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Science, technique and philosophy

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Science is at a peculiar juncture.  Despite all that has been written it has yet to be adequately defined both in contrast to earlier world-views and in terms sufficiently comprehensive to include its historical variations.  And the discrimination among what are called science, technology, and philosophy remains unsettled, if not neglected. 

Science has held technology in such high regard and close association that they are practically indistinguishable.  Meanwhile science values philosophy much less, if at all.  A likely and sufficient reason for the difference is that while technology is manifestly successful, it may be easily concluded that philosophy has been nothing but a history of baseless opinions.  In a direct response to the perennial controversies of philosophy, science has sought to achieve demonstrable certainty, and can claim some obvious successes in doing so.  But in its pursuit of objectivity, and in consequence of its relative success, it has arguably drifted into professional conceit, and has taken not just objectivity, but authority as its calling.  Implicit beliefs and assumptions are not being adequately addressed, it often seems they have been placed beyond question, and there has been an increasing tendency to theoretical inertia and misdirection. 

This paper is an attempt to define science in contrast to technology and pre-scientific world-views, to identify science as a form of philosophy, and to make a case for the importance of a larger perspective and a more professional temperance in scientific society. 

Science and Technique

Science, scientific practice, technology, and philosophy – these have not been sufficiently analyzed and defined in terms of their historical context and development.  In particular, science and technology, or technique (to use a term that better encompasses both modern and primitive technology) are still poorly resolved. 

Technique, which if defined as the endeavor to discover and improve the means of transforming natural objects into artifacts, is as old as humanity.  Its emergence may be seen as marking the precise beginning of human culture.  Science is of course a relatively recent development, and in practice, it is a distinctive, professional utilization of technique. 

The technique of fashioning a hand-axe, one of the earliest ventures to appropriate nature to the human domain, is distinguishable from bioengineering mainly by its relative lack of sophistication.  It is not unreasonable to think of a particle accelerator, or “atom smasher,” as a wonderfully elaborate hand-axe.  But the technique involved in any form of production is not in itself science.  The search for optimal material for the crafting of a hand-axe is not science, nor is the collection of detailed facts about prospective sources, nor the coining of words to classify rocks by their relative suitability, nor the experimentation with different techniques for sculpting a sharper and more durable implement.  The same can be said of the various aspects of efforts to increase the energy of a particle accelerator, although the latter has certainly been guided by professional science, and has unquestionably been accomplished without the inadvertent and superstitious influences we can suppose would often accompany innovations on the hand-axe.  In any case, all such human interactions with nature, from the fashioning of the hand-axe to the design and development of spacecraft, can be included under the heading of technique, as all consist of the transformation of natural objects into human artifacts. 

Science, when contrasted with technique, can be described as the endeavor to gain a perspective and deeper understanding from which to investigate nature as such, and from which to comprehend the significance of the relationship between the human and the natural.  Just as technique presupposes a separation from nature – the realization of a distinct human realm to which nature is to be appropriated, transformed, and implemented – science presupposes a separation of inquiry from technique, a conceptualization of the relationship among the human, the natural, and technical applications.  Science employs and improves technique, but science is not the technique itself.  Science is not immediately practical, it need not even result in foreseeable usefulness.  When employed by scientists, technique is the means of advancing hypotheses and confirmations, but technique in general is an immediate relationship with objects that may or may not be guided by scientific discipline.  Technique manipulates and transforms natural objects; science interrogates nature and substantiates technique.

Science, negativity and the implications

Beyond the resolution of science and technique, a most comprehensive definition of science can be derived from considering it primarily in its original distinction from pre-scientific views of the world.  In its virtual elevation from mundane technical concerns, the scientific enterprise is based on a decided rejection of earlier forms of abstract thought. 

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First, and most fundamentally, science is not-religion.  Nature is conceived by science to be specifically outside the realm of divinity, regardless of whether an individual scientist is a believer in a god or gods, as many have been.  Science considers its object, nature, as the realm of the non-divine, as a non-miraculous world outside divine intervention, where questions of the existence or characteristics of divinity are irrelevant.  The piousness of Newton comes to mind – he believed in God as an architect and first cause, but he regarded nature as a separate and automatic mechanism.

Science is also distinctly not-mysticism.  The scientific demystification of nature is based on a belief that nature is without occult, incongruous or deliberate forces.  A scientist may believe that nature is either lawful or random, but as not-mystical, it is held to be continuous, and regular, even if only statistically so, and therefore accessible to methodical discovery.  A moderate notion of mysticism may subscribe to a belief in unspecified mystery, in obscure processes without continuous physical sequences; but this too is regarded by science as unacceptable and counter-productive superstition, because it allows timeless mystery to stand in place of explanations that are coherent and rational.  The belief in astrology is a notable example of the mystical world-view and its hindrance to science:  If events are believed to be determined by the stars there is little incentive to look for immediate natural influences.  Another example of the distinction between science and mysticism can be seen in the contrast between pre-scientific and scientific mathematics:  The Pythagorean fascination with number was highly technical, and in some ways remarkably sophisticated, but it was based on a belief in an occult numerology of mysterious patterns, indications and meanings.  When a truly scientific mathematics emerged it was founded on a rejection of any but natural expressions of quantitative relationships.  Demystification of the world may in practice coincide with a belief in a mystical other-world, but individual scientists have only been mystical when they have been inconsistent.  Kepler is a prominent representative in this way, with his strange supernatural beliefs held alongside ingenious naturalistic mathematical constructions. 

The distinction of science from religion and mysticism is a belief-structure shared with the earliest philosophy, but the commonality between science and early philosophy goes only so far as those shared exclusions.  Science is in addition (and unlike much subsequent philosophy) resolutely not-speculative.  Speculation, however non-religious and non-mystical it may be, involves metaphysical, non-empirical, non-demonstrable theories and explanations.  Speculation is unjustifiable by critical thought, being grounded primarily on imaginative personal insight.  Even before there was science, the ancient philosophies that reduced the world to some basic stuff had been exposed as mere opinion, as vulnerable to a philosophy of relativistic scepticism, and science has upheld the ancient objection to unverifiable or unjustifiable claims.  As with religion and mysticism, an individual scientist might at times indulge in speculation, and indeed the increasing coherence of the scientific world-view has fostered tempting implications for speculative materialist hypotheses.  But speculation can only be inconsistently combined with a perspective based on verifiable theories, and insofar as a scientist remains within bounds, theoretical assertions are expected to be strictly empirical, or at least justifiably resistant to sceptical-relativistic criticism.

Another aspect of pre-scientific thought which science is-not can be distinguished from speculation by the earlier disregard for nature and focus on exclusively human issues.  The word contemplation may best express this general aspect of philosophy.  Socrates and Plato were among the most renowned of those associated with early forms of contemplation.  It coincides approximately with what became known in the Middle Ages as the liberal arts, and more recently as the humanities – studies of rhetoric, literature, ethics and morality.  As with religion, mysticism, and speculation, individual scientists might engage at times in contemplation, but such diversions are typically thought of as distinct, non-scientific branches of knowledge, understood to be bound by less rigorous standards, and kept carefully segregated from scientific investigations.

All of this is to describe science in its original, negative aspects relative to pre-existing forms of reflective thought.  Of course, science has its positive aspects, but the fundamental positive aspects of science can be seen as already implicated by the negative.  When scientists have been professional and conscientious, science has been not-religion in a negative aspect, and therefore exclusively concerned with the natural realm in the positive aspect.  Science has been not-mystical in its negative aspect, and therefore exclusively concerned with predictable natural objects and forces.  Science has been not-speculative and not-relativistic, and accordingly, exclusively and earnestly concerned with the observable and demonstrable.  Science disregards the contemplation of human ideals and values, focusing instead on objective, value-free entities and relationships in the natural world.

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With a definition of science in terms of its origination, the significance of its contrast with technique can be better appreciated.  Technique, in itself, is unable to rigorously distinguish religion, mysticism, speculation, and contemplation from its exercise, whereas science has been instrumental in excluding those earlier world-views from technical applications, thereby liberating technique from their haphazard influences.  When guided by religion, technique is constrained by unquestionable beliefs, and compelled to confirm, or at least not to challenge religious teachings; natural phenomena judged to be of divine origin or affiliation are held beyond investigation.  When mixed with mysticism – as for example with alchemy, one of the last holdouts of pre-scientific technique  – there is no methodical basis for the treatment and resolution of incongruities.  The naturalization and demystification of the world and the distinction of knowledge from opinion were the achievements of scientific thought, not of inherently practical, fixated technique, they were not simply technical improvements.  Science, in contrast to technique, involves investigation into the systematic manifestations of the world, and of our relation to the world as knowers amid a predictable realm of objects.  It involves a critical reflection on the difference between the divine and natural, between the mystical and the factual, between knowledge and opinion, between objectivity and contemplation.  Technique, by itself, is indiscriminate of such distinctions, or at least inconsistently attentive.  Scientific technique, the application of science, begins when it is guided by the methodical exclusion of religious and mystical intrusions, and further refined to exclude unverifiable opinions and ideal contemplations. 

Science and Philosophy

In its methodical pursuit of objectivity and validation, science has struggled to liberate itself from categorization as “natural philosophy” – as a branch of what science considers undisciplined opinion.  Although science shares with philosophy a not-religious, not-mystical approach to understanding the world, the determination to build an objective distance from speculative and contemplative opinions has precipitated a general aversion and a disavowal of kinship with the philosophical tradition. 

In view of the long and arduous effort for separation, it is ironic that science has often been combined with super-scientific, actually speculative beliefs.  It may be an understandable combination, as the characteristic analytic and reductionist features of science can readily trend toward an essentially materialistic metaphysics, where the functioning of each level of organization is explained by the interactions of its elements, leading ultimately – from the cultural to the psychological to the biological to the physical – to the level of subatomic particles.  But although a metaphysical materialism may seem most plausible from a scientific world-view, it is not science, if science is defined by the strictly methodical investigation of the empirical world.  The combination of science with metaphysics is all the more curious when those who engage in it deny not only that science in general is philosophy, but even that their own metaphysical extensions are philosophical. 

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A former visitant of UC Santa Cruz, former union boilermaker, ex-Marine, Vietnam vet, anti-war activist, dilettante in science with an earth-shaking theory on the nature of light (which no one will consider), philosopher in the tradition of Schelling, Hegel, Merleau-Ponty, Marx, and Fromm (sigh, no one listens to me on that either), author of a book on wine clubs (ahem), and cast-off programmer of ancient computer languages. I've recently had two physics articles published in an obscure but earnest Central European journal (European Scientific Journal but my main interests remain politics and philosophy.

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