Definitions of (and statements about)



John W. Burgeson                          E-mail                     Web site


Aristotle: The Four Causes (actually, the Four "Becauses" -- answers to "why" questions). The Greek word is aitia:

1. Formal (A plan)
2. Final (A purpose)
3. Material (What is used)
4. Efficient (What causes the change)

“All persons, by nature, desire to know."

Epicurus: "... the elements of a right life. First believe that God is a living being immortal and blessed ... ."  Epicurus,  Letter to Menoeceus. -- (Epicurus, living ~ 200 BCE,  was a religious person, not an atheist.)


"... to arrive at accurate knowledge of the cause of things of most moment is the business of natural science ... ." Epicurus,  Letter to Herodotus


(Defining “science”).


"... In the first place, Herodotus, you must understand what it is that words denote ... the primary significance of every term employed must be clearly seen... ." – Letter to Herodotus


(Rule #1: Clear definitions)


"We must consider … all clear sensory evidence, to which we refer our opinions; for otherwise everything will be full of uncertainty and confusion." Epicurus,  "Principle Doctrines," #22.


(Rule #2: Look at ALL the evidence).


"... we are bound to believe that in the sky revolutions, solstices, risings and settings, and the like, take place without the ministration or command, either now or in the future, of any being who at the same time enjoys perfect bliss along with immortality.." Epicurus,  Letter to Herodotus


(Rule #3: Ascribe nothing to the gods.)


" …[in ~200 BCE] the Epicureans taught that science must accept two fundamental principles. First, it should take account of all the evidence available, and second, it should not explain perplexing phenomena by referring to the possible intervention of the gods. In a very real sense this Greek philosophy of science was the beginning of what might be called methodological atheism [methodological naturalism]." (note – NOT philosophical naturalism). Strunk, Atheism, 1968, p. 50.


What this means for natural science – Aristotle’s causes 1 and 2 are, by definition, ruled out.


Titus Lucretius Carus (Lucretius) 98 – 55 B.C.E. “Nothing is ever generated from nothing; nature consists of atoms moving in a void.” An atheist, drawing on Epicurus, he expounded a materialist philosophy, denigrating religion

Roger Bacon, 1214-1292 C.E. Experimental science.  

William of Ockham, 1280-1350 C.E. Ockham’s Razor principle. An explanation with fewer assumptions than an alternative explanation is preferable. Empiricism.

Francis Bacon, 1561-1626 C.E.  Inductive methodologies of science

Blaise Pascal, 1623-1662 C.E.   Probability mathematics, the vacuum, … .


Intelligent Agent (IA).  Postulated by Isaac Newton, 1642-1727 C.E. as a cause which kept the planets in their paths.


There are three things known about the IA, assuming an IA exists:


  1. An IA has more technologically advanced knowledge and engineering than present day civilization

  2. An IA has least equal intelligence to present day civilization

  3. An IA has a distinct sense of humor





“We ought then to regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its antecedent state and as the cause of the state that is to follow. An intelligence which should be acquainted with all the forces by which nature is animated, and with the several positions at any given instant at all the parts thereof, provided that its intellect were vast enough to submit these data to analysis, would include in one and the same formula the movements of the largest bodies and those of the lightest atom. Nothing would be uncertain for it, the future as well as the past would be present to its eyes. The human mind, in the perfection it has been able to give to astronomy affords a feeble outline of such an intelligence. Its discoveries in mechanics and geometry, joined to that of universal gravitation, have brought it within reach of comprehending in the same analytical expressions the past and future states of the systems of the world. All its efforts in the search for truth cause it continually to approach the intelligence we have just conceived but from this intelligence it will ever remain infinitely distant. -- (Essai Philosophique sur les Probabilitis. Laplace. 1814.)


[Laplace realizes that no human intelligence can reach his ideal. But the whole passage is based on the unconscious assumption that laws of nature that have been found to account for the facts over a period of a few centuries and within our limits of experimental error, can be expected to continue to apply with perfect accuracy for limitless centuries.



"When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you  have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of science."   - Lord Kelvin, ~ 1900


The object of all science, whether natural science or psychology, is to co-ordinate our experiences and to bring them into a logical system. – Einstein, The Meaning of Relativity, 1921.



“Science is a systematic method of continuing investigation, based on observation, hypothesis, testing, measurement, experimentation, and theory building, which leads to more adequate explanations of natural phenomena.” – adopted in 2002 by the Ohio State Board of Education.



Scientific laws describe, they do not prescribe. A scientific theory includes (1) a mental picture and (2) a mathematical/logical relationship. In quantum mechanics, the first of these does not seem attainable. "There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract quantum description. It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about Nature."  -- Neils Bohr


The universe is not only queerer than we imagine, it is queerer than we can imagine. – J. B. S. Haldane, 1892-1964, "On Being the Right Size" in "Possible Worlds" (1928)


The physical continuum, and with it all the beautiful machinery of physics, is myth.  -- John Wheeler, 1988


Any understanding of the mechanisms of perception forces us to acknowledge that we have no direct access to the world. Rather, our knowledge of it consists of our perceptions and the inferences we draw from them.  - Tim Mead, 1986  (Plato’s Cave concept)


It is clear that science is not in contact with ultimate reality, but that it describes the waves, and not the ocean. Story of the fisherman’s net, by Eddington.



Does science tell us that water was not changed into wine on that day in Cana? No. It does tell us that if no other cause was operating that day than in our normal world of today, then the probability of that change is very small. But still not equal to zero.

Testing, in the empirical sciences, is by deducing testable claims from proposed theories.

Falsification, not verification (proof) is crucial in science.

Scientific propositions are distinguished from nonscientific in that the former are empirically testable.

A person proposing a theory must state the conditions under which it can be rejected.

Karl Popper




Two views of science:                         1. A search for truth.

2. A search for what works.


Most scientists, while insisting that there is a physical reality, will take position 2.  Both sides agree that a scientific theory need not be “true” to be useful.


Example: Newton's law of gravitation says that two physical bodies of matter  "pull" on one another in a measurable fashion. Is this "true?" Probably not. Action at a distance, with no physical connection, seems weird, almost occult! There are certain other models which try to explain this cause (attraction) in different terms, but that is not the point here. Is the law useful? Certainly. Should it be called a "law?" Probably so. Is it a "fact" that two bodies pull on one another? Yes, it is.  A fact of science, which might not (probably is not, by current knowledge) be "true."


"…what we can know (Epistemology) will never be the same as the way Nature really is (Ontology). In other words, as stated … by …Werner Heisenberg, our knowledge of Nature can never mean anything more than the perception of connections, unifying features or marks of affinity in the manifold." -- Gopala Rao, Metanexus, 12/20/2002.


Many argue there is no adequate, satisfactory definition of science (even when narrowing the definition to the natural sciences).  Moreland “Christianity and the Nature of Science: A Philosophical Investigation.” 1989. Philosopher Alvin Plantinga writes about the “demarcationist” view of science in Origins & Design.





James Lott, Skeptical Inquirer, Winter 1990. A FIELD GUIDE TO CRITICAL THINKING


1.                   Falsifiability

It must be possible to conceive of evidence that would disprove the claim

2.                   Logic

Arguments must be sound, based on known facts and relationships

3.                   Comprehensiveness

All of the evidence must be considered

4.                   Honesty

Peer overview and review necessary to avoid self deception

5.                   Replicability

Experiments must be repeatable (and repeated) by disinterested colleagues

6.                   Sufficiency

a.      The burden of proof rests on the claimant

b.      Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence

c.    Arguments based on authority or testimony are inadequate


 “Scientism is a scientific worldview that encompasses natural explanations for all phenomena, eschews supernatural and paranormal speculations, and embraces empiricism and reason as the twin pillars of a philosophy of life appropriate for an age of Science … cosmology and evolutionary theory ask the ultimate origin questions that have traditionally been the province of religion….” Michael Shermer, Scientific American, June 2002, p. 35.



A scientist's verse: Psalm 27:4 -- "One thing have I desired of the Lord, that I will seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to enquire in his Temple."


Science – doing one’s best with one’s mind – no holds barred. – Bridgman, ~ 1935


Trap of “nothing buttery” thinking.


Science is not the affirmation of a set of beliefs but a process of inquiry aimed at building a testable body of knowledge constantly open to rejection or confirmation. In science, knowledge is fluid and certainty fleeting. That is at the heart of its limitations. It is also its greatest strength. -- Michael Shermer, Inside the Mind of God, p. 75.


"Intelligent Design (ID) argues that intelligent causes are capable of leaving empirically detectable marks in the natural world. Aspiring to be a scientific research program, ID purports to study the effects of intelligent causes in biology and cosmology. It claims that the best explanation for at least some of the appearance of design in nature is that this design is actual. Specifically, certain kinds of complex information found in the natural world are said to point convincingly to the work of an intelligent agency. Yet for many scientists, any appearance of design in nature ultimately derives from the interplay of undirected natural forces. What's more, ID flies in the face of the methodological naturalism (MN) that prevails throughout so much of science. According to MN, although scientists are entitled to religious beliefs and can entertain supernatural entities in their off-time, within science proper they need to proceed as if only natural causes are operative."  -- Angus Menuge (as yet unpublished)


There are many lessons to be learned from science. #1 is humility. – I. Rabi


Four stages of acceptance:


(1)     This is worthless nonsense

(2)     This is an interesting, but perverse, point of view

(3)     This is true, but unimportant

(4)     I always said so                                                                  -- J. B. S. Haldane


Nature abhors a vacuum. So does science. A theory continues to be viewed as authoritative until (and unless) supplanted by another theory. Theories do not purport to describe “truth,” but only a model of truth, always tentative. – subject to modification, change or a complete discard. – author unknown


The work of Science is to substitute FACTS for appearances. - Ruskin, 1853


"Science is a hierarchy of causal explanations characterized by increasing generalizations, quantifications, and mathematical simplicity arrived at by an inductive-deductive process characterized by isolation, control and repeatability." – author unknown


Three types of science:


            Measurement science. Experiment and run repeatedly. Physics, chemistry, some medicine, some biology

            Observational science. Regular events but little or no control. Astronomy, meteorology, ecology.

            Historical science. Events and processes in the past. Geology, archeology, origins, etc.


Natural science is a disciplined and systematic human activity that includes observation, measurement, experimentation, theory formulation and theory evaluation. Activity in any one of these categories is likely to stimulate fruitful action in the others. The goal of the natural sciences is to understand what our physical universe is like, how it functions, and how it got to be the way it now is. To that end the sciences seek to craft theories that give an adequate/satisfying account of what can be observed (qualitative) and measured (quantitative) in our world. – Howard Van Till, 12/28/2001 on the ASA LISTSERV.


Science is the human attempt to understand the predictable, reproducible aspects of nature, with nature defined as that part of the physical universe with which we can interact. – Kevin O’Brien, 3/8/1999, ASA LISTSERV.


Science may be regarded as a minimal problem consisting of the completest presentment of facts with the least possible expenditure of thought.  -- Ernst Mach, Science of Mechanics, 1883, p. 6.


The purpose of science is not to open the door to everlasting wisdom, but to set a limit on everlasting error.  -- Bertold Brecht


From the point of view of the physicist, a theory of matter is a policy, rather than a creed; its object is to connect or coordinate apparently diverse phenomena, and above all to suggest, stimulate and direct experiment.  J. J. Thompson, 1907


Science is built up of facts, as a house is with stones. But a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house.   -- Poincare'


In the end, Einstein came to embrace the view which many, and perhaps he, himself, thought earlier he had eliminated from physics in his 1905 paper on relativity theory: that there exists an external, objective, physical reality which we may hope to grasp - not directly, empirically, or logically, or with fullest certainty, but at least by an intuitive leap - one that is only guided by experience of the totality of sensible "facts". Events take place in a real world, of which the space-time world of sensory experience, and even the world of multidimensional coninua, are useful conceptions, but no more than that . . . Einstein . . . preferred to call his theory not "relativity theory", but the opposite: Invariantentheorie. It is unfortunate that this splendid, accurate term did not come into current usage, for it might well have prevented the abuse of relativity theory in many fields.     - Gerald Holton, Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought, Harvard, 1977 (?)


It is an interesting question whether biology is physics writ large in the sense in which chemistry is certainly physics writ large. – John Polkinghorne


One lasting product (of contemporary science) is the grand idea that the entire universe is governed by a few simple laws and that these laws are within human understanding.       Leo Kadanoff, 1986


At the highest level of mathematical sophistication, beyond numbers and relationships, are theories. The device for putting them into words is analogy, the very essence of scientific popularization. Physicists are comfortable with analogy because in some sense their whole enterprise, the modeling of nature by means of mathematical constructs, is analogical. -- Hans Christian von Baeyer, 1986


As a scientist, I share the credo of my colleagues: I believe that a factual reality exists and that science, though often in an obtuse and erratic manner, can learn about it.  -- Gould, THE MISMEASURE OF MAN, p 22, 1981.


"The scientist is by profession a map-maker; and like other map-makers he is pledged to allow his own particular values to distort as little as possible the representation he makes of the state of affairs. 'Whether I like it or not, or you like it or not, that's the way it is as far as I can see.' In this sense, he strives to make scientific knowledge 'value-free.' His maps are meant to be reliable guides to other people, of whose values he knows nothing; so 'scientific detachment' and 'depersonalization,' far from being arbitrary eccentricities of the trade, are all part of his duty as an honest craftsman.... His maps are not merely of observables but of correlations between observables and (in due course) of interacting causal factors."  - Donald M. MacKay, PERSPECTIVES, Vol 38, # 2, June 1986.


Science should reduce the description of more complex phenomena to that of simpler ones.   Niels Bohr, 1932


Science -- Investigations of the natural world based on the fundamental principle of Ockham's (or Occam’s) razor. This is a rule in science and philosophy stating that entities should not be multiplied needlessly. It is interpreted to mean that the simplest of two or more competing theories is preferable and that an explanation for unknown phenomena should first be attempted in terms of what is already known. Also called THE LAW OF PARSIMONY. It was first formulated by William of Ockham (1285-1347)


"The conclusions reached by the scientific enterprise are determined not merely by observations and experiments, but by the outcome of debates about how to interpret observations and experiments, and such debates can be influenced by a variety of factors (incl. politics, religion, personality, various background beliefs, aesthetic commitments, etc)."                  -- Allan Harvey


"Nullis in verba" (Take nothing on faith) Royal Society of London, 1660


All scientific knowledge comes from sense-impressions, mental studies of mental impressions. All descriptions must be reducible to sense-impressions. Scientific observations are always a selection of our sense-impressions, never the whole. Science gives us an intelligible picture of what our senses perceive, in so far as those sense-impressions concern numbers, sizes, motions, etc.


Our wills are not part of science. Science cannot tell us what to do. Beauty is not a scientific measurement.


You cannot extract moral reasoning out of science. But you CAN use science to inform your moral reasoning.


The parable of the fishing net with a two-inch mesh. The scientist uses it and proclaims that no fish is less than 2” long. By his definition, he is right. (Eddington -- 1939).


Five Science myths (from FRONTIERS OF ILLUSION:


1 Infinite benefits. More science = more public good.

2 Unfettered research. Any line equally likely to produce a good.

3 Accountability.

4 Authoritative. Objective basis to resolve political issues.

5 Endless frontier. New knowledge has no moral connection.


Science – a search for models that will (1) explain and (2) predict. Not a search for “truth.” A scientific theory does not need to be true to be useful.


Science – the systematic study of natural causation.


Systematic -- an emphasis on measurements and repeatability. 


Study -- classifying, theorizing, modeling, with an end to explain all effects as coming from a set of causes via a well defined set of laws.


Natural -- non-supernatural. No "outside the universe" explanations are acceptable. No "intelligent agent (IA)" may be postulated if a reasonable non-IA cause can be postulated.


Causation -- every effect comes from a natural cause, or a set of natural causes. It is assumed that no "outside the universe" cause exists.


Arguments from the negative are not acceptable. If a cause/effect cannot be postulated, it is not acceptable to postulate an IA (God of the Gaps) cause.  "Any sufficiently advanced technology looks like magic.” -- Arthur Clarke. 


A conclusion from this is that there can be (in science) no observation of a supernatural event. There can be, and indeed are, many unexplainable effects. It is the assumption of the scientific method that, as techniques improve, the set of present-day unexplainable effects will tend to diminish, and that new unexplained effects will come along to take their place. – author unknown


A common operational methodology of many, not all, scientists, is to label one's opponents as "fools." If one's opponents happen not to share the same philosophical presuppositions, this tendency increases.  -- unknown


"The principle error I see in most theoretical work is imagining that a theory is really a good model for...nature, rather than being merely a demonstration...Theorists almost always become too fond of their own ideas... ." --Frances Crick, WHAT MAD PURSUIT, 1988,


One may draw a line which is continuous from fact to conjecture. Maybe this one:




Each term on this scale differs from the previous one by a factor of 1000.


There is a problem with all this. Questions of how the universe (or any part of it) are today, and work today, are difficult to separate from questions of how they came to be this way in the present from causes in the past.


John Casti’s PARADIGMS LOST describes how science tries to both explain and predict.  Some sciences do both well. Some do only one well. Some do neither well at all.


Prediction         A |  o Quantum Mechanics      o Mechanics


                         B |


                         C |


                         D |  o Economics         o Biology    


                             |--------------------------------------------------------------à     Explanation

                                    D             C             B              A


Science is not technology. Technology builds on science.