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Chapter 14. The Power and Limits of Prof... > The Ideal of Science: Physics, Chemi...

The Ideal of Science: Physics, Chemistry, Astronomy, Geology, and Biology

Historically, the idea of science was based on the notion that it was important to ask questions about, and consequently think about, the world in a new way—a way that emphasized a carefully controlled empirical study of the world. The idea of science is based on the notion that, instead of thinking about what the world must be like, given our basic assumptions and preconceptions about it, we should discover, through empirical thinking and inquiry, what it is actually like. We must assume that the fundamental ideas through which we think traditionally about the world may be incorrect or misleading. We must be willing to question our seemingly self-evident beliefs about the world and entertain the assumption that they might be false. The idea of empirical thinking and carefully controlled experimentation was taken to be the key to gaining sound professional knowledge of the world.

This ideal of science emerged as a critical response to previous human inquiry in which the reasoning of important thinkers appeared to be inappropriately influenced by beliefs of a highly egocentric and sociocentric nature. Among those great thinkers were Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas—whose qualities of reflection and reasoning were taken at one time to be self-evident guarantors of professional knowledge. Their views of the physical and natural world were rarely questioned. With the emergence of science, however, such wide-ranging thinkers were increasingly recognized to be biased by questionable assumptions at the root of their thought. Most obviously, it appeared that pre-scientific thinkers often uncritically assumed metaphysical or religious concepts at the foundations of their thought about the world. What is more, the traditional questions asked seemed rarely to focus on testable characteristics in the world.


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