What is science?

Some viewpoints from the perspective of the philosophy of science
Sune Nordwall

If you want to understand, if you want to come to a picture of what science is, what knowledge is, it could be a good start to try to become clear about the general content of the concept. 
       Many activities are today characterized as “Science!”, while other activities just as definitely are characterized as “Pseudoscience!”, maybe without the one making the judgment always having made it clear to himself what he really means with the words he is using. Especially when you try to come closer to an understanding of what “an anthroposophically fertilized art of healing” could mean, but also “anthroposophical natural science” in general, it becomes important to become clear about the different aspects of the concept and the problems with which it is connected. 

Every scientific activity is characterized by two partial activities
       One is some form of observation/perception. It can take place directly, through the senses, somewhat more indirectly via some form of an, in one or another respect sense improving instrument like a microscope, a telescope or stethoscope, or even more indirectly via some detecting instrument like a Geiger counter, an electrocardiograph or an X-ray apparatus (Harré 1976).
       The other part is some form of thought activity It “surrounds” and penetrates the observation/perception; A more or less conscious thought activity takes place as an introduction to the observation. It directs the attention in a special direction, “chooses” observations, steps somewhat back during the direct moment of perception/observation, to dominate once more after the direct moment of perception/observation. 
       The thought activity distinguishes between different parts of that which is observed/perceived, gives them names or makes a more specific conceptual analysis of them, it may also quantify them and then relates them to each other, logically or mathematically.
       So far, most people who have given the problem a thought would probably agree.

But if you want to relate the concept to the rich flora of activities that today are termed “science” and get any help to see what they have in common, you have to specify the concept a step further.
       If you look at what is today termed science, you find that only certain types of perception and certain types of conceptual formulations are permitted to use in connection with activities that in a more strict sense are characterized as scientific.
       As far as perceptions are concerned, a number of different types of instrumental perceptions dominate. Different forms of more direct sense perceptions have a more ambiguous status. If you continue to perceptions of different forms of inner, psychic states; states of the soul, you have come to a type of perception with a very dubious status, to put it mildly, as something on what to base scientific knowledge. When you come to perceptions of a more spiritual nature, you have passed outside the border surrounding those types of perceptions that are discussed. 
       On the conceptual side, spatially oriented concepts of a mechanical character dominate. They should preferably relate to something that is quantifiable and it is very satisfying if the quantified perceptions (especially when one of the not exact sciences is concerned) have been chosen in a random way, exist in a great number and have to be put through a computer program to make it possible to describe the results with the help of a mathematical model, or to make it possible to point to more definite connections (significant correlations) between factors that you otherwise don’t quite understand how the are related to each other. 
       How has this situation come about? 

In 1962, the historian and philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn, put forward the concept of “paradigm”, to make it possible to understand how scientists work and why, at different times in history, they have chosen a specific way to describe a phenomenon that would otherwise be difficult to understand, why they have chosen observations of certain aspects of the phenomenon and certain types of models to describe it, when other observations and models might have been just as good.
       The concept is a summarizing term for those factors that direct and put a limit to how you are permitted to work within a group of researchers and what is understood as “science” and “not-science” within that group.
       Within the theory of science in Sweden you today find a distinction being made between at least six such factors. They are: a definite picture of the world, a specific concept of what science is, a special ideal of science, a number of aesthetic ideals, a certain ethic and also a certain “self perspective“; an opinion of the role of the researcher in research (Törnebohm 1974, Wallén 1974, Lindström 1974).
       As will become more clear later, a definite concept of matteralso plays a very definite role as a paradigmatic factor.
       At first glance the concept of paradigm may seem somewhat bewildering (Mastermann in 1970 pointed to 21 senses in which Kuhn used the term), but it becomes clearer if you look at it as a way to describe how every question, problem and hypothesis that you formulate during the daily experimental research, independently of if you are conscious of it or not, is connected with a more or less explicit position in relation to basic philosophical problems. With the paradigm concept the basic philosophical problems have become visible again in science, but now related to empirical scientific research.
       It makes it possible to characterize different groups of paradigms in a broader perspective, based on how they are related to the questions that have been discussed by philosophers for a number of centuries, the basic questions concerning the nature of reality (ontology), the nature of knowledge (epistemology) and the questions of the nature of values (“practical philosophy”).
       It also makes it possible to start to try to understand and characterize the relation between the more natural-scientifically oriented medicine of today and the more spiritual-scientifically oriented art of healing that exists today as anthroposophical medicine.

In philosophyIn the theory of knowledge
Questions of knowledgeConcept/picture of science
Science ideal
Questions of valueAesthetic ideals
Questions of realityPicture of matter
Picture of (wo-)man/”Self perspective”
World picture

The most basic orientation of a paradigm is determined by the picture of reality that comes to expression in its “world picture”. Here you find a dominant orientation towards an “idea”-pole during the whole period of Greek science, with Aristotle (left) as the all overshadowing character, all through the Middle Ages and the time of scholasticism.
     As part of a reaction against scholasticism you thereafter find a growing reorientation of the interest in the direction of the more spatial-material side of reality, that then comes to blossom with modern natural science.
       This description is modified by wefts of more “matter”-oriented paradigms (with Leucippus, Democritus (right), Strato, Epicurus and others) (Farrington 1965) during the first period and by more “idea”-oriented wefts during the latter period (with among others the whole natural-philosophy oriented scientific tradition) (Eriksson 1969), but this does not change the main impression. 

With the idea-oriented, “idealistic” reality-orientation of science from its first beginning in Greece up to and on through the time of scholasticism, as also with the following “materialistic” reality-orientation of science you also find connected specific positions in relation to the questions of what matter is and what knowledge is.
       Toulmin and Goodfield (1964) distinguish between three different polarized fields in which the conceptual understanding of matter has been moving through history. They are the polarized field between a more organic and a more mechanistic conception of matter, between a more functionally and a more structurally oriented view of matter and between more “continuistic” and more atomistic opinions on the nature of matter.
       It is not difficult to see an inner connection between an organic, a functional and a “continuistically” oriented conception of matter as different expressions of a common, underlying “idealistically” oriented understanding of reality, even though the connection has not always been unambiguous in all cases (different researchers have not always been consequent). It is also those aspects that dominate all research into the nature of matter up to and partly also after the time of scholasticism. 
       It is also not difficult to see a more mechanistically, structurally and atomistically oriented conception of matter as three different expressions of an underlying, in a more proper sense “materialistically” oriented understanding and conception of reality. This conception has, as mentioned earlier, its proponents already during the time of the early Greek science, but lives on more in seclusion up to the time following the scholastic period.
       The historian of science Northrop also distinguishes, but from a somewhat different perspective, between a “functionalistic” (Aristotelian)and a “physicalistic” theory of nature as two of three basic theories of nature during the period of Greek science (ref by Törnebohm 1977). The two terms generally coincide with what here has been described as an “idealistic” and a “materialistic” view of reality. We will return to the third theory of nature later. 

With the two opinions/views of reality and the respectively connected opinions/views of matter you also find connected definite points of view on the problem of knowledge.
       The view of knowledge as a paradigmatic factor has two components (according to Törnebohm). One is a more theoretically oriented part; “view of science”. The other, termed “science ideal”, refers to that science, which within a paradigm is considered to be the best expression/reflection of what science “is” and should be.
       It is most common among non-physicists today to point to “physics” as a science ideal, whereby they normally have an inner picture of classical physics, as it looked during the first part of the 19th century (neither within the natural scientifically oriented tradition of medicine nor within the theory of science one has forgiven Planck and Einstein that they popped up during the 20th century and confused the concepts).
       To understand the more theoretical part of the problem of knowledge, it is possible to take the general concept of science as a starting point.
       Scientists pursue scientific research with among other goals that of attaining knowledge. Knowledge can be characterized as “a summarizing description of perceptions/observations in a conceptual or mathematical form”. But let us look at man(/woman) to understand the problem better.
       As human beings we have experiences. We make observations and form concepts, ideas and judgments. At our disposal we have four senses, more bound to organs localized in the head; sighthearingsmell and taste, and a fifth sense, more “spread out” over the whole body; touch

How do people make use of the human senses within the “physicalistic” and the “functionalistic” research traditions?
       Within both traditions one distinguishes between what are termed “primary” and “secondary” qualities (Marti 1974). With the term “primary qualities” one referred to the unchangeable qualities of reality as such. The term “secondary qualities” referred to those qualities that man experiences via the senses, the changes of which could be understood as the result of changes in the relation between the unchangeable, “primary” qualities. On this point one finds agreement between the two traditions.
       But when asked what is “primary” and what is “secondary” the answers differ.
       To “the physicalists” it is the spatial qualities, passively experienced by sight, that one ascribes to the indivisible building stones of matter, the atoms”, that one experiences as most real. To them belong extension (“fullness”), form, size, position in space and the state of movement or rest. As “secondary” qualities one counted the other half of sight impressions; color, as also the other sense impressions; sound, smells, tastes and touch impressions
       The “functionalists” have an opposite orientation. They take their starting point, not in a part of the sight experience, but in the most opposite sense; the touch sense and the active experience of touch (Eld-Sandström 1971). Here they distinguish between degrees of two basic touch qualities; warmth and humidity with the extremes hot-cold and warm-dry. These four (two) basic qualities are however considered to be “secondary” in relation to the four “primary” qualities “Fire”, “Air”, “Water” and “Earth”; the elements, approximately corresponding to the four states of matter: “plasma”, “gas”, “fluid” and “solid”.
       It is interesting that one meant that each of the elements only could be experienced by a simultaneous experience from two directions; via two of the the basic secondary qualities: simultaneous dryness and warmth for “Fire”, simultaneous wetness and coldness for “Water”, warmth and humidity for “Air” and coldness and dryness for “Earth”.
       The division of the touch qualities into warm-cold and humid-dry can seem somewhat confusing against the background of the richness of the different touch experiences that one can have as an experiencing subject.
       But it is interesting, if you see it in relation to the fact that in the special touch-sense in the head; taste, one finds a differentiation into four basic types of experiences; sweet, sour, bitter and salty, in spite of the fact that the taste buds for the different tastes do not differ anatomically from one another in any obvious or principal way.
       In Chinese culture, a corresponding doctrine of the elements was developed at about the same time as it was developed in the Greek culture (6th-4th century BC).
       During the “idealistic” period of science one built the world picture on the basis of the doctrine of the elements, just as one, during the following “materialistic” period of science has put much energy into the work of building a consistent world picture, based on the idea of the atom. 

While the experience of reality of the physicalists had its roots in a thought-experience (no one probably meant that he had seen the atoms with his own eyes during the 5th-4th century BC), the reality-experience of the functionalists had its roots in an experience of the will, the touch. While the physicalists look more at the possible static aspects of matter, the functionalists look more at the possible dynamic states of matter.
       But Northrop also characterizes a third basic theory of nature during the period of Greek science.
       To the physicalists the ultimate reality appears to be an infinite number of indivisible bodies in space. The functionalists look upon the four elements (or five, really, as one also counted with a “heavenly” element; the “quintessence”) as being the same ultimate reality.
       These two opinions now stream together in a third theory of nature, cultivated by the Pythagorean-Platonic tradition.
       Here one fuses the idea of the atom with the idea of the elements, by pointing to the five regular polyhedrons, the five “platonic” bodies, as the real, ideal Ur-atoms, each of which was understood as an exact, geometric expression of one of the elements (Plato 1971, Lossee 1972) (picture coming soon).
       If one was to point to something as “primary” qualities to the Pythagoreans-Platonists, except the Creator and the two types of triangles (right-angles with equal or unequal legs) that he used to create the platonic bodies, it should be the basic, natural numbers and the relations between the natural numbers that come to expression in the “harmonies of heaven”. As “secondary” quality the hearing experience stands out as the most basic.
       The original Pythagorean (Pythagoras above, right) tradition, with its more rational-mathematical form, had its base in the school in Croton in the south of Italy during the 6th-5th century BC Later, during the 5th-4th century BC it was developed in a more artistic-poetic direction by Plato in his school in Academeia in Athens (picture above, left, from The Academy by Raphael). 

If you look at the picture you thereby come to, you see that it opens the way to a possible understanding of not only the sense-organism as such, but also the “roots” of the basic ontological traditions. 
       (What strikes you is that the senses display the same relation to each other as the elements with – when the four senses bound to organs in the head are concerned – sight and taste as the basic polarity and the hearing and smelling as two intermediate senses. The more “spread out” sense, touch – as a more totally encompassing (heavenly) sense – displays the same form of inner relation to taste (as the touch sense in the head), as the “Quint-essence” to “Water”.)
       In connection with half of the sight experience, the purely spatial qualities, the atom idea is developed and the “physicalism”, that constitutes one of the two pillars upon which modern “Natural science” rests.
       In connection with two willfully experiencedtouch qualitieswarmth and humidity the “element-idea” is developed and the Aristotelian functionalism, that constitutes one of the two pillars upon which modern “Spiritual science” rests.
       But both traditions also rest on a second pillar each.
       In connection with the hearing experience the Pythagorean, mathematical tradition is developed, that constitutes the second pillar, upon which modern “Natural science” rests. Out of the Pythagorean inspiration this tradition developed not only a musically based understanding of cosmos, but also the understanding of the five regular spatial “platonic” bodies as the pure mathematical expressions of the elements and of the natural numbers as “Ur-wesen”. (Rudolf Steiner (1920) from a more Aristotelian perspective points to other roots of the mathematical processes in man, that I will not discuss here).
       As a possible inner consequence of this picture you are confronted with the question of the smelling experience as the “basis” for the platonic tradition. This may at first seem absurd, but appears in a new light when you see that the olfactory (“smelling”) part of the brain is that part from which the cerebrum, which constitutes the physical basis for higher thinking in man, has developed.
       This platonic tradition constitutes the second pillar, upon which the tradition of “Spiritual science” rests. 
       The “Natural scientific tradition” of today has, in its essence, been developed in cooperation between the “atomists” and the “Pythagoreans-mathematicians“.
       The “Spiritual scientific tradition” has been developed on the basis of the “idealistic tradition” in cooperation between the “Aristotelians” and the “Platonists“.
       In this perspective you see that they appear as mirrors of each other, that in two ordered ways reflect the experiences of the the four (or five) basic experiences of reality in wo/man.
       You also see that the opposition and conflict between the “natural scientific” and the more “spiritual scientific” oriented medical traditions in a deeper sense appears as an expression of the difference between the perspectives you come to when you develop a thought-sight experience or a will-touch experience in a too one-sided way. 

Different scientists today often and gladly refer to the Aristotelian concept of matter as “speculative” (for example Wagner 1972) and the physicalistic concept of matter as more “scientific”.
       Northrop’s description shows how much more the functionalistic description of matter corresponds to what you experience with the senses. It is also more correct in the deeper sense of the word to use the term “speculative” to describe the atomistic concept of matter during the whole period from the early Greek, over the Alexandrine, the Arabic and the scholastic period of science, all the way up to the 19th century, as it remained a purely theoretical idea during the whole period, without the possibility of connecting it more directly to a specific empirical phenomenon.
       This only became possible at the end of a long development, where first the structural, the mathematical and the mechanistic idea had to show their fertility.
       Important milestones on the way were the “De humani corporis fabrica, libri septem”, finished in 1543 by the then 28 year old Andreas Vesalius (left), “New astronomy with commentaries on the movement of Mars” (1609) and “Epitome Astronomiae” (1618) by Kepler and “Dialogo sopra i duo massima sisterni del mundo” (Dialogue concerning the two most important world systems) (1633) by Galilei.
       But it is only, for the first time with the help of the 42 year old John Dalton that the idea of the atom comes all the way down to earth, with his book “A New System of Chemical Philosophy”, published in 1808, where he connects the idea with the fact that chemical substances join with each other in proportions of whole numbers, and to the fact that different gases expand to the same extent when heated.
       The development within biology takes a parallel course to that within chemistry and physics, with the opinion of the cell as the “atom of life” becoming more general during the first part of the 19th century, with the 29 year old Theodor Schwann being the first person to give an adequate description of the theory of cells (1839).
       The research into the atomic aspect of matter and the life processes then developed fast during the 19th century. The kinetic theory of gases, the spectral analysis of light and the invention of the “mercury-ray-pump” make it possible to investigate the phenomenon of electrical discharge in highly diluted gases between 1856 and 1859, in a way that leads to a more consciously formulated theoretical atomism (Martin 1961).
       At about the same time the 36 year old Rudolf Virchow (right, somewhat older) formulates his cellular pathology in the field of medicine (“Die Cellularpathologie in ihrer Begründung auf physiologische Gewebslehre”) (1858), the theory that all diseases have their roots in pathological changes in individual cells of the diseased organism. (Later, the focus has moved some levels down to the genes as more “primary” “causes” of pathological processes and diseses.)
       Earlier an “idealistic” science, had reached a certain height during the time of scholasticism. Now, during the 19th century, a mechanistic world picture reaches its high point.
       But with the turn of the century and the first three decades of the 20th century, the situation changes in a dramatic way.

The discovery of radioactivity by Becquerel in 1896, the quantum theory, formulated by Planck in 1901 and the acceptance of the general theory of relativity, formulated by Einstein in 1916 led to radical reformulations of the theory of atoms and classical physics. Among other things one had to give up the ideas of
       1. The atom as the smallest, indivisible unity of matter
       2. The unchangeable material identity of atoms and
       3. The principle that it should be possible (in theory at least) to calculate and predict exactly the behavior of single atoms.
       In their place came, among other things, the principle of complementarity, mathematically formulated by de Broglie in 1925, that says that matter in some cases can appear as a “ring” that streams through the room (space), while in other cases it is better to describe it from the aspect of a particle-model of matter, and that the way it “chooses” to appear depends upon the limit conditions, the experimental limitations, you give it for its appearance.
       Another principle is the uncertainty-principle of Heisenberg, that specifies the limit for how exactly you can describe certain pairs of aspects of atomic phenomena.
       A third important discovery has been that the principle of conservation of matter and energy is valid only as a statistical mean in elementary-particle processes, and that it is sometimes possible for “elementary particles” to “borrow” together more energy than there is really available at the moment, to “use” it for some not energy-consuming purpose, and then let the energy coming from “nowhere” disappear into “nowhere” again.
       What is left of the original idea of material atoms, as the smallest building stones of matter has become “a mathematical scheme for the calculation of the probability of observing particle-like phenomena” (Unger 1952). “That has not changed with regard also to what are pictured as sub-atomic “particles”.
       What thereby remains of the materially conceived atoms of the mechanistic world picture is, once again, “only” mathematical structures, even though in a more developed form (than that described by Plato). 

The investigation of matter has thereby led to a dissolving of the concept of matter in a way that has shown the impossibility of founding the description of reality on an ultimate, unchangeable, “objective” and “material” reality. With the principle of complementary and the uncertainty relation of Heisenberg the investigating subject has taken its place, the one who formulates the questions and sets the limits for the form of the answers, as the center of the research process.
       From the perspective of the theory of knowledge one also from the 1970s finds a severe criticism of the thesis of the subjectivity of the “secondary” qualities in relation to the “primary” qualities, as described by the “physicalistic” tradition, (Hegge 1957, 1975, Naess 1974).
       The “physicalistic” way of separating spatial-“material” qualities as more “primary” in relation to the other sense qualities has thereby been shown to be untenable as an argument for the restriction of the concept of science that was described in the beginning of the article, a restriction that still continues to govern the greater part of all research activities, just as if nothing had really happened.
       Thanks to modern physics we have once more again become free to take a start in and use our own experiences, our own senses and our own thinking efforts to understand reality. The human being has, once again, become free, also in an epistemological sense, to try to understand the inner regularities in the different sense worlds and how they relate to each other.
       We are once more completely free to form concepts out of the reality in which we live as human beings and to try to develop our ability to attain knowledge, without having, in the last instance, once more to “reduce” and “found” our observations and our concepts in the seemingly “primary” qualities of a lowest level of spatial, material “parts” of matter. 

A first attempt to develop such a type of research in modern times was made by Goethe (1749-1832), when he developed his “Theory of colour” (published in Sweden in 1976 in a translation commented by Sällström) and when he in 1790 made an outline of a description of the metamorphosis of plants (Sw transl. 1959). That MIT Press published an American translation of Goethe’s “Theory of Color” about 1976 gives a hint that the insights of the consequences of modern physics for the theory of knowledge is now slowly spreading.
        A pioneering contribution to develop the attempt, begun by Goethe, further, was later made by Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), at first in a number of treatises, dealing with the theory of knowledge (1886/1979, 1892/1980, 1894/1987), and later in a number of other fields of science and practical life.
       The results, in the form of the possibilities to deepen the process of acquiring knowledge that he demonstrated (1904-5/1982, 1905-8/1979, 1910/1989, 1913/1987) and later the extent of the research results that came out of it, can make an overwhelming (on pure “physicalists” for different reasons often indigestible) impression, when you start to dig into them. Beside the publication of 28 books, he held about 6 000 lectures, of which now about 3 000 have been published, most of them during the last 20 years of his life.
       During the second part of that period he also, among other things lay the foundation to and started to build up a “Free School of Spiritual Science”, with the beginnings of among other a medical section, a natural-scientific section, a mathematical-astronomical section, a pedagogical section, a section for “spoken and musical arts”, a section for the spiritual striving of youth, and later a social-scientific section, near Basel in Switzerland.
       At Goetheanum, the name that he gave to the school, and in other places a number of people have later continued working to deepen and develop further the many suggestions and new ideas with which he contributed to the development of different sciences and other fields of practical life as a result of his researches. 

During the 85 years that have passed (in 2010) since his death, it has still only been possible to start scratching on the surface of the body of research results, ideas and practical suggestions that he left behind. It will probably take a long time before it becomes possible to survey the extent of the contribution that he left behind.
       The core of “anthroposophy”, the name that he gave to his contribution, is its picture of wo/man. With the development of our consciousness as a starting point he describes history. Out of our relation as human beings to the world of minerals, of plants, of animals and out of that which is specifically human in us, he describes the common development of wo/man, nature and the earth, as it appears to a meditatively developed research process (Steiner 1910/89 and other works).
       Through all fields of “anthroposophy”, wo/man – the development and individuation process that we have gone through – runs as a red thread, a process that has now made it possible for us to start standing on our own legs in relation to our origin, and thereby also start taking over the responsibility for our own development, both as humanity and as individual humans. 

Today we have the possibility as emerging free beings to look back at history without prejudice to see what we have achieved in the form of an understanding of the reality surrounding us and of ourselves.
       After a long period of “idealistically” oriented research into reality, we have now for a number of centuries gone through a fascinating and interesting period of research into reality from a “materialistically” oriented perspective. The former period has made it possible to understand more consciously certain general, deep laws of nature and of wo/man. The latter has, among other things, in a decisive way contributed to the possibility for wo/man to develop a clear and independent thinking. But this second period has now also come to a form of an end.
       Today we have the possibility to look through the one-sided way of working during both these periods. “Anthroposophy” is the beginning of an attempt to develop an understanding of reality once more starting from a clear, wake, fact-oriented consciousness of that which is observable with the senses and developing the thoughts that arise out of what you observe.
       The results is a renewed orientation in a “functionalistic” direction, but now against the background of the extensive fruits of a long and fascinating period of “physicalistically” oriented research. 
       A gigantic amount of work now remains to be done, to not only survive the maturity-crisis that we now pass through and must pass through as humanity during the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the next, but also let the insights that have come out of the “matter-scientific” research of the last centuries fertilize and be fertilized by the insights that have and can come out of a “spiritual-scientifically” oriented research.
       “Anthroposophy”, as a first attempt towards a possible synthesis of the two traditions, has taken its first stuttering steps. An “anthroposophic” art of healing, as a first step towards a future, widened, more factually human art of healing, is also beginning to take form. To that art of healing this article has wanted to be a contribution. 


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