I’ve been wanting to follow up on an earlier post and ask just what science, natural science, really is. I realize that the concept “science” has two separate and distinguishable, though related, meanings. On one hand, “science” has a normative meaning – it names an ideal, of how our investigations into the empirical world should be conducted. On the other, it has a descriptive meaning – it names a set of institutions with a history, inhabited by fallible human beings who, often as not, fail to live up to that ideal even though they are supposed to live up to it.
The first, normative meaning is the one with the most philosophical significance. This is the one with normative weight; it is in this sense that, if we call something unscientific, we are saying something bad about it. I haven’t pinned down the details of this normative sense as much as I’d like yet, but I think it involves testing falsifiable hypotheses, making controlled experiments, controlling for variables, and above all rejecting hypotheses that turn out to be falsified. I expect to say more about this normative sense of science in the near future.
Overall I think it is that first (normative) sense of science that’s most relevant to philosophical inquiry, inquiry about the nature of reality and how we should live in it. But the second sense also matters, if only because we need to isolate it as a way of understanding the first. In this descriptive sense, science is what scientists do, and scientists are people who have been trained in academic science departments. This is the realm where scientists fudge data to fit their own political agenda or that of their corporate funders. It is also what Thomas Kuhn famously catalogued in his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, where the consensus among scientists moves much more randomly and haphazardly than the normative ideal should indicate. There is something about science in the first sense that is (I would argue) inherently good; this is not the case about science in the second sense. A man who has a PhD in biology but regularly falsifies data to fit his preconceptions is a scientist in only the second (descriptive) sense, not the first (normative) sense.
What strikes me about this distinction, though, is that much the same distinction could be made about any given “religion.” Continue reading →