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.
Our actions today are creating problems of ever greater
magnitude for which we do not have clear solutions.
Examples include the accumulation of nuclear wastes, changes
in the atmospheric composition due to industrial by-products,
depletion of non-renewable resources such as petroleum,
depeletion of potentially renewable resources such as fresh water, and extinction of biological species.
Our actions that create these problems are so tightly interwoven
with our way of life that to avoid these actions would require
major changes in that way of life.
Thus we are faced with a very high stakes decision.
A key factor in that decision is an estimate of future growth
in human knowledge and capability.
Is it wise to choose a course of action that relies on substantial future scientific and technology progress to
avoid catastrophic consequences?
Can we rely on science to come to the rescue?
Sometimes scientific evidence appears that points out the
need to take unpleasant action in order to avoid some potentially
severe negative result.
For example, there is evidence that global carbon dioxide
emissions must be reduced dramatically if negative climatic
changes are to be avoided.
How strong must scientific evidence and consensus be in order
to make such difficult choices?
Does science ever reach absolute certainty about cause-effect
relationships in the world?
Does the need for further research ever stop?
If the scientific debates continue endlessly, how can science
be used to inform decision making?
Science generates knowledge which enables action through
development of technology.
New knowledge can give us new capabilities to perform destructive
actions, or actions with very uncertain consequences.
For example, advances in biotechnology such as genetic engineering give us the power to introduce new species.
We may also be able to genetically engineer human beings.
If we decide we do not want to perform certain classes of actions, should we avoid generating scientific knowledge that could enable those actions?
Once technology has been developed with great destructive
potential, such as nuclear weaponry,
is it wise or practical to attempt to restrict the dissemination
of the scientific knowledge that provides the basis for that
Won't independent scientific progress just regenerate that
On the other hand, technology can be developed with great
positive potential, such as a new medicine.
Is it necessarily unethical to restrict the use of that technology or to restrict the flow of its underlying knowledge,
e.g. to protect the profits returned to the investors who funded the development of that technology?
Can it ever be good or right to block the spread of truth?
The generation of scientific knowledge itself involves performing a variety of actions.
These actions may be expensive or ethically negative.
For example, many scientific experiments involve pain, sickness, or untimely death for human or animal subjects.
Projects such as interplanetary expeditions involve huge
What is a wise, appropriate price to pay for scientific knowledge?
Institutional decision making is informed by a variety of
The authority given to these experts is often derived from
their credentials acquired in the scientific community.
For example, scientists give expert testimony in judicial
How should the authority of scientific expertise be weighed
against other sources of expertise?
How much danger is there of such power corrupting the
validity of scientific credentials?
How can we protect ourselves against this danger?
Not all knowledge is scientific.
Other institutions cultivate and transmit knowledge, most notably religious institutions.
These different bodies of knowledge are generally not mutually
Scientific and religious institutions often view each other's
knowledge as being invalid.
Can a healthy society support multiple inconsistent bodies
of knowledge, or must such conflicts be resolved in favor of
some single self-consistent body of knowledge?
Should invalid knowledge be tolerated?
Should non-scientific knowledge be tolerated?
Not all institutions that claim to be scientific
are in fact scientific.
Indeed, scientific institutions somtimes suffer lapses such as fraud.
How can valid scientific knowledge be distinguished from
fraudulent or false science?
What is Science?
Science is a complex human enterprise, involving many activities
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.
- a laboratory technician figuring out what's wrong
with a piece of equipment and how to fix it
- a scientist deciding which data to include in a research
paper and how to interpret it
- a scientific journal editor consulting with referees on
whether or not a submitted paper merits publication
- a faculty committee planning the undergraduate curriculum,
which topics need to be covered and what order will work best.
- corporate managers weighing potential return on investment
from various possible research and development efforts
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.
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
This description is constantly evolving as scientific activity
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
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.