Philosophy of Science

Science and Society

Science and its metaphysical foundations are of crucial importance today. The technological transformation of the world, guided by scientific principles, is an ongoing process of staggering impact. These principles are applied not only to blatantly mechanical systems such as automobiles, but also guide our thinking and acting in social situations. A clearer understanding of the nature of science can help us with many key contemporary issues.

What is Science?

Science is a complex human enterprise, involving many activities such as: These activities leave their marks on the world, from the scientist's immediate surroundings with journals lining library shelves and laboratories filled with equipment and materials, to industry with equipment and materials on a much larger scale, to the world at large with the pervasive presence of technology and its byproducts. The effects of science are not merely material - science transforms human experience. Our outlook is not only changed by the broader range of experience enabled by transportation and communication technology. We live surrounded by ever more sophisticated machinery whose behavior constantly trains our perceptions and expectations. The ideas about the world developed by scientists are widely taught in schools and popular literature and have become an integral part of human culture around the world.

Science and technology have made spectacular progress since the scientific revolution 300 years ago. Physics outines the detailed structures of atoms and stars. Biochemistry traces the contruction of proteins from their DNA blueprint. Technology based on science puts men on the moon and ten million transistors on a chip. Given this solid track record, what room is there for questions about the nature of science?

To be able to do a thing successfully does not imply a thorough understanding of the processes that participate in that doing. The best scientists in the world don't understand the complex physiology engaged in a basketball shot, but that doesn't get in Michael Jordan's way! A key tactic in science is specialization. A scientist studying the structure of bat's wings is not liable to be very knowledgeable about stellar evolution. Disciplines such as psychology and anthropology study human behavior and social institutions, but have not achieved the level of reliability and predictability achieved in the physical science, due in part no doubt to the complexity of the object of study. Science however is a manifestation of human behavior and social institutions. A thorough scientific understanding of science is a very tall project! The best psychologists and anthropologists might have some small inkling of what is going on with science. Just like Michael Jordan probably knows very little about the anatomy of the optic nerve despite being a skilled user of that apparatus, it is unreasonable to expect an expert in aerodynamics to have a particularly enlightened understanding of how science works. Our great accomplishments in science do not imply any similar depth of understanding of the nature of science.

Metaphysical Foundations

My main focus here will be on relationship between the scientific description of the world and the world itself. The scientific description includes raw records of experimental data, theoretical formulations of the general structure of phenomena, and everything in between. It is embodied in scientific journals, operating manuals for laboratory equipment, notebooks, chalkboards, videotapes, and the evanescent vocal performances of scientists in lecture and dialog. This description is constantly evolving as scientific activity proceeds. One simple and common notion of science is that this evolution is progressing or could progress toward some ultimately ideal description, a description that would be perfectly satisfactory. Much scientific activity is focussed on finding and fixing errors in the current scientific description. The ultimate description would have no errors, so no more fixes would be needed. Is a perfectly error-free description of the world possible? If not, can a description be created all of whose errors can be safely and comfortably neglected? If all descriptions are alike in being erroneous, is there any valid criterion for selecting a description to guide action in the world?

The discipline of philosophy of science has developed around various ways to address these questions. This being a specialized discipline, most people, even most scientists, are unaware of the variety of positions taken by the various schools. Occasionally results or controversies will spill out into the public eye, as with the current "Science War" debates, triggered by books such as Gross and Levitt's Higher Superstition. Ultimately a Buddhist philosophy of science could add a new and valuable voice to this conversation. This will require responses to each of the principal positions held by the various philosophies of science. What I hope to do in this essay is merely outline some of the basic difficulties that any philosophy of science must address, and to indicate how a Buddhist perspective can contribute positively.

The Relevance of Buddhism

The Buddhist tradition is over 2500 years old. Certainly when Shakyamuni Buddha taught, he did not discuss differential equations, quantum fields, quarks, etc. Nor did he discuss the scientific method, laboratory procedures, peer review, etc. So it might seem that Buddhism wouldn't have anything substantial to say about science. But both Buddhism and science grow out of questioning and examining the nature of the world and our existence. Buddhist philosophers starting with Shakyamuni Buddha have closely examined the role our ideas about the world play in the ongoing evolution of our experence in the world.