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Saturday, June 5, 2010

Scientific Exploration and Serendipity 2

Chapter 3D

Scientific Exploration and Serendipity 2

Second Part of the Argument: Scientific exploration leads to scientific change.

Changes in worldviews are inevitable given the nature of science. The reason is that worldviews (e.g., comprehensive scientific theories) are our creations and thus imperfect.[1] Therefore, they are always in need of refinement, modification, or replacement.

The pressure for such changes comes from the exposure both to unusual circumstances (which force us to stretch our views) and to competing ideas (which are often developed to account for a few of those unusual circumstances, and then extended to explain the entire field). And – here is a key point – scientific exploration, by its very nature, places science in new circumstances and presents it with new ideas. Thus scientific exploration leads not merely to the addition of a few, or even many, interesting facts but to the transformation, perhaps the radical transformation, of our views of the world.

Let me rephrase this second part of the argument in schematic form:

6. Science is dynamic. Science is always changing because

(a) It is never complete (being a human creation).

(b) When challenged by new circumstances it must adapt (i.e., change). For example, cancer and AIDS have challenged scientists to alter profoundly our ideas about cell functioning and development. And astronomy has undergone many radical changes motivated, in great part, by new instruments that have allowed us to look at hitherto unimagined aspects of the universe (e.g., Galileos telescope and the discovery of the phases of Venus and the moons of Jupiter, as well as the recent upheaval created by the discoveries made with the new generations of telescopes).

(c) When challenged by new ideas, it is, once again, spurred to change. Think of the radical transformation of biology as the result of Darwins idea of natural selection.

7. Scientific exploration places science in new circumstances and presents it with new ideas.

This is true almost by definition. When we explore scientifically, we either move science into new areas or else think about it in a new way (i.e., in the light of new ideas). I say almost for two reasons. First, even though I am presenting a conceptual argument, I do not wish to engage in a semantic dispute. Perhaps someone might give an example in which a scientist explores without placing science in new circumstances or thinking about science anew. Nevertheless, these two activities cover the range of what scientific exploration characteristically does (in a strong sense of characteristic). This is why I aim for the conclusion that serendipity is a natural consequence of scientific exploration, where by natural consequence I mean a (strongly) characteristic or practically inevitable consequence. A practically inevitable consequence of having a human genome is to be born with one head, one heart, two eyes, and two legs. But some humans are born with only one leg, say, and some human embryos do not even get to be born.

The second reason is that some very scholarly critics may feel that exploration is too romantic a name for what scientists do. Scientists presumably ponder, observe, investigate, and carry out experiments, but they are explorers only in a metaphorical sense. I do not wish to engage in a semantic dispute over this issue either, although it would be peculiar that so many people from so many walks of life should understand perfectly what I mean when I talk about the scientific exploration of space, and that they should themselves talk this way, if exploration is indeed the wrong term. In any event, scientists attempts to satisfy their curiosity about the universe do lead them into new areas and do motivate them to look at their collective understanding in new ways. This is all my argument needs.

Moreover, these two activities provide the natural conditions for change in science. Given that science is not complete, when it is placed in new circumstances (e.g., in dealing with significantly new phenomena, or being applied well beyond its domain), it is characteristically forced to adapt (change). The challenge of new scientific ideas is an additional factor in bringing about scientific change.[2]

From Points 6 and 7 we may conclude, therefore, that

8. Scientific exploration leads to change in our scientific views.

As I argued above, the crucial feature of science is not merely the addition of a few, or even many, interesting facts but the transformation, perhaps radical, of our views of the world[3] (cf. my remarks on Feyerabend, Galileo and the Tower Argument). This essential feature turns serendipity into a natural consequence of a dynamic science. If science is to be dynamic, it must be challenged, and it must change. But the change that matters is the transformation of our views of the universe. For once we think about the universe differently — once we have a different "communal" perception of it – we come to perceive also hitherto unknown dangers, new solutions, and new opportunities. Such is the cradle of serendipity.

Putting the conclusions of Parts 1 and 2 together, we arrive at the conclusion of the whole argument:

9. Since scientific exploration leads to change and scientific change leads to serendipity, exploration leads to serendipity.

[1] Scientists like to draw a distinction between their use of the word “theory” in science and the ordinary use of the word. In science the word is almost an honorific title given to a comprehensive set of ideas that at least begins to explain a range of phenomena; ordinary parlance betrays an empiricist bias (theory as less important than fact) and the word is almost derogatory, as in “evolution is just a theory,” meaning, “little more than a guess.” This equivocation irritates scientists, for then quantum physics and general relativity would also be “just theories.” To reduce the confusion, I keep pointing out that I am talking about comprehensive theories all along.

[2]. To put the point in a language closer to that of professional philosophers: by the “natural conditions” of change in science I mean that (disjointly) they are practically necessary and sufficient. That is, first, one or the other is normally required for scientific change to occur (overcoming the natural inertia against intellectual and experimental retooling). And second, the challenge of new circumstances characteristically forces science to change (this is a practical, not a logical certainty, for the scientific field may instead fall apart, or society may stop funding research, or a supernova may destroy the world, etc). This is not to say that science is bound to find solutions to its problems. There may be no cure for AIDS, for example, but in looking for it, researchers have profoundly transformed scientific medicine. The challenge of new ideas is often sufficient to bring about change as well (when those ideas offer significant alternative ways of looking at difficult problems, etc.).

[3]. This theory of science is developed in detail in my Radical Knowledge: A Philosophical Inquiry into the Nature and Limits of Science, Hackett, 1981 (Avebury in the U.K.).

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