Sunday, December 11, 2005

A Method?

The NYTimes Magazine had an excellent short piece today about the nature of science. The best part was this paragraph:
Among philosophers of science, there is a perfectly respectable (if minority) view called "instrumentalism." According to this view, scientific theories do not yield a true picture of a mind-independent reality; they are merely useful tools that enable us to predict our experience and have a measure of control over it. History provides some support for instrumentalism. Scientific progress, it has been observed, takes place by funerals. Since past scientific theories have invariably proved false - phlogiston, anyone? - we can expect the same of our present and future theories. That does not take away from their utility as engines for turning out cures and weapons and gadgets, or at their most picturesque, as abstract stories to keep us in awe before the cosmos.
Though I'm not so sure it's a minority view among philosophers of science, it is one that I think is a more useful view than the one that says that science is the "Truth." It's a very post-modern view but it is also one that enables scientists to use any means necessary to solve problems, so long as they work. Instead of talking about Truth, better scientists should say both that a certain theory does the best job of explaining the current data and predicting new data in a field and that it asks the questions most likely to create new and interesting data. After all, isn't that what is really important in science.

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