What is Science?

Well as we have tried to sort of figure this out in our class as well, I would like to give it another try. The interesting part of the question that was being put forward by Prof. Wiel Kusters was where does science end and non-science begin. If we do need an answer to this question, I guess the first attempt should be made at trying to quantify science into a definition and the big question here would be can it be quantified?

Let’s first try it the Auden way. He writes in one of his essays entitled, The Good Life, that “man is an organism with certain desires existing in an environment which fails to satisfy them fully. His theories about the universe are attempts, whether religious, scientific, philosophical, or political, to explain or overcome this tension. If we regard the environment as static, then the problem is one of modifying our desires; if we take the organism to be static, one of modifying the environment. Religion and psychology begin with the first; science and politics with the second.

If we choose the first, we have to answer three questions:

  1. What are our desires? Why do we do what we do?
  2. If our desires are mutually incompatible, which are we to choose? i.e., what ought we to desire and do, what ought we not to desire and do?
  3. How are we to desire what we ought to desire?

If we choose the second, the questions are:

  1. In what respects does our environment fail to satisfy us?
  2. How can we change it?” (Auden, 1997)

Thus the definition of science in the Auden sense would be the pursuit of satisfying human desire by recalibrating and modifying the environment in which the human species exist. This definition, for starters, has a distinct advantage when we think about the discussion we had in class. It supports Aline and Ana’s argument that science has changed its character throughout history. We can explain this by saying that human desire is not something that is static. It continuously changes and with that the nature of Science in the Auden sense also changes.

The second point of our discussion centered on what can be called scientific, which innately refers to method. If we again stick to the Auden definition, it would seem that ‘pursuit’ implies method. In this sense, science would fall in the realm of practice. Here, what we mean by practice is systematic repeated performance to achieve a certain goal. The word that we should focus on here is ‘systematic’ which implies order. If one has to be ‘systematic’ then, it would mean that this pursuit is not simply is wild goose chase, but it has rules in its approach. Rules are embedded in the very core of order. Hence, something would be scientific, if a certain set of rules are followed in achieving a desired state of human existence by modifying the environment. If these rules are not followed, then the pursuit becomes unscientific and hence, the entire practice falls into the domain of non-science. How these rules are decided could be subject to politics, public opinion, acceptance criteria etc. but, the bottomline remains that there are certain universally accepted rules in the practice of science in every time period before the Kuhnian paradigm shifts.

We seem to have reached an answer here, but it does seem a little odd that it was so easy.

Every definition is embedded in a set of assumptions. Let’s look at the assumptions that we made along the way while reaching this definition. This one is quite simple and stems from “if the environment is static”. Coming back to the real world, we do realize that the environment is never static. Even by going with the definition that we used, if humans are recalibrating and modifying the environment that would mean that the environment is changing by human action. This means that the environment changes and with it the human desire would also change and hence, the nature of practice/pursuit would change which would also mean that the rules that govern the scientific method would also change.

Second assumption is that the environment fails to satisfy human desire. This assumption is not necessarily true on every occasion. The whole notion of sustainable technologies is centered on the idea that the environment and the human desire can co-exist in equilibrium. Would we then conclude that sustainable technologies would fall in the domain of non-science? I guess, we can unanimously say that the answer to this question is, “No!”

Now if the environment is constantly changing and can possibly satisfy human desire then, what would science be in this particular context? The answer to this question lies in Auden’s idea of the origin of language. In his essay, Writing, he says that, “at some time or other in human history, when and how is not known exactly, man became self-conscious; he began to feel I am I, and You are Not-I; we are shut inside ourselves and apart from each other. There is no whole but the self. The more this feeling grew, the more he felt the need to bridge over the gulf, to recover the sense of being as much part of life as the cells in his body are a part of him […] In some way like this language began, but its development must have been very slow, like the development of full self-consciousness.” (Auden, 1997) The development of self-consciousness is necessary to understand the origin of science.

Before the notion of the self, the environment must have been a part of human existence. At that time, the human notion of existence was embedded in the notion of the collective and hence, the science would have been non-existent in terms of the definition that we are using. When man developed self-consciousness, the environment also became the other and it failed to satisfy him. Hence, he developed the bridge of Science to interact with the environment. In this sense, Science seems to be the language in which he deals with his environment.

Let’s make another attempt at defining science then:

Science is basically a model of interaction between man and his environment wherein both the parties recalibrate and modify their being based on the nature of the dialogue between them.

In this definition, we do observe that the interaction has suddenly turned from a monologue to a dialogue. The interaction becomes a lot richer; the questions at hand would combine all the five questions that Auden talked about in The Good Life noted earlier in the beginning of the post and add one more question to it.

  1. How do we balance our desire with our ability to change the environment such that we don’t destabilize the environment to the point of no return?

Every language has rules. A Grammar. The problem is that unlike all the other languages that we know, the grammar of Science continuously keeps evolving and changing because the interaction is not between parties that fully understand each other. Humans are continuously trying to make sense of the environment that they live in and the environment is continuously trying to adapt to changing human demands. This seems to be the reason why Science continuously keeps changing its nature over time. Its grammar is like a jigsaw puzzle, unraveling slowly and one part at a time. Every new part is a discovery and an achievement. But, the problem remains of trying to find the rightful place of the part in the puzzle and finding new parts to complete this jigsaw puzzle. So we struggle trying to find a consensus over our sense of the environment that we live in, with peer-reviews, conferences and conversations.

Someday we might get there. Till then, the nature of Science and its grammar remains an unsolved mystery.


Auden, WH (1997). The Good Life. Prose and Travel Books in Prose and Verse: Volume I, 1926-1938. Mendelson, E. (Ed.) Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 109-123

Auden, WH (1997). Writing. Prose and Travel Books in Prose and Verse: Volume I, 1926-1938. Mendelson, E. (Ed.) Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 13-27

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