Science is the realm of the observable, the provable, and the falsifiable (but that doesn't include everything).
“Nothing has such power to broaden the mind as the ability to investigate systematically and truly all that comes under thy observation in life.”
—Science is an expression of the collective interpretation of reality as a place of materials.
—Science is essentially observation. If something is not observed, then it’s likely not material.
—Science involves a method of repeated theorization, attempted falsification, and observation which reliably increases the fidelity of our models of reality.
I. Science is Observation
In the painting above, Copernicus is watching the stars. He is looking.
When he sees something, he writes it down. Every time he writes something down, he’s adding to a collection of other observations. When enough observations have been documented, he begins to recognize patterns. Those patterns point to a truth. Copernicus tries his best to articulate that truth through words, illustrations, and models.
Copernicus is a scientist. Scientists systematically observe things and come up with theories to explain what they observe.
Sometimes we forgot how conceptually simple science is, how fundamental it is to our interaction with reality. Instead, we often treat science as if it’s just another tribe with its own fanatics and dogmatic belief systems. While science has obviously been utilized for political agendas and ideological warfare, science is not a tribe—it is a tool, a great innovation in understanding our existence, a lantern to illuminate all paths.
We approach reality scientifically, whether or not we’re aware of it, because science is a natural extension of our rationality. We take actions, observe the results of those actions, and use those observations to correct our behavior moving forward.
We are being scientific when we learn how to drive a car, develop a wardrobe, or improve upon a recipe.
We are being scientific when we get accustomed to a new job, work towards more successful relationships, or raise our children.
Toddlers are scientists, immensely curious about the nature of their surroundings, laying their hands on whatever they can, formulating theories about their reality.
Teenagers are scientists, probing away at authority, testing its limits to see what they can and can’t get away with.
As conscious beings we try things, we see how those things work out, we make note of our success or failure, and gradually develop a manner of existence that is closer and closer to the truth of how we’re meant to be.
This may all seem rather obvious, but it’s a concept important to internalize: science is essentially trial and error; it’s the most fundamental, universal mechanism for making sense of reality; and we are all scientists.
II. Science, More Technically
Science takes the basic mechanism of trial and error and greatly expands upon it, building up our individual explorations into a shared system by which we collectively and cumulatively map out reality.
We might divide science up into four steps: 1) theory; 2) test; 3) observation; 4) repeat.
1) First, we formulate a theory about what a phenomenon is made of, where it comes from, or how it works.
2) Second, we attempt to falsify our theory through experiment.
3) We observe the results of that experiment and document them alongside the results of other experiments for comparison.
4) We gradually reinforce or reformulate our theory based on our findings, and repeat the process indefinitely, hopefully increasing the fidelity of our theory with each cycle.
The goal of this process is to end up with a theory that has high predictive power. The more reliably our theory tells us what’s going to happen when we do something, the more accurate our theory is to material reality.
Most fields of inquiry work by this philosophy, that whatever has high predictive power is ‘true,’ and whatever has low predictive power is ‘false.’ This could be rephrased as: whatever works is true (for now), and whatever doesn’t work is false.
However, the fact that a theory has survived rigorous testing does not necessarily mean the theory is correct—it just means it works. We might not understand why it works and, eventually, we might come up with a theory that is more correct.
That’s why it’s better to think of theories as having a fidelity, not as being absolute. A theory that has high predictive power (one that works), has a higher fidelity to material reality than a theory that has low predictive power, (one that does not work). But no theory is ever absolutely, 100% correct.
Science is still, ultimately, an interpretation—a model—of reality. The notion that we can even fully convert reality into words is a severe underestimation of its complexity. We must settle for our models being ‘close enough’ or ‘more accurate than our models from last week.’
III. Science is Self-Corrective and Scalable
If we expose our theories to repeated testing, they will be self-corrective over time. Theories are never absolute, meaning they remain open to falsification. This is an important aspect of science: all theories are open to being proven wrong—no exception.
For example, classical, Newtonian mechanics was a model of physics so vigorously tested, that it was considered to be scientific fact. The model had very high predictive power for virtually all objects in motion.
Over time, however, Newtonian physics was demonstrated to be insufficient in predicting objects smaller than atoms, and was overturned by Einstein's theory of relativity, which introduced the field of quantum mechanics. Newtonian physics wasn’t wrong, it just wasn’t absolutely true. Quantum physics is more true—it has higher predictive power. In this sense, quantum physics increases the fidelity of our scientific models. A new, more accurate theory may come along that overturns quantum physics.
We must always leave open the possibility of falsification for all notions of scientific truth. That is why all theories remain ‘theories,’ regardless of how factual they appear to be. For instance, heliocentric theory, the theory of evolution, and germ theory are considered factual, but are still called theories. They could still, somehow, be demonstrated to be false.
This openness to falsification is what allows our scientific body of knowledge to evolve over time. If a theory is demonstrated to be wrong, then we accept it as wrong and update our worldview accordingly.
In this way, science is anti-dogmatic, anti-idealogical: it is open to revision, update, annotation, correction of its truths. It scales over time to adhere closer and closer to material reality, based on the vast amounts of information coming in from all fields of inquiry, all the time.
For instance, if scientists agreed that the Sun revolved around the Earth, they would only do so because they observed it so. “The Sun rises and sets. Obviously, the Sun is what moves—not us.” But if significant empirical evidence came along that unequivocally demonstrated that the Earth, in fact, revolved around the Sun, then scientists would change their stance.
This happens all the time. Our scientific body of knowledge is constantly changing because scientists look at the evidence and are open to saying “Oh, I guess we were wrong.” If scientists don’t change their stance in light of unequivocal empirical evidence to the contrary, then they are motivated by something other than the pursuit of truth—they are not true scientists.
That is the beauty of science: truths are allowed to evolve over time, moving closer and closer to what is objectively real.
IV. Science is a Good Thing
Science is not driven by ideology, politics, or sentimentality—its only agenda is truth. In addition to that, science is self-updating, with an immune system that cleanses itself of falsehoods over time, gradually leading to an increasingly higher fidelity of truth.
This means if the science is wrong, and someone can demonstrate that through rigorous testing and consilience, scientists will admit the falsehood and update their theories to better fit reality. That’s why science scales, that’s why science is trustworthy and powerful.
Any example of science demonstrating political or ideological leanings is not the science itself. Making grand anti-religious claims is not science.
Science is nothing but the pursuit of truth, and if we think religion has nothing valid to say about the truth, then we’re not paying attention. If we think religion can’t coexist with science, then we’re looking through a very narrow, very ideological lens.
Why is this important?
Because we shouldn’t ever feel as if science is the enemy, or as if science is a force for evil. The truth cannot be evil. It is a guiding light. That light can blind us if we are unprepared for it, it can burn us if we don’t know how to wield it, but it is the only thing that can cast out the darkness of our existence.
If science demonstrates that we are wrong about something, our knee-jerk reaction might be to dismiss science, or to plug our ears and pretend the scientific findings don’t exist. But this is effectively saying “I’d rather be wrong than experience anxiety and discomfort. I’d rather be blind than feel like I’m not in control.” It’s cowardice.
Science is akin to using our eyes. Science observes things and makes note of what it observes. We would never make the argument that looking around us is a bad idea, or an incorrect way of seeking the truth. Our eyes do not see everything, just like science cannot map out all of reality, but that doesn’t mean we should shut our eyes or that our eyes cannot be trusted.
We may wish to maintain the notion that the positions of the stars has some tangible, material effect on our lives, or that our deities are physically real, or that we’ve been recently visited by a dead loved one, and we might assert that the science ‘tribe’ doesn’t observe these things because they’re not looking at the world correctly.
“Scientists are such huge nerds, with their eyes glued to microscopes, that they simply cannot see the magical spirit world.” Put another way: “Scientists are ignorant.”
Hmm… is that solid reasoning?
It is not, perhaps, naive to think that tens of thousands of the best minds in the world, with vast resources to carry out their investigations, operating from many different fields of inquiry, in many different countries, cannot understand a certain phenomenon… but we can? It is not naive to think that the greatest truth-seeking force in existence is so blinded by its own competence and rationality that it cannot see certain things… but we can?
To pretend as if science refuses to see the magic, or the realm of spirits, or the cosmic life force, or the energy contained within crystals is selling scientists pretty short. They’re not yelling “Preposterous!” every time something miraculous is brought to their attention. They’re not shaking their heads with “No, no, no there must be a perfectly logical explanation!” every time something fantastic and unbelievable is presented to them.
Science had repeatedly delivered us observations that are much, much more implausible sounding than the items contained within the standard, new age, hippy or religious fundamentalist toolbox:
“So… the Earth actually revolves around the Sun, somehow, for some reason.”
“So... the Earth is round and we don’t fall off of it because there’s this invisible force that pulls us towards its center.”
“So… there’s these little animal things called germs that that are so small we can’t see them, and they’re the source of most diseases, and many of them also live inside of us, but those ones are good for us.”
“So… it appears our ancestors are actually tree-dwelling, squirrel-like mammals.”
“So… all the energy in the entire universe appears to have originated from a single point smaller than the size of a pinhead, fourteen billion years ago.”
“So… there’s this thing we’re calling ‘dark energy,’ that we cannot see, that seems to be causing all things in the universe to move away from each other at a constant rate, which means space itself is expanding, everywhere, all the time.”
Astrology, crystal energy, reiki, heaven, spirits, and ghosts sure sound a lot more plausible than the ridiculous, whacko ideas listed above.
So if science isn’t simply dismissing everything that sounds magical and strange (like dark energy), then why does it seem to assert that things like astrology are ‘pseudoscience’? Because we don’t observe that the positions of stars have any predictive power on the personalities and affairs of human beings. Science says: “We don’t see that.”
Now, it does not say, “You’re insane,” or “Your worldview is completely bogus.” Peoplemay say that, scientists may say that—but those kinds of accusations and attacks are not science, itself.
Science just makes a list of what is observed, and things that are not observed are not put onto the list.
But there’s so many phenomena, so many aspects to our experience, so many weird mysteries that science doesn’t seem to have anything to say about.
Correct. There is a realm of reality that is not material. It is, instead, subjective, experiential, or metaphorical. Immaterial phenomena are not directly observable except within the context of one’s own experience, and if something’s not directly observable, science simply says “We don’t see it.”
But I observe beauty as the sun goes down. I observe the shadow realm emerge when Mercury is in retrograde. I observe God’s love at work all around me.
But science sees none of that, because none of that is material. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not real (depending on your definition), it just means it has no physical manifestation, that it’s likely constrained to the mind, that it varies from person to person depending on their personality and experience.
It’s important we understand that we have the capacity to interpret the world in a way that does not accurately reflect material reality, and that what science has to say about reality is strictly material.
Again, this doesn’t mean the scientific community refuses to entertain notions of beauty and cosmic energy and spirit and God—it just means those things are not directly observable.
If ghosts were part of material reality, then our scientific instruments would observe them—but they don’t. If the location of the stars influenced our physical lives, scientists would observe it—but they don’t. If God cannot be physically demonstrated, then God probably does not physically exist. That’s all science is saying.
Science only asserts the truth of things that can be seen; science does not make claims about what is truly unseeable.
It is important to remember that physical reality is complex beyond our capacity to fully make sense of it. It will never be completely mapped out. Whatever science has to say is an interpretation, an approximation, a model of whatever is physically real.
Science is limited in its reach and it is hubris to pretend as if we could understand everything about everything. We are monkeys, on a raft, paddling in an infinite ocean of shadows. What we’ve managed to discover has been brilliant beyond anyone’s wildest expectations, but, still, we don’t really understand what we are, where we come from, or where we’re going.
Because material reality is the only reality that’s directly observable, science is limited to a materialistic model of existence. Our existence, however, is not purely material—consciousness inhabits a world of ideas, a metaphorical universe that is distinctly immaterial.
We could say we all experience the immaterial idea of beauty, but beauty cannot be observed directly—it can only be induced from someone’s behavior or actions. Neuroscience can observe the brain’s activation as someone reports the experience of beauty, but the observation of the firing of neurons hardly constitutes an observation of beauty.
We seek answers through science, but only because our subjective experience pushes us towards seeking answers. Science abstracts away from subjective reality and, in doing so, departs from the very reason we’re abstracting. A purely materialistic view of reality is, therefore, self-defeating.
If science can help make sense of our existence, that’s useful. But if, by shattering our notions of a beautiful, purposeful life, science renders our existence meaningless, that’s not useful. There’s a balance to all things, including our scientific understanding of reality.
Science is a brilliant tool, the most powerful tool we possess. We must embrace it fully, adhere to it as closely as we can muster. We must also concede that it cannot give us all the answers we seek. Science is a lantern in the darkness. It illuminates all paths, but cannot tell us which path to take. Deep in the caverns of our being, we must step forward into the shadows, alone.