Numinations — January, 1998

What is Science?

© 1998, by Gary D. Campbell

Science is just a bunch of models. Ah! But what’s a model? A scientific model is a marriage of imagination and mechanism. Models must enable one to make predictions. Models that make no predictions are not a part of science. They are sterile constructs with no offspring. Predictions without models are also not science. Scientific predictions always proceed from models. When all the predictions made by a model are repeatedly observed in nature, the model becomes more and more accepted as a part of science. Neither models, nor science itself is Truth. No amount of confirming evidence can prove the “truth” of a model. However, a single contradiction can prove a model false. The truth lies behind the observations themselves. There are other names for the models of science. They may be called theories, equations, or algorithms.

Each culture has its own version of science. The version I’m explaining here is the version that started to evolve in the Middle East several thousand years ago and moved into Europe hundreds of years ago. Since that time, this version of science has spread into other parts of the world, but it is by no means dominant everywhere, or universally accepted anywhere. The modern, Western version of science is not at all popular in the Middle East today. It is much more popular in Japan, for example, than in the region that helped give birth to it. Science may not be universally popular, but the technology it enables seems to have an almost universal appeal.

Science has evolved considerably in the past few hundred years to come to its present point. Recent evolution has been fueled by both Eastern and Western inputs. The models of science and its recorded observations are far too many to describe here, but something more can indeed be said about the methods and attitudes of science. And two truths pertain: Anyone can develop the “scientific attitude” and not every “scientist” has actually completed this development.

The central theme of a “scientific attitude” is the belief that one should accept neither tradition nor authority as a basis for the truth, but accept only that which is based on observations and conclusions. You have to keep an open mind and be skeptical at the same time. You do not accept the truth of something simply because it is compelling or is confirmed by anecdotes. You do, instead, reserve judgement until sufficient evidence is collected and a model or mechanism is clearly understood. You are careful not to seek confirming evidence any harder than you seek disconfirming evidence. And, you understand that no amount of confirming evidence is ever sufficient for proof, but that a single, undeniable case of disconfirming evidence is always enough for disproof.

The scientific attitude is at the core of modern science. The first ring around this bull’s eye is the scientific method. This is the answer to the question, “How do scientists do science?” Their objective is to build and refine models. Their methods always involve new data or changes to the current model as part of the following six-step process.

  1. Observation: Something is observed that doesn’t conform to the current model, or a deficiency of the current model is brought to light.
  2. Deduction: A reasoning process or leap of imagination is used to connect the data into a new pattern, model, or explanation.
  3. Hypothesis: A prediction is made based on the deduction; a statement involving the new model or theory is made in terms that are falsifiable.
  4. Experiment: A carefully controlled procedure is performed to test the hypothesis; data that could potentially confirm or disconfirm the new model are gathered impartially.
  5. Conclusion: The model, the data, and the relationships are written up and published for review by other scientists.
  6. Verification: Other scientists, who must be able to follow the logic of the observation, deduction, and hypothesis, repeat the experiment themselves and arrive at similar conclusions.

The next ring of the target and all the outer rings consist of the sum-total and current acceptance of the scientific literature. Science is a matter of belief and understanding. Beliefs that are more a matter of faith are less scientific. There are four ways to describe people’s beliefs:

  1. The scientific believe in what is supported by the evidence, they withhold judgement for other assertions, and label unsupported assertions as undecided for the time being;
  2. The faithful pay less attention to the evidence, and believe in a body of assertions supported primarily by tradition and authority;
  3. The atheist, or skeptic, tends to believe in what the preponderance of the evidence shows and disbelieves in what the preponderance of a lack of evidence fails to show; and
  4. The hypocrite lives by the rule that “Believing can’t hurt, but who knows how much harm may be done by not at least appearing to believe.”

In the past hundred years, one scientific model stands above all others with respect to how hotly it has been debated by all of these groups. This scientific model is one of the most hyped, least understood, and perhaps most important scientific models of all time: The Theory of Evolution. We give Darwin more of the credit for this model than any other single person, but that is now a small fraction of the total. Many evolutionists came before Darwin and much has been contributed since. He didn’t express the model in the terms that follow, but hopefully, he would have approved.

Evolution occurs when information is copied. This is the central theme of the model. The exact nature of “information” is still being formulated, but there would be little disagreement with the statement that information is embodied in the DNA, RNA, and protein structures that make up all living things as we know them. These structures, this information, is copied from one generation to the next. The following rules formulate the model of evolution.

  • Every entity that participates in evolution is created in a reproductive, or copying, process.
  • Every such entity is an amalgamation of one or more ancestors that it is copied from.
  • Every such entity may enter into a copying process and produce zero or more descendants.
  • The attributes of the entities most successful at contributing to a copying process (producing offspring) tend to become the dominant characteristics in a population over the course of time.
  • No copying process is perfect. Changes are introduced at each generation. These affect the number of copies made from each new entity. Over time, this leads to the transformations that take place in a population.

A final tenet of science is that models should be compact. This issue is often called Occam’s razor. It expresses a preference for the simpler of two models, or the one that explains the unknown in terms of the known. Remember, things should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler. In this tradition, and to keep you “numinating” until next time, I offer a compact assertion for the often asked, but seldom answered question, “What is life?”

Answer: Life is the collection of all entities that use information.

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