Can science explain science?

I have always been intrigued by the malicious glee with which religion gets explained away by certain kinds of scientist but how that same critical gaze is then averted when it comes to science. This is a pity because it misses the chance to ask a really important question: Can science explain science?

For instance, as with religion we might want to say that science is nothing but a successful meme, a “mind virus” that has spread through the population. Or we might want to turn to evolutionary psychology and see that doing science is hard-wired into our brains. Or maybe argue that there is a specific gene that predisposes us towards scientific activity…..

Or maybe not.

Whether it is from biology, neurology or evolutionary psychology none of it seems to fit and the situation becomes even more absurd if we venture away from these human sciences. We would never dream of using chemistry or physics to explain what it is to be a chemist or physicist.

When it comes to explaining science, a scientific explanation somehow misses the point.

And so we have to be very careful in answering that initial question of whether or not science can explain science.

If science can explain science then we should be prepared to forfeit science’s claims to having privileged access to the truth. The language of explanation carries with it at least an implicit “just” this or “nothing but” that. (Echoes of Monty Python’s Life of Brian: it’s not the truth it’s just a very naughty meme).

And with that comes a related question: what would a “scientific” explanation of science look like?

On the other hand if science cannot explain science then we have to accept that there are some things that are beyond scientific explanation, that there are some things for which a scientific explanation is not appropriate.

And with that comes the acknowledgement that there are limitations to science (in principle as well as practice) and that there are other ways (maybe even better ways) to understand the world and ourselves.

This is not to say that science is a religion. Nor even that science is like a religion, except in this one important respect – maybe we need more than science to understand it.


4 thoughts on “Can science explain science?

  1. Lots of good points…. If we think of science is a method and a way of thinking that help us understand nature (and only nature), it helps answer the question. Science does not exist in a literal sense. I have touched a couple of these points in my own posts if you are interested… Thanks!

  2. It also depends on what you mean by “Explain”. Are we talking about where scientific principles derive from? Where our sense of curiosity and rationality comes from? What do scientists do? These are just the first few examples I thought of for an “Explanation”.

  3. Thanks for the comments and much to agree with. The question is what counts as a “scientific explanation” and whether that is an appropriate way of understanding what science is/does. Seeing science as a method might help but which scientific discipline helps us to discover that. This “metaphysics” only in the literal sense of being beyond physics but there are areas of philosophy which might help (eg epistemology). Unfortunately philosophy is all to often dismissed along with religion as being a waste of time.
    Alternatively we might subject science to the same kind of analysis as has been applied to religion. For example MRI scans to find out what goes on in a “scientific experience” (pattern recognition would probably play an important part here). But would we be any closer to understanding what science is? Or we could study what scientists do (eg their collected beliefs, practices and institutions). Unfortunately this is just the kind of social studies of science that gets rejected by many scientists.
    What we seem to be left with is a science that claims to be the only source of true knowledge but which lacks the tools to examine itself (and presumably unable to examine lots of other things as well). Or a science that is open to scrutiny but one which then has to allow ther are other sources of knowledge and understanding.

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