Definition of ‘Science’

The word ‘science’ comes from the Latin, ‘sciere’ = ‘to know’.  The thrust of science is not that we discover the truth about things, but rather that we discover HOW to discover the truth about things.  Learning how we discover truth is itself the science of epistemology – the science of sciences.

How do we know when we have a science?  What is the definition of the word?

Some definitions seem politically oriented to exclude folks someone does not like.  Dictionary definitions seem to focus on “systematized” knowledge, but do little to specify what kind of systematizing.   The secular folks have stolen a march on us by redefining ‘science’ to mean secular.   That is illegitimate, and we should say so out loud — which is what the Intelligent Design folks are doing.

Science is just common sense honed to a fine edge, common sense paying attention to the details.  One can define ‘science’ on the street level, as: “a way of telling it like it is”; or, “a way of getting the truth”.  Everyone knows what truth is.  They may not know the truth about a lot of things, but they know what you are asking for when you say, “Tell the truth, Johnny.  Did you have your hand in the cookie jar?”  People, almost universally, are enough in touch with reality to know what you are asking for when you ask for reality or truth, or “like it is…”

My definition of ‘truth’ is simply two words:  “what is”.  As in “tell it like it is”.  (Tell that to Pontius Pilate.)  Everyone knows what you mean.  Only philosophers and politicians have trouble with it.

My formal (but open to improvement) definition of ‘science’:

A science is a set of rules for evidence gathering and testing claims against fact and logic, rules which are publicly usable, neutrally applied to all participants, and which can reasonably be said to lead to the truth of that particular area.

Science is applied epistemology.  If epistemology is the general study of “how we know what we know”, then a science is a particular application of epistemology to a specific area, such as physics, history, jurisprudence, theology, chemistry, etc.  Epistemology, then, is the most general of all sciences.  A particular science (physics, history, chemistry, theology) is a specific application of epistemology to that area.  It tells how we know truth in that area.

That leaves the question open as to “which rules?” in that arena in which the rules are gathered:  physics, chemistry, history, psychology, theology, etc.  It leaves each area free to define its own rules, rather than having secular folks in the “hard” sciences impose theirs on everyone else in the world.

Science does not tell us such things as whether water freezes at 32 degrees.  Scientists  tell us such things, but not science itself.    What science tells us is how to find out whether water freezes at 32.  Science, in its generic form is the practical and specific answer to the epistemological question:  How do we know what we know?  not to the question: What do we know?

When people say you do not have a science unless you can do repeatable experiments, we should reply that that might be one of the rules in a physics rulebook, but not (at least, in the manner of physics or chemistry) in history, jurisprudence, or theology, or several other sciences (explanations of how we know what we know) one could mention.  Each area has to set its own rules.

I was discussing this with some friends at dinner, and used the analogy of football rules.  Any group of persons can form a team for the league, the rules are applied neutrally (equally) to all teams, and there are neutral referees in each case, to enforce the rules.  The referees in either case are not allowed to enter the argument (or play in the game) or to force a victory for one side or the other.   The outcome, in other words, cannot be forced or manipulated, it has to come naturally by the outworking of the rules.

One person replied, “Well, then, is the football rule book a science?”  I was a bit surprised at the idea, but then responded, “Yes, it is the science for finding out which is the best team in the league.”  The rule book itself does not tell you which is the best team, but it tells you how to find out.   It was a good example of the meaning of ‘science’, how it is a very flexible term which should not be coopted by one or another science and redefined to make it seem as though they have the truth automatically.  We want a level playing field.  Secularists have tilted the playing field so as to define themselves into the winning position.

We can break the stranglehold of secularized versions of science on the public mind if we insist on such a more flexible model for science.

It also leaves the metaphysical questions open to discussion.  It does not limit “fact” to physical facts or to facts of the five senses.   As others have pointed out, energy and information are also factual but non-physical.  So are ideas.  So, I would say, are moral standards.  Either we have obligations or we do not.  If I am obligated not to lie, then that is a fact of life.  Ethics is a science.

The definition of ‘science’ implies the public nature of science.  Science has a communal side to it.  It is valuable because it can provide expert opinions on a given subject of public importance.  Of course, one can nevertheless always have his own private science, and may do a good job at it.

If this is a valid definition of ‘science’, then we are constrained only by the words of the definition.  It says nothing about the philosophies or religions of the participants, only that the participants be willing to follow the rules in any given field.

It might be that a given philosophy or religion has built-in such standards or principles such as either get in the way of, or open the way for, candid sharing of ideas.  The public ought to take note of such conditions.  If a religion or philosophy is inherently contrary to the rules of science, it would be right to exclude that philosophy or religion from debate on public policy.  It would be a philosophy or religion hostile to truth-seeking.  Being hostile to truth-seeking is the only legitimate reason for in principle excluding some person or group from public policy debate.  Truth-seeking in the realm of legislation is the purpose for the American constitution, and for the British parliamentary system and development of common law.  They embody some of the rules for determining the truth about how to administer civil government.

Indeed, failure in truth-seeking is precisely what happened to Christianity during the 19th and 20th centuries.  We showed ourselves (for the most part) unwilling or unable to engage in open debate because we were scared to death that we might be proven wrong by the evidence.  So we trashed our own intellectual credibility and thereby lost the battle for the 19th and 20th centuries — leading to the 20th as the most brutal and debauched century of human history.  Ideas have consequences.

But intellectual cowardice is not the nature of Biblical religion.  Truth-seeking is fundamental to Biblical religion.  Both history and logic tell us that science arose, and could only have arisen, out of the Biblical worldview.  But Christians were (and are still, as of 2006 AD) generally too ignorant and too cowed to discover that and say so out loud.  Things are changing, however….   Visit the Intelligent Design & Apologetics libraries.

Dr. Earle FoxDr. Earle Fox is IAI’s Senior Fellow in Philosophy of Science and the Worldview of Ethical Monotheism.

This article was oiginally published at See also Dr. Fox’s new Book Abortion, the Bible and America.

The opinions published here are those of the writer and are not necessarily endorsed by the Institute.

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