Thursday, February 5, 2009

First Axiom

I've been doing lots of thinking about teh Scienz lately, from the little details to the big pictures. (Yeah, ok, so maybe I'm having a scientific midlife crisis. What's it to ya?)

Sure, most of these thoughts are neither particularly well considered nor highly developed. Indeed, they're probably not very insightful either. But the best way of improving upon them is to just start writing about them, and hopefully get feedback from other people (especially fellow working scientists). One benefit of this approach is that I'm not so wedded to my thoughts that there's a huge congitive barrier to overcome if they need altering.

With this entire morass in my head, regardless of the current state of each, I've begun by thinking explicitly about the "why?" question*. Why do we do what we're doing? What's the ultimate purpose of it? In my mind, before we can judge whether a particular way of doing things is good or bad, we need to figure out the answer to the "why" question.

So let's ask the question about Science, broadly speaking. What is the purpose of our endeavor? The answer to that question forms the ultimate basis by which its attendant ethics, practices, and structures must be judged.

My answer is that Science's aim is to produce true statements about the world.

I consider this to be the first axiom. I don't even claim this phraseology as my own, as I'm sure I must have read something to this effect over at Dr. Free-Ride's (which is the place I go when thinking about All Things Philisophical). But I can't think of a better way to put it. And I would guess that essentially all scientists would agree with it. If not, I'm all ears about what is the ultimate goal of Science.

Now onto whittling down that morass!**

* - I understand that this isn't terribly insightful. Either River Tam or Arlenna brought it up some time ago (i.e. - the hazy time that existed prior to the daughter's arrival) in a discussion about authorship order issues. Furthermore, just about every project planning book out there contains something similar. Hell, it's in David Allen's Getting Things Done book, so that means about 1.18 billion people on the Earth know it.

But knowing it and doing it are two very different things. If you don't believe me, consider just about any committee meeting you've had the pleasure of attending. How many actually started with "Why?" And how much talk was really about "How"? Besides, having done exactly this in project planning of various sorts, I'm often surprised by how useful it is in producing different ways of approaching and solving problems.

** - Something about this sentence really makes me happy.


DSK Samways said...

"My answer is that Science's aim is to produce true statements about the world."

I think that's a little to ambitious (Cartesian Doubt notwithstanding).

I favour the idea that science is simply the pursuit of the next best model. We are basically employed in the task of generating models that explain phenomena and, more importantly, allow predictions to be made with regard to those phenomena. We aim to investigate and generate data that will, hopefully, improve the current models and put us in a better position to manipulate the various aspects of our environment and predict the consequences. It's a utilitarian enterprise first and foremost.

Whether such models can be obtained as to accurately reflect Reality and Truth is arguably irrelevant by virtue of being unknowable. It's simply a matter of whether these models have practical use and are the best fit for the observations they attempt to explain.

Nat Blair said...

Good point. Whatever we come up with is ultimately provisional, and obviously subject to later refinement.

I often think of it as an asymptotic approach to a new steady-state.

If I ever refer back to this in future posts, and use the aim I put forth here, feel free to substitute your idea! :)

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