Monday, March 31, 2014

A Question of Viable Scientific Questions

[Johnathan Clayborn]

As part of my PhD coursework several of my classes have me referring back to a book called "A Primer in Theory Construction" by Paul D. Reynolds. Overall the book is pretty solid and discusses the ins and outs of developing a scientifically sound theory in great detail. I was rereading the introduction to the book the other night and one particular passage jumped out at me:

"Such questions as 'why is there a moon?' or 'why are there societies?' or 'why is there life?' are beyond the capacity of science. These 'why does it exist?' questions are more of a religious or philosophical nature and cannot be answered by science." 

I completely disagree with Dr. Reynolds on this particular point. Dr. Reynolds has certainly had a long and prestigious career and I mean him no personal disrespect, but I still maintain that "why"?" is certainly a scientific question, and that is a point that I will vociferously advocate.

"Why?" is a question for the ages. It is a question of intense curiosity and one of the first questions that we, as human beings, learn to ask. How many of us as children annoyed our parents with countless iterations of this query? How many of our own children ask us this same inquiry? The pursuit of science is simply a journey of discovery to uncover the truth, whatever it may be. So-called "scientists" who falsify data in order to support politically or commercially biased results do an injustice to science and knowledge everywhere. The first scientists who ever experimented with anything did so to answer a curiosity of some kind that they observed. "Why does this happen?" was a common question that plagues the minds of the curious.

In many respects, philosophically speaking, the question of why is intrinsically linked to the question of how. You could even go so far as to argue that these two questions are really one and the same. For example, if someone were to ask "why is there a moon?" the answer would be "because back during the formation of the solar system a smaller planet collided with the Earth and the remnants of that planet coalesced into the moon that we know today, that's why we have a moon."  Unsurprisingly, the answer to this question is the as the answer to the question "how was the moon formed?". Questions such as "what purpose does the moon serve?" are philosophically pointless; the moon doesn't serve any purpose, it simply exists.

Entire fields of study have been created to answer the question of "Why?". I would argue that, as a scientist, the question of Why is what drives us to seek out that knowledge and understanding. "Why did the dinosaurs become extinct?" was a question that drove paleontologists the world over to keep searching for an answer. This even gave rise to multidisciplinary studies between paleontology and geology. Even questions like "why do societies exist?" can be answered through the study of sociology. By understanding what a society does, it can be argued why the human species and other branches of the animal kingdom have established them.

I believe that Dr. Reynolds' statement should be more accurately phrased as "Science cannot test the question of why, only the question of how.", but to say that the question of "why" is not within the realm of science is a preposterous folly. As it stands now there are several questions that should be within the realm of science to answer, but to which science is unquestionably befuddled; what caused the big bang to occur? We know When it happened. We know where it happened. But we don't know what caused it or how it formed. We're not even sure of the exact processes that lead up to it.

Scientific study is about investigation and understanding; how do things happen? what relationships exist between things? What things influence other things? And, perhaps as the most basic question of all, why do things happen? 

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These blogs represent my thoughts, ideas and opinions. They may be different from yours. You may not agree with them. While I do enjoy a good, polite debate on a topic (where points are countered with other points based on logic, reason and fact), I do not enjoy an argument (where you tell me that I am wrong simply because you disagree and cannot offer any reasons to support your position). I am very respectful of others, and I expect everyone on here to be respectful in return, not only to me, but to each other as well. Disrespectful posts will be deleted automatically. Feel free to share your ideas, but keep it civil, please.