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What is science anyway?

Christian_DavidDavid Christian, Macquarie University; WCU Professor, Ewha Womans University, Seoul

This article is adapted from the Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History.

The English word science derives from the Latin scire, “to know.” In many languages, the word science or its equivalents can be used broadly to mean “a systematic body of knowledge that guides our relations with the world.” This is the sense that is present in phrases such as “the social sciences.” There have existed many different knowledge systems of this type. All animals with brains have, and make use of, structured knowledge of the external world, so in principle we could claim that even animals depend on some form of science.

Used in a narrower sense, the word science refers to the distinctive body of systematic knowledge about the material world that emerged in Europe within the last five hundred years and that underpinned the technological achievements of modern societies. Many societies have had complex technologies, and many have had rich and rigorous systems of religious and philosophical thought, but what is distinctive about modern science is that its theories have been used to generate extraordinarily powerful and effective technologies. As a recent study puts it, “Modern science is not just a thought-construction among others—it entails both an intellectual and an operative mastery of nature. Whereas empirical technology is a feature of every major civilization, the systematic application of scientific insights to change our natural environment (‘to conquer Nature by obeying her’, as Francis Bacon phrased it) is a creation of Europe alone” (Cohen 1994, 4). Conceived in this sense, science is a distinctively modern way of understanding the world. So, to understand the modern world, we have to understand science.

The idea of a “scientific revolution”—a fundamental transformation in ways of thinking about the world—is central to this view of the role of science in world history. Though it is generally accepted that the roots of modern science can be traced to classical Greece and Mesopotamia (although anticipations of modern scientific thought can be found in many different societies, from China to Mesoamerica, and even in some aspects of Paleolithic thought), it is widely assumed that modern science appeared during the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and its appearance marked a fundamental intellectual shift. As one survey puts it, “The Scientific Revolution represents a turning point in world history. By 1700 European scientists had overthrown the science and worldviews of Aristotle and Ptolemy. Europeans in 1700—and everyone else not long afterwards—lived in a vastly different intellectual world than that experienced by their predecessors in, say, 1500” (McClellan and Dorn 1999, 203). Over the next few centuries that revolution transformed human attitudes and human relations with the material world.

But the notion of science as a revolutionary new form of knowledge raises some complex problems. Was modern science really that different from earlier systems of knowledge? Why has it given modern societies such astonishing leverage over the material world? And is it really true, as some have claimed, that modern science offers a fundamentally superior way of describing reality?

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