not on faith or intuition (which are the basis for religious and philosophical thought), and its theories derived from these facts by a combination of inductive and deductive reasoning, rather than from entirely deductive logic. It was these views that led them to develop the scientific method.
A typical recipe for the scientific method would be:
1.Observe - To obtain knowledge through observation and experience is called empiricism.
2.Hypothesize- To hypothesize is to suggest an explanation for an observed fact(inductivised generalizations).
3.Predict - Scientists predict what will happen and under what conditions(deductions) based on their hypotheses.
4.Verify - Scientists verify their predictions with experimentation.
5.Evaluate- Consider results of experimentation and predictions to determine whether the hypothesis was valid.
6.Publish- Allow others to test and verify results, and to improve original hypothesis.
For an idea or theory to be accepted as scientific knowledge it must be tested repeatedly by experimentation and consistently found to be true.
It must be able to be proven or unproven, a concept labeled falsification by Karl Popper. This verification through experimentation is one of the characteristics that supposedly sets science apart from other forms of knowledge, such as philosophy and religion, or the arts. There is no experiment in which ideas in philosophy can be proven to be true, no method for determining what feelings an artist is trying to express in a painting, and no way of concluding whether or not a poem or song is correct. They cannot be falsified. They are considered to be a representation of an individual’s personal opinion of reality (as is any interpretation of them), and therefor not scientific.
This distinction between science and other forms of knowledge is also evident when we look at how science progresses. New discoveries in science expand or replace old theories, whereas new works of art or literature do not replace old ones. The scientific method uses both inductive and deductive reasoning in the formation of scientific laws and theories. Inductive reasoning is a process in which a generalization is drawn from particular experiences or observations. Scientists use induction to form new theories. Deductive reasoning is a process whereby a specific, logical conclusion is drawn from general premises. Scientists use deduction to correct and improve existing theories. It is therefore a combination of induction and deduction that gives science the ability to progress and improve as new ideas and theories expand or replace old ones.
There are those who would question the reliability of the knowledge produced by these methods, in particular the generalizations concluded by induction. The main argument is that how can one justify generalizations that are based on a finite amount of instances (Chalmers, 1976). The validity of this argument can be seen if one thinks back to the conclusion that was prematurely drawn by Europeans a few centuries ago that ‘all swans were white’. This inductivised scientific "fact" was of course shattered by the discovery of black swans in Australia.
On the other hand, we have deductive logic in which a scientist will make a valid deduction based on a previously inductivised generalization. The problem here is that the validity of a deduced prediction is not dependent on whether or not the preceding generalization is actually true. It could in fact be false in which case the logically valid deduction would also be a false statement. In contrast to this argument one could conclude that although there is no guarantee that the knowledge produced by the scientific method and the principles that characterize it is accurate, it is more than likely that it is so (Chalmers, 1976). To be honest, this sounds a bit philosophical to me.
So now we come to the question of whether scientific knowledge and philosophical knowledge should be considered totally separate forms of knowledge. Here I would like to point out a few things:
1. Empiricism, which is considered to be the heart of the scientific method, is the philosophical outlook of most scientists.
2. The “scientific revolutionaries” who devised the scientific method were not all pioneer scientists. Sir Francis Bacon was indeed a philosopher.
3. Scientists could not reach some of the conclusions drawn from inductive reasoning without being somewhat philosophical in the first place. Any assumption that cannot be falsified would have to be a philosophical assumption, and many assumptions made by scientists today are very hard to prove, especially ones made in the fields of physics or cosmology.
To look at things a bit more seriously we can consider the views of Richard Morris (1990) in his chapter on Physics and Metaphysics. The main point he puts forward is that “philosophical ideas do play a role in scientific thought, and are indeed sometimes incorporated into scientific arguments”. He describes what he calls “Strong and Weak Anthropic Principles”, defining them by quoting the following statements made by British physicist Brandon Carter “What we can expect to observe must be restricted by the conditions necessary for our presence as observers”(weak principle) and “The universe must be such as to admit the creation of observers within it at some stage”(strong principle). He explains the first statement by saying “In other words, if the universe did not have the properties it does, we would not be here to see it” and the second by saying “In other words, a universe that does not have the potential for the creation of life is impossible”. Once again we see examples of scientific theories that would be impossible to prove. I conclude that science and philosophy are quite closely interconnected.
Science is a demonstration of man’s ability to think logically. Its laws and theories are based on fact whether or not they are factual in themselves. The use of the scientific method in the production of these ideas gives science an edge over other forms of knowledge, and will continue to do so whether or not scientific knowledge is accepted as being reliable. Scientific progress has led to improvements in medicine and technology as well as advancements in warfare, and has greatly increased our knowledge of almost everything in the known universe. It has also affected philosophical thought, and I dare say for some, religious thought as well. Science is a form of knowledge beyond the grasp of most everyday people. Many concepts and theories are too complicated for some to even consider trying to understand. Instead we place faith in our superior minded scientists to produce knowledge that we can rely on. To me this seems as though we have inadvertently developed another religion, although I doubt many would actually be persuaded to admit or accept this. So while there can be no doubt as to the impact science has made on modern society, both beneficial and detrimental, and no denying that the majority of people place great faith in it (despite those who claim it cannot be rationally justified), one must question how distinguishable it is from other branches of knowledge such as philosophy and religion. After all, to take a philosophical stance, I must say that scientists are only human, and nobody is perfect.
Chalmers, A.F., “Inductivism: Science as knowledge derived from the facts of experience,” in
What Is This Thing Called Science, Brisbane:Queensland University Press, 1976,
Dauben, Joseph W. , “Science” in The World Book Encyclopedia, 1988, vol.17, pp. 191-204.
Schagrin, Morton L., “Deductive Method” in The World Book Encyclopedia, 1988, vol. 5, pp. 84
Schagrin, Morton L., “Inductive Method” in The World Book Encyclopedia, 1988, vol. 10, p 240.
Morris, Richard, “Physics and Metaphysics” In R.Morris, 1990, The Edges of Science, New York:
Prentice Hall, pp 209 – 223.
W.W.Bartley III, “Empiricism” in The World Book Encyclopedia, 1988, vol.6, p262.
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Copyright © 2010 Mel Stewart, "safe-at-last", of Perth, Western Australia. All rights reserved.
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