How science works

by Neil Rickert

John Wilkins has asked about how scientists think.  This is intended, in part, as a response, though it also fits into my series on epistemology.

The received view of science is that it is based on analysis of facts.  But that is too simple.  We express our facts in terms of concepts.  An understanding of science has to begin by looking at concepts.  The history of the scientific investigation of electricity and magnetism illustrates this particularly well.  Today we may heavy use of electricity and electronics.  Many of the facts that we use are expressed in terms of voltage (or electromotive force), current, resistance, inductance, capacitance.  None of those concepts were in use at the time intensive investigation of electricity and magnetism began in the 18th century.  The electrical facts that we commonly use today were inexpressible at the start of that historic research program.  Coming up with a suitable conceptualization was an important part of that research.

The received view is that science is mainly concerned with discovering regularities in its data, and that scientific laws are presentations of those discovered regularities.  But that is not at all what I see.  Rather, I see a primary concern as one of finding ways to actually have facts (or symbolic representations).  Many of the scientific laws are abstracted from measuring conventions.  In some sense, the scientists are really solving the intentionality problem, the problem of having representations that are actually about something in the real world.  What is usually considered to be the intentionality problem is sometimes called “The Symbol Grounding Problem”, an expression used by Stevan Harnad in a 1990 paper.  Scientists, being the pragmatists that they are, go about this the other way.  They might be said to be solving the “symbolizing the ground” problem.  Instead of starting with symbols and asking how they can be about something, the scientists start with the something and come up with a systematic way of expressing factual information about that something.

The newly formed concepts that emerge from scientific research allow us to represent facts that could not previously have been expressed.  That is, the new concepts are the basis for a representation system, which we can think of as something like a coordinate system.  As mathematicians are well aware, when you are constructing a coordinate system there is some flexibility in how you do that.  Where possible, scientists use that flexibility to create a coordinate system that is mathematically nice, and this is part of why mathematics is so useful in the sciences.  Physics produces more sui generis concepts than do other sciences, so physics has more flexibility than other sciences in constructing their coordinate systems in a way that allow the use of mathematics.  In the other sciences, many of their new concepts are in some way derived from the more basic concepts of physics, so that those sciences have less flexibility to mathematically structure their systems of concepts.

In the universities, it is traditional that science majors are expected to take laboratory classes.  It is in these lab classes, that they master the intentionality of the scientific concepts.  That is to say, it is in these classes that they learn to connect their technical concepts to reality.

And that’s my heretical view on part of how science works.

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