Nick Nielsen

Nov 13, 2021

8 min read

Work in Progress: How Science Grows

Friday 12 November 2021

The end of last week was pretty intense for me as I ended up participating in the NSS-NIAC-TransAstra Space Settlement Workshop on Thursday and Friday, and on Saturday I participated in NoRCEL’s International Frontiers of Sciences 2021. I have been casting about for a topic for a presentation for NoRCEL’s in-person event next summer, and this event last Saturday gave me a perfect idea. Martin Dominik of NoRCEL often talks about the concept of universal biology, which is an interesting idea in the philosophy of science, so I could give a presentation with a title like, “Universal Biology: Can We Formulate a New Big Picture Science?” I could use this as a springboard to talk about a lot of issues in the philosophy of science that have occupied me over the past year, such as the reticulate nature of the history of science and the possibility of a “big picture” science.

At the present stage in the development of science, five hundred years after the scientific revolution, science mostly grows through producing further specializations, as always finer specializations branch out into yet finer specializations. Can science grow in other ways? Earlier in the history of science, and at least up to the 19th century, if not into the 20th century, entire new disciplines were founded that were not derivative of existing scientific disciplines. Science today also grows through interdisciplinary collaboration. The existence of sciences like astrophysics and astrobiology points to sciences expanding to cosmological scale, and thus, in a sense, becoming universal sciences.

A pet idea of mine is the possibility of a big picture science, which would be another way for science to grow, if big picture disciplines are indeed possible. Astrobiology is potentially a science of cosmological scale, but it isn’t exactly what I could call a big picture science, though I can (paradoxically) imagine specializations within astrobiology — say the comparative study of exoplanet biospheres — that would verge on being big picture sciences. A big picture science would be conceived ab initio as being of comprehensive scope and cosmological scale. This implies the formulation of big picture concepts, which would be quantitative concepts, which in turn implies the possibility of new measurements to give empirical content to a big picture science.

Universal biology would be a big picture science, as would a science of science itself. It was once somewhat traditional in philosophy to regard logic as the science of science, but while this was plausible in the 18th and 19th centuries, both logic and science have been so transformed that the relationship between the two has also been transformed. Logic is now also a specialized discipline that grows by producing finer specializations within itself, rather than growing through formulating more comprehensive concepts that could be the umbrella under which all of the other special sciences find their place. Just prior to my departure for Brazil I received a copy of Polish Contributions to the Science of Science (edited by Bohdan Walentynowicz) that I had ordered, which deals with the possibility and the promise of a science of science, which is perhaps more distant from us today than it was when the idea had greater currency.

The very idea of a science of science, now little discussed, can be useful for me in my exposition of my conception of civilization, because the absence of a science of science is another large and obvious gap in the growing sophistication and comprehensiveness of scientific knowledge, along with the absence of a science of history and a science of civilization.

While according to my definition of civilization, our civilization today is not a scientific civilization (hence my interest in those who have taken the trouble to say that ours is a scientific civilization), science has nevertheless grown since the scientific revolution into an enormous enterprise, and science today is undertaken at a scale unprecedented at any time in human history. Despite this growth in science as an institution, and the growth of the totality of scientific knowledge produced by the institutions of science, there is no consensus on a definition of science, and no methodology for the production of new sciences or for future research programs within existing sciences.

In this enormous contemporary undertaking of science, funded by national governments and staffed by thousands upon thousands, we are, as it were, running blind. The idea of a scientific method appears in countless textbooks, but even something as basic as this is disputed. I also like to point out that there is no doctrine of scientific abstraction comparable to existing doctrines of scientific method. Despite disagreements on the details of scientific method, scientific method can be taught and is being taught, while scientific abstraction, which is the basis of all scientific concepts, is not taught — at least, it is not taught in most sciences, though it may occasionally appear in philosophy.

I think that what is necessary for the foundation of big picture sciences are comprehensive abstract concepts that are also simple, and therefore cannot be analyzed into simpler parts. Simple concepts are also the basis of successful interdisciplinary collaboration, since simple concepts will reappear under one guise or another in multiple sciences.

Something that has only recently occurred to me, but which I haven’t yet worked out, is how different levels of conceptual abstraction enter into interdisciplinary sciences. Where an interdisciplinary science uses simple abstract concepts that bridge across multiple sciences, the power of the interdisciplinary collaboration derives from this unification of concepts across multiple sciences. But there is another possibility. Insofar as different sciences employ different levels of abstraction in their founding concepts, it might be possible to constitute an interdisciplinary science that brings together concepts at adjacent levels of abstraction, or even — perhaps as unlikely as a royal straight flush — one or more concepts from every level of scientific abstraction. In an interdisciplinary science of the latter kind, the power of the collaboration would be derived from covering the spectrum of scientific abstraction, so that the scientific knowledge derived is comprehensive even while remaining abstract.

We already see this in the mathematization of the natural sciences, which employ the abstract concepts of mathematics together with the abstract concepts specific to a given natural science. It is at least arguable that fundamental physics represents adjacent levels of abstraction with the absolutely abstract concepts of mathematics employed in the exposition of the relatively abstract concepts of the physical sciences — concepts like matter, mass, energy, inertia, momentum, conservation, etc. — whereas the abstract concepts employed by biology are a bit more distant from the abstract concepts of mathematics, and therefore they are probably not adjacent abstractions. Nevertheless, mathematical biology is a powerful method and the discipline is growing.

At present, all of this is pretty much left to chance and to intuition — which is why I likened it to a royal straight flush — whereas a developed doctrine of scientific abstraction would make it possible to approach the conceptual framework of interdisciplinary collaboration in a systematic way, as well as making it possible to systematically explore the possible permutations of interdisciplinary conceptual frameworks. There may be subtle combinations of concepts — again, only revealed to us today through a successful exercise of scientific intuition — that prove to be exceptionally powerful tools of scientific investigation.

In mathematics the absence of a systematic doctrine of scientific abstraction is, in one sense, simply set aside, as all of the concepts are supremely abstract, but, in another sense, the tension between intuition and formalization pervades mathematics. Often this has been a creative tension that has driven the development of mathematics, as with the 19th century revolution in rigor, the demand to formalize the intuitive basis of mathematics led to ever more refined statements of mathematical intuitions framed as axioms. (I don’t know enough about the history of mathematics to be able to cite examples of the tension between intuition and formalization becoming destructive.) The formalization of the natural sciences and the social sciences are far behind that of mathematics, and so the process of sharpening intuitions is much less advanced than in mathematics, and the natural and social sciences, when they are formalized, are usually formalized through mathematization and symbolization, rather than directly formalizing the abstract concepts that lie at the foundation of each discipline. This, however, takes us even further afield in the philosophy of science. It is another pet idea of mine, but I haven’t worked on this lately so I am a bit rusty.

In a scientific civilization, these problems and opportunities in science would be center stage; they would be the focus of large scale research and collaboration, because science would be at the heart of the civilization, and the problems of science would then be the problems of civilization. As it is now, with science highly developed and larger than ever before in history, but still not the central project of civilization, we find the attitude of looking to science for the solution of social problems posed by civilization such as it is. In this sense, then, our civilization today is the antithesis of scientific civilization; Enlightenment ideology is the endogenous force shaping civilization and causing the problems intrinsic to that civilization, while science is the exogenous force that promises secular salvation for Enlightenment civilization, if only that civilization can make proper use of science.

Here we have a particularly clear embodiment of a problem I have discussed many times (most recently in newsletter 156, in which I noted that I needed a catchy name for this doctrine, as I refer to it frequently). If Enlightenment civilization were to fully engage with science and employ science to solve its problems, then the problems intrinsic to Enlightenment civilization would be resolved, but Enlightenment civilization would be transformed into scientific civilization, and this civilization would have new intrinsic problems that would set the agenda for the development of this scientific civilization.