What is Science? (RJS)

Last week I started a series of posts on a new book by Gerald Rau  Mapping the Origins Debate: Six Models of the Beginning of Everything. The first chapter lays the groundwork for his exploration of the origins debate. In this chapter Rau looks first at philosophy and worldview and the way these can shape the debate over origins and then turns to the question of science. Although we all use the term science, it is not clear that we all understand the term, or have the same definition for it. Thus it is a hard term to get a handle on.

Rau first defines science at its root as the quest to understand the natural world. There are, he suggests, many different types of science – and he lists examples such as theoretical, experimental, observational, and historical.

Although the methods of these “types” of science do vary somewhat (although they also blur together in the answer to any given question) is there really any fundamental distinction?

Rau gives the following definitions (see the glossary in the book):

Empirical evidence is anything that can be observed using our five senses, with or without assistance.

Experimental science – Study of a repeatable phenomenon by manipulating a variable to determine its effect, while holding other conditions constant; includes prototypical laboratory science, but is also used in field settings.

Observational science – Study of naturally occurring situations, often used for phenomena where manipulation of conditions is not feasible. In the text he gives examples such as investigations of stars, earthquakes, and disease spread.

Historical science – study of unique phenomena that are historically contingent, based on empirical traces of modeling; includes ancient history such as paleontology and recent history such as forensics. In the text he gives examples of ice ages and origins.

Theoretical science – Study of phenomena that have not yet been observed but can be predicted based on mathematical modeling; includes many subfields within physics and cosmology. These predictions can be tested by one of the three above empirical approaches.

Rau then goes on to look at logical inferences and necessary presuppositions. Deductive and inductive inferences draw conclusions from the empirical data. “Deduction typically involves reasoning from the general to the specific, from a model to the expected data, while induction typically involves reasoning from the specific cases to general conclusions, or from actual data to an inferred model (Gauch, 2003 157-59)” (Rau p. 24-25)

Rau also mentions abductive inference, sometimes called inference to the best explanation. This, he notes, is almost always involved in any decision, but is not quantifiable the way deduction and induction are.

There are always necessary presuppositions as well – at very least the belief that the physical world is real and that we can trust our senses.  He suggests that beyond this there are local presuppositions related to the particular field of study. Given this (and it can, of course, be disputed) the necessary presuppositions are independent of philosophical perspective.

It must be emphasized here that the objectivity of science, its independence from particular worldviews, may be true of science as a whole, but is not when it comes to individual scientists. Certainly in the area of origins, which deals with what Gauch calls “deep answers,” objectivity of individual scientists is not possible. It is widely accepted that the data “underdetermine” the theory, that is, there are any number of theories that could explain any particular set of data. Each scientist is working from the perspective of one particular theory, which affects both data collection and interpretation. It is also likely that objectivity and consensus will be easier to obtain in the experimental sciences than in the historical sciences, particularly those like origins, that are closely connected with our philosophical commitments. (p. 26)

A few thoughts. There are a number of aspects of this that are worth a little discussion.

I agree that science is, at its root, the quest to understand the natural world.

It is certainly based on the assumption that the physical world is real, that we can trust our senses (when properly understood), and that natural world is explicable rather than capricious. Randomness, I should note, is not necessarily capricious – rather randomness can be explicable and part of explanation.

I don’t think it is particularly useful to refer to experimental, observational, and theoretical approaches as different sciences (although I realize that this term is often used this way). To say that “something” is an experimental science (or an observational science or a theoretical science) is really only saying that this something falls within a particular methodological part of this overall quest to understand the natural world. I am an experimentalist. We do experiments in the lab. But these experiments are worthless without theory (whether we completely understand the theory yet or not). We must combine theory and experiment. Our experiments (combined with theory) may help make sense of observations in astronomy or climatology or biology.

Experimental and observational “sciences” are methods to collect data. Science (as I think about it) is the quest to make sense of this data. “Theories” make sense of the data. Theories are based on the minimum possible number of assumptions, from which everything else follows. Ultimately the laws of physics – which are not reductionist.

In my opinion historical science should not be a separate category. Historical “science” is really only observation – from which a story can be told because of the understanding that comes from theory and experiment. While it is true that different histories may be possible because the data underdetermines the system, these histories must be consistent with the constraints of theory, observation, and experiment. Ultimately we wish to narrow down to the actual history of our world, of course, but the fact that this may not be possible doesn’t mean that anything goes.

Science is fun because it is a giant puzzle. Because the physical world is real and explicable (necessary presuppositions) there is ultimately a true solution.

How do you understand the term science?

What is science?

What is historical science? Is this a useful designation?

How does our understanding of science help shape the debate about origins?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

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  • Dan

    “Historical “science” is really only observation”. That’s the rub. We cannot “observe” the past. We can only make inferences based on what we observe in the present. But there are many variables which cannot be controlled or observed. The assumptions of modern science tend to exclude catastrophism, causes outside of or above nature, and based on those assumptions find a cause for every event that is exclusive to the “laws of nature”. But the assumptions of one who believes in a savior born from a virgin who came back to life after a brutal crucifixion, who walked on water and calmed a storm, should never exclude causes that may come from beyond natural law – may be owing to a higher law.

    I can’t interact beyond that. Day job.

  • Dorfl

    “We cannot ‘observe’ the past.”

    That’s true most of the time, but when you do astronomy you run into a pretty important exception: If I’m looking at something a light year away, I see what it looked like one year ago. If I look at – say – the Andromeda galaxy, I see what it looked like 2.5 million years ago. If I look at UDFj-39546284, I see what it looked like some 13 billion* years ago. So in cosmology – which is one of the most important fields if we’re going to discuss origins – we do actually observe the past.

    * Wikipedia claims 13.37 billion years, but I doubt they actually have that many digits of precision.

  • Rick

    The talk of the historical science brings to mind what Joel Willitts just posted:

    “I’ve said this many times, but I’ll keep repeating it: if I could do my education all over again, I would have gotten an MA in archaeology. Here is an excellent quote from a now very dated, but excellent introduction to archaeology and the study of the New Testament; it captures the importance of approaching the study of the NT using both the literary and non-literary evidence”

    Here is the quote Joel mentioned:

    “For it is only when we pit real people up against their real historical situations that we can ever hope to recover their true social, economic, and religious settings. Texts and monuments are but two routes to the recovery of historical actuality. Sooner or later these routes must intersect, and only then will we be closer to the world we endeavor so hard to recreate. (Meyers & Strange, Archaeology, The Rabbis and Early Christianity, 30)”


  • RJS4DQ


    We observe light reaching earth today. Because we understand things about the nature of light and the speed of light we know that this light arose in the distant past emitted by an object far away.

    Otherwise we might well think, as the ancients did, that it was emitted today by an object placed in a solid dome separating the earth from the waters above.

  • Dorfl

    Yes. Observational sciences all have some theoretical framework to make sense of their observations. My point is that this is a case where you cannot make any very useful distinction between observational and historical science.

  • Andrew Dowling

    “But the assumptions of one who believes in a savior born from a virgin
    who came back to life after a brutal crucifixion, who walked on water
    and calmed a storm, should never exclude causes that may come from
    beyond natural law”
    That’s only if reading the Gospels as straight historical recollection, which I would contend is a faulty way of reading them.

  • rising4air

    I wondered, RJS, about your thoughts on how Rau omits any discussion of the presence of tradition in the sciences. He hints at it in the quote you selected.

    But, there’s no description of how throughly permeated the versions of science he described all possess social networks, prior theoretical commitments, and tacit agreements that involve the transmission and continuity of knowledge by the community of scholars within the particular discipline.

    In other words, how Rau knows science has “objectivity” and “independence from worldviews” certainly would be contested in the academy, even within departments of anthropology, biology, or chemistry: even if they don’t have anything to do with his latest publication.


  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Dan – we don’t “exclude catastrophism”. Ever heard of the meteor strike that led to dinosaur extinction? Or, on a smaller scale, but still massive, the flood event caused by the collapse of lake Missoula? Or the events surrounding the Permian extinction?

    What we do not find is the evidence for the catastrophe you want us to find. As to causes beyond natural law – the definition of miracle implies a rare event. As I always say, if everything is a miracle, then nothing is a miracle. And if we have this young earth (I presume you presuppose that), well, then 99.9% of everything you see or experience is a miracle – evey bit of starlight further than 6 or even 10 thousand light years. All the isotope data of the rocks underneath your feet. The entire stratigraphic column. The record of mutations etc in DNA. The fossil record. We can go on. But that also implies that the clear impression that we get that these things are old, is wrong. Which essentially means that God is trying to fool us. Makes everything look old, and then say “gotcha, you unbeliever!” when we derive old ages and evolution from that. Do you really think that is the case?

  • Richard Green

    RJS: “Randomness, I should note, is not necessarily capricious”

    Randomness, by nature and definition IS capricious. What I think you mean to say is it can be ring-fenced. So, while the next throw of my dice IS capricious, I can firstly say that it will land on one of the six faces, and secondly I can make predictive statements about the average of many dice throws.

    “randomness can be explicable and part of explanation.” I think you mean that because randomness can be ring-fenced, we can do predictive science even in its presence.

    It turns out that to do science the world does not need to be “real and explicable”, but only requires the inexplicability to be kept within definable boundaries.

  • copyrightman

    I think RJS’ way of parsing this is as best as we can do. From a philosophical perspective, I’d rather suggest that “‘science’ is what ‘science’ does.” Any other attempt at demarcation from other disciplines ends up a muddle.

  • Bev Mitchell


    Good post. So many popular treatments of science leave people with an over simplified (sometimes over complex) view of science. I agree with you that the more we present it as all of a piece, the closer we are to conveying the real thing (interestingly like Scripture in this regard). Your statement “Science is the quest to make sense of … data” is very helpful. It’s always interesting when some recalcitrant piece of data refuses to fit a favoured explanation, and especially rewarding when that piece leads to a quest for better data which can lead to a much more satisfying explanation.

  • Bev Mitchell


    Like chaos. There is always a boundary, a limit, a strange attractor. Just because it’s chaotic does not mean it is disorganized. Just because we cannot measure all of the date does not mean they are limitless. It’s not “anything goes”.

    See: http://fractalfoundation.org/resources/what-is-chaos-theory/

  • Bev Mitchell
  • Klasie Kraalogies

    I often wonder about the definition of science. We say “natural world” – but does that include Man (I think so). So we should not only be thinking about physics and geology, but also pathology, anthropology and sociology. But at some point those latter two becomes economics (for instance). Do we need to draw a line somewhere – or just accept fuzzy boundaries?

    Some people are fond of even saying that Math is not a science. Any opinions?

  • RJS4DQ


    Rau points to necessary presuppositions – such as the presuppositions that the natural world is real and is intelligible. Thus a current conclusion affirmed by scientific consensus could be wrong – but if the presuppositions are right we will eventually come to the correct answers.

    If realism is wrong – well, then science will never reach a final consensus.

    Beyond this, why is there a necessary dependence on worldview?

  • RJS4DQ


    I tried to choose my words carefully. So the meaning I intended to convey was Capricious = Given to sudden and unaccountable changes of mood or behavior, characterized by or subject to whim; impulsive and unpredictable, arbitrary. A capricious “randomness” in nature would follow no laws (unaccountable).

    There is randomness within nature that follows calculable probabilities – governing laws and equations. Quantum phenomena are inherently random, but they are not capricious in the sense I was trying to convey.

    I don’t consider quantum uncertainty “inexplicable” (but then I teach quantum mechanics).

    Classical chaos is another interesting phenomenon – but in this case it is entirely deterministic, not random.

  • RJS4DQ

    That is why it is fun – a giant puzzle.

  • RJS4DQ


    I think it includes mankind – but who says this isn’t physics?

    I would say that geology, pathology, and even sociology are just branches of science.

    Where to draw the line is the tricky part of the discussion. Is there anything more than the laws of physics and their consequences? Do we actually have any free will at all?

    Isn’t math more of a logical tool for reasoning about the natural world? Math can match reality, or not.

  • Dan

    I wrote “tend to” discount catastrophism, knowing full well that science has grudgingly started to be more open. The Lake Missoula Flood took years to become acceptable to mainstream science that did wanted to interpret the data in terms of slow geological processes.

    No God is not trying to fool us. We fool ourselves often enough quite easily. I personally don’t think Genesis requires a 6000 year old universe, but how exactly would God create a “mature” universe and not have it appear to be “old” in some respects? God can only do what is logically possible. He could not create an adult Adam and not have him appear something other than an infant.

    Yes there are evidences that suggest age, there are also evidences that can be interpreted to run counter to that notion such as preserved tissue in dinosaur bones, and rapid formation of sedimentary layers at Mount St Helens, a phenomena that has been reproduced in lab experiments since 1988.

    Not that those evidences will be compelling to most in the mainstream, it is just that the bottom line is we don’t directly observe the past. We observe effects of forces that operated in the past and we have to infer what happened, making assumptions about rates, unknown variables, initial conditions, etc. That is different from what research scientists trying to cure diseases or design lighter materials for flight do in the present.

  • Dan

    Not sure what you mean by “straight historical recollection”. All that is required in my mind for the gospels to be “historical” is for the events described to have happened. If, indeed, Jesus walked on water, if he changed water into wine, then the question is “how”. If these feats were accomplished by “natural processes” in accordance with “natural law” then there is no real reason to think Jesus “divinity” had anything to do with them and the central claim that Christ is the incarnate Son of God is called into question. If he did these things as God, then there is no reason to think he needed processes within natural law and every reason to believe He is above natural law – since he would be the author of natural law.

    The rub for me is, if one does not believe in God at all, then it makes sense to discount all miracles. But if one does believe in miracles because one believes Christ was God, then there is a logical inconsistency in trying to describe the events of the formation of the universe and the origin of life in terms of natural processes.

  • Dan

    The “light from distant stars” issue used to bother me, but not so much anymore. If Genesis 1-3 describes the formation of all things we now call nature, and if natural law is the regular, normative behavior of matter and energy, time and space, at what point did that behavior become “normative and regular”? Did natural law itself have a beginning? And when did the clock start on natural law? I wonder, if God did indeed “create”, then is it wise to think that natural law would have operated during the creation in the same way it did once the creation was complete?

    Interestingly, YEC folks recently propose that the relativity of time may in some way explain the “distant starlight” problem, in that time is not a constant. Time is perceived differently based on motion and time is affected by gravitational forces. I have no stake in defending those proposals, but I do wonder, did “time” have a fixed meaning if God was in the process of forming what we know as matter, energy, space and time and had not completed it?

    I personally only care about the details in Genesis that the New Testament specifically affirms. Luke 3, Romans 8, 1 Cor 15 and 2 Peter 3 are key for me. The age of the universe is not an essential question to me. And if “science” = “knowledge”, it behooves a Christian in the sciences not to draw a fine line between natural phenomena that can be observed and supernatural causes which cannot.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Dan – the hullabaloo Creationists made over St Helens was fake. After all, we’ve known for a long long time that pyroclastic sediments are deposited rapidly. Pompeii, anyone?

    The preserved tissue has been explained. Then you still have to explain the entire geological column, and and and. I’m a geologist. I know what I’m talking about – I started out as a YEC, but the actual, physical, isotopic and paleontological evidence convinced me otherwise.

    Really, this type makes me think of this: http://xkcd.com/258/

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Dan – a young earth would require nigh everything to be a miracle. If everything is a miracle, nothing is.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Dan, it appears you would like to let go of almost all rationality, all knowledge etc etc., in order to preserve a specific reading and understanding thereof of an ancient document written in ancient languages, translated, written for an ancient people in their specific culture, with you only being the secondary audience at best.

    One would like to ask oneself, why?

  • Dorfl

    “Isn’t math more of a logical tool for reasoning about the natural world?”

    In my experience, that depends on who you ask: Natural scientists tend to see mathematics as a tool for the natural sciences. Mathematicians tend to see mathematics as a tool for doing even more mathematics.

  • Dorfl

    Anything is possible, but science is concerned with what’s actually likely.

    There is an enormous number of ways the universe could have looked if it was created recently by God, as far as we know. There is a much more limited number of ways it could have looked if there was a big bang some 13.8 billion years ago.

    The way the universe does in fact look matches what we would expect from a big bang. This makes the big bang theory more likely – even though the way the universe looks also happens to match what could possibly have happened as the result of a recent creation.

  • RJS4DQ


    A quote I often return to (and use in my classes):

    A mathematician may say anything he pleases, but a physicist must be at least partially sane. – Josiah Willard Gibbs.

    According to wikiquotes – quoted in R. B. Lindsay, “On the Relation of Mathematics and Physics,” Scientific Monthly 59, 456 (Dec. 1944)

    Gibbs is a name chemists, physicists and biochemists should recognize – from Gibbs Free energy and ΔG if nothing else.

  • Dan

    No. That is not what I said, nor what I would believe. If Adam was created from the “dust of the ground” by the Word of a supernatural being, that would be a miracle. The birth of every subsequent human save One, would not be a miracle. The first man would not be explainable in reference to natural causes. All the rest, save One, would be.

  • Dan

    My reasons for belief in a God go well outside the claims of the physical sciences. I’m not sure how philosophical materialism, for example, leads to rational thought at all. But I have multiple reasons to put more faith in the Apostles and Prophets than in the inferences of naturalists about what happened before there were people, documents and languages.

  • Phil Miller

    But I have multiple reasons to put more faith in the Apostles and
    Prophets than in the inferences of naturalists about what happened
    before there were people, documents and languages.

    But the apostles and prophets are pretty much silent on the issue. None of them give us any detailed explanation of what the mechanism of Creation was, nor would I imagine would they think it was all that important.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Not really answering the question that was asked. I didn’t attack your Theism. I questioned your loyalty uber alles to a single method of interpretation.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Ah, but you are not realizing that that is exactly what you are implying. Because almost everything around you – and in you, disagrees with you. The DNA inside your cells tell a different story. The stars in the sky. The rocks underneath your feet. Even the presence of oxygen in the atmosphere. Everything would have to be a miracle.

  • Dan

    You asked why “preserve a specific reading and understanding thereof of an ancient
    document written in ancient languages, translated, written for an
    ancient people in their specific culture, with you only being the
    secondary audience at best.” The implication being the text is somehow harder to interpret than the inferences made from rocks, bones, fossils and measurements of celestial motions. My answer stressed that I do not appeal only to the text but to other sources of knowledge. But I wonder why leverage physical science as the ultimate arbiter of what happened in pre-history? Science cannot explain a number of immaterial realities. Science has limits, and one of the limits is time – we can’t directly observe past or future.

    And I don’t have an “uber” loyalty to a “single method of interpretation”. Augustine and many of the church fathers taught that scripture has both an historical and prophetic meaning. Certainly parables are part of Jesus’ teaching, poetry and proverb exist in the OT, imagery, metaphor are part of the package. I don’t believe Genesis is a “science text”. I only affirm what most Christians have affirmed for 2000 years that Genesis portrays real events, that the Nicene Creed summarizes as involving a “creator of heaven and earth and all things visible and invisible.” The universe is not self-existing. It had a beginning. Natural law had a beginning. What happened prior to that is beyond the reach of science.

  • Dan

    Why is a “detailed explanation of the mechanism” necessary to the question of whether an event happened? Do I need ballistics to believe Lincoln was shot?

  • Dan

    Forgive me but I don’t see your point at all. “If everything is a miracle nothing is”. How are you defining miracle?

    First century Jews would know nothing of modern notions of natural law. But they would know that normally it takes a lot of work, careful procedures and quite bit of time to produce a good wine. Those present at Jesus first miracle at Cana would be able to tell something unusual had taken place. For them, Jesus wine from water was very much a miracle while every other wine in every other wineskin they had ever tasted was not. Not everything is a miracle in that sense.

    Of course folks make generalized statements all the time that “Life is a miracle” or “love is a miracle”. I suppose in that sense the stars in the sky would be a miracle, but that is not what we are discussing. We are not discussing generalities of human word phrases. We are discussing the definition of science and I am suggesting that it is not necessary to limit the definition of science to the point where the only causes of physical effects that are allowed are natural causes.

    So if nothing is a miracle, then nature is all there is, nature and natural law are eternal and there is no point in discussing the relationship of faith and science at all.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Once again Dan, you seem to imply that either we have YEC, or atheism. Nobody here is saying that. But it seems you have set up a straw man and by golly, demolish him you will.


  • Dan

    No, I do not. I simply ask if one takes the position that there can be no causes beyond nature, a theistic scientist practices science any differently than a non-theistic scientist. And it has been my experience that naturalists, whether theists or not, treat ID with the same contempt as YEC.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Because IDS is a philosophy, not a science. I find the contrast between your responses here, and those in the new miracle post very striking.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Dan, here is a good response to the ID vs evolution debate:


  • Dan

    And naturalism is not a philosophy? Uniformitarianism has no connection to philosophy?

    ID is about classifying the characteristics of things we know and observe in things we know to be designed. It then applies what we know about design to that which appears to have been designed. It also is honest about the ways in which many current “explanations” of the origin of life and the origin of newer complex body plans fall short. It does not require the straitjacket of absolutist naturalism, that’s all.