Understanding The Hard Sciences

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We learn a lot from the sciences, physics and chemistry, that contribute so much to our success. Unfortunately, unanimous agreement is reached in them more easily than in other disciplines, which has led people to believing that their empiricism is the only way to grasp reality. This leads to scientism (phony science); it gives science an unwarranted authority and generates general mistrust.

Nevertheless, its benefits are obvious. Since science is always learning and changing, it doesn’t insist its conclusions are final, even thought they work remarkably well. But even if not obtaining absolute truth, it can lay claim to improving our knowledge, and in so doing, give us ever better approximations of the truth, a tightening grasp of physical reality. It is nonsense to claim, as has been done, that the insights of the scientist are a social construction. Of course social factors operate, scientists are human, but conclusions are real. “Science is socially influenced but is not socially constructed.” After the scientific community has thrashed through countless theories and finds agreement, something about reality is known. It is the agreement that counts.

From Newton’s laws (mass, distance and time are constant) to those of Einstein (C, the speed of light is the only constant) seems like a big jump. From Newton (things can be determined) to Heisenberg (things can only be determined probably) also seems like a big jump. This is why Thomas Kuhn says paradigms differ so much they are incommensurable. He would say Newton and Einstein couldn’t talk to one another. But this is simply not true. Einstein’s laws successfully annexed Newton’s laws. Both were talking about inertia, the resistance of a body to having its state of motion changed. As scientists learn, they are not asserting the final truth, only an improvement on the truth they had. More importantly they are emphasizing the “astonishing fruitfulness” of basic scientific theories.

Newtonian physics was not abandoned when the planet Uranus did not travel as predicted; eventually with better telescopes, the planet Neptune was found and this accounted for the discrepancies in the orbit of Uranus. Newton’s laws suggested an extra planet to cope with the orbit of Mercury, but there was none; it took General Relativity theory to explain Mercury’s orbit.

Michael Polanyi pointed out that "objective impersonal" physical science is carried out by people, and only by people. Its knowledge is personal and is based on acts of personal judgment; its pursuit requires commitment to a personal point of view. We all know “more than we can tell." Because of this character of personal knowledge there cannot be one definition of the scientific method. Yet scientific conclusions can be reached because a community of scientists has a universal intent.

Physical science begins by telling us to respect the nature of whatever we are investigating, that what is suitable for one discipline may not be suitable for another. It is our personal knowledge that enables us to decide what is right. This is critical because it recognizes the ultimate "unspecifiability of the scientific method," and it means that physical science is only mildly different from other forms of rational inquiry. It requires intellectual daring, a willingness to stand corrected, and unspecified acts of judgment. Its superiority lies in the openness and objectivity of its testing and ease of repetitive checking. Its best explanations are marked by empirical adequacy, accordance with general principles, economy, elegance, long-lasting fruitfulness, and openness to change.

It should be a part of everyone’s worldview, but its methods can only lead to error when applied to other disciplines. Then it becomes scientism.

George Crispin [send him mail] is a retired businessman who heads a Catholic homeschooling cooperative in Auburn, Alabama.

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