Saturday, February 2, 2008

The Scientific Knowledge

In this post I will explain the concept of "scientific knowledge" and demonstrate some important principles that can be used to evaluate scientific claims.

Basically, science refers to the systematic objective approach of acquiring knowledge, and to the organized body of knowledge gained through such research. The "objective systematic approach" is known as the scientific method and it consists of the collection of data through observation and experimentation, and the formulation and testing of models or hypotheses. The process must be objective in the sense that observations, experimentation and reasoning must not be altered or biased by a particular belief. Those with a particular belief will often see things as reinforcing their belief, even if they do not.

Scientific researchers are driven by their curiosity, intuition or interest in particular phenomena or interrelationships within previous knowledge. They propose hypotheses as explanations of phenomena, and perform experiments to test these hypotheses.

Generally, scientific research follows a certain structural process. The steps in this process must be repeatable in order to predict, dependably, any future results. Arguments are made to present reasons for a particular claim or interpretation being put forward in the hypothesis using non-fallacious reasoning methods. A hypothesis is rejected if an inconsistency occurs between the observed outcome of an experiment and that hypothesis. However, a hypothesis can never be proven, but rather only supported by surviving rounds of scientific experiments. Therefore, a hypothesis is a claim that has been neither well supported nor yet ruled out by experiment. If substantial experimentation and observations support a hypothesis then it eventually become an accepted theory.

We now define the "Scientific Knowledge" as the accumulated body of facts, concepts, principles, laws theories and model gained through the scientific method.

Researchers may test and reject several hypotheses for a particular phenomenon. When they compare alternative hypotheses they take into consideration the apparent application of the hypothesis to multiple cases of phenomena (i.e. it's scope), the prospect that a hypothesis may explain further phenomena in the future (i.e. it's fruitfulness) and the degree of fits with existing recognized knowledge (i.e. it's conservatism). But more importantly, the testability and the simplicity principles are very critical for evaluating scientific knowledge and therefore will be explained in more details.

Testability is important to retain or falsify the scientific status of hypotheses. Hypotheses are tested by performing experiments. However, due to the inductive nature of experiments, "no amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong", as Albert Einstein once said. Therefore, some philosophers and scientists have asserted that a "hypothesis or a theory is scientific only if it can be shown false by an observation or a physical experiment". This principle is known as the falsifiability principle. Being falsifiable does not mean false; rather, it means capability of being criticized by observational reports. For example, "the existence of Allah" is unfalsifiable because it can not be shown false by an observation or physical experiment. Falsifiability principle is very important in science and the philosophy in science because it provides us with an understanding on how one might assess a theory or a hypothesis. It may also save us from attempting to falsify a non-falsifiable claim. Unfalsifiable claims say nothing about either their validity or truth. If evidence cannot be presented to support a hypothesis, and yet the hypothesis cannot be shown to be indeed false, not much credence can be given to such a hypothesis.

The second important principle to assess and compare alternative hypotheses and theories is their simplicity. In science, there is preference for the least complex explanation for an observation and when judging hypotheses. The explanation of any phenomenon should make as few assumptions as possible, eliminating those that make no difference in the observable predictions of the explanatory hypothesis or theory. This principle is known as Occam's razor and is often paraphrased as "All other things being equal, the simplest solution is the best". Therefore, when multiple competing theories or hypotheses are "equal in other respects", the principle recommends selecting the theory or the hypothesis that introduces the fewest assumptions and postulates the fewest entities. For example, in Pathology, infectious diseases are clinically evident diseases resulting from the presence of pathogenic microbial agent such as viruses and bacteria in the infected individual. A religious pathologist adds to the previous explanation the assumption that diseases are caused by Allah as a sort of punishment or for testing the faith of the infected people. Because the theistic explanation makes one extra assumption (i.e. Allah's divine will) to explain the same phenomenon, Occam's razor shaves off this extra assumption and therefore the first explanation is preferred. Yet in the Islamic world, Allah's divine will is postulated in explaining all natural phenomena along with natural scientifically-proven explanations.

By considering the concept of scientific knowledge and the principles of evaluating (scientific) claims, especially the falsifiability principle and Occam's razor, and by becoming aware of the common scientific misconceptions, that were explained in the previous post, we shall start our journey to the scientific critical thinking of Islam from the next post.