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Science (from scientia, Latin for "knowledge") has come to mean a body of
knowledge, or a method of study devoted to developing this body of
knowledge, concerning the universe gained through methodological observation
and experimentation. The scientific method consists of different principles
and procedures that are useful in acquiring scientific knowledge. Exactly
what constitutes science and scientific methods are subjects studied by the
philosophy of science.
Implicit in science's devotion to acquiring knowledge about the universe is
an assumption that there is a reality that exists independent of a mind (or
minds) perceiving it. This view, realism, holds that the universe (atoms,
animals, gravity, stars, wind, microbes, etc.) exists independent of our
observation. Under this view, the (approximate) truth of scientific
knowledge is taken at face value.
Some of the findings of science under this view can be quite extraordinary
to a non-scientific mind in light of every day common observation. Atomic
theory, for example, implies that a granite boulder which appears as heavy,
hard, solid, grey, etc. is actually a combination of subatomic particles
with none of these properties, moving very rapidly in an area consisting
mostly of empty space.
Philosophers sometimes distinguish between the actual reality of things
within the universe, which may or may not be fully perceivable by humans,
and our perception of things within the universe. Immanuel Kant coined the
phrases phenomena (the universe as humans experience it) and noumena
Realism, however, is not necessary to science. Instrumentalism, for example,
posits that while entities, such as atoms, help explain and predict data
from experiments, these entities do not necessarily exist. This approach is
favored by some when it comes to committing to the ontological status of a
scientific entity which may seem unobservable in principle.
In contrast to Kant's views (and despite wide acceptance that human
perception of phenomena is not necessarily an accurate reflection of the
universe as it really is), most scientists assert that it is possible to
understand and accurately explain (at least somewhat if not fully) the
universe using the scientific method to hone accurate scientific theories and laws.
Scientists point out that while some people criticise the basic ideas of
science, it is science alone that has provided information on the mysteries
of the atom, the cell, the solar system, and the observable universe. It is
science alone that has provided knowledge to develop tens of thousands of
technological advances in medicine, engineering, communications and beyond.
No other system which claims to compete with science has ever actually
succeeded in actually producing useful information about the physical world
in which we live.
Previous definitions of the term
Until the Enlightenment, the word "science" (or its Latin cognate) meant any
systematic or exact, recorded knowledge (and the word continues to be used
in this sense sometimes). "Science" therefore had the same sort of very
broad meaning that "philosophy" had at that time.
There was a distinction between, for example, "natural science" and "moral
science," which latter included what we now call philosophy, and this
mirrored a distinction between "natural philosophy" and "moral philosophy."
More recently, "science" has come to be restricted to what used to be called
"natural science" or "natural philosophy," and further distinctions have
been drawn within it, such as physical science, biological science, and
Fields of study are often distinguished in terms of hard sciences and soft
science. Physics, chemistry, biology and geology are all forms of hard
sciences. They rely solely on the scientific method. Studies of history and
sociology are sometimes called "soft science".
Mathematics is widely believed to be a science, but it is not. It is more
closely related to Logic; it is not a science because it makes no attempt to
gain empirical knowledge. However, mathematics is the universal language of
The term "science" is sometimes pressed into service for new and
interdisciplinary fields that make use of scientific methods at least in
part, and which in any case aspire to be systematic and careful explorations
of their subjects, including computer science, library and information
science, and environmental science. Mathematics and computer science reside
under "Q" in the Library of Congress classification, along with all else we
now call science.
Scientific Models, Theories and Laws
The terms "hypothesis", "model", "theory" and, "law" are often used
incorrectly in colloquial speech. Scientists use the term model to mean a
proposed account of something, specifically one which can be used to make
predictions which can be tested by experiment or observation. Some models
become a hypothesis, which refer to a contention that has not (yet) been
well supported nor ruled out by experiment. They use theory to mean both the
same thing as hypothesis and more established explanations, and law to mean
a theory which has been so well confirmed that the probability of being
refuted by experiment is very small.
Some models are used to help our thinking.
Most non-scientists are unaware that what scientists call "theories" are
what most people call "facts". The general public loosely uses the word
theory to refer to ideas that have no firm proof or support; in contrast,
scientists usually use this word to refer only to ideas that have repeatedly
withstood test. Thus, when scientists refer to the theories of Biological
evolution, electromagnetism, and relativity, they are referring to ideas
that have survived considerable experimental testing. But there are
exceptions, such as string theory, which seems to be a promising model but
as yet has no empirical evidence to give it precedence over competing models.
Especially fruitful theories that have withstood the test of time, and which
predict and describe a very wide range of phenomenon, acquire the 'status'
of a "law of nature". Most scientists believe that our descriptions of laws
of nature are provisional. Theories are always open to revision if new
evidence is provided.
Newton's law of gravitation is a famous example of a theory falsified by
experiments regarding motions at high speeds and in close proximity to
strong gravitational fields. Outside of those conditions, Newton's Laws
remain excellent accounts of motion and gravity. Because General Relativity
accounts for all of the phenomena that Newton's Laws do, and more, General
Relativity is regarded as our best account of gravitation, so far.
Mathematics and the Scientific Method
Science makes extensive use of Mathematics. Observing and collecting
measurements often requires the use of mathematics; hypothesizing and
predicting may require extensive use of mathematics. Mathematical branches
often used in science include Calculus and Statistics. A form of systematic
reasoning has been applied to mathematics itself at least since the time of Euclid.
Many people see mathematicians as working scientifically; they regard
physical experiments as inessential and argue that proofs figure
equivalently in mathematics. Most do not, since mathematics does not require
experimental test of its theories / hypotheses. Others observe that
mathematics has no experimental tests (that do not involve mathematicians)
for any of its results; mathematicians are both the investigators and the
theoreticians. See: Eugene Wigner The Unreasonable Effectiveness of
R.P. Feynman said "Mathematics is not real, but it feels real. Where is this place?".
Philosophical Foundations of the Scientific Method
One school of thought asserts that the scientific method (and science in
general) relies upon basic axioms or "self-evident truths" such as internal
consistency and realism. While it is true that many scientists believe these
things and do assume them in their everyday work, the method itself does not
rely on them: all such assumptions are just part of the hypotheses being
tested, and many of them are subject to test as well. For example, one of
the "common sense" ideas that scientists believed for a long time is that
any measurable property of an object is something that exists in the object
before it is measured, and our measurements are merely observations of that
pre-existing condition; Quantum mechanics rejects this, because experiments
have contradicted it.
Some believe that scientific principles have been "solidly" established,
beyond question, and are true. Some scientists themselves may indeed feel
that way, having come to rely upon many of the results of science without
having done all the experiments themselves; after all, one cannot expect
every individual scientist to repeat hundreds of years' worth of
experiments. Many scientists even encourage an attitude of skepticism toward
claims that contradict the current state of scientific knowledge or some
easy extrapolation from it; but that only means such claims must meet a
higher burden before being accepted, not that they can never be accepted. In
the extreme, some, including some scientists, may believe in this or that
scientific principle, or even "science" itself, as a matter of faith in a
manner similar to that of religious believers. However, neither science nor
scientific method itself rely on faith; all scientific facts (i.e.,
measurements) and explanations (i.e., hypotheses or theories) are subject to
test, and will eventually be rejected as the best available hypothesis when
new evidence falsifying them is found. (See more under falsificationism.
This is the reason that political, religious, or social enforcement of
scientific convictions is inherently pernicious. Examples include the Roman
Catholic Church's action against Galileo's non-Aristotelian discoveries
about the behavior of the planets (they violated some prestigious, and
ancient, philosophical speculation the Church had promoted to dogma), and
Stalin's support for Lysenko's biological and genetic beliefs (what was
wrong with standard genetics in Stalin's view is not clear; Lysenko was
either a deliberate con man or incapable of understanding standard genetics
in his day).
Goals of science
Despite popular impressions of science, it is not the goal of science to
answer all questions, only those that pertain to physical reality.
Scientists teach that science does not produce absolute and unquestionable
truth. Rather, science consistently tests the currently best hypothesis
about some aspect of the physical world, and when necessary revises or
Science is not a source of value judgements, though it can certainly speak
to matters of ethics and public policy by pointing to the likely
consequences of actions. However, science can't tell us which of those
consequences to desire or which is 'best'. What one projects from the
currently most reasonable scientific hypothesis onto other realms of
interest is not a scientific issue, and the scientific method offers no
assistance for those who wish to do so. Scientific justification (or
refutation) for many things is, nevertheless, often claimed.