The HPedia: Science

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Science, from the Latin scientia, Ancient Greek epistemē, can be described as the systematic pursuit of knowledge of the natural world by the most reliable methods of the day.

Note that “natural world” includes humanity insofar as it too is part of nature.

Mirriam-Webster provides two definitions useful here:

  1. a department of systematized knowledge as an object of study
  2. knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method

The first definition is broad, encompassing virtually any subject of systematic study, which is more or less what Aristotle meant by “science.”  The second is more restricted, associated with a specific method, and more in keeping with what modern scientists mean by “science.”

Many distinguish between science, or the investigation of the natural world, and technology, or the application of knowledge of the natural world.

Historians of science vary on when science began.  All cultures of course pursue technology, but it is debated how many pursue science per se.  Some scholars consider science to have begun no earlier than the Enlightenment.  Others, such as Karl Popper, locate its origins in the Ionian philosophers like Thales and Anaximander.  Still others, such as David C. Lindberg, are willing to extend the term “science” to whatever historical period, letting context define the “science” of the day.  Thomas Kuhn argues that ancient, discarded beliefs are not therefore unscientific; rather, we must look at the integrity of science in that age.

In Naturalistic Paganism, individuals vary in exactly how they view past periods.  As for the current era, “science” almost always connotes the pursuits and findings of the mainstream scientific community, employing scientific method, drawing tentative conclusions based on the current most compelling evidence, and critiqued by a community of peer experts.

On the basic assumptions of science, Wikipedia observes:

Working scientists usually take for granted a set of basic assumptions that are needed to justify the scientific method: (1) that there is an objective reality shared by all rational observers; (2) that this objective reality is governed by natural laws; (3) that these laws can be discovered by means of systematic observation and experimentation.

It seems quite probable that most Naturalistic Pagans would subscribe to these assumptions as well.

Naturalism is often considered fundamental to science, at least as a methodological assumption.

Another fundamental principle of science is that all conclusions are inherently fallible.  Every “fact” is liable to being overturned by new discoveries.  This is not a weakness, but rather a strength, as it is what leads to progress.

Scholars vary also in the precise details of scientific method.  Some demand rigorous adherence to a detailed list of methods, while others are more loose. D. Jason Slone provides a simple, approachable version in four points:

  1. Research
  2. Hypothesis
  3. Experiment
  4. Peer Review

Some consider the goal of scientific method to be determining the most probable conclusion, while others such as Karl Popper argue one can only hope to falsify some hypotheses.  Still others such as Thomas Kuhn take the radical position that progress in science only comes about through shifts in paradigm.

Modern scientific method may be contrasted with ancient Stoic methodology, as presented by Maxwell Stanisforth: 1. impression (sensation in response to stimulus), 2. assent (to whether the impression is a truthful presentation of objective reality), 3. conviction (only upon surviving the scrutiny of reason), 4. knowledge (only upon verification by comparison to past ages and sages).  Missing in this Stoic method is empirical experimentation in order to adjudicate assent.

It is probably true that not all questions can be decisively addressed by scientific method, or at least not currently.  Many issues discussed in Naturalistic Paganism may fall into this category.  In these cases, the paucity of scientific evidence is no justification for this or that preferred belief.  All one can do is place the question in the category “unknown” and suspend judgment.

Lupa has published an excellent critique of poor attention paid to research methodology in “proving” magic.

See also “Naturalism” and “Scientism.”

Check out other entries in our HPedia.


3 Comments on “The HPedia: Science

  1. I find it interesting the different uses of science in (online) naturalistic communities. Some are scientific minimalists, insisting on the exclusion of everything which cannot be “proven” by science. Others might exclude only those things that they believe have been dis-proven by science. Some use scientific discoveries to enhance their experience of wonder at nature. Others sometimes find the scientific perspective to be reductionist. Some are compartmental about science, drawing on it when it is useful, but finding it to be limited in some areas. Do you think that naturalistic Pagans should agree on the role of science? Can one be a naturalistic Pagan and not care much about science?

  2. Good question, John. I think to have a conversation that makes any sense, the participants need to reach at least a minimal consensus on the meaning and role of science, at least for the space of the conversation. That said, there’s plenty of room for disagreement in our community, and we’ll probably be all the stronger for it.

    The only thing I think needs rejecting is flat-out *mis*conception of science, such as when quantum physics is used fallaciously to support magic, or some such thing.

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