If we ask the question today, ‘what is science?’ it quickly becomes apparent that the answer has changed through history. When Aristotle was searching through the nets of the fisherman on the coast of Lesbos, and deciding that sharks and rays were seemingly of a different family to fishes, and that they were different again to marine mammals, he was engaged in the mechanistic discipline of modern empirical science. However at this point in history science still held true to its Latin meaning scienta, which quite literally meant knowledge. Any knowledge was science, which is quite different to our modern understanding of the term. Today science is the method or means by which we gain the knowledge. Aristotles’ first steps toward cataloguing the world around us was not considered science, it was a philosophic endeavour, and the resulting knowledge was scienta.
The world philosophy comes from the Greek philosophia, which means literally ‘love of wisdom’. So at this point in history any knowledge that arose from philosophic enquiry was considered science. Philosophy encapsulated what we now think of as scientific enquiry, but still had as its ultimate goal the question of ‘what is the best way for a man to live’. Mechanistic science of today is arguably still floundering in the face of this question and until recently there has been a stigma over human behaviour as a legitimate target of scientific enquiry – it is often relegated to ‘social science’ and its’ edge is considered dubiously soft. This schism between enquiry into human behaviour, and the soon to be called ‘natural sciences’ grew in the wake of Aristotle’s endless cataloguing. In contrast to Plato, Aristotle believed that the study of particulars leads to conceptions about the general. Plato on the other hand was of the belief that the ideal forms should be the object of ones thoughts and the subordinate details would fall out subsequently.
During the Middle Ages, the question of what science was would have been hard to answer with any confidence. The Middle Ages earned their ‘dark’ epithet through repressing the search for knowledge, and individuals began to find that practicing science was a hazardous occupation as the church persecuted scientists for their forays into the unknown. So bad was this repression that Islamic became the language of scientific endeavour.
If we move forward again, this time to the Renaissance, and again ask the question ‘what is science?’ a different mood is quickly apparent. The spark of enquiry that burnt in Leonardo, Galileo was fuelled by an age of confidence in mankind’s potential; instead of being feared, the ego was again championed, and if the earth wasn’t the centre of the universe, then at least man was the centre of all things. As a result mankind sprinted forward in its accumulation of knowledge.
As the Renaissance gave birth to the Age of Enlightenment, to ask the question ‘what is science?’ would be to get an answer that was very much concerned with testable facts. It was Bacon who emphasised the importance of experiment over contemplation and Newton, the father of modern physics who exemplified it. The objectivity that we associate with science today was starting to be codified into a discipline of objectivity and the nature of man with its unavoidable subjective ‘contamination’ was becoming less of a legitimate focus.
In turn philosophy was almost by definition becoming the study of something about which a concrete answer could never be found; questions such as existence itself, and what virtuous behaviour entailed fell within the province of philosophy. This in turn reinforced a perception that perhaps such questions may be un-answerable.
So what is science now? The commonly accepted definition comes from Karl Popper. Popper formulated the negative method of criticism. What this means is that any statement is considered scientific so long as it is falsifiable. At first glance this would appear to continue to preclude consideration of the human condition, however there are signs that the human condition may again fall under science’s microscope. This is not due to a broadening of our concept of what science is; rather it is due to increasingly sophisticated theories that purport at last to be able to encapsulate our condition. Edward O Wilson, the establisher of socio-biology has said, “The human condition is the most important frontier of the natural sciences”. This frontier is apparently a narrow one – it stretches no more than a stone’s throw across what is known as selfish gene theory. What remains to be seen is whether the fruit of history’s philosophers does in fact fit within these confines.