CPSP118G Fall Semester: Earth, Life & Time Colloquium
What is Science? What is Natural History?
Thomas R. Holtz, Jr.
Science is somewhat hard to define. Here is a typical definition: The observation,
identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of phenomena.
Sounds good, but perhaps a bit vague.
Nature is a little easier. Here's Charles Darwin's definition (from the Introduction to The Variation of Animals
and Plants Under Domestication): "...I mean by nature only the aggregate action and product of many natural laws, and
laws only the ascertained sequence of events."
Given that, science might be considered the process of the description of nature and the discovery of natural laws.
Natural History is typical thought of as that subset of sciences dealing with supramolecular
phenomena (i.e., those that deal with object built from molecules on upwards, rather than the realm of
molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles). However, all those smaller scale structures do impact
directly on the larger world. There is another way of looking at Natural History, though:
That subset of sciences that deal with phenomena that are strongly contingent; that is,
are strongly affected by events that occurred earlier in time.
So there are some fields of science which describe the change in particular sequence of events
through time (e.g., historical geology, paleontology, evolutionary biology, archaeology, cosmology, etc.), and others which
describe the products of those changes through time, whose properties can only be truly understood
in an historical context (e.g., structural geology, ecology and organismal biology in general,
anthropology, astronomy, etc.).
Some attributes of Science:
Is best described and distinguished from other fields of human endeavor by its
methodology (which we will explore over the next few weeks)
Is organized by its content disciplines (subject matter), rather than by other potential organizing principles
That is, despite occasional comments to the contrary, it is more appropriate to talk about herpetology
(the study of amphibians and non-avian reptiles) or sedimentology (the study of sedimentary rocks) or
high-energy particle physics than to talk about "Western science" or "German science vs. American science" or
"print science vs. platform-presented science."
In other disciplines, though, content (subject matter) is generally NOT the primary organizing principle. Think of
the arts, where it might be more appropriate to talk about the medium (paint vs. sculpture), or the provenance
(Chinese art vs. British art)
Is ultimately based on empiricism:
Empiricism: evidence-based, backed up by independent observations (in the case of science, observations of nature;
in other disciplines, may be based on readings of the historical record, of previously existing laws, etc.)
Consequently, Science can only deal with issues that have some direct manifestation in the natural world
Cannot directly address issues of matters outside the natural world (i.e., whether or not a god or
gods exist; whether a particular political or philosophical position or artistic movement is "better" in a non-tangible way;
This is formally called methodological naturalism: the assumption for purpose of inquiry that NO
supernatural forces are at work.
In other words, all events in Science are explicable by natural phenomena
Methodological naturalism prevents intellectual laziness, because we never reach a point
where we say "and then a miracle occurs". Instead, continue to investigate!
Metholological naturalism has an overwhelmingly good track record!!
Is NOT the same thing as "ontological naturalism" (the statement that supernatural entities do not exist).
Potentially, one can believe in supernatural entitities, but as long as you don't invoke them as
explanations you are doing Science. However, once you DO invoke them as explanations, you have abandoned
Science because you have introduced elements which are immune to independant investigation.
Note, however: Sciece DOES directly address any and all matters that have manifestations in the natural world, regardless of the
(personal, philosophical, religious, or other) position held by people
Therefore, Science CAN (and DOES!) reject truth claims such as "the world is only 6000 years old" or "anatomical and genetic
complexity cannot be explained without resorting to intelligent design" or "burning fossil fuels has no
effect on global climates" or "solar power can provide the same amount of energy that fossil fuels do
today", even if people have strongly felt personal reasons for accepting these ideas
Not all viewpoints are equally valid in Science
That is, a viewpoint is only considered valid when measured against the natural world, and not
by any other metric (seniority of proposer; how well it matches a personal, political, religious, or other belief, etc.)
Therefore, "compromise" positions between different viewpoints are no more likely to be valid
than "extreme" positions. Support for a position is ascertained against the natural world.
Concepts within science are subject to change with new discoveries
That is in fact what scientists DO for a living: make new discoveries!!
Consequently, scientific discoveries are provisional and subject to future refinement (or sometimes even rejection)
The scientific enterprise thus entails not only successful discoveries, but many failures along that way that scientists should
take with quiet dignity and grace:
Ironically, many people charge Science and/or scientists with acting "like they know all the answers", when the
entire discpline is based on the fact that we don't!
Alternatively, and also ironically, many people are upset when Science doesn't have "all the answers"
Often, people ask "what do scientists believe." This is the wrong question! Science is not about belief; it is about discoveries and about the
methods by which those discoveries were made and tested.
Through Science, we have discovered many aspects of nature. Here are some of the largest
level aspects (finer details would be those covered by different content disciplines):
Nature is understandable; we can achieve an effective understanding of nature through
the application of reason and critical thinking
Natural phenomena tend to follow regular patterns expressible in mathematics (i.e., "laws" in
the sense of many physics problems), although these patterns often become increasingly difficult
to phrase mathematically for more complex phenomena
Nature is mechanistic (i.e., it follows regular laws and patterns), but not deterministic
(because many phenomena are stochastic and probabilistic, and therefore cannot be predicted in
In Nature, not all things are possible
Also, not all possible things happen (e.g., a coin could land "heads" or "tails", but
will only do one of those two possible results when actually flipped)
Consequently, many things in nature only make sense when you understand both the processes
that generate the patterns, AND the patterns themselves
For the next several weeks we will examine how scientific methodology works, and then we'll
start applying that method to understanding how we can answer questions about the history of the Earth and
Life (including our own species and societies).
Below are a series of videos that help explain the scientific view of understanding reality and assessing problems, contrasted with
supernatural and other non-scientific modes:
Skewed Views of Science