There is a popular view that science concerns itself with establishing ‘facts’ of the ‘physical world’. It is said that to do this, scientists put aside all of their ‘personal opinions’ and rely solely on ‘objective evidence’ to arrive at their conclusions. A popular view regarding philosophy is that it concerns matters which cannot be ‘proved or disproved’. The complaint is that there exists no means to answer its questions ‘conclusively’, unlike science.
In this series, I am investigating the extent to which these views are accurate, making this an engagement with both scientific and philosophical issues. I would like to take up scientific conclusions which the scientific community takes to be established well- enough so as to feature in school textbooks, and then ask if they can be considered matters of objective fact.
The criticism that if I were to truly study whether science does establish something to be factual, school textbooks are not the right place to look is in some ways correct. My honest response to that is that I wish to start with the basics and hope that I would develop the skills to tackle theories at the frontiers. If I have at least the right questions for such explorations by the end of this study, I will consider it fruitful. But to consider the NCERT textbooks on science as merely watered down versions of actual science is also not fair. Therefore, to start with, I will consider them for my study.
Textbooks also serve another purpose. They are attempts at effective teaching. They aim to help people (more so, children) learn as quickly and effectively as possible. They are also conceptually simpler to follow and do not require sophisticated equipment. My methodology will mostly be to ‘relearn’ biology by following textbooks, only this time, being more skeptical. I will be employing concepts from philosophy of science to aid and guide my questioning.
I would however, like to state upfront that this series is not an attempt to teach school children philosophy. It is more of an attempt to ground questions from philosophy of science in scientific investigations which are simple but also do justice to science. A problem I find with how philosophy of science is done is that the focus is too much on scientific theories which are at the frontiers. For instance, quantum mechanics, general theory of relativity, and neurobiology. These theories are at the cutting edge of research and are also ‘hot topics’. But the concepts they create, employ, measure, explain, and criticize are hard to fathom. They require considerable training and expensive instrumentation. It is with the foundations on which these grander structures of science stand that I wish to study.