Vol II No. 5

Just what is science, after all?

by Paul Julienne

“All human beings by nature desire to know.”   Thus goes the opening line of Aristotle’s “Metaphysics” (4th century BC),  the book so named because it came after the book on physics in his collected writings (meta being a Greek preposition that has “after” among its several meanings).   We immediately see three obvious yet remarkable things implicit in this quite simple statement.  First, “human beings” are said to be a class about which the term “all” can be predicated, implying a common nature shared by many individuals.  Second, human beings are capable of “desire,” implying they are not yet complete but need something more.  And thirdly, the thing that fulfills the desire, at least in Aristotle’s statement, is “knowledge” or “to know.”

The word “science” itself comes from scientia, a Latin word for “knowledge.”  This Latin term also  translates what Aristotle called episteme, or demonstrated knowledge in contrast to mere opinion.   Scientific knowledge today is derived from the scientific method based on observing the various aspects of the world that are available to a given science.   Scientists’ sense of knowing also includes understanding of the world. What it is really like? How does it work?    Scientific knowledge is public, in principle available to all, but it does not encompass all knowing (see below).

The great physicist Richard Feynman tells us that the important thing about science is “its contents, the things that have been found out. This is the yield. This is the gold. This is the excitement, the pay you get for all the disciplined thinking and hard work. The work is not done for the sake of an application. It is done for the excitement of what is found out.”   Feynman’s enthusiastic words surely cohere with Aristotle’s statement about our desire, even our love, to know.

Varieties of knowing

The modern natural sciences are concerned with the world on scales of time and distance that extend well beyond those encountered in everyday human life.   Much of what science discovers about the world is very counterintuitive—it surprises us.   This is certainly true about the quantum world of  atoms or photons.   When asked about the strange puzzles of the atomic domain by one of his students, Feynman commented: “Nobody knows how it can be like that.”

Most scientists are realists—we believe we discover what the world is actually like, even if it still conceals many of its deepest mysteries from us.   Science is not final but remains subject to change in the light of new data or better theories.  Science has undoubtedly been enormously fruitful and successful in describing the world and transforming society.

Science also has shown that the universe has to be very special and unique in order for carbon-based life to be possible. There is a deep unity in the scientific conception of the universe, from the subatomic to the cosmic scale.  The striking intelligibility  of the cosmological whole in which we live is an ever continuing source of wonder.

“To know” is multidimensional.  We should not be too careless by pinning it down to one thing.  “Desire” surely elicits the idea of love.  Saint Paul wrote to the young Christian community at Ephesus about his desire that they “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.”   How does one “know” something that “surpasses knowledge?”  Yet scientist-philosopher Michael Polanyi (1891-1976)  reminded us of an inarticulate dimension even in simple skills like riding a bicycle or playing a violin: “We can know more than we can tell.”  I expect that deep down we all know this beautifully simple truth.

Delight in knowing

Perhaps we would do well to ponder these words of the early Christian apologist Origen (ca 184-253 AD):

 A desire to know the truth of things has been implanted in our souls and is natural to human beings. … When our eye sees the work of a craftsman, especially if the object is well made, at once the mind burns with desire to know what sort of thing it is, how it was made and for what purpose. Even more, indeed incomparably more, does this mind burn with desire and ineffable longing to know the design of those things which we perceive to have been made by God. This desire, this love, we believe, has been implanted in us by God. For as the eye by nature seeks light and sight and our body instinctively craves food and drink, so our mind nurtures a desire, which is natural and proper, to know the truth of God and to learn the causes of things. Moreover we have not been given this desire by God in such a way that it should not or cannot be satisfied. For if the love of truth were never able to be satisfied, it would seem to have been implanted in our mind by the creator in vain.

Origen in his own way coheres with Aristotle.  And not only concerning our desire to know, for Aristotle’s second sentence of his Metaphysics is: “An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight.”  Like Aristotle’s and Origin’s delight in our senses and Feynman’s “excitement of what is found out,” we can not help but be haunted by a strange and attractive beauty the world presents to us, if only we have eyes to see.

While Origen’s words may sound foreign to many modern ears, they pose the question to us as to why we are creatures who find implanted within us a desire to know “by nature.”  This naturally leads us to ask next: how can science be possible in the first place?



1. I have rendered Aristotle’s term  ἄνθρωποι as “human beings” rather than “men,” since the Greek term properly refers to humankind generically, both male and female.

2. The two Feynman quotes are taken respectively from The Meaning of It All (Penguin Press, 1998, p. 9) and The Character of Physical Law (Penguin Press, 1992) .

3. The Origen quote is from First Principles (De Principiis) II.11.4