What is Science? Part 1: The Demarcation Problem

Blind men feeling the elephant.

Blind men feeling the elephant.

Summary: This is part 1 of a 10 part essay that suggests we can think of science as a weak form of samadhi.  Part 1 lays out our basis by trying to figure out how science is distinguished form other forms of human activity, which is called “the demarcation problem”.

Feeling the Elephant
What is science? The word “science” means different things to different people.

Are you a practicing scientist in a particular field of study? If so, science will mean something specific to you: your training, the topic you are studying, the overall community of scientists to which you belong, etc.  Science is very different to a sociologist or a physicist.

Are you a lay-person with an interest in science but no formal training? Then you probably have learned about science reading books written for the general public, or by watching Discovery Channel, science videos on YouTube or reading science blogs.

Perhaps you are an academic specialist in a different field but with an interest in science.  For example, maybe you are a historian of science, or a philosopher of science. In which case, again, you may have a specialized area of study, for example, the study of heat in the 17th century for a historian, or maybe you are interested in interpretations of quantum mechanics or neuroscience if you are a philosopher.

As these few examples illustrate, science is clearly a multifaceted thing. Like the Hindu idea of the blind men feeling different parts of the elephant, one sees science differently depending on where one “touches” it.  Very importantly, one will understand science to the extent of one’s intellectual capabilities.  When I ask: “what is science?” I am thinking of the philosophy of science problem of trying to define the nature of what science is as a human activity.  In the philosophy of science, this is called the “demarcation problem”.

The Demarcation Problem
The Wikipedia entry on the demarcation problem is a reasonable introduction to the topic.  It describes the main ideas of the topic.  Let’s briefly outline what people have thought about the nature of science:

  1. Common sense view – The common sense view is that science objectively describes nature.  Different fields of science describe different aspects of nature.  Physics describes time, space and energy; chemistry describes material things; biology describes living things; psychology describes how minds work, and so on.
  2. Positivism – Positivism attempted to refine the common sense view of science.  The essence of positivism was the “verification principle”, which stated that any truth had to be verified by experimental evidence or deductive proof.  Positivism had the grand ambition to explain everything in terms of science and math. There were two main problems with positivism: (1) one cannot verify the verification principle, and it must be accepted as a matter of faith or belief, and (2) we must, by necessity, ultimately always describe experimental evidence and deductive proofs using regular human language. Language, however, is not, in general, scientific.
  3. PostPositivism.  “Post-positivism” refers to a diverse set of ideas about science that do not accept that science is 100% objective.   The focus has been mainly on how language and culture affect science.  Even though scientists make up their own specialized languages to describe nature, these languages are still embedded in our everyday languages, and our everyday languages are a product of our culture and society. We’ll discuss only the most widely known view as an example.

Thomas Kuhn was a very influential post-positivist philosopher.  He invented a new way to understand science in terms of things he called paradigms.  Paradigms are all of the social and psychological aspects of science that are present along with the regular (inductive) scientific facts and (deductive) theories.  A paradigm is kind of like an intellectual iceberg.  We all know you only see the tip of an iceberg sticking out of the water, and the bulk of the iceberg is hidden under the surface.  Kuhn said scientific paradigms were like this, so that the stuff one learns from text books or scientific journals, the explicit words and specialized languages of the various sciences, are the tip of the iceberg.  However, for each explicit word used in a science, there were many implicit assumptions underlying the meaning of these words. These formed the hidden underside of the paradigm, like the submerged bulk of an iceberg.  This hidden underside is in large measure conditioned by non-scientific things, like people’s individual prejudices and experience, and the belief systems imposed on scientists by their culture.  That is to say, subjective things factor importantly into our supposedly objective understanding of the world.  The short of Kuhn’s view of science is that science is a mental and social network, with many different types of nodes.  Some of these nodes are easily identifiable as the accoutrements of science, but most of them are not but instead are normal social and psychological factors.

The tentative consensus to emerge from post-positivist thought is that science is “inter-subjective verifiability.” This view acknowledges that we are subjective beings, but states that we can find common ground to agree on things such as how to perform and interpret the results of experimental measurements or mathematical procedures.  This common ground is what is meant by the term “objective”.  However, this does not solve the demarcation problem, because it can apply to any human activity where everybody agrees to do things a certain way, for example, in mathematics or computer science and in most forms of art, such as Classical Western music.

From this very brief description, you can see that the “demarcation problem” seems to start out easy.  But when we think about it more deeply, it becomes more ambiguous, and it becomes more difficult to clearly demarcate science from other human activities.  So, at present, there is no answer to the “demarcation problem”.  There is no agreed on understanding of what science is that distinguishes it from other activities like art, or technology, or even politics and religion!  Intuitively, most everyone will agree that science is different from art or technology, politics or religion.  But pinning this down and expressing it intellectually, to everybody’s satisfaction, has proven impossible to the present time.

As usual, the modern Western intellect ends in confusion.

In Part 2, we introduce yogic ideas and see if they can help us understand what science is.

Jump to the other parts of What is Science?

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8
Part 9
Part 10

2 thoughts on “What is Science? Part 1: The Demarcation Problem

  1. PeterJ

    I’ve just read ‘What is Science?’ It is fabulous! One of the best things on these topics I’ve read for ages. I can’t praise it highly enough. Many thanks for such a helpful,. lucid and sensible essay.

    • Wow. Thank you for the kind remarks. I look forward to reading your work and just perused a couple entries. Will read more later when my schedule is not so crazy….best, Don

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