Logic of Discovery? Beliefs and Objectivity

Chapter index in this window —   — Chapter index in separate window

This material (including images) is copyrighted!. See my copyright notice for fair use practices.

Often a mathematical idea or model is discovered with no apparent application to the physical world until many years later. This aspect of pure, basic scientific research is not popular among government officials who want practical applications NOW! How are scientific discoveries made? There are several views about how we make discoveries and why humans are able to do this.

Kepler believed that there is a creationary resonance between the human mind and the laws of nature. In this view God creates humans with the gift of reading the mathematical harmonies of God's mind. It is only a matter of time for someone to discover God's plan. A more modern view held by some says that there is an evolutionary resonance between the human mind and the laws of nature. Given the infinite variety of paths of evolution, it is inevitable that creatures will eventually evolve capable of reading the laws of nature. In this view, scientific progress is inevitable.

Is creativity actually a logical process in disguise? It is a common belief today that one's religious/philosophical beliefs are merely along for the inevitable revolutionary ride and are not necessary to make revolutionary scientific advances. Some believe that there are many technically-capable paths by which the universe can be modeled. Kepler's neoplatonism was not logically necessary for the discovery of the planetary laws of motion, but, historically, it may have been absolutely necessary for his time and place.

Every age has its paradigms. Though scientists try to be objective, philosophical considerations do intrude on the scientific, creative process. That is not a bad thing because these beliefs are crucial in providing direction to their inquiries and fuel for the creativity mill. Scientists have faith that there is some order in the universe and this faith keeps them striving to solve the cosmic problems.

Facts have little meaning without ideas to interpret them. Because science is a human discipline, there is no machine-like objectivity. Often crucial facts supporting an idea come after a commitment is made to the idea. So is science then all based on an individual's whim; relative to the scientist's time and place? The self-corrective enterprise of science is messier than most science textbooks would have you believe. Besides the inevitable cultural prejudices, scientists have, in principle, an infinite number of conceivable ideas to choose from. How do you separate reasonable ideas from the infinite number of merely conceivable ideas?

Sure, there are cultural biases, but science does make us confront the real world---reality kicks back. You can ignore the discrepancies between nature's truth (observations) and your theories of what should happen only for so long. Experiments are the sole judge of scientific truth---nature eventually wins. The ideas are crucial to understanding the world but they eventually yield to the facts. Science makes us confront the world.


For further reading, here are some of my references that cover the development of science using historical records. They also cover science's philosophical underpinnings using the tools of philosophy.
  1. Owen Barfield Saving the Appearances pp. 46--54.
  2. Paul K. Feyerabend Galileo and the Tyranny of Truth in The Galileo Affair: A Meeting of Faith and Science ed. Coyne, Heller, Zycinski (Vatican City: 1985), pp. 155-166 and other papers from that symposium held at the Vatican.
  3. George S. Johnston 1995, The Galileo Affair (Scepter Press: Princeton, NJ). HTML version version available here.
  4. Thomas S. Kuhn The Copernican Revolution: Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Univ. Press, 1957).
  5. Ronald Pine Science and the Human Prospect (Wadsworth Publ. Co: Belmont, CA, 1989) esp. ch. 5: pp. 130-162.
  6. A prelude to Copernicus is Owen Gingerich's Scientific American article Astronomy in the Age of Columbus Nov. 1992, pp. 100-105.

previousGo back to previous section

Go to Astronomy Notes home

last updated: 28 May 2001

Is this page a copy of Strobel's Astronomy Notes?

Author of original content: Nick Strobel