This week I’ve dedicated some thoughts to recognize some characteristics of the priorities needed to set up the simple and beautiful frame for a well-grounded scientific theory.
The general idea is this one: if a scientific theory is a complex interlocking of concepts, observations, definitions, presuppositions, experimental results and connections to other theories, no single fact is going to be crucial for the survival of this theory. We perceive that here there is something missing, unclear, stated as too hypothetical…
The reason is that this “simple” claim allow – afterwards – an indicative increase of errors and misconceptions. So let’s reasoning by steps, slowly, and I will promise to try to do not leave much of the theoretic behind.
An aim of a scientist is to understand nature, right? In order to do that a gathering and interpretation of data is needed. But how does a scientist reason? For sure he/she is able to follow regularities, after precise observations allowed by high technologies and a ‘reliable method’ used to select the range of relevant data to be registered in a “software” afterwards. Then, after that and further analysis and discussion between peers scientists can arrive up to an interpretation of Nature and its features.
Within this proceedings I found a commonality with the philosopher of science that works to find – by knowledge interrelation – key elements to select one or more between competing theories, referring only to valid evidence. Namely, the ones who made the history of sciences were able to construct explanations with desirable properties, using inductive and deductive logic to determining the truth or falsehood of a claim. Now I’m referring to the empirical method that is founded upon experience and observation.
Empirical observations are a necessary ingredient of science and one might even say that empirical results are the first bricks upon which scientific thinking is built. But I am afraid to say that science enterprise cannot be built on empirical results alone. There is an important problem with basing scientific conclusion solely on empirical facts, namely, the one of induction. Better known as ‘inductive logic’ it means that we can conclude that something will always happen because it has happen before (I know that I must stay near the espresso machine because if I leave it alone more than 3 minutes I will burn my coffee and made the kitchen a mess). This logic is at the core of any attempt to prove a conclusion by finite empirical observation and this conclusion is general, it does not regard only me and/or my household familiarity:-). But I figured out that a problem with this reasoning still remains, because the fact that something has always happened before does not insure that it will always happen.
At the opposite pole of though is the doctrine of rationalism. The main exponent was René Descartes who says the world that our human senses can be fooled, therefore empirical information cannot be a secure foundation for science. Actually, yes, everyone can agree that optics and optical illusions shows us that we can seriously mislead. So, if the evidence of our senses can’t be trusted, what else can? The answer is one thing that theorist called ‘deductive logic’. In other words, Mathematics: the surest foundation of knowledge because science should be based on our minds, not our senses. Rationalism, take to its extreme, proclaims that truth can be apprehended directly by our minds. To achieve that task people should use proper thought processes, identifying manifestly true first principles and deduct their consequences; without referring to empirical inputs. Thanks to the human potential to learn, few people still accept this extreme view.
The official marriage between empiricism and mathematical logic paths was completed in Vienna (around 1930) by a group pf philosophers who developed a viewpoint called logical positivism. This one is based on the evidence that only direct and observable objects or events should be considered valid scientific subject matter. The task of science, in this view, is to ascertain that logical relationship between all of them can be captured by observations, because this is the first rule of positive knowledge.
This theory allow by its clarity and precision the “positive” relationships and rules that many philosopher and scientists were searching for, captured by the evidence that nothing can be more clear and unambiguous than mathematical logic. And following this principle, empirical facts are certainly a firm foundation upon which build scientific organisms.
Then, a problem rise, and it dealt with the fact that in science many things are not directly observable. To address this issue a focus on “rules of correspondence” was a requisition that every logical positivist must face between theoretical entities and empirical observations. As long as a concept could be connected to observations by a set of rigid rules the concept was legitimate, otherwise it will lifted out.
A similar kind of thinking can be found in the movement based on ‘operational definition’ of a scientific concept that state and describe all the operations done by a measurement. For example, Newton defined time with a verbal statement that he regarded as self-evident, but that was operationally limited. In comparison, Einstein’s redefinition of time in terms of the operations with clocks that are instruments needed to measure time, turned out to be an advantage to write about measurements and to have a common reference about.
P. W. Bridgman was the first who formulate the idea of an operational definition. I do not know how much his background as experimental physicist with a strong philosophical interest influence his thoughts, but for sure there is a strong analytical background around the claim that “any concepts that couldn’t be defined operationally should be considered scientifically meaningless”. I am the idea that this spirit of operationalism have an intrinsic correspondence with positivism that dominate the scene of the most relevant philosophy of science for decades.
Philosophers heavily influenced by physics adopted a different line of thought: you can use mathematics to predict how the events follow one from another. Solving equations, in the right order and pursuing a clear methodology, can be the way to predict how the first event determines the occurrence of the second where causality have only an anthropomorphic lineaments. The situations became even more intricate if I take in account the problems of knowledge, where there branch of philosophy responsible for its analysis is better known as epistemology.
Based on some questions that can go from the mechanisms and the ways used to acquire and construct knowledge of the world, affirm that we know something, insure that our knowledge is true and how it is related to things themselves there is one branch that go undisturbed: Epistemology. It hunt an dig within the roots of analysis, reasoning of objects and phenomena that emerge in our life, and that are in the meanwhile the fundamental principles of every science.
Next time I will talk more about the validation of theories, because it requires more attention that the one I can give to it today.
Have a nice day:-)