Thoughts on the ocean, the environment, the universe and everything from nearly a mile high.

Panorama of The Grand Tetons From the top of Table Mountain, Wyoming © Alan Holyoak, 2011

Sunday, February 19, 2012

On Science 1: The Foundation of Science

What is the foundation of science?

If you asked 100 people on the street this question they might say, "Experiments", "Observations", "Hypotheses", "Theories", or even "Scientific Laws." All these things are important to doing science and developing meaningful scientific explanations, but these are not the foundation of science.

The foundation of science, scientific investigations, and scientific explanations is assumption, or rather a set of assumptions.

About now you might be saying, "Whoa! Assumptions? What are you talking about!?"

Before anyone can ask a scientific question, carry out a scientific investigation, or develop a scientific explanation it is imperative that they know the bounds and framework for doing that work. The bounds and framework for science are included in a set of assumptions that are used by the scientific community worldwide.

Before I lay out a list of assumptions of science it is important to realize that many such lists exist, and no single list is universally accepted, but the list I present here is representative of such lists and includes the main ideas found in them.

Assumptions of Science:
  1. The natural world is understandable.  This assumption states that we can systematically observe the natural world and develop meaningful explanations of the natural world based on observations. If we do not accept this assumption there is no point in trying to study or understand the natural world.
  2. Events in the natural world are the result of cause and effect relationships. This assumption states that when we see something happen that event is the consequence of some natural force, process, or factor.  These cause and effect relationships are governed by natural laws.
  3. Cause and effect relationships can be studied by collecting empirical observations.  Empirical observations are made via our physical senses or by using technology that extends those senses, and these observations can be repeated and demonstrated. 
  4. There is consistency in the natural world (i.e., the universe). Cause and effect  relationships and the natural laws that control them that function one way in one location or under one set of conditions will function the same way everywhere in the universe where the same conditions exist. In other words, natural laws are universal and function the same way everywhere in the universe, past, present, and future.
Collectively this set of assumptions support the conclusion that there is a set of natural laws in effect in the universe.  The work of scientists and the goal of science is to discover those laws and explain how they work.  In other words, scientists to not develop natural laws, they discover natural laws that already exist.

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