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Hi Brian.  Hope all is well with you.

You said/asked:
"Your definition of science was intriguing:
<Science -- a narrow discipline that seeks to pose answerable questions
about the physical universe.>

'A narrow discipline...' sounds like a warning.  Assuming you're taking
'discipline' as a branch of knowledge and 'narrow' to mean limited, what
limits it?"

Well ... it is sort of a warning. People don't realize how limited science actually is. Most of what people see around them and think is science in reality is what I would call technology ... which I get to below. Also, some folks make the mistake of applying the narrow assumptions of science to their personal philosophy of life -- in other words, certain scientists use scientific assumptions to claim there is no God or supernatural world, for instance. Well, that is beyond what science does -- it cannot test for the presence or absence of the supernatural because that is not within the physical universe. On the other hand, some folks want science to deal with the supernatural to support their personal belief in supernatural things -- again, beyond the realm of what science does.

"So anything involving engineering is not science?  Once you have an answer
to an answerable question, using that answer to make something happen, like,
say, building a bridge would be outside the definition."

Exactly. Engineering, by my definition, is not science but applied science or technology. Engineers use scientific findings about the physical universe to construct bridges, bombs, or automobiles, things with moral value. They are not seeking to pose answerable questions about the universe, but are instead seeking to use scientific principles to invent or construct things, for good or bad. Again, science is a very narrow discipline -- and accordingly, engineering is not science in this narrow sense. Science is amoral -- its application, in the form of engineering or medicine, has moral value.

"Also, in this phrasing, science only poses ... questions.  You would be
satisfied if you could prove logically that an answer exists, even if you
never found that answer."

Well, maybe not satisfied, but that's the uncertainty you have to be willing to put up with. When we try to understand how dinosaurs lived or how they are related to one another, we are already coming to the table with missing data and many unknowns. We are seeking to pose potentially answerable questions about dinosaur lives and relationships based on the data available to us, but we may never get an "answer" to our questions. The important point to stress is that the questions should be answerable; not, for instance, questions like, "what happens when an immovable object meets an irresistable force?"

"That's a very intellectual definition!"


"Manipulation toward a goal definitely includes engineering, and the answers
to questions are definitely expected to be found.
Partly I wanted to follow by connecting to the scientific method, and partly
I wanted to counter the idea that because we cannot be certain that we have
arrived at the complete truth that it is never possible to find truth at
Your definition, including '...answerable questions...' as it does, also
implies that answers (truths) are available to us."

But again, we just don't deal with truth in science in the same way you would in philosophy. Maybe it's possible to find some sort of ultimate truth about the world or dinosaurs, but that's beyond what science is capable of. That's more for philosophy or religion to decide -- we don't seek ultimate truths in science. I tell my students to avoid the words "truth," "proof," and "fact" in my courses because they imply something about ultimate answers or truths, and science doesn't deal with these sorts of absolutes.

"Then you connect paleontology to the limits in the definition:
<Notice that the definition says nothing about manipulating anything or
reaching a goal -- in paleontology, at least with the primary data (i.e.,
fossils), we can do very little manipulation in the sense of an experimenter
manipulating variables, yet we are still doing science.  We are seeking to
pose answerable questions about dinosaurs in this case.  I'm not going to
touch phylogenetic systematics -- yet. =)>
Here's the advantage to leaving out engineering:  you are limiting yourself
to thought experiments, not touching your subject matter.  Still,
paleontology is not the only science..."

I would disagree -- we are not limiting ourselves to thought experiments. In physics or chemistry, if you want to know why a gas expands when you heat it, you conduct real experiments. That's science -- how is that a thought experiment? Similarly, I want to understand how certain dinosaurs might be related. I collect anatomical data from the bones, I dissect living relatives of dinosaurs, and I frame my question about their relationships in such a way that it can be answered, tested, falsified, and predict certain relationships or evolutionary pathways. How is this a thought experiment? Just because I'm not mixing chemicals together or physically manipulating a variable in a control group, I am still using data from the physical world, and relying on physical world assumptions that other scientists do -- paleontology is just as much science as physics. If you wish to say that physics is somehow "better" than paleontology because one science is experimental and the other is historical, well, I guess you can, but that's just personal preference.

"Then you say:
<We also assume a number of things in science:
1. There is a physical universe outside of our minds/bodies.
2. The properties of that physical universe can be tested and understood.
3. Methodological naturalism -- everything in this physical universe has
natural causes and effects.>
Notice that '[t]he properties of the physical universe can be tested and
understood.'  So, science does involve manipulation with purpose (what else
is testing?), and again you reinforce the idea that truth is available to
us; 'understood' means have correct knowledge of, I assume."

Again, I disagree -- yes, variables and objects can be manipulated with a purpose, but ultimately, science is about posing answerable questions about the physical universe, not manipulating with purpose -- that is more what technology does. Manipulation does not need to occur to pose answerable questions. Manipulation suggests to me that we have an answer a priori and we are seeking to get a result by manipulating variables, etc. This is not how science works -- we start with a question, or hunch, or dream, or idea, and then compile and examine data to see if our hypothesis is borne out by the data or is falsfied. You can test various hypotheses in astronomy, for instance, without manipulating any of the data -- you can't go out and manipulate stars.

"<snip>Now, the probability reference is familiar to me from the quantum mechanics
principle about locating something. That may be true, but remember we have
discovered that truth."

Careful here -- we don't deal with truth in science. Only probability. Based on examination of the data, and through the results of various experiments, we explain certain atomic phenomena through theories like general relativity or Heseinberg's Uncertainty Principle, but we don't know for sure that this is "true." No one has ever seen an atom -- we have ways to "see" them, but we don't know if our idea of the atom is ultimately true -- we never will. Our chemical and physical data support the atomic theory, but are atoms true? Are they facts? That's beyond what we do in science.

"The true inference is about the existence of the
probabilities of location, not the location itself.  (Assuming for the sake
of argument it is true.)"

Again, I disagree as above.

"So, either you are contradicting yourself about the existence of actually
answerable questions, or you mean that truth when found concerns a range of
possible values."

I don't like the word truth in science. It does not belie what we do. How about I answer this statement by saying "neither." We pose questions in science that can be answered -- whether they will ultimately be answered depends on many factors. What does "actually answerable" mean? Ultimate truth? Well, then no. Probabilistic answer? Yes. This is different than saying we manipulate with purpose -- we do not. This is different than saying we discover truths about the universe -- we do not. Nor are we saying something is more true or more likely true than others -- truth is just not part of our discipline.

"As somebody said in an article I quoted awhile ago,
neither of those would satisfy someone who needs to build a bridge that will
stand or hit Mars with a rocket where it will be in a few months."

Again, this is applied science or technology. You are not discovering new scientific principles or asking answerable questions about the physical universe when you build a bridge or rocket -- you are using established scientific findings to build or move something. But you are now doing technology and not science.

"May I suggest that some truths we can find are precise and some exist within
a range?"

You may, but that is not what science deals with. Like Jack Nicholson says, "You can't handle the truth!" We don't.

Hope this clarifies things???????

Matthew F. Bonnan, Ph.D.
Department of Biological Sciences
Western Illinois University
Macomb, IL 61455
(309) 298-2155

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