Philosophy, the basics: Science

A loooooong time ago now I set out to serialise the chapters in Nigel Warburtons book "the basics of philosophy" Today I pick up that baton and continue the series with some thoughts on the chapter of "Science" If you would like to do a catch up of previous chapters you can find all the links "here" The chapter on "Animals" will be coming soon, after I've read a bit more about it. So, Science. Whats that about? I found this especially interesting from a philosophical viewpoint because I am first and foremost a self defined scientific sort. Principles of observation and objectivity, with rational reasoning on each have been ingrained in my own thought process since I first entered a lab and lit a Bunsen burner aged 11. My undergraduate work was applied physiology. I.e. it had a practical scientific experimental basis. Nigel's approach to the philosophy of science is as ever easy to get into and clearly written. The basic model of science presupposes an observation, then a theory, and some experiments to prove this theory. If the theory is disproven it is discarded and a new one set in its place. Simple enough you might think.

And yet do we start with an observation? and what do we prove? The idea that Newton observed an apple fall and asked "why" is a well known one. But did "science" start at the observation or the question? In observing the apple "fall" from the tree, one must understand what an apple and tree "is", and also that the tree cannot "throw" the apple, or that the apple itself cannot "jump" Our pre existing knowledge of the world affects our observations of it. So the "simple view" is sometimes not quite a true representation of the scientific process, and we are left with the chicken and egg problem of "which came first?" An example from the world of physiological experimentation would be: "Drinking lots of beer results in someone going to the toilet a lot more frequently" Why? Of course I might know it's due to the "diuretic" properties of alcohol, that act on the kidneys, via concentration gradients in the loop of henle of the nephron. A car mechanic, or hairdresser may come up with different, no less rational explanations. Because their pre existing knowledge is different to my own. A few years back this "pre existing knowledge" was absent in the wider sense. In Ancient, pre socratic Greece there lived a man called Anaxagorus. He posited that there must be bits of our own flesh and blood, the physical stuff that makes up our bodies, within the food that we consumed. He called these small elements "seeds" In the process of eating we are taking in these seeds and building our own bodies from them.We now call these seeds amino acids, sugars and fats. So "knowledge" and the acquisition of it changes that which we observe. Indeed it was a physicist, i.e. scientist, Max Planck who is quoted as saying the very thing I end all my podcasts with:


"if you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change" Knowledge, therefore, is simply one way in which we can change the way in which we look at things. But this doesn't answer the chicken and egg problem. It just shifts our perception of the questions scientists might ask. To highlight this I'm going to use my own approach to the gender exploitation I myself did. Question one : Could I be trans gender? Question two :what is trans gender? Question three :where does Gender come from?


Question 4: given all the answers to 1,2,& 3 Could I be trans gender? So you can see the thought process and exploration in each question. I set out to answer a possible by clarifying two definitional questions. Even if the answer to equation one is "no" and I then ask "why not? question 4 could still be "Yes" (and the reverse) So in a sense I set out to DISprove my initial query, and this is a view of the scientific thinking process called "falsification" Falsification attempts to disprove theories, rather than prove them. Sir Arther connan Doyle was fond of this approach, since he referenced it in the famous Sherlock Holmes line:


"Once we eliminate the impossible, whatever remains however improbable, must be the truth" Of course as a philosopher I would have to point out the "truth" and "fact" distinction here, but that's for another blog and another time. ;-) So, perhaps the question comes first. because we have to decide what it is we wish to explore, and why. The quote above from baker street's finest does however bring us to the next conundrum. Deductive and inductive, and adductive reasoning, Deductive reasoning is that which follows from observed premises. for example, Premise one "I live in England" Premise two "England is part of the UK" Conclusion: "I live in the uk". If both premise one and two are true then the conclusion must be true. However consider the following: "All the sheep in the field are white". therefore All Sheep are white. This "may" be true, since the statement will only be false when an observation is made of a black sheep (there's one in every family so I'm told) This is an inductive argument. It is essentially an assumption based on experience. Adductive arguments are "Inferences to best explanation" which I would suggest are a type of inductive conclusion, based once more on experience and a judgement of what is most likely to have caused what is observed. Say, for example, that I leave my car parked on hill and come back to find it is half way down the hill. Reasons for the change might be that the handbrake failed, or that martians landed and moved it, or that the hill moved whilst the car stayed in place. Or a bunch my mates picked it up and moved it for laugh. The "most likely" scenario is the handbrake failing. But I would have to examine the car to prove or disprove this. Which you might have spotted is a lot like testing a theory, or a hypothesis. So "science" then can perhaps be thought of as a never ending series of observational questions, each based on inductive reasoning to best explanations, that form theories, which are tested either to proof or failiure, leading to observational questions, which lead to.... etc etc ad infinitum. Plato's Socrates suggested "wisdom begins in wonder" so perhaps we could say "knowledge begins in "why"?" Sarah@stubbornlyoptimistic.me

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When you change the way you look at things,

 the things you look at change.

 

Max Planck 1858 -1947 

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