Reasoning & Thinking in Science and Beyond
Posted by mattusmaximus on April 22, 2009
I wanted to just take a few minutes to give a quick shout-out to a couple of good blogs, each of which have a recent post about reasoning & thinking. The first is a post at Skepticblog about inductive reasoning in science by Dr. Steven Novella, where he takes on an interesting series of questions which are sometimes posed by those completely ignorant of science and/or who want to tear down science…
Recently I received the following question from an SGU listener named Marty:
I’ve been debating with a friend about the nature of science, and he brought up the following argument:
“1. All inferences from experience to conclusions about the future presuppose the principle that the future will resemble the past. (Principle of the Uniformity of Nature)
a. If we suspect that the course of nature may change and that the past is no guide to the future, then all experience becomes useless and does not support any conclusion about the future.
2. Therefore, no argument from experience can support the principle that the future will resemble the past.
3. No deductive argument can establish the principle that the future will resemble the past.
4. Therefore, the Principle of the Uniformity of Nature cannot be rationally justified.
5. If the Principle of the Uniformity of Nature cannot be rationally justified, then inductive reasoning in science cannot be rationally justified.
6. Therefore, inductive reasoning in science cannot be rationally justified. ”
This type of question comes up frequently – they essentially are attempts to use philosophy to argue that science cannot lead to objective truth, therefore science is not valid (or at least I can ignore it whenever I choose, which is typically how such arguments are applied). The problem with all such arguments is that science is not about objective metaphysical truth, but rather it is a collection of methods for making abstract models of nature and then testing those models against reality.
First a word on inductive reasoning, which is one of the types of reasoning in science (but not the only one). Induction is the process of going from the specific to the general, or forming a conclusion about the nature of the universe from a limited set of observations. One classic example is the fact that, so far, it has always been observed that the sun rises each day in the East. Therefore we can infer that the sun always rises each day in the East.
Induction is distinguished from deduction, which can be summarized as going from the general to the specific. If we take as a premise that the sun always rises each morning in the East, then we can deduce that the sun will rise tomorrow morning in the East. In valid deduction, if the premises are true then the conclusion must be true.
Induction is different – the observations may be true but because they are limited the conclusion may still be false. The classic example here is the observation that all swans ever observed are white, leading to the conclusion through induction that all swans are white. This was a reasonable conclusion until black swans were discovered in Australia. …
The second post comes from a blog, called Mens Critica (meaning “Critical Mind”), where I am a guest contributor. This post is about the difference between the scientific method and critical thinking…
One of the most common misconceptions I find among people — even teachers — when discussing critical thinking is the idea that teaching the scientific method is equivalent to teaching critical thinking.
It is not.
The scientific method is quite valuable and important; and certainly is based upon the principles of critical thinking. But the scientific method focuses on a specific sub-set of knowledge…those things that can be tested and quantified. The very foundations of the scientific method are that claims should be tested, and results should be verifiable and repeatable. …
These are some pretty heady topics, which in some ways go beyond science itself and into the realm of the philosophy of science. I think that in order for one to be a good critical thinker, understanding arguments like these is almost a necessary requirement. I hope you enjoy them