Science can be distinguished for its changing state of conclusions. This provisional way of knowing can be very problematic even though it can be useful to us. Science is defined by the Webster’s dictionary as “knowledge gained by systematic experimentation and analysis.” (Webster’s English Dictionary 253) What really distinguishes the sciences from many of the other ways of knowing is that it has a very different way to find the “truth.” The definition of truth in this case is anything that works in practice or is useful to us because science is heavily based on the pragmatic theory. From discipline to discipline the ways of finding out the “truth” differ. However, even though science is a provisional human activity, it is not the only one. This can be seen clearly when one compares three different fields of study in terms of provisional conclusions: science, mathematics and art.
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Science is a system where “truth” is proven through experimentation and observation. It is thus a priori knowledge, meaning that it is knowledge that is derived from experience. While some people would argue that science is based on too many assumptions, and the laws always change, therefore, we should use other ways of knowing such as our perception, others would think of the usefulness that science brings. In my opinion, because science always changes, it is the main reason why we should appreciate this way of knowing. These constant changes show that even though we might never find out the answer to everything, we are constantly progressing in fields such as biology, chemistry, physics etc. As a pragmatic way of knowing or a way of knowing that is concerned with what is useful to us or what works in practice, the sciences already come loaded with problems that are associated with this specific way of knowing. However, by defining it as a pragmatic way of knowing, we can see that science is all about finding out the “truth.” This “truth” might not be the perfect truth such as outlined by Plato with his idea of forms; however, this truth is more concerned with usefulness. Many times in the course of our history, scientific laws and theories were disproved or changed. For example, there was a cubical atom theory less then one hundred years ago, and it stated that all atoms had a shape of a cube. This theory was soon disproved by many scientists such as Bohr and Rutherford. Today, we have a much different prediction of what the atom looks like thanks to quantum mechanics. With science we accept our limitations that we have with today’s instruments, and we look at what we can potentially do with them. For example, scientists know that they can’t reach zero Kelvin, where, theoretically, all motion stops on a microscopic level, but practically it is impossible because of the nature of heat transfer from one object to the other. With science we don’t stop improving our ways of experimenting even though we know we can’t reach perfection; however, today we get close to those ideal situations. We are about a billionth of a degree away from the zero Kelvin mark. Science is so heavily funded for the reason that it advances our society. Although science is the answer to many of our problems, it is based mostly on predictions, and that creates a dilemma. For example, through the string theory we can predict that there are eleven distinct dimensions; however, that is only an educated guess because these dimensions are so small that we will never physically see them, we can only prove them using mathematics. Furthermore, even though these predictions are based on assumptions, we can still be fairly accurate even with our limitations, but because this accuracy is not perfect, we try to achieve the best we can, and, as a result, the sciences become provisional. For example, astronomers can predict where and when the next eclipse will happen with a very good precision, this is because many years ago scientists disproved the geocentric model of the universe and adopted the model we are familiar with today: the heliocentric universe. Because physics and other sciences are the way we explore our world, it makes the knowledge we get from it always useful. For instance, if a scientist is trying to find a cure for cancer, but instead randomly finds out how a person’s brain works, he still furthers our knowledge of all the things around us, even though that scientist was hoping to find a different answer. This usefulness always reshapes our knowledge since it brings in new ideas and models that attempt to explain the patterns that are all around us.
Unlike science, math is a static subject. Over hundreds of years we have used the same formulas, the only difference between the modern times and thousands of years ago is that math today is more complex. The definition of math is “the science dealing with quantities, forms, space, etc and their relationships by the use of numbers and symbols.” (Webster’s English Dictionary 176) This is an excellent definition, however; one should think of math not as a science, but rather as a subject or a field. Many years ago, mathematicians came up with functions such as multiplication, addition, division, etc. These functions are still useful since we have the chance to substitute symbols to represent the patterns around us. The symbols might change, but the expressions will always stay the same. For example, in the early stages, mathematicians used Greek symbols for the numbers that we have today; however, equations that they came up with are the same if we compare them with ours. The only thing that changes is the sophistication of math. Thus, one may deduce that math is not a provisional subject. In many ways, math is the foundation of all the sciences. Without it we would have tremendous problems trying to come up with theories like gravity. Moreover, in some cases, we would never find out more about certain topics. For instance, the string theory can only be proven with math because physically we can’t comprehend eleven dimensions. A person learning the multiplication table can be sure that if they learn it, the multiplication will not change over time. However, if a scholar learns how his brain works, he will soon have to update his knowledge because what we know in the field of science always changes. These changes can be explained very easily even today even though we may think we know a lot, we actually know very little. In my opinion, science can be compared to a puzzle. Today, scientists meander all over different subjects and try to link the missing puzzle pieces; however, once a scientist connects a puzzle to the whole picture, and it is perceived to be the correct placement, then more and more questions arise. Furthermore, in math, once something is proved, it is no longer contested. For example, today nobody would contest that six multiplied by five is not thirty. Math, arguably, is a human construct, so it is up to us to make up symbols that would represent the patterns that we encounter. If, randomly, a mathematician changes the number four to a squiggly line, it wouldn’t make a difference. All the formulas would stay the same; the only change that would happen is that we would have a squiggly line instead of a four.
A lot like the sciences, art has many changing conclusions associated with it. When a person looks at a picture, he invariably interprets it and evaluates it. However, when a different individual looks at the same picture, he might interpret it in a very different way. For example, there are many optical illusions that have two faces in one picture. When a person sees one face, it is really hard for him to see the second one because his vision is already focused on the face he saw first, while the other individual might see the other face. In this case, both of the people interpreted the image; however, each one got a different face, so, as a result, a different conclusion. Even if both saw the same face, they might still have a different impression of what emotion the face is showing. These interpretations can vary because of many aspects; one of the most important ones is religion. For instance, if there is a painting of a cow, a Christian might think of it as a source of meat, while a Hindu might look at this image and see a sacred animal that can’t be killed for meat. Generally, in art conclusions are based on the frames of reference of the person that is evaluating the art piece. Thus, art is provisional in nature because even one painting might have different conclusions based on it.
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By comparing math, science, and art one can see that the knowledge gained from the sciences change; however, it is not the only subject that is provisional, that is shown through subjects such as art. Even one art piece can have many conclusions associated with it. So, in my opinion, the statement “what separates science from all other human activities is its belief in the provisional nature of all conclusions” (Michael Shermer, www.edge.com) is only partly true since science is provisional; however, that doesn’t separate it from all other human activities. Math is an example of a static subject whereas, science is a subject open to debates and updates. We might think that sciences are not important to us since what we know now as the “truth” always changes; however, we must understand that a person who is confident that he knows everything will never learn. Through science we accept that our knowledge is limited, and we strive to improve what we already have. Without science, one may argue, we would never achieve the advancements that we are fortunate to have today.
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