Philosophical and Ethical Foundations of Science
Science and Technology are powerful forces in our modern world. Innovations in transportation, communications, agriculture, and medicine have dramatically improved the quality of human life. On the other hand, science and technology have also made it possible to destroy life on an unprecedented scale through instruments of modern warfare. It’s no wonder then that science evokes a wide range of emotions—from praise and hope to fear and distrust. In addition to a wide array of applied technologies, science also has unique explanatory power: it has revealed the immense age of the universe, the history and development of life, and the delicate balance of our environment. Science inspires us and challenges us, and like it or not, it continues to shape our lifestyles and self-understanding.
Given the diverse attitudes towards science in our country, it is important that we ask the question, “What exactly is science?” Does it give us absolutely certain knowledge? Is science truly objective and value-free? Does it eliminate purpose from the universe? Are there any limits to science?
This essay seeks answers to these questions. We will investigate them first by formulating workable definitions about what science is. Here in this post, we will focus on the philosophical and ethical foundations of science. In the next post, we will examine the goals and limits of science. In doing so, we will find that science is not a rigid, impersonal assemblage of facts, but a dynamic and distinctly human enterprise.
What is science? Many authors have labored over this question, but the Spanish physicist and philosopher Mariano Artigas has offered a particularly insightful three-pronged definition:1
1. Science is a goal-directed activity towards the knowledge and control of nature
As a goal-directed activity, science itself has purpose—it strives towards a more complete understanding of nature and the ability to modify it to serve human needs. These goals are understood to be valuable and worth the painstaking efforts necessary to achieve them. In these respects, science has values at its very core.
2. Science is a well-defined method
Another essential component of science is its method. Both Artigas and physicist Ian Hutchinson maintain that the scientific method defines science itself. Hutchinson singles out two particular characteristics that distinguish it from other forms of intellectual inquiry.2 First, science relies upon experimental or natural evidence. Ideally, this evidence should be reproducible and thus subject to verification by other researchers. (Note: in some fields such as astronomy where one cannot actually reproduce events that take place many light-years away, one can make numerous observations as a basis of comparison. In disciplines such as the life sciences, biologists can rely on a multiplicity of specimens to approximate the need for reproducibility.)
Second, besides requiring a particular kind of evidence, the scientific method also demands certain types of explanations. They should be mathematical, mechanical, measurable, or quantifiable in some way. For example, one can take measurements of mass, number, length, time, velocity, pressure, volume, or many other discrete units. The goal is to create unambiguous results that are capable of creating consensus among other researchers, and understandable by anyone else who carefully investigates the topic.
3. Science is a body of knowledgeIn addition to being a goal-directed activity and a highly-specific method, science is also a body of knowledge. This knowledge is not just an assemblage of facts, but also theoretical constructs consisting of concepts, laws, and theories. Though scientific knowledge is constantly in flux, these discoveries and formulations are thought to reflect in some way the underlying reality of the universe.
With these three dimensions of science firmly in mind, we have the basis for distinguishing science from non-science.3
Philosophical Foundations of Science
Despite its day-to-day reliance on empirical and measurable data, science rests on certain assumptions about knowledge itself that cannot be empirically proven. These basic premises are what allow us to ask scientific questions in the first place. While the lack of complete certainty is perceived by critics as a weakness, the dynamic nature of science is actually a great strength4— since scientific presuppositions are not set in stone, new discoveries produce feedback that enables us to reassess, and if necessary, modify our assumptions.5 Furthermore, our understanding of natural phenomena can improve dramatically over time provided that we first accept that “understanding” is possible in principle. With that in mind, let’s investigate some of the implicit premises that undergird the scientific enterprise and speak to the knowability of the world.6
Setting aside various nuances, realism basically maintains that there is a world that exists outside our minds. While this may seem self-evident, it is exceeding difficult, if not impossible, to demonstrate. Everything that we have ever experienced is mediated through our minds, and while we can imagine that an external world is stimulating our senses, the fact remains that we are still thinking about it. Plato and Descartes have famously wondered whether our lives are just a continuous dream, and in our own culture, the movie Inception explored this very same question. In a related way, the movie The Matrix invited us to consider whether our “reality” was just a computer simulation designed to placate us.
Philosophers have debated this topic ad nauseum, but scientists, in order to do their work, must suppose that there actually is an external world—otherwise, they would only be chasing dreams and illusions. The challenge of science is to figure out what the universe contains and how it works, not whether it exists at all.
Nature exhibits order and regularities
Science relies on the premise that there is some underlying order the universe that we can discover and understand. If nature were to totally reshuffle every day, none of the experiments we conducted yesterday would be reliable today, and there would be little basis for making any judgments about past or future events. Therefore, scientists depend on some degree of regularity within the universe in order to carry out their goals—namely the search for consistent patterns, structure, and organization of the physical world.
At the same time, science does not have a particular commitment to exactly what kind of order exists. Thus this presupposition is actually a flexible, accommodating principle that adapts to ongoing empirical research. Lest we think that modern discoveries have marred our conception of an ordered universe, even chaos theory and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle have given rise to a better understanding about how nature is organized.7
Another distinguishing characteristic of modern science is the premise that every event is caused by another event; things don’t simply happen for no reason at all.8 When investigating various aspects of the natural world, scientists search for natural causes and natural explanations of those phenomena.9 Though this approach may seem unnecessarily constrained, it has had great success in accounting for previously mysterious terrestrial events like lightning, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions, as well as celestial phenomena like comets, eclipses, and supernovae. On the human level, scientific research led to the development of germ theory, which has led to effective treatments for numerous diseases that used to be deadly. These are compelling practical reasons to adopt a scientific approach to natural phenomena, rather than being resigned to fate or purely supernatural interpretations of our world.
Natural laws regulate the universe
If you accept the three basic premises that there is a world external to your senses, that nature exhibits consistent and unvarying order, and that causality is universal, it follows that one can formulate natural laws that effectively describe and predict many phenomena that we encounter. In fact, describing the behavior of matter through mathematics and statistics has been enormously successful at the small scale of physics and chemistry, and computational approaches hold great promise in many fields of biology. Natural laws also help explain events on the largest scales of astronomy and cosmology.
On the other hand, human activities continue to vex us. It is notoriously difficult to predict political developments, economic fluctuations, and social movements. Some people think that this is due to fundamental uncertainties and vicissitudes of human behavior. Others think that it is “just a matter of time” before scientists uncover the laws that dictate our individual and collective decisions.
Are naturals laws completely universal in time and space, absolutely certain and inviolable? Not necessarily-- since empirical science only makes measurements at particular times and places, science itself cannot demonstrate that natural laws invariably apply to every event in the universe. Uncertainty is a central feature of the human condition, and not even science can eliminate it completely.
It should now be evident that science does not proceed from completely provable foundations. However, its fundamental principles are not arbitrary or dogmatic. The practice of science itself enables us to revisit and modify our initial premises. As Mariano Aritgas puts it, “Scientific progress provides feedback on its presuppositions—it retrojustifies, enriches, and refines them.” Science may not give us the complete certainty that many humans seek, but it does provide us with profound and remarkably reliable insights into the physical world we inhabit.
We have just examined how science is grounded in a number of philosophical premises without which empirical research cannot proceed. But given how often we hear that science is purely objective and impartial, it may be surprising to learn that science also contains ethical premises. In fact, certain human values are intrinsic to the entire scientific enterprise. Research communities collectively embrace intellectual freedom, the right of dissent, cooperation, accurate communication of results, and personal responsibility for one’s claims.10 When individual practitioners or institutions circumvent these values, great damage can occur not only to the progress of knowledge, but in certain fields like biomedicine, they can endanger human life.11
Science is not an activity carried out by uncaring automatons. It is a distinctly human endeavor conducted by those who believe that it is better to know than be deceived and that it is better to thrive than to suffer. Thus, to call science a strictly value-free and objective enterprise is a misnomer. Instead, it promotes distinct human values: the longing to understand the world that surrounds us, and the desire to improve and perpetuate human society.12, 13
1. Artigas, Mariano. The Mind of the Universe: Understanding Science and Religion. Radnor, Penn: Templeton Foundation Press, 2000, pp49-51.
2. Hutchinson, Ian. Monopolizing Knowledge: A Scientist Refutes Religion-Denying, Reason-Destroying Scientism. Belmont, MA: Fias Publishing, 2011, pp20-54.
3. I also encourage you to read Stephen Benner’s BioLogos post “Science is Empowering but Hard to Define”
4. Randall, Lisa. Knocking on Heaven's Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World. New York: Ecco, 2011, pp200-213.
5. Artigas, p53.
6. I am indebted to Dr. Joshua Moritz for his insightful lecture on this topic at University of California, Berkeley
7. Artigas, pp61-71
8. Philosophy has a long tradition of debating the nature of causality, and it has been reinvigorated by discoveries in contemporary physics. This academic debate, however, lies outside the scope of this essay.
9. This approach, known as methodological naturalism, does not imply that there are no supernatural events in the universe. It just means that science does not have the tools to fully investigate them. Fortunately, there are other academic fields—such as history, philosophy, literature, and theology—better suited to exploring supernatural dimensions of human experience. These approaches are not inferior to natural science; in fact, they can explore places that science cannot reach. But of course, these fields also have their own limitations, as do all human endeavors.
10. Artigas, p265
11. National Academy of Sciences. On Being a Scientist: A Guide to Responsible Conduct in Research. 3rd edition. Washington DC: National Academies Press, 2009.
12. Artigas, pp251-263.
13. If you are not convinced that science has human values at its core, consider the mission statement of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the largest scientific society in the world: AAAS seeks to "advance science, engineering, and innovation throughout the world for the benefit of all people." Read their website to learn more about how they seek to fulfill this mission.
Thomas is the BioLogos Associate Editor. As a science writer, he has also worked for the American Scientific Affiliation, National Academy of Sciences, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He has degrees in philosophy and the history of science from Rice University and University of California, Berkeley.