Contrasting Views on What Science Is

While I’ve been bashing Sagan lately, he does get some things right about what science is supposed to be.¬†However, despite his flaws as a writer/ranter, Bruce Charlton in Not Even Trying does a far better job of defining what science ought to be (along with what it actually is, which is something else entirely).

My reading notes on his take:

  • Reality exists independently of our knowledge of it;
  • Reality is coherent/integrated/consistent – there are no contradictions, no isolated phenomena cut off and unrelated from other phenomena or the rest of reality (as our siloed scientific disciplines and areas of study imply);
  • Our knowledge and understanding of reality are always provisional and incomplete (Sagan actually gets this);
  • Science is an intellectual tool (or suite of tools) we use to observe reality and to form and test ideas as to its nature, one with in-built methods for minimizing the effects on its function of our intellectual and cognitive biases and the natural limitations of our observational and cognitive capabilities;
  • The purpose of “science” as a tool is to expand our knowledge and understanding of reality while bringing them ever closer in line with reality as it is;
  • The process of science must follow strict rules of inquiry, reasoning, and methodology and those performing it must demonstrate strict honesty, integrity, and independence (and an obsessive fascination with the subject) for the output of the process to have any value;
  • “Science” in the sense of the corpus of knowledge and understanding of reality generated by scientific processes is not reality itself, nor is it a holy idol to be worshipped (e.g. “IFLS!” types), but our current best map of reality and nothing more.

I’m sure there are some holes in the above, terms I’ve left undefined, etc., but it’s clearer, more concise, and more complete than what definition Sagan presents in¬†The Demon-Haunted World, and without the smug, patronizing, and self-important tone.

And I think Sagan himself would probably agree with the gist of it.