Science is no-longer empirical

Science is no-longer empirical

Recently, in class, a discussion came up on the position of philosophy in intellectual discourse. In ancient and medieval times, philosophy (and by extension philosophers) had a monopoly on all intellectual investigation in deliberation. Presently however, many fields have been separated out of philosophy such as natural philosophy which we now call science. Even more so, popular scientists (Such as Hawking and Tyson) seem to be waging a public war against philosophy.

A student mentioned that science separated from philosophy after defining the scientific method and moving to purely empirical research. Though I did not mention it at the time, the issue whether science is empirical or not has been on my mind for a while.

Let me explain. Though science certainly started out as purely empirical, modern science “merely” approximates using inductive logic from second-hand empirical data. Take research into black holes as an example. Per-definition, we cannot observe black holes (ignoring Hawking radiation for now, as it was only theorized after black holes were “discovered”) yet, scientists do have a knowledge claim about them.

Our knowledge about black holes originates from the behaviour of other celestial bodies near a black hole. When observing stars and planets, scientists occasionally notice that their movements are influenced by an unaccounted for gravitational pull. Using mathematics, they can calculate the mass and position of this supposed body of influence, yet upon observation, they will observe nothing at all. In other words, we can infer the existence of black holes from mathematics and by observation of bodies close to black holes.

The question remains whether this is empirical. I would argue that it is not directly empirical. To do so, let us look at something which we would say is not empirically observable, both morality and God come to mind. Now let us observe some people. When looking at the behaviours and choices many people make on a daily basis, we notice that they are acting according to certain invisible principles. Though these principles are not observable directly, we infer them from the behaviour of bodies around them.

This is a similar inference to the one made by scientists. To clarify, I believe that the scientist who claims to have found a black hole generally makes a stronger case than the one i outlined above concerning morality. However, the type of inference is the same. We make a claim about an object of which we can only see the influence it has on other things.

The claim about morality is (in my opinion) definitely not empirical, so it stands to reason that the scientific claim about black holes is not empirical either. That is to say, the claim is believable, has strong evidence and empirical backing, but is nevertheless not empirical.

If you are interested in these sorts of scientific approaches, there are many more areas wherein this type of inference is used, though they are outside the scope of this post. Quantum particles are interesting, since they-too cannot be observed, less they be changed in the process. The heavier elements in the periodic table are also not empirically observable. All the elements above 108 (with the exception of 112, 113 and 114) are not chemically investigated since their insane weight makes them too-unstable to last much longer than a few milliseconds at best before they radioactively decay.