- The different branches of scientific inquiry may be divided into two major groups: the empirical and the non-empirical sciences. The former seek to explore, to describe, to explain, and to predict the occurrences in the world we live in. Their statements, therefore, must be checked against the facts of our experience, and they are acceptable only if they are properly supported by empirical evidence. Such evidence is obtained in many different ways: by experimentation, by systematic observation, by interviews or surveys, by psychological or clinical testing, by careful examination of documents, inscriptions, coins, archaeological relics, and so forth. This dependence on empirical evidence distinguishes the empirical sciences from the non-empirical disciplines of logic and pure mathematics, whose propositions are proved without essential reference to empirical findings.
- The empirical sciences in turn are often divided into the natural sciences and the social sciences. The criterion for this division is much less clear than that which distinguishes empirical from non-empirical inquiry, and there is no general agreement on precisely where the dividing line is to be drawn.
- Usually, the natural sciences are understood to include physics, chemistry, biology, and their border areas; the social sciences are taken to comprise sociology, political science, anthropology, economics, historiography, and related disciplines. Psychology is sometimes assigned to one field, sometimes to the other, and not infrequently it is said to overlap both.
- In the present series of books, the philosophy of the natural sciences and the philosophy of the social sciences are dealt with in different volumes. This separation of topics is to serve the practical purpose of permitting a more adequate discussion of the large field of the philosophy of science; it is not intended to prejudge the question whether the division is also of systematic significance, i.e., whether the natural sciences differ fundamentally from the social sciences in subject matter, objectives, methods, or presuppositions. That there are such basic differences between those large fields has been widely asserted, and on various interesting grounds. A thorough exploration of these claims requires a close analysis of the social sciences as well as of the natural sciences and thus goes beyond the scope of this little volume. Nevertheless, our discussion will shed some light on the issue. For from time to time in our exploration of the philosophy of the natural sciences, we will have occasion to cast a comparative glance at the social sciences, and we will see that many of our findings concerning the methods and the rationale of scientific inquiry apply to the social as well as to the natural sciences. The words 'sciences' and 'scientific' will therefore often be used to refer to the entire domain of empirical science; but when clarity demands it, qualifying phrases will be added.
- The high prestige that science enjoys today is no doubt attributable in large measure to the striking successes and the rapidly expanding reach of its applications. Many branches of empirical science have come to provide a basis for associated technologies, which put the results of scientific inquiry to practical use and which in turn often furnish pure or basic research with new data, new problems, and new tools for investigation,
- But apart from aiding man in his search for control over his environment, science answers another, disinterested, but no less deep and persistent, urge: namely, his desire to gain ever wider knowledge and ever deeper understanding of the world in which he finds himself. In the chapters that follow, we will consider how these principal objectives of scientific inquiry are achieved. We will examine how scientific knowledge is arrived at, how it is supported, and how it changes; we will consider how science explains empirical facts, and what kind of understanding its explanations can give us; and in the course of these discussions, we will also touch upon some more general problems concerning the presuppositions and the limits of scientific inquiry, scientific knowledge, and scientific understanding.
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