The powers and place of the natural sciences

When Ashley constructs a puzzle on the floor of the living room, she will eventually come to the point where she doesn’t remember which piece comes next and simple observation doesn’t make it obvious. At that point, she enters the realm of nascent scientific thought. She has a gap in her knowledge that prevents her from knowing what to do next, so she has to decide what to do next. If she determines to continue (a matter of the will, not the intellect – i.e. a question of loves), she will acknowledge the gap and immediately start looking for the missing link.

 When she sees a piece that might fit, she has already formed an implicit hypothesis. Then she will test her hypothesis by trying to put it in the fitting place in the puzzle. If her will is committed (i.e. if her love for the solution is adequate to the task), she will respond to the feedback the puzzle provides. If it doesn’t easily fit, but she’s pretty convinced it’s the right piece, she’ll persist. If her level of conviction is mild, she’ll “go back to the drawing board” in her mind and re-search the information, looking for a new hypothesis that she can test.

If she finds that the piece fits, her hypothesis is demonstrated and she goes on to the next problem. If she has fallen in love with her hypothesis (if that solution has become more important to her than the truth of the puzzle), she may pound on the piece, mutilating it and the puzzle or at least inhibiting her ability to succeed – not only on this puzzle but on all puzzles. She will, by virtue of her misplaced love, lose confidence in her own ability to solve problems or even in the ability of puzzles to be solved.

 If I’ve expressed my observations and reflections well, I hope you can see the whole scientific endeavor contained in Ashley’s construction of the puzzle. If so, let me draw your attention to something that is sometimes overlooked in “the scientific method.” First, note that the scientific method is innate to human psychology. When a person believes the world can be known, it is natural to want to know what can be known about it, especially in regard to immediate personal experience. All of us enage in a rudimentary and varyingly imprecise use of the scientific method every day. So what is that method?

Here’s a fine summary of what we learned in middle school or high school from a Jose Wudka:

The scientific method is the best way yet discovered for winnowing the truth from lies and delusion. The simple version looks something like this:

1. Observe some aspect of the universe.
2. Invent a tentative description, called a hypothesis, that is consistent with what you have observed.
3. Use the hypothesis to make predictions.
4. Test those predictions by experiments or further observations and modify the hypothesis in the light of your results.
5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until there are no discrepancies between theory and experiment and/or observation.

When consistency is obtained the hypothesis becomes a theory and provides a coherent set of propositions which explain a class of phenomena. A theory is then a framework within which observations are explained and predictions are made.

Ashley observes the puzzle. She develops a hypothesis about a given puzzle piece. She predicts that this given piece will fit in a given place. She tests her hypothesis by inserting it in the puzzle where she thinks it belongs. She observes whether or not she is right and either rejoices or looks for a new piece.

What I want to draw attention to is the precondition for the scientific method. Poor Ashley is puzzled! Her knowledge has reached the limit of its applicability and predictive power. As I expressed it above, she has a gap in her knowledge. But that gap in knowledge already presumes knowledge and interest. And it presumes an overwhelming desire for gaps like that to be filled.

These are rather obvious points, I suppose, so let me explain the two reasons why I’m highlighting them. The first is that I’m developing a Christian classical preschool curriculum and the question of the place of the natural sciences in the curriculum comes up, as it does for the curriculum at every level. The second is that there are philosophical issues contained in this discussion.

The preschool child has a prescientific mind. In other words, the three and four year old child is not capable of doing actual, self-conscious science experiments on his or her own initiative. To a certain extent, Ashley is able to name things, to remember scientific information that is handed to her from the scientific tradition, and to do unself-consciuos experiments like seeing if a puzzle piece fits. But what Ashley is most able to do is to experience the prerequisites for later scientfic endeavors.

She is able to discover that puzzles can be solved, which is one of the most important discoveries a preschool child can make. She is able to order things (cars on the table, puzzle pieces by color, balls in the closet, etc.), which is one of the most important skills a preschool child can develop. And she is able to realize that she is able to solve puzzles and order things. She can learn all these things “poetically,” to use the great phrase Dr. Taylor has explained so brilliantly in Poetic Knowledge (see book links to the right), or, if you prefer, “existentially.” She does not necessarily consciuosly know and I would argue that she doesn’t need to consciously know these things. It’s more important that her hands and her soul know them than that her conscious mind knows them.

Young children need frequent experiences of successful discoveries of the existential reality that puzzles cand be solved and they also need frequent experiences of the personal reality that they can solve puzzles. Pedagogical, curricular applications abound. One would be that it is good and necessary for the teacher to model successful, self-confident puzzle solving to the child. Another is that the teacher mentor the child in successful problem solving. Children should not be given puzzles (using the term analogically for all the various “problems” of preschool life – both academic and normal daily life) that they cannot hope to solve, though they should sometimes see their teachers solve puzzles that the children are amazed by. They also should not only be given puzzles that are easy to solve.

A vital observation hastily inserted: these applications apply to the child’s development of this kind of knowledge. It doesn’t mean that children should not experience verbal, fine, and musical arts that are beyond their capacity to understand.

When it comes to developing the virtues of scientific knowledge, the great teaching occurs in the gaps.

The other very practical philosophical side of the argument comes from the first stage of the scientific method, which is sometimes excluded because it isn’t strictly scientific and can open up arguments about objectivity. That is that Ashlynn’s gap developed because she was already working on a puzzle. If she hadn’t been living in the domain of her inquiry, the inquiry would never have opened up to her. Thus, at least at the beginning stages of scientific inquiry, the matter of objectivity is strictly qualified.

That is to say, Ashley (or a scientist) is not being ultimately, absolutely objective. She is being objective in regard to her specific problem to the degree that she wants the true solution to her problem. Her will precedes her objectivity, which is another way of saying that love precedes the quest for truth.

You can see this in the preamble to the scientific method quoted above: “The scientific method is the best way yet discovered for winnowing the truth from lies and delusions.” I apprecite the degree of humility contained in the phrase “yet discovered.” On the other hand, one wonders how very objective that statement is. Has the writer already predetermined that the standards of scientific inquiry trump the standards of every other inquiry?

Based on this quotation he includes on his site, he probably has: “Science is best defined as a careful, disciplined, logical search for knowledge about any and all aspects of the universe, obtained by examination of the best available evidence and always subject to correction and improvement upon discovery of better evidence. What’s left is magic. And it doesn’t work. — James Randi”

Of course, what isn’t clear is what he accepts as valid “available evidence.” It sounds an awful lot like that 19th century scientific idealism that decried tradition, customs, and authority and that was adopted by many narrow-minded 20th century would-be scientists who didn’t do a good job keeping up with the times – men like John Dewey for example.

Science spent the 20th century growing out of the adolescent contorted self-awareness of Bacon, Descartes, and Kant to a more humble realization of its place and powers. The early idealism and even fetishism has, it seems to me, faded out of the scientific centers except where people like Edmund O. Wilson create new, equally limited views of utopia. The popular press seems still to anticipate a scientific messianic age. But my conversations with scientists indicate that the popular press has lost touch with the scientists on this.

I’m digressing a bit. My point can be reduced to a simple statement or two: science arises, not from objectivity but from a combination of a love for a certain kind of knowledge (that which can be gained through experimentation analyzing appearances and perceptions) and the confidence that puzzles are soluble. Another way to say it is that science is rooted in the faith that there is a knowable harmony to things that can be discovered by patient observation and experimentation. Lose the love for that harmony and the sciences are lost unless a lesser love replaces it – say, a love for power. Yikes.

For the sciences to regain their place in American education, to flourish, all the Ashley’s of the world need to be reminded, poetically, experientially, of that knowable harmony that is the cosmos made by a God who declared it good/beatiful. Without the sound metaphysic that the Dewey’s of the world so despise, the spirit of the natural sciences is overthrown and replaced by a power hungry ghost.

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7 Responses

  1. I mean that you painted a harsh black and white contrast between the world of today and that of 1000 years ago in which you suggest that nothing could possibly have been better then.

    There was plenty that was worth holding on to. But if we argue as though life today is better in every way than it was then, we remove ourselves from the very possibility of thinking things through and having an ongoing conversation.

    Let me say that I agree that we have a great deal more technology and that, at least for now, most people find life materially better than it has been in the past. But we aren’t teaching science very well right now and I believe the problem is rooted in poor philosophy.

    Thanks for persisting with us. I appreciate and respect that.

  2. Not sure what you mean. Maybe my last comment was scrambled in some way.

  3. Steve,

    I need you to stop communicating in caricatures and extremes or I’m not sure what exactly you are trying to say.

    Are we friends or are we having a fight? I’m not sure because usually when people argue caricatures it’s a fight.

    Thanks.

  4. Steve, how would you define “better science education”? Where is the evidence that education in the natural sciences did not use to be better?

    You seem to have begun to discuss changes during the past 2500, or even 100 years, in terms of economics and technology. In the context of education in the natural sciences, would you please explain the connection between economic and technological changes and education in the natural sciences?

  5. It’s been a very tough 2400 years. In 1900, 90% of the population lived in poverty. You were lucky to make it past the age of 35. Almost everything we talk for granted today didn’t exist includng indoor plumbing. Maybe for some of the very elite they might have had some things better but even they couldn’t do some of the things average citizens can do today, like get on a plane and fly any where in the world.

    In the actually world of a 1000 years ago, I can’t think of anything that the average person today would find appealing.

  6. Steve,

    Thanks for taking the time to respond, though I’m not sure if you were responding to my article or something else you read. Where did I say science education used to be better? By neighsayers, are you referring to Swift’s houyhnmms?

    Are you suggesting that only a nostalgic person would argue that in the last 2500 years there have been periods of time during which things have been done better in given areas than today?

    If we are dealing in caricatures and extremes, then the opposite tendency would have to be characterized as “Chronological snobbery.”

    I would advocate a middle position that avoids pushing the other side into a fatally flawed position that they would never hold and instead take the arguments for all sides seriously. So seriously that I would look for both truth and error in their position, while hoping they will expose the error in mine.

  7. Where is your evidence that science education used to be better? I think it’s a perspective that a lot of things in life used to be better. It’s just nostaligia. We’ve just had more years of neighsayers.

    In the 60s, science education was boring and incomplete. It’s just like history education, it was easier 50 years ago because there was so much less of it.

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