Tag: method

The key to science

In general we look for a new law by the following process. First we guess it. Then we compute the consequences of the guess to see what would be implied if this law that we guessed is right. Then we compare the result of the computation to nature, with experiment or experience, compare it directly with observation, to see if it works. If it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It does not make any difference how beautiful your guess is. It does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is — if it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. That is all there is to it. [156]

The spirit of science

Whether our work is art or science or the daily work of society, it is only the form in which we explore our experience which is different; the need to explore remains the same. This is why, at bottom, the society of scientists is more important than their discoveries. What science has to teach us here is not its techniques but its spirit: the irresistible need to explore. Perhaps the techniques of science may be practised for a time without its spirit, in secret establish­ments, as the Egyptians practised their priestcraft. But the inspiration of science for four hundred years has been opposite to this. It has created the values of our intellectual life and, with the arts, has taught them to our civilization. Science has nothing to be ashamed of even in the ruins of Nagasaki. The shame is theirs who appeal to other values than the human and imaginative values which science has evolved. The shame is ours if we do not make science part of our world, intellectually as much as physically, so that we may at last hold these halves of the world together by the same values. For it is the lesson of science that the concept is more profound than its laws, and the act of judging more critical than the judgment. [82-3]

The stable society of science

As a set of discoveries and devices, science has mastered nature; but it has been able to do so only because its values, which derive from its method, have formed those who practice it into a living, stable and incorruptible society. Here is a community where everyone has been free to enter, to speak his mind, to be heard and contradicted; and it has out­lasted the empires of Louis XIV and the Kaiser. Napoleon was angry when the Institute he had founded awarded his first scientific prize to Humphry Davy, for this was in 1807, when France was at war with England. Science survived then and since because it is less brittle than the rage of tyrants.

This is a stability which no dogmatic society can have. There is today almost no scientific theory which was held when, say, the Industrial Revolution began about 1760. Most often today’s theories flatly contradict those of 1760; many contradict those of 1900. In cosmology, in quantum mechanics, in genetics, in the social sciences, who now holds the beliefs that seemed firm sixty years ago? Yet the society of scientists has survived these changes without a revolution, and honors the men whose beliefs it no longer shares. No one has recanted abjectly at a trial before his colleagues. The whole structure of science has been changed, and no one has been either disgraced or deposed. Through all the changes of science, the society of scientists is flexible and single-minded together, and evolves and rights itself. [77]

Trial and error—it’s what we always do anyway

The natural as well as the social sciences always start from problems, from the fact that something inspires amazement in us, as the Greek philosophers used to say. To solve these problems, the sciences use fundamentally the same method that common sense employs, the method of trial and error. To be more precise, it is the method of trying out solutions to our problem and then discarding the false ones as erroneous. [3]

Science, Philosophy, and Method

And yet, I am quite ready to admit that there is a method which might be described as ‘the one method of philosophy’. But it is not characteristic of philosophy alone; it is, rather, the one method of all rational discussion, and therefore of the natural sciences as well as of philosophy. The method I have in mind is that of stating one’s problem clearly and of examining its various proposed solutions critically.

I have italicized the words ‘rational discussion’ and ‘critically’ in order to stress that I equate the rational attitude and the critical attitude. The point is that, whenever we propose a solution to a problem, we ought to try as hard as we can to overthrow our solution, rather than defend it. Few of us, unfortunately, practise this precept; but other people, fortunately, will supply the criticism for us if we fail to supply it ourselves. Yet criticism will be fruitful only if we state our problem as clearly as we can and put our solution in a sufficiently definite form—a form in which it can be critically discussed.

I do not deny that something which may be called ‘logical analysis’ can play a role in this process of clarifying and scrutinizing our problems and our proposed solutions; and I do not assert that the methods of ‘logical analysis’ or ‘language analysis’ are necessarily useless. My thesis is, rather, that these methods are far from being the only ones which a philosopher can use with advantage, and that they are in no way characteristic of philosophy. They are no more characteristic of philosophy than of any other scientific or rational inquiry.

It may perhaps be asked what other ‘methods’ a philosopher might use. My answer is that though there are any number of different ‘methods’, I am really not interested in enumerating them. I do not care what methods a philosopher (or any­body else) may use so long as he has an interesting problem, and so long as he is sincerely trying to solve it. [xix-xx]