Astronomy Hypertext

Science: A Way of Knowing

Latest Modification: July 22, 2002

Historically we find that paralleling questions to produce knowledge about the world have been questions of, "how we know that we know," and, "are there other ways of knowing." The field of epistemology is that branch of philosophy dealing with the nature and origin of knowledge. Ways of knowing may seem out of place in a discussion of science, but not really. For to science, knowing that you know and how you know are as important as what you know. There exists in scholarly circles a controversy over whether or not other valid ways of knowing exist besides science. Let us clarify this point.

In the theological realm, there are those who believe that ethical and moral values can only have entered and become a part of so many world societies by revelation from the Deity. In the artistic realm, it is thought that aesthetic values arise not from reason and empiricism as does science, but through enlightenment imposed by our particular collective experiences as human beings.

Granting that science is but one way of knowing, can we distinguish science and its processes from those other ways of knowing. Yes, we think we can but possibly not to every ones' complete satisfaction. Based on our discussions of concepts, models, laws, and theories, we can define science in what should seem a natural extension:

Science: Science is a human effort to devise a way of thinking about the world and then using that way of thinking to conceive of theories that are logical representations of our sense experiences. Such theories are the most logical and economical means of representing past, present, and future events. The business of science is to trace in physical phenomena a consistent structure with order and meaning, and in this way to interpret and to transcend our direct experiences.

Many prominent scientists have contributed to the definition of science. For Einstein, "the object of all sciences is to coordinate our experiences and to bring them into a logical system." For the Danish physicist, Niels Bohr (1885-1962), "the task of science is both to extend the range of our experience and to reduce it to order."

If it is true as Jacob Bronowski wrote that, "there is a likeness between the creative acts of the mind in art and in science," then it is not surprising to find definitions for art and philosophy that read very much like those for science. For example, the poet T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) noted that, "it is the function of all art to give us some perception of an order in life by imposing an order upon it," and the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) defined speculative philosophy as "the endeavor to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted." This is not to say that there are not differences between science and nonscience. Quite the contrary, there are a number of points that set the two apart. Among these is the motivation that drives scientists to understand nature and her hidden beauties, to see in nature a pre-existing unity in her activities, and to predict nature's course of action, while the artistic understanding of nature is primarily a realization of self and an illumination of man's place in nature.

To close this section, let us summarize our discussion of science by saying that science is not the impersonal technological machine that it is often portrayed as being. Science is a very human way of thinking, albeit a very sophisticated method of thinking, about the physical aspects of human existence. Science is tentative, fallible, and limited, but it has been surprisingly fruitful in helping us deal with the question of whether or not there is any purpose for our existence.

© 1995, J. C. Evans
Physics & Astronomy Department, George Mason University
Maintained by J. C. Evans;