mind, it's important to think carefully about how best to explain ourselves to the spirit of Feynman.
1.2 What's a Scientist to Do?
Let's start with a rather banal observation: science is about the world. Scientists are in the business of understanding the world around us—the actual world, not the set of all possible worlds, or Platonic heaven, or J.R.R Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Of course, this isn’t just limited to the observable, or visible world: science is interested in the nature of parts of the world that have never been directly observed and (in at least some cases) never will be. Physicists, for instance, are equally concerned that their generalizations apply to the region of the world inside the sun as they are that those generalizations apply to their laboratory apparatuses. There’s a more important sense in which science is concerned with more than just the observed world, though: science is not just descriptive, but predictive too—good science ought to be able to make predictions, not just tell us the way the world is right now (or was in the past). A science that
- The philosophically sophisticated reader might well be somewhat uncomfortable with much of what follows in the next few pages, and might be tempted to object that the observations I’ll be making are either fatally vague, fatally naïve, or both. I can only ask this impatient reader for some patience, and give my assurance that there is a deliberate method behind this naïve approach to philosophy of science. I will argue that if we start from basic facts about what science is—not as a social or professional institution, but as a particular attitude toward the world— how it is practiced both contemporarily and historically, and what it is supposed to do for us, we can short-circuit (or at least sneak by) many of the more technical debates that have swamped the last 100 years of the philosophy of science, and work slowly up to the tools we need to accomplish our larger task here. I ask, then, that the philosophically sophisticated reader suspend his sense of professional horror, and see if the result of our discussion here vindicates my dialectical (and somewhat informal) methodology. I believe it will. See Section 0.2for a more comprehensive defense of this naive methodology.
- Though it is worth mentioning that considerations of possible worlds, or even considerations of the happenings in Tolkien's Middle Earth might have a role to play in understanding the actual world. Fiction authors play a central role in the study of human culture: by running detailed "simulations" exploring elaborate hypothetical scenarios, they can help us better understand our own world, and better predict what might happen if certain facets of that world were different than they in fact are. This, as we will see, is a vital part of what the scientific enterprise in general is concerned with doing.
- Some philosophers of science (e.g. van Fraassen) have argued that there is a sense in which we observe what goes on inside the sun. This is an example of the sort of debate that I do not want to enter into here. The question of what counts as observation is, for our purposes, an idle one. I will set it to the side.