Some basic understandings of the philosophy of science for nursing science students


Somparn Promta

(A Lecture Given to Ph.D. Students, Nursing Science Program, Thammasat University, August 24, 2019)





Philosophy of science is one among the important applied philosophy courses taught in university in the world. In short, the philosophy of science is generally known as the process of the application of philosophy to do something to science. We can look at philosophy from at least two perspectives. First, philosophy is a kind of tool designed to examine intellectual activities in the human world. Second, philosophy has some contents that can be used as the ground for understanding things in the world, including the things explored by scientists and science itself. The philosophy of science expresses itself into main two ways. First, it offers the philosophical analysis which says that what is the thing undertaken by the scientist. Second, it offers the normative thoughts, which are based on some certain belief in philosophy, which say that what is the thing that science should do. In this paper, I would like to present these two ways given to science by the philosophers.



What is the real thing done by the scientists


Generally, people think of science as the best example of the human attempt to gain some kind of knowledge which is based on the most reliable sources. In the court, the proof given by scientist such as the proof of the DNA which says that Mr. A is the father of a child is the thing that has the influence over the mind of the judge. People usually say that you cannot fight against scientific evidence. Philosophers know what people think about science. But when we talk about science as the real thing done in the world of science, there are so many things that people do not know and have the limited ability to understand and judge. There are some important questions concerning scientific activities posed by philosophers as follows.


(a) Is scientific knowledge based on solely empirical methods.


(b) Is the scientist free from personal bias which is the result of personal backgrounds such as family, religion, culture, education, and so on.


(c) Is science based on materialism, which is the belief that what to be accepted as the real things in the universe must be material that can be tested with sense perception of human being.


(d) Is it true that scientists of the present know more than scientists in the past.


There are some philosophers in the world who are interested to answer these questions. The result of the study is very useful and interesting, and some of the research findings have been merged into the thing called philosophy of science and taught in the university. It seems that for the (a) question, we know that scientific knowledge as we have it in hand today is not totally based on empirical method. We distinguish scientific knowledge into two main categories: the law and the theory. The law is the scientific statement in which everything can be tested with normal sense perception of man. But in theory, which is a kind of scientific statement, there are some things allowed to play the role as part of scientific knowledge even though this kind of thing cannot be tested with human sense perception both in terms of the theory and the practice. The particles in modern physics cannot be observed directly with human sense perception. We can do something to them and observe the phenomena which are believed to be the behavior of these particles. So, the understanding of people that science is knowledge in which everything can be tested with sense perception is not true. The things called black holes or the big bang are not the things that appear to the eyes of the scientists. These concepts are theoretical concepts which are derived from something which is empirical. At this point, we see that science is still based on human sense perception as the final criterion to judge whether or not that statement can be counted knowledge.


For the question (b), modern philosophy of science seems to believe that a scientist is a human being like other human beings in the world such as a monk, a politician, a prime minister, a farmer, and so on. From the point of view of philosophy and psychology, when a man perceives things in the world there is no one who purely perceives these things as things-in-themselves. For example, three persons are looking at the bamboo tree. They are looking at the same thing, and the thing that they are looking is “that thing” which is called the bamboo tree. But the first person would see the walking stick, while the second person would see the material for making a chair and the third person would see things which are totally different from the things seen by the first and the second persons. We know that these men have the different backgrounds of life, and the differences are the reason behind the seeing of the different things from the same thing which is appearing in their eyes. When two scientists look at the same moon, we cannot be sure that what happens in their mind would be the same. Modern philosophy says that seeing is believing. The example of three men can be used as an example of this saying. People read the same book, but some people love it while some hate it. Newton and Einstein see the same falling apple, but they think differently, and that leads to the different scientific theories concerning gravity. We can say that Newton has his one personality and that plays the role behind his creation of scientific knowledge. This applies well to Einstein.


For the question (c) it is clear that the great scientists of the world are partly materialist and partly non-materialist. Isaac Newton firmly believes in Christianity and he usually talks about the Christian God as the creator of the universe and man. In some books, Newton says that science in his view is nothing but the tool to reveal the greatness of God. Newton believes that the whole universe has been regulated by laws of nature, and the laws of nature are so beautiful. The beautiful things must come from the design by the great thing. Newton says that the more the scientists know the working of nature through scientific research the more the scientists would become surprised and question themselves that where these beautiful laws of nature come. Materialism cannot answer this question as materialism does not believe in things other than material objects. There are a lot of scientists in the world who are idealist, those who believe that besides material objects in the universe there must be some things which are not material, and it seems that material objects might follow the paths of nature which are designed by something highly intelligent and such a thing must be immaterial being.


Certainly, there are so many scientists who are materialist in the sense that they believe that we can explain the origin of the universe and the behaviors of things within the materialistic worldview. For these scientists, the universe comes from the big bang, which has nothing to do with God. Galileo and Stephen Hawking are materialist scientists. Einstein could be questioned whether or not materialist. Many times Einstein says that he believes in some kind of God, the God as given in the philosophy of Spinoza.


However, the thing that we should know is that science is one thing and the scientist is another thing. It could be possible that personally a scientist holds the non-materialist worldview, like Isaac Newton. But whenever Newton has to present scientific work, his work is required by scientific culture to be based on the methodology which is called empiricist. That is, the things that would be accepted by science have to be tested or linked to sense perception. Newton cannot put the belief in God as part of scientific theory because God cannot be tested with sense perception of human beings. If Newton needs to talk about his belief in God he has to say outside his scientific work. We know that Newton writes some books on religious beliefs, and these books are not scientific books, but the theology books.


Concerning the question (d), the recent research by Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, states that there is no scientific growth as generally believed by people (the belief that scientific knowledge has grown bigger and bigger from the past to the present.) The real thing that happens in the world of science is that the scientists look at the same things and use the different outlook to explain why things in the universe behave as we have seen. Gravity is the phenomenon that appears to all people in the world, including the blind men. We see that when we drop things from our hands they fall to the ground. This thing has been seen by Newton and Einstein. Newton gives us a theory to explain what is gravity and how it happens. The theory given by Newton has been accepted for hundreds of years. One day, the scientists have found that the theory of Newton cannot explain the behavior of some planet in our solar system. This behavior of that planet can be explained with the theory given by Einstein. The theory of Einstein seems more complete as it can explain everything which can be explained with the theory of Newton, but there is something that cannot be explained with the theory of Newton and that thing can be explained with the theory of Einstein. We think that in the future it could be possible that there is something in the universe that cannot be explained with the theory of Einstein. There might be some scientist to give the newer theory that can explain that thing. All the thing that we have considered as the real thing which happens in the world of scientist could be understood by people in such a way that Einstein knows scientific truths more than Newton. But most of the philosophers of science do not think like that. In the view of philosophers of science, Einstein does not know anything more than Newton. He just offers another view to look at the same phenomenon and tries to explain it from his new theory. No one in the world thinks that the theory given by Einstein will remain true forever. One day there must be something in the universe that cannot be explained by the theory of Einstein. At that day we will understand that why most of philosophers of science think that Einstein does not know the truth of the universe more than Newton. In short, in the world of science, there is no scientist that we can say to know things in the universe more than other. All scientists are the persons who try to explain the same phenomena in the natural world from some perspective. And every perspective is the theory. Theories in philosophy of science are the temporary tools for the explanation of phenomena in the natural world.


In his book, The Evolution of Physics, Einstein explains to the reader that in the past scientists think that their work is solely concerned with the observation of the universe and report what is the law that regulates the behavior of these things. The knowledge given by science under this kind of understanding is known generally among scientists and philosophers of science as law. One day, some scientists think that their work should be concerned with the part of the universe which is not allowed by nature (or God—if you believe in this name) to know with sense perception. In the book, Einstein gives a story to illustrate what these scientists think and how they will be confronted with the problems. There are three scientists walking along the street. On the ground they see something. It is the watch. It is a very strange watch. The watch can be seen from outside. The three men see the hands of the watch moving, which means that the watch is working. There is no sign showing that the watch can be opened to see the mechanics or the working system inside it. In the past, scientists think that the fact that we can never open the watch to see what is inside it is not the problem. Scientists can observe everything that can be observed from the watch and try to get some knowledge from the observation as said. There might be some relation between data that scientists get from the observation of the watch. The relation between them can be presented as a kind of law. Einstein says that but there are a lot of the scientists in the present feel that they need to know what is inside the watch. The fact that nature does not allow man to use sense perception to know what is inside the watch is not the problem at tall, as the scientists can use things other than sense perception in working on scientific knowledge. They think that they can use imagination and reason to know what is inside the watch.


Einstein says further that one scientist, after observes the behavior of the watch, would give a theory that the watch is mechanical. Other scientists who see the same thing as seen by the first scientist would present the different theories such as the watch is an electric or atomic one. The result of the theory can be different. But one thing shared by all theories is that there must be the link between observation and the main content of the theory. As these three men see the same thing and hear the same thing from the same watch, the link between observation and the main content of the theory done by each of them is never pure. Suppose the scientist A links observation X to the main content of his theory which states that the watch is mechanical one, and scientists B links observation X to his theory which states that the watch is electrical one, what we see is that both scientists base their different theories on the same data. Einstein says that the use of observation by scientists is not pure. If it is pure, it would lead to the same theory. This means that every scientist is still a man who lives in different surrounding conditions of life and these surrounding conditions have the deep power to form the different personality of the scientist as man. When they see the same thing, they do not have the same inner understanding concerning that thing because they are different men as said. And this is why from the same observation X they have given the different, or even contradictory, theories. This is the truth in the world of science.—Einstein concludes.


The fact that men are born different is a fact. And philosophers have admitted for so long that we do not need to fight against facts, such as we have no reason to fight against the fact that why I have to eat, or have two hands.  Some philosophers of science say that the fact that every scientist is a man and has different personality is not the problem. On the contrary, we can and should look at this fact as the positive thing. The universe is the place where different things are allowed by nature. We have different kinds of flowers in the world and we know that this is the good thing. Why we should have only one kind of flower? Scientists can be understood as the flowers in the world. So, let they work and present the different scientific theory to the world.



No Central Authority in Science


Important things that happen in the world of science do not happen without a cause. There is nothing in the universe that happens without causes, including science. The main current of philosophy of science today accepts that when we look back into the history of science we would find that finally there is no such a thing which can be called the more and more growth of scientific knowledge and science is nothing but the attempt of a scientist as a man to understand and explain things in the universe with their mental creation which is called scientific theory. In the view of a philosopher of science, Karl Popper, in his book “The Logic of Scientific Discovery,” scientific truth is contemporary in the sense that we cannot think that there can be some scientific theory or law which is true forever. This comes from a very simple reason. Things in the universe have changed all the time. Science is an attempt of man to understand and predict the behavior of things in the universe. It could be possible that during a period of time we can explain and predict the behavior of some things. But as these thing are subject to change all the time, one day when these things have changed much enough, the theory that can explain and predict their behavior will be false. So, in the words of Popper, science is true as far as it has not been yet proved to be false. This is known as the falsification theory of Popper. According to this theory, every scientific theory shares the same status: it can be falsified all the time. Some people say that the teaching of my religion cannot be false. For Popper, that could be possible. But this is not science. Science is the creation of the human intelligence that can be false. Anything claimed to be true forever is not science.


In the view of some people in the world, including some scientists, there is the difference between science and pseudoscience. In the view of philosophers of science, this understanding needs serious examination. It could be possible that something can be considered as not the good tool to be used by man as it does not pass the test which guarantees its usefulness and consistency. Exactly, we respect science not from the reason that science is the true knowledge more than other kind of knowledge in the world. There are so many things in the universe which we cannot know what they are, like what inside the watch in the story given by Einstein. So, scientists are not the person to know the fact or the truth of the universe more than other. We respect science from its usefulness and its power to point out to us that there is the relationship between the cause and the effect in things in the world. Medicine X has been proved enough to have the power to cure the disease Y. This is an example of the causal relation between two things in the world. As far as causal relation between them has not been changed (we can use X to cure Y) scientific knowledge within this context is true. The truth of scientific knowledge that we are discussing is judged from its usefulness and consistency (the relationship between X and Y is still valid.)


What to follow from the things that we have discussed above as it appears in the circle of philosophy of science is that we do not distinguish sharply between science and pseudoscience. For some people, traditional Chinese medicine is not science, but pseudoscience. This understanding in the view of some philosophers of science such as Paul Feyerabend, the author of Against Method, is not good. Suppose what we have found from traditional Chinese medicine are that (a) there are usefulness and consistency in traditional Chinese medicine not differently from European modern medicine, but (b) the difference lies in that something in Chinese traditional medicine cannot be tested with sense experience like modern European medicine (for example the test of quantity of sugar in blood); as far as (a) can be found in Chinese traditional medicine (it can be used to cure disease not differently from modern European medicine) we have no reason to say that traditional Chinese medicine is not science, but a pseudoscience. Scientific anarchism of Feyerabend does not accept this idea. For Feyerabend, there might not be one single authority in the name of science to judge other. It could be possible that Thai people also have their own medical knowledge that really works. From the perspective of modern European medicine, Thai traditional medicine could not be tested with their methodology. This is possible because these two medical systems are based on different philosophical (or even religious) ideas. But that is totally not the point. The point is that if Thai traditional medicine can make Thai people or non-Thai people feel good within the suffering of health that has been happening to them, there is no reason to call Thai traditional medicine pseudoscience. Western science has no right to call non-Western science pseudoscience, this is the point given to the circle of science and philosophy of science by Feyerabend. In the view of this philosopher, all scientists see the same universe and try to understand it. They try to link something to another thing and call that link causality. The causal relation between things, as Hume says, is not the thing that science can say to be eternal. Religion would say there is eternal relation between some things (as Buddhism says there is the eternal link between desire and suffering). But science never claims this kind of thing. Every kind of science works on things that can be changed. Scientific knowledge can be true today and false tomorrow. Who can point the finger to other and say you are pseudoscientist as far as those people can provide the knowledge that works well? Can mathematics given by Ramanujan be called pseudomathematics just for the reason that it greatly differs from European mathematics?


August 23, 2019