Understanding the philosophy of science- Enter Fal-see-fiability
By Abid Iqbal Choon
Science has been wonderful in the past decade where technology has been rapidly growing and hence, improving the quality of our lives. Tell someone ten years ago about the concept of a touchscreen smartphone, and they will call you crazy. As influential as science is at the moment, it seems there is a clear split between people who ‘worship’ science and religious people who are anti-science, as if they are mutually exclusive. To put it clearer, it has been the battle between the secular, materialistic atheism against the conservative, anti-science theism. On one extreme, we have people saying things like “Science works” or “Theories are facts” while on one end we have people saying “(Scientific) Theories are just theories”.
Science through the lens of Karl Popper
Then, do we really understand what is the fundamental philosophy of science? To put it simply, based on Karl Popper, one of the most influential philosopher in the 20th century said that science disconfirms while pseudo-science, such as Freud’s work in examining human psychology (however the notion that modern psychology is considered to be hard or soft science remains to be debatable) confirms. Science works on a basis where any hypothesis needs to be able to be proven false (hence, falsifiability), for it to be a scientific theory. For example, “Does God exist?” is not a scientific concern as it is not falsifiable. Anything that is not falsifiable is considered to be worthless by people who put a lot of faith in science (see what I did there) as it falls into the pseudo-science category. This razor (In philosophy, razor means “A conceptual device that allows one to shave away unlikely explanations for a phenomenon.”) of “anything that is not empirically falsifiable is not worth debating” is known as the Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword (which is not coined by Newton, but rather by an Australian mathematician Mike Alder in a 2004 article). Therefore, some people who try to confirm these beliefs through empirical methods and science will only end up finding themselves on a dead end as the discussion of God is more relevant under philosophy and religious studies. Whether or not they are a good and reliable way of proving or disproving God is another story.
Looking into scientific theories, such as the Theory of Gravity, there is this misconception that since we can clearly experience the effect of gravity in our daily life, therefore, the Theory of Gravity (which explains that gravity exists from the result of distortion of spacetime due to mass interacting with other) is a fact. In reality, any scientific theory, as strong as they are, they can never be proven to be correct, only be proven wrong. An important thing to note here is that even if we are wrong about how gravity works, it does not mean suddenly gravity does not exist. We know gravity exists. How? We experience the effect of it on a daily basis. Therefore, we know the existence of it; we just do not know fully how it works.
Going deep into the boundaries of scientific theories
Assume the correct model of the physical world is Model A. A good scientific theory or model of the world will be able to predict a lot of things correctly. However, as scientists discover more and more new evidence, any currently accepted theory will eventually crumble due to the inability of the theory or model to explain the new findings and hence, a new theory would need to be developed. This is the case with quantum physics, which completely reformed the way we look at science from Newtonian physics. The same can be said about how we jumped from geocentric (the Earth is the center of the Solar System) to a heliocentric model (the Sun is the center of the Solar System) by Copernicus. If we understand this concept, then we will realize that science is not absolute and it is contingent. With each new theories or models, we get closer and closer to how the world actually works, but we may well never reach Model A. Then again, on rare occasions, where the things that are concerned can be observed directly, we can know for sure. For example, with the multiple space expeditions, in human history, we have observed how our Solar System looks like and therefore, confirming the heliocentric model is correct.
Inductive reasoning as the basis of scientific methods
In understanding science, we also need to know that science works on an inductive reasoning basis. Inductive reasoning means that we start with a specific conclusion (in science, it is hypothesis) to derive a general conclusion whereas the counterpart of it, deductive reasoning is the reverse (starts with premises to derive a necessarily true conclusion, if the premises are true). Inductive reasoning is also known as “bottom-up approach” while deductive reasoning is known as “top bottom approach”. To illustrate better of inductive and deductive reasoning, let’s go through some examples. An inductive reasoning would be something like this:
P1: I have encountered 100 swans in Europe. (Observation)
P2: All of the 100 swans are white.
C: Therefore, all swans are white.
The problem is that inductive reasoning tries to draw a general conclusion based on a small (and incomplete set of sample size). From the example above, we know that the conclusion is not true as black swans exist.
Meanwhile deductive reasoning would be as follows:
P1: There is a book on the table.
P2: The table is on the floor.
C: Therefore, the book is on the floor.
As we can see, as long as the premises are true, the conclusion is sound. (In philosophy, a conclusion or an argument can only be sound if both of the flow of the argument is logical or known as ‘valid’ and the premises are true) One can argue that deductive reasoning is superior to inductive reasoning, however deductive reasoning is less plausible in science as we can only start with observation of the natural world and not theories of the natural world.
That being said, this does not mean science is absolutely rubbish. Even if any of the theories will not be able to be proven true, they are useful. They help us understand the world better and with each mistake, we learn even more. It can be said that as we know more, we know that we do not know even more things about this world. What’s amazing is that with all these scientific theories, we develop new, awesome inventions.