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1 | P a ge Definition of science.


Definitions of Science

The Author: Robert B. Fischer (b. 1920) is a chemist who received his
education at Wheaton College iii Illinois and the University
of Illinois. He has
taught at Indiana University and California State University at Dontinguez
IIiIIk, where he is now Dean of the School of' Natural Sciences and

The Selection: Science is defined by the author as "the body of
knowledge obtained by methods based upon observation. The definition is
clarified and compared with a number of other definitions of viencc offered
by scientists and philosophers.

We will assume the following as the working definition of the word science: Science is the body of knowledge
obtained by methods based upon observation. This definition is consistent with, but more specific than, the concept
represented by the Latin word scientia. It also incorporates the meaning of the German word Wissenschasftthe phrase "body
of knowledge" is meant to convey the sense that there is some organization of the bits of knowledge, just as a human body is an
organized assemblage of its component parts.

No restriction to the realm of nature or of matter is specifically stated, but the essentiality of observation is specified.
Indeed, it is the realm of nature, of matter both living and non-living, that can be observed. To be sure, people can be observed,
individually and collectively. Therefore, science as defined here includes much of what is commonly considered to be the social
and behavioral sciences, and it is precisely for this reason and to this extent that these areas of knowledge are within the subject
matter of science.
The inclusion in our definition of the words "methods" and "observation" places stress upon the dynamic nature of the knowledge
that is science. As long as persons can continue to observe and to utilize the methods, science is dynamic and not static, both in
principle and in practice.

This definition carries several implications. Let us list four of the most significant ones.
1. The practice of science is a human activity. Human beings do the observing employ the methods and gain the body of
2. There is an inherent limitation of science. Anything that is outside of or beyond the senses with which people can observe
is, in principle, outside of or beyond the bounds of science.
3. There is an authority in science. The practical authority is observation, and the underlying authority is that which is
4. There is a building upon the authority. The methods are based upon, not limited to, observation....

Numerous definitions and descriptions of the word science have been written, and little or nothing would be gained by
a lengthy tabulation of a large number of them. Nevertheless, a brief sampling of some selected published statements can be of
value in reinforcing our working definition, and in both amplifying and providing contrast to its several parts.
The "man in the street," according to [James B.] Conant [b. 1893], considers science to be "the activity of people who
work in laboratories and whose discoveries have made possible modern industry and medicine." This statement, although it may
appear to be true to many lay persons, is seriously deficient as a meaningful description of what science is. For example, many
persons who clearly must qualify as scientists do not work in laboratories, and many of the discoveries of people who are
scientists do not have any demonstrable applicability in either modern industry or medicine. However, this concept serves to
illustrate the importance of attempting to define significant words in order to clarify just what the concepts really are.

[Norman] Campbell [1880-1949] describes science as consisting of two forms: (a) science is a body of useful and
practical knowledge and a method of obtaining it; (b) science is a pure intellectual activity. A justification of the inclusion of the
role of the intellect in science and the distinction between the pure and the applied are surely in order. However, it hardly seems

From Science, Sin, and Society, 2nd ed., by Robert B. Fischer (Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders Co., 1975), pp. 3-10.
Reprinted by permission of W. 11. Saunders Co. and Robert B. Fischer.

2 | P a ge Definition of science.doc

appropriate or valid either to separate the "useful and practical" from the intellectual activity or to separate the pure from the
"knowledge and a way of obtaining it." ... [T]here really is no sharp distinction between pure science and applied science. What
distinctions there are, moreover, often concern motivation of the scientist rather than what he does or the subject matter of the
field in which he works.

There has been considerable controversy over the relative merits of defining science on the basis of knowledge or on the
basis of the methodology used in acquiring that knowledge. Some authors use both of these approaches. On the one hand,
[Leonard K.] Nash [b. 1918], a chemist, emphasizes that science is a process: "Science is a way of looking at the world." On the
other hand, [Eugene P.] Wigner [b. 1902], a physicist, defines "our science" as "our store of knowledge of natural phenomena."
Note that Wigner's definition also includes designation of the general subject area of this knowledge-natural phenomena... .

The biologist T. H. Huxley [ 1825-1895] has described science by saying, "Science is organized common sense." This
straightforward statement effectively illustrates the reasonableness and the rationality of scientific knowledge and thus aids in
dispelling some of the aura of mysticism that so often surrounds science. But, like numerous other simple and straightforward
statements, it can be misleading if read too literally, that is, if taken too seriously. Some authors have pointed out that some parts
of scientific knowledge, including Einstein's relativity concepts, are not amenable to the physical models that are inevitably a part
of common sense thinking. It is interesting to note, however, that [Albert] Einstein [1879-1955] himself said, "The whole of
science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking."

A significant definition of science has been presented by [R. H.] Bube [b. 1927], a solid-state physicist, who stated that
science is "knowledge of the natural world obtained by sense interaction with that world." This statement provides an interesting
elaboration on two aspects of how observation occurs: (a) the observation of natural phenomena, which is the authoritative basis
upon which scientific knowledge stands, is through one's mind and senses; (b) the process of observation involves two-way
interaction between the observer and that which is observed. Always in principle, and often in practice, the mere process of
observation is a two-way street: the observer is affected or caused to respond through his senses; the object or phenomenon
being observed is also acted upon and may be changed....

Several published definitions of the word science include some detail as to the methods of using observation in gaining know-
ledge.... For example, [John G.] Kemeny [b. 19261, a philosopher, defines science as "all knowledge collected by means of the
scientific method." He hastens to explain that this is not a circular definition, even though the word scientific is used in defining
science, for he has earlier defined the scientific method to be a "cycle of induction, deduction, verification and eternal search for
improvement of theories which are only tentatively held."

Conant, an organic chemist who maintained a measure of active participation in science even while filling high-level academic
and governmental administrative positions, writes, "Science is an interconnected series of concepts and conceptual schemes
that have developed as a result of experimentation and observation and are fruitful of further experimentation and observations."
This definition, in addition to describing something about scientific methods, stresses the dynamic character of scientific
knowledge by designating the present state of knowledge as the basis for further operations.

[A. Cornelius] Benjamin [b. 1897], a philosopher, gives the following definition: "Science is that mode of inquiry which attempts
to arrive at knowledge of the world by the method of observation and by the method of confirmed hypothesis on what is given in
observation." Note that this definition is based upon method, or "mode of inquiry," but that the method is, in effect, not separable
from the knowledge to be gained.

An additional point appears in the definition by [W. C.] Danmpier [1867-19521, a historian of science. He wrote, "Science
is the ordered knowledge of natural phenomena and the rational study of the relations between the concepts in which these
phenomena are expressed." Here we note that science is not only orderly knowledge but also rational study-it is coherent and
intellectually selfconsistent. The practice of science is, indeed, an intellectual activity.

It is often helpful in defining or describing a term to include statements of what it is, not, as well as of what it is.
[Warren] Weaver [b. 1894], a well-known mathematician and science administrator, has used this technique in attempting to
explain what science is: "Science is not technology, nor does it consist of technological gadgetry. Science is not black-magic, nor
is it a universal snake oil to cure all diseases." Weaver further circumscribed science, but not rigidly, by stating that it is "a way of
solving problems, not all problems, but ... those in which the predominant factors are subject to the basic laws of logic and are
usually quantitative in character," and by stating that "Science is not an arrogant dictator in the whole arena of life but rather a
democratic companion of philosophy, of art, of religion and of other valid alternative approaches to reality.

3 | P a ge Definition of science.doc

[Jacob] Bronowski [1908-1974], who is a scientist and a philosopher of science, has defined science in this way:
"Science is the organization of our knowledge in such a way that it commands more of the hidden potential in nature." This
definition emphasizes first the processes of organization and second, the belief or the "faith" that progress is possible because
there is more in nature than we already know.

Each of these definitions and descriptive statements reinforces or elaborates upon one or more aspects of the
definition [given earlier].

Readi ng Quest i ons

1. What limitation on science is implicit in the definition?
2. Why does Fischer claim we need a definition of science or of any significant word?
3. Compare and contrast the definitions given for their similarities and differences.

Quest i ons f or Ref l ect i on and Research

1. What are definitions for? How can we tell when a definition is a good one?
2. List all the human activities we call sciences. Do they all fit Fischer's definition?
3. Think of bodies of knowledge that satisfy Fischer's definition. Are all usually regarded as sciences?
4. Is a definition of science an attempt to describe what all sciences have in common? Do all sciences have anything in
common? (See selection #28 by Conant.)
5. Should scientists care about the correct definition of science? Why or why not?

Source: Frederick E. Mosedale, Philosophy and Science: A Wide Range of Interaction (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1979), pp.
183 - 7.