Tag Archives: Scientific Method

The Nature of Nature’s Study

What really is ‘science’? What is its nature? Why does it work? Why is it useful? What is the nature of ‘reality’? Does science offer the absolute version of reality? In this article, I offer my views/insights and generally accepted explanations to these questions. Note that I use the word ‘explanations’ not ‘answers’, because nobody who has ever lived or who is currently alive knows the true nature of reality, but all the accumulated pool of human knowledge, at the least, allows us to make certain comments about these questions.  It is good to reflect and gain insight into what we do know and what we don’t know; what is, and what isn’t; what can be and what simply cannot be. If you are confused by my seemingly arbitrary banter, generated more through an intuitive analysis of the summary of this article rather than logical reasoning, please read on and let us formulate a fresh, clear chain of reasoning from the very beginning:

 

Human beings have the ability of ‘cognition’, which means that we can observe events occurring in the world around us, and discern patterns in those events. Over the course of human history, we have been observing events around us, studying nature, and noting down the patterns which we observe in those events. What separates us humans from other living beings are our superior brains, which have given us the ability to store information extra-somatically (i.e. outside our genes and bodies); to transfer information to other humans; and to learn information from other humans (via communication). Hence, in this sense, human knowledge can be thought of as an independent ‘entity’, ever-growing through the efforts of all humans who exist, cognize, learn, store and transfer information. Although a single human may perish, but the ‘entity’ of human knowledge survives and evolves as long as other humans exist. Thus, this entity of human knowledge has managed to evolve exponentially over the past centuries. The experience/knowledge gained by other living creatures, meanwhile, gets wiped out continuously with the death of the creature, not having been transferred or stored anywhere, and the process starts all over again with each new progeny. Moreover, other creatures do not have the ability to comprehend and analyse knowledge as we humans do. This is because other living beings lack precisely the mental prowess which derives from the superior brains that humans possess. This gargantuan accumulation of human knowledge or “data” of natural events, is the first step towards science as we know it.

Furthermore, the superior brains of humans have the ability to “reason”. This means that we are exceptionally good at analyzing and finding patterns in observed data via logical reasoning. Also, the more data you are given, the more you can generalize those patterns, meaning that merely a few general patterns can then be used to explain a large number of phenomena in nature. Even if two phenomena initially appear to be entirely separate, unrelated events, there may exist a single underlying pattern that can explain both, simultaneously. A prime example of this would be the following two observations: “things fall to the ground when dropped from a height” and “the Moon goes around the Earth”. To a person without knowledge (like all the humans of the past), the two events would appear to be quite unrelated. But now, it is common knowledge that they can both, in fact, be explained by the same general and universal phenomenon of gravity.

Here begins “science” as we know it: Humans, tapping into the ever-present, ever-growing pool of “data”, have come to realize that the patterns observed in nature can be generalized into merely a handful of “Laws of Nature” better known in the modern scientific tongue as “The Laws of Physics” that have the potential to explain literally “everything” (indeed, today it is possible to explain *almost* all of the *currently known* natural phenomena through merely four fundamental forces of nature – Gravity, Electromagnetism, the Strong Nuclear Force, and the Weak Nuclear Force).

We can digress here for a moment and observe how intricately and infinitely intertwined the nature of science and reality is with the nature of human consciousness and human evolution. Evolution preferred to give humans big brains, precisely because that allowed us to deduce the laws of nature, and utilize those laws to enslave nature for serving our needs and desires, ensuring our survival. Dear reader, I urge you to take a moment and ponder all the objects in your immediate vicinity. Chances are that most of them have been designed by humans, using the knowledge and the laws of nature accumulated over time, to make nature serve your needs, making your life a jolly jaunt and a piece of cake compared to the difficult life that, say, a deer (a comparatively ignorant creature, unable to deduce or use the laws of nature to benefit itself) must lead in the wild. But I digress too much – we shall pick up where we left off.

Over time, humans have also realized one more thing (heads up because it gets quite self-referential by this time, the complexity being a marker of the evolution of human knowledge): By the process of observation, analysis and learning, we have been able to figure out and perfect the most efficient and “proper” way of observation, analysis and learning. It is known as “The Scientific Method”

 

The Scientific Method

What is the most effective or “proper” way of doing science? Let us go step by step:

First, you need to make some observations of nature, and gather some initial data (hey, you need to start somewhere …)

Next, you must use your cranial skills to find a pattern in the data (something you’re naturally good at, in fact, as a human being). Hence, you must make a hypothesis to explain the observed data; a possible “law” that governs the pattern observed in the data. But this is not the end – your hypothesis will be subject to continuous scrutiny by more data (or by other hypotheses that are able to deduce and generalize more patterns and explain the observed data better; but let’s keep it simple for now).

You must now use your hypothesis to make predictions i.e. “extrapolate” your data (not literally mathematically, or maybe even so) according to the “law” that you have deduced, and then go back outside into the field of nature to check if your predictions agree with observations and experiments.

If they do, then well done! You now have a “theory” or “model” of reality which you can use to explain the “law” or “pattern” which you observed in the data. If, however, experiments don’t agree with your model, you’re undeniably wrong and you must correct/modify your model, or simply come up with a new one.

Note that when I use words like “data”, “patterns”, “law”, “theory”, “model”, “experiments”, “observations” etc., I am not invoking merely abstract or qualitative concepts. In order to do proper science, these have to be well defined ‘quantitative’ concepts which are written, analysed, and communicated in the language of science, which is the language of any logical reasoning viz. “Mathematics“. Don’t worry, though: for the purpose of this review, the English language will suffice …

But is this the end of the Scientific Method algorithm? Never. This rather tedious process must be repeated over and over again, presumably forever. Science, thus, is a continuous process …. Why? Because we do not yet know reality in its entirety and we have no way of knowing if, at any given time, we have enough data to encompass the entire reality.

It is like exploring a vast ocean in a small boat. You do not know exactly how vast the ocean is, but only that it is indeed quite vast, presumably much like the nature of our world’s reality. To find out how vast it is, you must keep rowing till you’ve explored exactly all of it. The only catch is that you’ll never know whether you’ve explored all of it until you actually do. Hence, in science, we need to continuously explore and observe nature more and more, to get more and more data, all the time continuously testing our theories, repeating the steps of The Scientific Method, and improving our version of reality, in the hope that when (or if?) one day we reach the end of the ocean, we’ll know that we have finally covered it all. There may not even be an end to the ocean’s vastness, in which case we would have to row forever. But as the hopefully curious creatures that we are, in the meanwhile, we must keep rowing.

If a model/theory agrees with experiments/observations for a long time, then it is deemed as a “good” or “reliable” theory/model of nature (although that doesn’t mean that we should stop doubting if it’ll ever fail one day and will have to be modified or scrapped entirely in the wake of new, conflicting observations). An excellent example of this, once again, happens to be gravity. Newton’s Theory of Gravity was considered a “good” and “reliable” theory of nature (as per everything that I have mentioned in the previous lines) until the advent of new technology and better observational capabilities allowed us to acquire new data (like the precession of planet Mercury’s orbit, for instance) which could not be explained by Newton’s theory. This meant that Newton’s theory was not an entirely correct version of the reality of how gravity works (although it is a good approximation, and works well for many scenarios). This theory was later replaced by Albert Einstein’s masterpiece: The General Theory of Relativity (GTR, for short). And for the past 100 years, it has emerged flawlessly victorious over every piece of observational data and experiment that has been thrown at it. Thus, GTR is the currently accepted “good” and “reliable” theory of gravity. As always, you can never stop doubting whether new evidence might come up, leading to the requirement of a better theory of gravity.

Science is therefore, “a self-correcting, self-improving method of investigation”.

This summarizes the work of a scientist and why science is useful – BUT, there is a subtle point that must be considered … It is the devil that hides in the details:

 

The Nature of Reality

Since I have brought it up previously, l shall once again use Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity (GTR) to illustrate this extremely nasty and oblivious topic.  GTR is a model which describes how gravity works. In a scandalously short review, you can say that GTR declares the three dimensions of space and one dimension of time to exist as a single, four-dimensional “fabric” spanning the entire universe called ‘spacetime’. Any object with ‘mass’ distorts this “fabric” of spacetime, much like how a ball placed on a stretched rubber sheet curves or distorts it. And in Einstein’s own words “Mass tells spacetime how to curve, and spacetime tells the mass how to move”. In conclusion, this ‘curving’ of spacetime is experienced as gravity.

But I ask you to wonder – although this model perfectly agrees with all observational data, does it actually present the true mechanism of gravity? A famous analogy of the nature of reality goes as follows:

To us, reality is like a clock. You’re allowed to observe the ticking of its hands as much as you like, and come up with a theory of how its internal mechanism might be, which enables it to tick the way that it does …. But, you’re not allowed to open the clock, to gaze inside and to check if your model’s version of reality was indeed the version of the true reality. For all you know, both your version of reality and the true version of reality may be capable of producing the same results that you have observed. Indeed, this means that one’s version or “model” of reality is relative, and it is merely a tool that allows you to explain the events around you, and there’s always the chance that a “higher” version of reality exists, of which your version is merely a subset. And you may never know if you have indeed reached the “highest” version of reality, or if there even is a “highest level”. There might even be an infinite number or “higher levels” of reality. But in order to maintain good mental health, we assume that there is indeed an end which culminates in an “ultimate reality” and that we’re getting there, slowly but surely … And when we do reach it, we will know that it is the final truth.

This discussion doesn’t leave us with any useful information about the true nature of reality, but hey, at least, we have some constraints deduced from logical reasoning (yeah science!).

In conclusion, science doesn’t merely run on logic and clockwork, but is also permeated by the human emotions of imagination, curiosity, hope and determination. Science isn’t simply a subject of profession (as opposed to ‘commerce’ or ‘arts’), which absent minded people with high intellect and no social life tend to pursue. The nature of science is the nature of nature’s study, it is the search for the ultimate reality and it is also the nature of the human condition.

Suvrat Rao