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“Science” and “reason” are two words often spoken alongside each other - almost as if they were the same thing. Both are approaches to seeking truths about the world around us; they complement each other, but each is distinct.
Science is about the external world: measurement, controlled experiment, data collection, empiricism. It tests hypotheses against the hard reality of repeatable experiments with objectively measurable results. Those who practice it are called scientists or empiricists.
Reason, by contrast, is internally generated. It’s building mental models of the world, starting with your internal sense for what is right and pure, from which further truths can be deduced. Those who practice reason are called rationalists.
For most of history, reason was the only known or accepted way to arrive at truths about the world.**(see the end of this post)My hunch is that this is because tools for objectively and accurately measuring distance and time - the two most basic features of the physical world - did not exist up until around four hundred years ago. Man had to look inside himself to discover truth.
When to Apply Reason
In some circumstances, reason excels where science fails. One example is our understanding of a triangle. (I’ve adapted the following from Kant’s example in Critique of Pure Reason.)
A equilateral triangle is a two-dimensional geometric shape with three sides of equal length and equal interior angles. If you wanted to seek this truth through empiricism, you’d need to go out and measure hundreds or thousands of three-sided objects. You might draw out on paper dozens of triangles, whose sides and angles you could then measure.
But no matter how many triangles you might measure, none would ever be exactly a perfect equilateral triangle. If your measuring tools are accurate enough, you’ll always see that there are slight variations between the length of the sides. Science, collecting data from the world around us, cannot tell us the nature of the equilateral triangle.
Reason wins out here because it happens in the purist and abstract realm of the mind. We can easily construct a mental model of a pure equilateral triangle, a geometric shape that has no depth, has three sides of exactly equal length, and three interior angles that exactly equal each other. We can create mathematical statements about this (and yes, that means math is not science). A single rationalist can discover in an evening of thought something that countless man-hours of science cannot.
When to Apply Science
Where does science excel, and reason fail? Reason’s downfall can be its disconnect from objective reality. One dramatic example of this comes from Aristotle, ancient master of reason-driven philosophy.
Aristotle presented one of the first physics models. He based his model on his own informal observation, and fed it through his deductive capabilities, Sherlock Holmes-style. One example: he argued that heavier objects fall at faster rates than lighter objects. This is easily disproved by dropping a heavy object and a light object of the same shape from a high place and seeing which hit the ground first. Yet it took over a thousand years before anyone thought to try this experiment.
Aristotle also held a theory that if you were riding a moving object, and you threw a ball straight up into the air, the ball would land on the ground behind you, rather than coming back to your hand. This seems intuitively correct. But a simple experiment - sitting in a moving vehicle and tossing a ball into the air and catching it - will disprove it. The forward momentum of the ball is identical to that of your hand, and it moves within that frame of reference as if you were standing on the ground. (It’s a good thing for this, because everything on earth is traveling at around 1000 miles per hour.)
Here, science can discover in a few minutes what eons of rationalist thinking could not.
From Massimo Pigliucci:
"Science, broadly speaking, deals with the study and understanding of natural phenomena, and is concerned with empirically (i.e., either observationally or experimentally) testable hypotheses advanced to account for those phenomena.
"Philosophy, on the other hand, is much harder to define. Broadly speaking, it can be thought of as an activity that uses reason to explore issues that include the nature of reality (metaphysics), the structure of rational thinking (logic), the limits of our understanding (epistemology), the meaning implied by our thoughts (philosophy of language), the nature of the moral good (ethics), the nature of beauty (aesthetics), and the inner workings of other disciplines (philosophy of science, philosophy of history, and a variety of other “philosophies of”). Philosophy does this by methods of analysis and questioning that include dialectics and logical argumentation.
"Now, it seems to me obvious, but apparently it needs to be stated that: a) philosophy and science are two distinct activities (at least nowadays, since science did start as a branch of philosophy called natural philosophy); b) they work by different methods (empirically-based hypothesis testing vs. reason-based logical analysis); and c) they inform each other in an inter-dependent fashion (science depends on philosophical assumptions that are outside the scope of empirical validation, but philosophical investigations should be informed by the best science available in a range of situations, from metaphysics to ethics and philosophy of mind).
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Logic (from the Greek λογική logikē) is the study of arguments. Logic is used in most intellectual activities, but is studied primarily in the disciplines of philosophy, mathematics, and computer science. Logic examines general forms which arguments may take, which forms are valid, and which are fallacies. It is one kind of critical thinking. In philosophy, the study of logic figures in most major areas of focus: epistemology, ethics, metaphysics. In mathematics, it is the study of valid inferences within some formal language.
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Contemporary skepticism (or scepticism) is loosely used to denote any questioning attitude, or some degree of doubt regarding claims that are elsewhere taken for granted. Usually meaning those who follow the evidence, versus those who are skeptical of the evidence (see:Denier) Skepticism is most controversial when it questions beliefs that are taken for granted by most of the population.
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Critical thinking, in its broadest sense has been described as "purposeful reflective judgment concerning what to believe or what to do."
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** It is this blogger's opinion that Reason is the basic concept behind all of these other concepts, as it emerged first in human history, was first to be formalized as a concept and is required for the appropriate application of the others. Thus, the name choice for this blog.