Problems and Promises of Scientific Method

Revised and updated: 23rd July 2021

Preamble:

The dialogue between science and philosophy is both real and inevitable. For example, the search for knowledge about how to obtain knowledge is common to both scientific method and epistemology. Thus any progress in epistemology could potentially shed light on the problems associated with scientific method.

Plato’s philosophy, his metaphysics and epistemology, sheds much light on the limits and shortcomings of modern day scientific method, as also on the inconsistent relationship between fact and theory which has marked the history of scientific endeavour and, consequently, undermined the authenticity of scientific method.

Abstract

A cursory view of the history of scientific discovery demonstrates many resonances and resemblances between science and philosophy. Not only can the roots of modern science be found in ancient philosophy, but science itself has proven time and again that it is frequently pregnant with new philosophies of its own. Never was it more obvious that the dialogue between science and philosophy is inevitable.

Galileo’s claim that the book of Nature “is written in the language of mathematics” is identical with the fundamental teaching of Pythagoras; Einstein’s claim that it is “the theory which explains the observations, not the observations which explain the theory” resembles Plato’s metaphysical and epistemological doctrines. Modern empiricism’s bias towards experimental data in the face of some metaphysical paradigm resembles Aristotle’s favouring empirical data over the adoption of a priori principles.

Might it be that the quest for a definition of scientific method is fundamentally the same as the philosophical quest for the origin and nature of knowledge? At the very least, the search for knowledge of how to obtain knowledge is common to both scientific method and epistemology. An awareness of the historical development of each of these disciplines elucidates many of the presuppositions, irregularities, and implications inherent in the scientific method. Moreover, a resolution of the tensions evident in the history of epistemology may provide a valuable source of direction in future formulations of the scientific method.

For a fundamental problem of scientific method is that the relationship between fact and theory has a long, complex and turbulent history. Aristotle taught that nature is what happens always, or almost always. Newton admitted that Kepler’s laws were not exactly true, even though they formed the basis of Newton’s derivation of the law of  gravitation; when confronted with results that contradicted his teaching on the nature of light, Newton dismissed them outright. In more recent times the natural sciences have frequently demonstrated the occurrence of both regularities and exceptions in nature. 

Quantum mechanics famously discovered an irreconcilable divide between observation and theory. The theoretical clash between Relativity Theory and Quantum Mechanics left scientists wondering how two such powerful theories can apply to the same universe. Recent research by Pickering, Galison, Rudwick made the astounding claim that scientific facts are (actually) established by debate, compromise and consensus. In 1962 Thomas Kuhn published his landmark work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions which emphasised the sociological and collaborative nature of scientific revolutions, and attested that scientific development is potentially capable of breaking all ties with the past.

Such features of the history of science have severely undermined faith in the relationship of observable facts to scientific theory, divided scientists into conflicting schools of thought, and called into question any claim to scientific truth.

However, 25 centuries ago, Plato’s philosophy offered seminal insights into the nature of the cosmos, into the relationship of matter to mathematics, and showed signs of what we might call a ‘superior’ scientific method–one that transcends the limitations of scientific method, as we know it.

In the Timaeus Plato offers a potential explanation of the minor aberrations which are necessarily found in the world of observed facts: it is due to the fact that the cosmos is a product of both Reason (an ordering intelligence, the Demiurge) and Necessity (unbridled matter). Reason imposes an intelligent order upon the (raw elements of the) universe while matter, or rather the elements from which matter is comprised, persistently resist such an order–at least in some small degree. Thus, we would expect to find mathematical laws in Nature but also to find discrepancies, exceptions and irregularities.

What is most interesting about such a marriage between Reason and Necessity (between mathematics and matter, in this case) is that it is arbitrarily imposed by the Demiurge (a divine Being). There exists no logical connection between mathematics and matter; there can be no rational derivation from mathematics to matter, or from matter to mathematics. In this sense, Plato anticipates by approximately 24 centuries Einstein’s observation that we cannot possibly understand why the mathematical inventions of the human mind correspond in any way to observable physical phenomena (see Einstein’s 1936 paper: “Physics and Reality”). And, therefore, the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences” (Eugene Wigner, 1960).

According to Plato, the science of Dialectic rises to the first principle of all existence and thus grasps the truth of all other hypotheses which depend upon it and which ground the individual sciences (physics, mathematics, astronomy, harmony and so on). Thus, it becomes possible to discover the timeless laws of the universe and to develop true, abiding mathematical models of the world. In this sense, Plato both confirms the validity of the problem of induction and offers a way out of it.

Plato’s philosophy not only confirms the presence of an alternating conflict and harmony between fact and theory, but also demonstrates why it should be so. He not only confirms the inconsistencies and the shortcomings inherent in the scientific method, but also offers a way to transcend its limitations. On yet another level, his theory of Reality can potentially explain the occasions of inspiration and intuition which seem to be essential and inextricable elements in the context of scientific discovery and justification.