What is Science? Lecture 1

This is a coursemars-lineae-slopes-hale-crater-perspective2-PIA19916-br2 about the place of science in our everyday lives. Most of us are not scientists and do not even plan to be scientists, but nonetheless science dominates our conception of the world. Most of us also, I suppose, believe that science tells us the truth about the world, and that generally what scientists say can be trusted. If we want to know the answer to something, or to a problem, then it is to science we turn. This is not only the case when it concerns nature, but also ourselves. But why do we trust science so much, even when many of us do not do science or have very little knowledge of what it is that scientists do?

Is this because science, for us, has become like a religion? How ironic this might be, since many scientists, if not the most famous (though it is not the case that all of them are so) are atheists and would see science as completely the opposite to religious belief. Think for example of the publication of Dawkin’s The God Delusion and the publicity around it.[1] Here is someone who thinks that science and religion are completely the opposite. Indeed it is the duty of science to rid the world of religion entirely by demonstrating that all religious people are irrational, and worse, violent. Personally, I do not think that science and religion are making the same claims, though there are many religious people who think they do. If religion is a science, then I am certain it can only be a pseudo-science, and can make no proper scientific claims at all. But equally, if religion is not a science, which I think it is not, then it absurd to argue that it is a pseudo-science. Are not religion and science doing different things, and making different claims?

But what do we mean by a science and what does science do that religion does not? The answer might be that science has to do with facts and religion beliefs. But are we absolutely sure what we mean by facts and how are they the basis of the science? A fact seems to be something I observe. I say, ‘There is a table in front of me’ and there really is a table there in front of me. How do I know that? I can, because I can see it with my eyes. Facts then are  something verified with the senses, in this case sight, whereas beliefs do not appear to be so. If a Christian says Jesus was resurrected on the third day, how can it be verified by simply looking at it? At most it is a report, but I cannot verify it myself. Religion does not seem to be about facts at all. It is something subjective, personal and a matter of faith rather than reason.

Is this opposition watertight though? Perhaps not if we think that difference between religion and science is just that one is about facts and the other not. Are facts really that simple? Isn’t there more to facts, so to speak, than meets the eye? If I did not have an understanding of what a chair was, would I see a chair at all? Let us imagine rather than being a member of my culture, where coming across chairs was pretty common, I was born in a tribe in deepest Amazon that had never come across chairs before or even Western civilisation for that matter. Let us imagine again, that for some unknown reason, a chair that was being transported by air carrier fell out of the plane and landed in a clearing in my forest that I used every day to hunt. Would I see a chair? No I certainly would not. No doubt I would have an image of a chair on my retina and that image would travel down my optic nerve into my brain, but I would not see a chair, because I have no concept of chair.[2]

How do we pick up concepts of things? Not simply by looking at them, otherwise we’d be right back at the same paradox again. Rather they are part of the conceptual background that makes up our world, and this conceptual background is something we learn in any given culture.[3] Only in this way can I recognise something as something, rather than just a mysterious object that has suddenly appeared in my world, like the chair in the clearing of the jungle. The meaning of the chair, the fact that I can see it as a chair, is given by the context of its use. In this sense, if we were to apply this to our idea of science, scientific practice might define what a fact is and what it is not in advance of the research itself that is meant to explain these facts. In other words theories are not justified by facts, because in reality theories precede facts.

This is exactly the case when we look at the practice of scientists. They don’t just look at things in isolation and then base their theories upon them, rather their theories already tell them where to look and what they should be looking for in order that they know what the relevant facts are. If you like, facts are not just facts. They are not just perceptions; rather they are perceptions plus understanding, and the perception does not come first, and then the understanding second, but they both arrive together. They are part of the same conceptual or if you prefer, phenomenological whole, how we actually see the world within a given context, whether we are scientists or not.[4]

Science already makes us aware of this because when we think of a fact, we don’t just think about a state of affairs but make statements about a state of affairs and these statements only make sense within a community of speakers that understand them. The fact isn’t that they is water on Mars, but that someone says that there is water on Mars, and that someone else can observe them and agree that they really is water on Mars. There would be water on Mars whether there was science or not, or even human beings. It only becomes part of a scientific theory when some says ‘There is water on Mars’, and then someone else gets a telescope and sees that this statement is true.

Rather than saying that science is based on facts, perhaps it would be better to say it is founded upon statements which can be verified through observation.[5] Yet aren’t we faced with the same problems we found with the chair? What we find as relevant in an observation again will be determined by the conceptual background that we inhabit. Chalmers uses an example from the history of science to explain this (Chalmers 1999, p.16). Before scientific revolution of the 17th century, it was taken as given that the earth was stationary. The observable phenomena seem to corroborate this. When I jump upwards, I do not fall back to a different place on the earth, which would seem to the case if it were moving. Of course the reason why this is not the case is inertia. I and the earth are moving in the same direction and thus the same forces are acting upon us (for the same reason a tennis ball that you throw up in the air in a moving car falls back into your hand, because you and the car are moving in the same direction and speed). But because no-one knew the theory of inertia at the time, what was observed did appear to prove the earth was stationary (and I imagine there are some who still believe this for the very same reason). It is the theory that determines the meaning of our observations, rather than the other way around, our observations determining our theory.

Does this mean that science is just subjective and what you see is just what you want to see? Then there would not be any difference between science and religion, for it clearly is the case the religion is subjective.[6] Rather, what is required, to clearly delineate science, is a better definition of observation. For this is precisely what scientist do. Rather, than seeing observation as something private and passive, where I see the chair and the image is projected on my retina, we should see it as public and active. Active, because the observer is always involved in what they see, correcting and changing their observations in relation to their understanding and interpretation, and public because these observations are always shared with others who can interpret the results.

Chalmers gives us two examples of how scientists actually work (Chalmers 1999, pp.21–4). One is Hooke’s pictures of the eye of fly under a microscope. First of all the image of the eye was affected by the very instruments he was using, such that he had to work out how to use a light source that did not affect what he was looking at (candle light through brine, eventually). Secondly, he published what he saw, and told people how he had seen it, so that they too could do the same for themselves and see if they came out with the same results. Secondly, in the case of Galileo, he saw in his telescope the moons of Jupiter, but he needed to prove them to his fellow scientists. For this he had to modify his telescope so that he could gain an accurate measurement of their trajectory to show that they were moving around the planet, and finally when he had obtained these results he published them, so everyone else could test them for their reliability.

What is important in this process is to understand that these observations are not infallible. The difference between science and religion is not that one in infallible and the other isn’t (however you might want to understand this). On the contrary observation is fallible. What we see is determined by how we look and how we look by the conceptual background we find ourselves in. But anyone can come along and show us that this background is incorrect and it is preventing us from seeing something. What is important, however, is how they do this. They do it by pointing to what is observable when we do change our theories, but also that this hypothesis can be tested by others. They do not do so by simply asserting a belief about something. The moon is made out of cheese, for example. So Chalmers can define science in this way: ‘According to the view put forward here, observations suitable for constituting the basis for scientific knowledge are both objective and fallible’ (Chalmers 1999, p.25). This means that objectivity is not the same as absolute truth, but quite the opposite: what is objective can be corrected and changed through observable evidence, whereas what is subjective cannot. A religious belief based on observation would not be a religious belief at all, but an inferior and poor scientific theory, since it would never be falsifiable. This does not mean that religion per se is inferior. This would be the case only if it were doing the same thing as science. The test for faith is not observation, but existence. To be a Christian, for example, is not to belief X, Y, Z, but to act as a Christian. Only when a Christian thinks their faith is supported by objective knowledge do they come in conflict with science, as for example those who people who think that the creation story is a scientific theory in competition with evolution. The irony, of course, is they are dependent on the very scientific method that they despise, for one can only disprove a science by another science.


Ayer, A.J., 2001. Language, truth and logic, London: Penguin.

Chalmers, A.F., 1999. What is this Thing Called Science?, St. Lucia, Qld.: University of Queensland.

Dreyfus, H.L., 1991. Being-in-the-world: a commentary on Heidegger’s Being and time, division I, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Gardner, S., 2006. Kant and the Critique of pure reason, London; New York: Routledge.

Jebens, H., 2004. Cargo, cult, and culture critique, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Uys, J., 2004. The gods must be crazy, Culver City, Calif.: Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment.

[1] You can hear his defence of this book on NPR here, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=9180871.

[2] I am thinking here of what are called ‘cargo cults’, though the evidence of such practices is controversial (Jebens 2004).There is a famous film about a coke bottle that plays with this idea (Uys 2004).

[3] We might ask further whether this conceptual background is even first. Are we not first of all living in a world before we understand it? This is the basis of Dreyfus’s stress on the importance of Heidegger’s philosophy (Dreyfus 1991).

[4] The key issue here is whether this position would lead to relativism. This depends on how one understands the truth and objectivity of science. This will be at the heart of our reading of Kuhn in the second half of this course.

[5] Such a position is what is called logical positivism, whose most vocal defender is A. J. Ayer (Ayer 2001).

[6] This is not a criticism, for what is subjective is not necessarily worse than what is objective, and indeed the objective might have its basis in the subjective, but it all depends on what you mean by the subjective. This was certainly Kant’s view, who placed practical reason (subjective, though in a special way) above theoretical reason (Gardner 2006, pp.319–25). The ultimate end of reason is not knowledge for its own sake, but the Good. We might call this position humanist.


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