Sean Carroll (the physicist)1 has a view that's quite similar to my own. Read his post at: What Is Science?. Here are some key points.
Defining the concept of “science” is a notoriously tricky business. In particular, there is long-running debate over the demarcation problem, which asks where we should draw the line between science and non-science. I won’t be providing final any final answers to this question here. But I do believe that we can parcel out the difficulties into certain distinct classes, based on a simple scheme for describing how science works. Essentially, science consists of the following three-part process:I usually define science as a way of knowing that based on evidence, rational thinking, and healthy skepticism. This is a broad definition, like Sean Carroll's.
The steps are not necessarily in chronological order; sometimes the data come first, sometimes it’s the hypotheses. This is basically what’s known as the hypothetico-deductive method, although I’m intentionally being more vague because I certainly don’t think this provides a final-answer definition of "science."
- Think of every possible way the world could be. Label each way an "hypothesis."
- Look at how the world actually is. Call what you see "data" (or "evidence").
- Where possible, choose the hypothesis that provides the best fit to the data.
Along these lines, you will sometimes hear claims such as these:Sean Carrol is correct and I'm pleased to note that most philosophers of science agree with him on the last two points. More and more of them have rejected methodological naturalism although there are still a few holdouts.
In each case, you can kind of see why one might like such a claim to be true — they would make our lives simpler in various ways. But each one of these is straightforwardly false.
- Science assumes naturalism, and therefore cannot speak about the supernatural.
- Scientific theories must make realistically falsifiable predictions."
- "Science must be based on experiments that are reproducible."
Some will object that this conception of science is too broad, and encompasses not only economics but also fields like history. To which I can only say, sure. I’ve never really thought there was an important distinction of underlying philosophy between what scientists do and what historians do; it’s all sifting through possibilities on the basis of empirical evidence.That's another way of saying that he doesn't accept the narrow definition of science that restricts it to physics, chemistry, biology, geology etc. I agree.
Sometimes the fact that science is not the only kind of respectable intellectual endeavor gets packaged as the statement that there are other "ways of knowing." This is an unhelpful framing, since it could be true or false depending on unstated assumptions held by the speaker. Yes, mathematics is a different way of gaining true knowledge than science is, so at that minimal level there are different valid ways of knowing. But they are not merely different methods of getting at the truth, they are ways of getting at different kinds of truth. What makes science (broadly construed as empirical investigation) special is that it is the unique way of learning about the contingent truths that separate our actual world from all the other worlds we might have imagined. We’re not going to get there through meditation, revelation, or a priori philosophizing. Only by doing the hard work of developing theories and comparing them to data. The payoff is worth it.I prefer to avoid the issue of whether mathematics is another valid way of knowing. To me it just seems like a tool that we use to collect data. But, aside from mathematics, I don't think there are any other ways of knowing that have a proven track record of finding real truths. I asked repeatedly for examples but the only ones people come up with are trivial things that don't even come close to qualifying as real knowledge in the epistemological sense.
Sean discuses two of these "truths" ("killing babies is wrong," "Justin Bieber sucks") in his post. One of them may be a bad example because Justin Bieber is a Canadian (Stratford, Ontario) and it is probably a universal truth that Canadians don't suck.
1. The other Sean Carroll, the biologist, is giving a public lecture at The Toronto Science Festival in Convocation Hall on the University of Toronto campus, on September 27, 2013.