The Scientific World-view

Share this essay on:

Most of the people who are listed as scientists in censuses and polls are not really in a position to speak for science—to tell us what the enterprise of science is all about.  This group includes the chemist who works at the local pulp mill and makes tests to control the processes, the USDA agronomist who compares one fertilizer against another, the mammologist working with the Department of Fish and Game monitoring wolf populations, and the geneticist in charge of plant breeding at an experimental tree farm.  Most of the people trained in the sciences are provided with the background necessary to work in business and industry, or with government agencies.  There, they make use of their training to accomplish useful, practical tasks, but this also means that they may not have a wide-ranging interest in science per se.  On the other hand, the people who choose to speak for science are often the philosophers of science, and that presents its own problems, for philosophers want to create philosophy, an activity very much opposed to what science is or does.  The view-point described below would, I think, be widely accepted by scientists who are college teachers and those whose work involves the creation of new science, and they are the people I refer to as scientists in what follows.

Popular ideas about science are misleading, for the scientist is not a precisionist who thinks that all the world can be reduced to facts, although he may sound like that when he takes exception to fuzzy talk.  That caricature of the scientist is the view favored by people in the humanities, which is not surprising since they also tend to be people who engage in such talk.  The truth is that scientists see the world as being full of beautiful mysteries, and they know that it is ultimately intangible.  To take this one step further, no one knows as well as the scientist how strange, mysterious, and beautiful the world is.  It is true that science begins with the most concrete observations, and it never loses those connections (if it did it wouldn’t be science).  Its historical development begins with people who collected, classified, and named the plants and animals, with those who did the same for the rocks and minerals, and with those who isolated the most common elements and their compounds and discovered their properties

As one moves from the concrete to the abstract, from the specific to the general, one proceeds to the work of physicists who determined the effects of gravity on objects, and astronomers who provided the observations necessary to determine the orbits of celestial bodies.  And then we find that an interesting thing is happening.  Physics, the study of matter and energy has begun to demonstrate its generality.  Astronomical observations, for example, become the grist of astrophysics.  And this is something we see more and more as we look into the various departments of science.  As one moves away from the historical and classificatory—away from an interest in the particular forms in which matter occurs—all scientific activities become part of a single unified structure.  The functions of the cell, for example, depend on chemical reactions, on the permeability of membranes, on the storage and movement of energy.  Thus, a great part of biology is chemistry and physics.

Then, what is the relation of human observations to the world we observe?!  Scientists know that they can never directly perceive the “workings” of this world, but that it leaves its traces in the movement of bodies and in the radiation, reflection, and absorption of energy, and these things can be formulated mathematically.  Newton, in accounting for the movement of the planets and of falling objects on the Earth, stated the law of gravitation.  Einstein, using other observations, stated his own law of gravitation in his theory of relativity.  Quantum mechanics represents yet a third approach to the problems of physics, working from entirely different observations, and formulated in entirely different terms.

Totally different, drawn from differing kinds of data, none of these is incorrect, none rendered obsolete by the others.  Newton’s mechanics is the one most applicable to problems of a human dimension, the world from which his observations were drawn.  Einstein’s mechanics is the one most applicable to the macrocosm of the universe, the world from which his observations were drawn.  And quantum mechanics is applicable to the sub-molecular microcosm, the world from which its founders’ observations were drawn.

These formulations have been applied to various problems—put to the test—millions of times, and they do not fail because the mathematical “models” do model the behavior of the systems they describe (which is to say that this behavior occurs in patterns necessarily determined by the systems’ properties).  They are, in fact, more rigorously tested than any of the “certainties” of our daily lives, the things about which we are so confident—what we saw, what we heard, what we “think” we know.  And because they do model the behavior of the physical systems, they encourage us to look back at the world to make discoveries that we would never have anticipated but which must be there to be made because they are required by the mathematics.

So, does the scientist think that he finds hard facts when he looks at the world?  Is she a narrow precisionist?  Quite the reverse.  It is the average person who thinks that he perceives the world, itself, and who believes that the evidence of his senses is entirely reliable.  The scientist knows better.  She knows that we never directly apprehend the world, that the senses are only our first intermediary and that they are subject to error.  The instruments of the scientist extend the senses and eliminate some sources of error, but the scientist knows that the ultimate reality—whatever it is—lies beyond them.  The precision of her observations and the elegance of her math allow her to infer something of this reality, and the certainty of her methods make these inferences correspondingly certain.  The intellectual beauty of these glimpses of the unknown world, which is our world, are beyond the ken of the average person who has more immediate interests in his confident assumption he is dealing with the world, but they are glimpses of what really is.