This post in the first in a new series on Science, Technology, and Society. The next post is here. All posts in the series have previously appeared on the Partially Examined Life group page on Facebook.
What is science?
In general, answers to this question fall between two poles. The first is the traditional view of science--that it is a process of discovery which, performed correctly, faithfully reveals the mysteries of the universe. Science produces objective knowledge, and that is why it is special. The second, which dates roughly to the 1960's, holds that science is a social process which invents, rather than discovers, models of the universe. Like any human activity, it is governed by institutions and assumptions that are historically conditioned, and there for contingent. According to this way of thinking, context matters in science for the same reasons it matters everywhere else - because we are bound by time and space, circumstance and personality, and cannot escape their limitations.
Scholars have come together to explore the nature of science in a relatively new field called Science, Technology, and Society (STS). It attempts to address questions that surround science. For instance, what is the difference between science and pseudoscience? When we have competing theories, and they both explain the evidence, how do we choose between them? How have inventions and theories transformed our lived experience, and the course of history? Which conditions help scientists do their work, and which hinder them? Why does science work? When it doesn't, why doesn't it? Does gender, race, and class meaningfully effect a researcher's work? If so, is that a good thing that we want to encourage, or a bad thing we want to suppress?
Given the tremendous prestige of science in our culture, and the power its theories give us, these are important questions. In this series, I would like to explore contemporary perspectives on this activity, which is so central to our every day lives.
"We cannot command nature except by obeying her."
Francis Bacon (1561 - 1626) was an English aristocrat, lawyer, and parliamentarian, who was also, in his spare time, one of the most influential philosophers who ever lived. In The New Organon (1620) he outlined a new approach to philosophy, which historians call the Baconian Program, and which the world calls Science. Its main components were:
1. Emphasis on eliminative induction (i.e. establishing what is not true) on the basis of observation and experiment, collaborative effort, and the systematic accumulation, organization, and communication of information. (The traditional method in philosophy was additive deduction - that is to say, positively affirming what is true, on the basis of known principles and individual reason.) The approach to philosophy which Bacon advocated was institutional rather than individual - it envisaged a vast cooperative effort extending across kingdoms and cultures and generations, in order to systematize all knowledge, and also to expand it.
2. Avoidance of metaphysics, theology, politics, and ethics (the traditional concerns of philosophy.) According to Bacon, the questions raised in these fields form no part of his philosophical project, because they are incapable of resolution through experiment or observation.
3. Rigorous application of reason in order to minimize the pernicious influence of faulty habits of thought, which he called Idols of the Mind. He divided these into Idols of the Tribe, the Theater, the Cave, and the Market Place (i.e. those arising from human nature, from social convention, from personal attachment, and from language.) Clear, rigorous thinking was to be essential, and could only be achieved by dissociating oneself from one's particular context of time and place.
4. Application of knowledge thus gained for the improvement of life through mastery over nature, summed up in his famous dictum "Knowledge is Power." Science thus had a moral quality - that of improving the human condition. The pursuit of science was itself to be a moral activity, and, indeed, the quintessential moral activity of the Enlightenment.
Bacon's New Organon was written as a response to the Organon of Aristotle, and was thus an implicit challenge to the intellectual orthodoxies of his time, for whom Aristotle was the philosopher. It was written toward the end of his life, and he did not live to see its success in the following generation. According to legend he caught pneumonia while experimenting with snow. However, his philosophy inaugurated what has since been called The Age of Reason.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the history of Science, Technology, and Society in Nineteenth century Germany. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.