PM5370: On Science

The term science originally referred to knowledge in general. However, it has been evolved to refer primarily to the natural sciences - the study of the natural world and the fundamental laws of nature - biology, chemistry, physics, etc. In its original usage, fields such as theology were called 'sciences', which seems strange to people only familiar with its contemporary usage. Science is generally distinguished from the humanities - the study of human history and human literature - although, the social sciences and psychology straddle the boundary to some extent.

Most people these days would not consider science as part of philosophy, although it historically has been viewed that way (as "natural philosophy").

One problem with trying to define science, is the term is used in many ways, and not particularly consistently. In the original sense, a science is just any structured, systematic discipline of human thought. In that sense, theology is a science. However, that is not the primary use of the term science today.

Science most commonly gets used to refer to the natural sciences — physics, chemistry, biology, geology, astronomy, etc.

It also sometimes refers to social sciences and psychology, although those are somewhat different beasts. What is the difference between social science and the humanities? Well, the difference often is simply in terms of the approach one takes — those who model their approach on the natural scientists tend to call what they are doing science, whereas those who choose a different approach call their work by something else such as humanities. This heading would include fields like psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics, history, archaeology, law, etc.

There are also those fields which are built on science, but are more about applying scientific results in practice than discovering new knowledge — e.g. engineering or medicine — although both can involve an element of research too. In both cases, within the same discipline there are some who are more research-oriented (and thus can be said to doing science), and others more application-oriented (and thus more applying science than actually doing it).

Then we come to mathematics, which is sometimes known as mathematical science. But, many view this not as science, but as something more fundamental that science builds upon, due to its a priori nature. Computer science is really part of mathematics at one end, and is turning into a form of engineering at the other.

So the conclusion is that it is impossible to give a single, universal, comprehensive definition to science. A good comparison is Wittgenstein's question about "What is a game?" Consider card games, ball games, war games, board games, Olympic games, etc. What do all these have in common? Well, it is like family resemblances, they all have things in common with some of the others, but there is no one thing the all have. One might suggest something similar applies to science — although one should add, in contemporary usage, the natural sciences get seen as the paradigmatic science, and everything else is science to the extent it is perceived as being like the natural sciences.