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Scientific Knowledge

by Grant Bartley

The scientific method is the path to knowledge in the secular age, many would say (especially secularists). But which science? Physics, biology, anthropology, sociology? And which method? Experiments, field observations, mathematical modelling, or some combination of these? And which knowledge? Current scientific knowledge, or some future ideal scientific knowledge?

Welcome to our issue on science and philosophy. Two of the articles reflect on what biology can tell us about personal identity, a key question in philosophy. But the first three pieces look at the nature of the scientific method itself. And one thing they collectively demonstrate is that there is no single ‘scientific method’. There are actually several different methods, and which is used depends on what is being investigated. For instance, as far as I know, no experiment has ever been done to test the theory of evolution of whole new species by natural selection. Rather, that foundational scientific theory is based on the interpretation of observations of the natural world and the fossil record. A very general description of scientific activity might be “Trying hard to get your theory to match what you can see.” But even this basic aim isn’t particularily well met in modern theoretical physics. No dark matter or dark energy has ever been observed. (Obviously? Inevitably?) Rather, those concepts have been invented to explain anomalies that don’t fit current cosmological or other theories – in the structure of spiral galaxies, particularly. Rossen Vassilev’s piece on ‘Einstein versus the Logical Positivists’ examines, and calls to task, the idea that modern physics can be a domain of purely maths-based metaphysical speculation.

In our opening article Will Bouwman describes the development of theories of gravity over the last 2,500 years, and ponders what this tells us about scientific progress in general. Philosophers of science talk of there being a succession of ‘models’ of reality, formed from ideas and equations. For example, Einstein’s equations provided a model of reality different to that provided by Newton’s equations; and so on throughout science.

Philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn believed that to be accepted, new models have to explain everything the old ones do – account for all the phenomena their equations explain – but also explain new data inexplicable on the old model. As a science progresses, its models give ever more comprehensive and mathematically precise ways of understanding, predicting, and manipulating aspects of the world. Einstein’s equations are a more accurate description of the phenomena that Newton’s equations also cover (and more besides), but Newton’s equations remain a close enough approximation in most everyday circumstances. Bouwman describes how Newton’s own theory of gravity both replaced and built upon earlier versions by Galileo, and by Aristotle. As Newton himself wrote in 1675 “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Two philosophical implications immediately spring from this understanding of scientific knowledge. First, let’s apply induction to the history of science itself, as part of the newly invented (by me, just now) science of scienceology (not to be confused with scientology, whose only apparent connection with science is that it shares its first five letters). That history shows that even successful and apparently stable scientific models (or as Kuhn said, paradigms) have always eventually been superseded. We have no good reason to think that this has now ceased, so we must conclude that the scientific models we have now aren’t the ones we’re going to have in fifty, a hundred, or a thousand years time. Perhaps the only sure scientific knowledge we can draw from the history of science, then, is that our present scientific knowledge is wrong!

But what about all the near-miraculous technology and medicine that science generates? It must be doing something right. Well, to say present scientific knowledge is wrong perhaps mischaracterises the situation a little. We know our current theories work to the extent that they accurately predict experimental results and produce technology; and in some cases this means they work amazingly well. To this extent, they are valid. As mentioned, any acceptable future models would have to successfully incorporate their successes, as well as the anomalous data that makes the new model necessary. In this sense, good science is usually a continuation and not an overthrow of previous good science.

However, the second thing that stands out from the history of science, is that a new model always differs from the old in one very significant way: metaphysically. It isn’t just about better mathematical descriptions; each new scientific paradigm we adopt make us think of reality itself very differently – sometimes absolutely differently – from the old. For Newton, space and time were an absolute, unchanging framework in which stuff happens; whereas for Einstein spacetime changes with the observer’s motion (technically speaking, with the inertial frame of reference of the observer). Darwin’s new paradigm makes us think in terms of the evolution of species and the continuity of humanity with other animals, rather than, say, in terms of the unchanging nature of species and the radical distinctiveness of humanity. Our interview with John Dupré interestingly continues the line of thinking of biology in terms of its processes. In simple terms, even though it might in other ways incorporate our previous scientific understanding, every time a major new model is accepted, our understanding of the nature of reality flips. I suppose that’s what you get for doing flipping science. It also means that although our models will become increasingly data-encompassing and precise, unless scientific progress is ever completed (and that’s unknowable right now), we’ll never get a scientific model that shows us how things really are.

Watch this spacetime for further developments.

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