What is science?

Intro

Science is the elucidation of the rules of the game played by the relevant actors – the specific objects of scientific interest. The ultimate verification of science must lie outside the scientific domain, just as its specialized vocabulary can exist only in the context of our everyday language. This does not need to cause grave concern. Scientists need the philosophy of science as much as birds need ornithology.

The scope of science

The task of science is to discover and make explicit the rules of all the ongoing games, heightening our self-reference; as such it has a key role in the cultural interplay. Science is no truth machine, but depends wholly on its own implicit rules and the integrity of scientists. As it stands the scientific community could well act as a paradigm for human self-organization. Technical prowess, the market economy, political democracy and scientific advances are all of one mould – they sink or swim together.

The natural sciences have gone from strength to strength and, thanks to quantum physics, elementary processes are rather well understood. Even so, the more complex manifestations of matter eschew scientific predictability. Most dynamic systems are inherently unsolvable and can be approached only by extensive computer simulation. As for human oriented sciences, they still grope for the right paradigms. No clear-cut scientific method will deliver a tenable explanation of man and the world. But an honest confrontation with reality cannot disregard our best scientific traditions. On the contrary, it must depend on the very same values which underpin our wavering quest for scientific truth.

Interactions devoid of any kind of game relation, statistical or otherwise, cannot be comprehended rationally; in fact they resemble para-psychological phenomena and belong to a separate metaphysical category. But we should not, a priori, deny the occurrence of such events. Singularities such as the Big Bang suggest that it may be impossible to capture existence in its entirety in a coherent network of game rules. Unfortunately, in all empirical investigations the odd irreproducible observations are weeded out. They simply do not possess scientific relevance, and the only recourse is to fall back on our fundamental metaphysical hypothesis – the universal order of play in an intelligible world.

The hierarchy of sciences

Science is a superordinate game involved with the elucidation of all the other games. Unsurprisingly, the rules of this science of science remains a muddle. Karl Popper’s critical rationalism (or fallibilism) is the most attractive doctrine but, in the main, it explains discoveries only after the event. Like most creative undertakings, science works within a haze of insufficient information and has to proceed according to a Darwinian search process. The value-laden meta-hypothesis of science cannot be pinned down: every rational scientific method must be incomplete and misleading; the perfect convergence of all science is a delusive mirage.

The core sciences can be arranged in a neat hierarchy according to the nature of the scientific object. The abstract symbols of logic and mathematics are by far the simplest actors; yet, they are capable of an infinity of unforeseeable moves. The natural sciences cover the games of elementary particles which are governed by strict statistical rules. With increasing complexity the actors acquire a larger scope for play; in the life sciences (biology, medicine etc.) predictability is severely curtailed. In the human sciences, like psychology, sociology and anthropology, man himself is placed under the magnifying glass. Here, the real challenge is to lay bare the hidden axiomatics of Homo sapiens.

The cultural sciences are concerned with man’s actual mode of play and must be subjective in their approach. Economics (excluding praxeology), jurisprudence, political science, the science of science, not to speak of the humanities are all normative – openly or in secret. History supplies the only relevant experiments, but the historic facts always call for a value-laden, holistic interpretation. The cultural sciences have no real foundations; they hang by the invisible threads of implicit meta-rules. For the present, the best guide into these nebulous regions is art. Great authors tell us more about human inter play than contemporary scientific analysis.

Coping with complexity

The largely intuitive creation of concepts is the first step in the scientific learning process. We must possess the right precognition in order to identify relevant patterns; only then can we proceed with naming and classifying the proper categories. Such powers of expression can only be bought at the cost of precision. As interest shifts from pure logic and mathematics to physical, biological and cultural games, the professional idioms must faithfully reflect the increasing complexity. At a certain point, science cannot properly name the superordinate symbol – it has to step aside and stay silent.

The object of research must be significantly simpler and less complex than the investigating subject; otherwise it is not open to scientific understanding and explanation. The study of man is extremely cumbersome. The invariables are confined to our very individual genetic heritage. The reductionist researcher must be content with an amputated specimen (e.g. the rational Homo economicus). Or the observations are confined to a narrow aspect which, still, is hard to nail down (e.g. intelligence tests). Even so, identical twins open the possibility of separating genetic and environmental influences.

Full understanding of the phenomenon of Homo sapiens seems to be unattainable in practice, and is probably precluded in principle; witness the self-devouring snake. No clear-cut scientific method can adequately elucidate man and his world. For all that, the escalation of complexity obviously calls for a circumspect broadening of the axiomatic base. Moreover, an honest confrontation with reality cannot disregard our best scientific traditions; on the contrary, it must depend on the very same values which underpin our wavering quest for scientific truth.

Science is searching for significant patterns which allow for a compact description of the world. But complex structures cannot be significantly reduced without some loss of information. Reality is so rich that it must be illuminated from many different angles to yield its secrets. Only by means of accurate and non-trivial predictions, dependable instruments and efficient machines can science demonstrate its own relevance and veracity. The immoderate urge to understand all things imperils the acquisition of reliable knowledge about some of them.

Victorious humility

Antique science went down in a maelstrom of moral apathy and false play. For centuries, overweening pretensions (soothsaying) and spectacular aspirations (gold making) blocked progress by suppressing information and dispersing the scientific interest. These specious goals had to be dislodged in favour of the humble study of reality before the shackles of received wisdom could be shaken off. For us the world view of the natural sciences is so self-evident that we regard its breakthrough as an inevitable and irreversible process. The profound cumulative development of knowledge is in fact an exceptional if not a unique event. In the absence of liberty and tolerance, scientific objectivity sooner or later falls prey to the mental self-satisfaction of people who loathe to face the truth.

Science was resurrected by the spirit of humble, long-term inquiry, a new kind of divine service. The natural sciences constitute not a catalogue of truth but a continuous, self-critical learning process. They cannot verify any explicit view of life, but they have become an indispensable part of every open value universe. Instead of pursuing absolute truth, the different schools of human and cultural scientists ought to understand and openly declare their value frame. The fruits of the diverse scientific efforts would, in due course, bear witness to the quality of the underlying faith. Definitive truth, the ultimate frame of reference, must remain beyond our recognition.

Science does not create values; rather, certain values create scientists while other values breed politicians, businessmen, artists or chess masters. The augmentation of manifest truth is the purpose of the scientist’s existence. The conscientious researcher is seeking a small stake in immortality; behind serious scientific work there is always a hidden agenda – the search for God. The challenge is to control the hubris of hyper-rationalism – science as superstition. We must preserve the priceless personal religion which is the deepest source of scientific truth. Only then will we grasp the immense potential of scientific inquiry, as well as its limitations; only then will science become a universal tool and mesh into our cultural credo.

Knowledge and faith

Every piece of knowledge is based on conviction and is really an act of faith. In most cases we have to fall back on trustworthy authorities; within our own profession we rely on hard-won internal experience (Polanyi’s ‘tacit knowledge’) which does not require explicit validation. Facts that do not fit into an otherwise convincing and aesthetically attractive whole are simply disregarded. In creative thinking the insight precedes the proof; later on, incisive self-criticism will separate the wheat from the chaff.

Thus, when all is said and done, nothing can be fully revealed, explained or irrefutably proved. Every act of real understanding is, on the other hand, an irreversible process. A familiar pattern, a meaningful structure, will always be ‘re-cognised’ but isolated facts and linear-logical reasoning have limited power of persuasion. They often lead to paradoxes which tell us something about the obscure nature of the particular language game.

Faith in science as the revealer of all truth is groundless, but science can uncover many untruths such as pernicious superstitions; truth is what remains when all untruths have been exposed. What then is a superstition in contrast to faith? It is a conviction which, at least in principle, can be falsified by observations, experiments or other scientific methods. Pseudo-sciences are the mirror-image of superstitions, entrenching themselves behind self-immunizing doctrines.

Despite the incapability of science to provide answers for our most important questions, it already serves as a common denominator for educated people all over the globe. Its principal values are impeccable and generally accepted. The basic insight of human fallibility should foil the exaggerated ambitions of science, while opening the way for freedom of thought, humanism and democracy.