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Evolution of the Scientific Method

by Travis W. Binion, Jr.
Scientific Symposium I    1988

My job this morning is to set the stage for the papers to follow by very briefly reviewing the development of the scientific method. The so called "method" is so engrained in our way of approaching science today that we tend to take it for granted.

Science may very well have begun as a direct result of one of our divine endowments--curiosity. Our fifth epochal revelation tells us that "Curiosity--the spirit of investigation, the urge of discovery, the drive of exploration--is a part of the inborn and divine endowment of evolutionary space creatures." (*160) That divine endowment, perhaps a basic attribute of the personality, has given rise to the coupled and convoluted triad of human endeavors--religion, science, and philosophy. Their development was an inevitable outcome of the dual endowments of curiosity and the adjutant-spirit mind. As we know, religion delves into the spiritual realm, science into the physical realm, and philosophy unifies the two in a pervasive search for universal reality.

Science actually began on earth with the first human. Andon inadvertently observed the sparking quality of flint and conceived the idea of making fire. Later he and Fonta used that observation in a two-month-long experimental process to develop a method of producing fire whenever they needed it. With their actions, science, and the technology it sparks, were born.

Modern western science had its beginnings with the Greeks, who while plagued with myths stemming from frivolous, whimsical, emotional gods, conceived the revolutionary idea that the universe was a kind of machine governed by inflexible laws--this idea became the mechanistic model of science. According to Greek tradition, around 600 B.C. a chap named Thales of Miletus compiled the existing "facts" gathered from his contemporary world.1 (About the same time the Jews were setting the Old Testament to parchment.) Thales' most notable achievement was the prediction of an eclipse in 585 B.C. When the eclipse actually occurred, and on schedule, he became a hero in the intellectual community, and his ideas became widely accepted. It would be more than 1500 years before such predictions would become commonplace in Europe.

The Greek philosophers devoted themselves to the gentlemanly task of discovering, through intellectual reasoning alone, the laws of the universe. Evidently, cultural barriers, which relegated mundane work to slaves, were so great that the Greeks were prevented from conceiving experiments to verify their theories. They were pursuing knowledge for knowledge's sake. As an illustration, there is a story about a hapless student who was receiving instructions in mathematics from Plato. One day the student dared ask Plato, "What is the use of all this?" Plato, deeply offended, called a slave and told him to give the student a coin. "Now," said Plato, "you need not feel your instruction has been entirely to no purpose." Therewith the student was expelled.1

A similar tradition pervaded the Eastern world and, if not the forerunner of the Greek attitude, it certainly stemmed from the same roots. The Vedic writings of India, which are purported to predate the Greeks, also described creating knowledge through a purely cognitive process involving contemplation, meditation, and a sixfold validation procedure which in itself was a structured logic thought process. The Vedic traditions from a practical viewpoint were even more haughty than the Greek's. Vedic literature, while supposedly containing much concerning the laws of nature, is written in such an esoteric language that it has yet to make a significant impact on the scientific world.

Modern scientific thought, therefore, evolved from the Greek philosophers who were influenced by the Egyptians, Babylonians, and Assyrians. Their greatest successes were in the field of geometry. About 300 B.C., Euclid compiled all of the mathematical theorems known at that time and arranged them in a reasonable order.1 School children today still use his axioms and proofs during their study of plane geometry. The Greek successes are attributable to two techniques: abstraction and generalization. So successful were these techniques in developing mathematical theory, that the concepts were extended to other disciplines, but with much less success. However, the process of looking for absolute truth through reasoning alone was so ingrained in the Greek thinking patterns that they ignored the experiential evidence which was contrary to their elegant theorems and proofs, an egotistical tendency which still raises its ugly head from time to time today. Even after the Greek decline, questions in the scientific domain were generally settled by invoking the phrase "Aristotle says," or "Euclid says." Indeed, the scientific books written prior to the mid 1500s were little more than a compilation of the "facts" of the Greek Golden Age. There were a few rebels around from time to time. The 7th century Roman scholar Severinus urged his pupils to "Go my sons, buy stout shoes, climb mountains, searchthe deep recesses of the earth In this way and in no other will you arrive at a knowledge of the nature and properties of things."4 His sage advice was ignored for 900 years.

The Renaissance thinkers, however, brought a fresh outlook. The most famous turning point came in 1543 when the Polish astronomer Copernicus published a book which proposed the sun, not the earth, as the center of the universe. Although his hypothesis had been put forth in 200 B.C., it was in 1543 diametrically opposed to the assumptions of the Greeks and the teachings of the Church. He caused a great uproar within the intellectual world. It has only been recently that the Catholic Church has absolved Copernicus of his heresy. From a procedural viewpoint, however, Copernicus merely substituted one axiom, the earth is the center of the universe, for another, the sun is the center of the universe. It was left to Galileo Galilei to have the audacity to test the Greek theories. His most famous experiment probably never happened, but it makes a good story. Galileo supposedly dropped two cannon balls of different weights from the leaning tower of Pisa to prove Aristotle's theory that the heavier body would hit the ground first. The resounding thump of the two spheres hitting the ground simultaneously killed Aristotelian physics and elevated inductive reasoning as a scientific tool.

Inductive reasoning begins with observations and derives generalizations (axioms) from the observations; whereas deductive reasoning, the method of the Greeks, begins with generalizations and proceeds to predict observations (or what the Greeks considered to be ultimate truth). Of course, both have their place in the scientific toolkit. But it was the recognition during the Renaissance that no amount of deductive reasoning can render a generalization completely and absolutely valid that turned the Greek philosophy upside down. Even though many, many observations may confirm a generalization, there is no assurance that the next observation will not be inconsistent, requiring, at least, a re-examination of both observation and the generalization. This idea has become the foundation of modern scientific philosophy which makes no claim of attaining ultimate truth. The Greeks recognized no such limitation, and thereby stifled their progress. When one observation confirmed an axiom, they believed they had found ultimate truth and stopped thinking. A subtle implication of the present philosophy is: That which is not observable cannot be the subject of scientific inquiry. Until an observation, an experience, occurs, inquiry is either speculation or a matter of faith. That is, for one to really know, one must experience. Truth comes from the correct interpretation of the experience. However, we can and do vicariously accept the experiences of others and incorporate them into our own "knowing" information base, but that is not science, that is faith.

As often has been proven, free-thinking rebels are responsible for the reformation of human thought. Galileo dared to say "let's find out." Francis Bacon offered four steps for scientific work: observe, measure, explain, and verify. And then there was René Descartes. In 1619, this 23-year-old soldier-philosopher-mathemetician published his thoughts which crystalized the modern scientific method.

The events which led Descartes to his conclusions3 make an interesting story which illustrates one of the mechanisms which has assisted scientists from time to time, but which science has yet to understand.

Descartes was born to a noble French family. At the age of 10 he began his studies of the totality of Western knowledge--logic, ethics, metaphysics, literature, history, science, and mathematics. Much of the education process consisted of memorizing what the Greeks and Romans had to say. Being an intelligent and brash young fellow, at 18 Descartes declared that the whole education scheme was a farce since the only certainty he had learned in his 8 years of formal schooling was the knowledge of his own ignorance. That doesn't sound like an 18-year-old today.

Nevertheless, at that time if a young French gentleman didn't study the classics, he studied law, which Descartes did for two years. As soon as he attained his degree, he declared law to be as intellectually bankrupt as the rest of Western knowledge. He renounced his decadent social life, eventually joined the army, and found himself in Germany embroiled in the Thirty Years War. At this time in his life, 20 years of age, he was making monumental breakthroughs in mathematics just for the fun of it, and slow but steady progress in a search for a new method of finding knowledge. His military duties were neither fulfilling nor deterring his quest for intellectual satisfaction.

The night of November 10, 1619, found Descartes in an overheated room virtually feverish with "enthusiasm" about the intellectual adventure upon which he had embarked. That night he dreamed three dreams of such impact that he made detailed accounts of them in his diary. In the first dream, he experienced strong winds blowing him away from a church building and toward a group of people who didn't appear to be affected by the wind.

After this image, he awoke and, according to his journal, prayed for protection against the bad effects of the dream. Falling asleep again, he was then filled with terror by a noise like a bolt of lightning, and dreaming that he was awake, saw a shower of sparks fill his room. In the third and final dream, Descartes saw himself holding a dictionary and some papers, one of which contained a poem beginning with the words, "What path shall I follow in Life?" An unknown man handed him a fragment of verse--the words "Est et Non" caught the dreamer's eye. At the end of the third dream he dreamed he awoke to the fact that the shower of sparks in his room was in reality a dream, and then he dreamed that he interpreted the previous dream! In the dreamed interpretation, Descartes explained to himself that the dictionary represented the future unity of science--all the various sciences linked together; the sheaf of poems symbolized the linkage of philosophy and wisdom; "Est et Non" signified truth and falsity in human attainment and in secular sciences.

In his journals, Descartes wrote that he took the overall meaning of the dreams to be that he was the person destined to reform knowledge and unify the sciences, that the search for truth should be his career, and that his thoughts of the previous months--about knowledge and methods and a unifying system--were to become the foundation of a new method of finding truth. He wrote, "I begin to understand the foundations of a wonderful discoveryall the sciences are interconnected as by a chain; no one of them can be completely grasped without taking in the whole encyclopedia at once." That was perhaps the first statement of the idea of a unification theory, an idea which has become sort of the "holy grail" of physics.

In 1619, René Descartes set down four rules for applying his method for finding truth:

1. Never to accept anything for true which I do not clearly know to be such.

2. Divide each of the difficulties under examination into as many parts as possible.

3. Begin with the simplest and easiest and then work step by step to the more complex.

4. Make enumerations so complete and reviews so general that I might be assured that nothing is omitted.

These four rules, Bacon's four steps, and the Greek view of the world has amalgamated into the mechanistic, reductionist model through which most modern scientists approach their craft.

The essentially contemporaneous writings of Galileo, Bacon, and Descartes revolutionized scientific procedures and gave rise to what has been called the scientific method. Actually, the term scientific method is somewhat of a misnomer.4 The method is not a set of formal procedures. It will provide no detailed map for exploring the unknown, no surefire prescription for discovery, no infallible formulation for universal law. It is, rather, an attitude, a philosophy, an ethic to guide the process humans use to make sense out of the deluge of sensory experience which is the foundation of our progression to Paradise. As it has evolved, the method is so pervasive that it can be used in any discipline, forcing the theoretician and experimentalist to complement one another. It bridges the gap between ideas and facts, between speculation and experience, between chaos and order. It allows the sorting of the relevant and useful from the impertinent and delusive. It allows the exploitation of those rare moments of intuitive inspiration and insight which have proven so indispensable to scientific progress. However, the method cannot replace intuition, conjure good luck, dissuade misuse, or speed the slow process of intellectual growth and seasoning.

The collective ideas which Galileo, Bacon, and Descartes brought to scientific endeavors have changed somewhat since the 17th century. By the 19th century, the method evolved into six steps, and in the 20th century into seven, namely:

The complete process may take a few days or many lifetimes. The acceptance of the hypothesis by the scientific community requires that the experimental results and their interpretation be verified by independent researchers.

Let's spend a minute looking at an example of how the method is applied. Andon observed the sparking qualities of flint, perhaps equating the sparks to sparks from fires which ignited other fires. He formulated the hypothesis that he could use the flint sparks to start fires which he implied would give him control of at least part of his environment. He and Fonta eventually began the testing process, spending many days in failure, until one day Fonta had an inspirational thought to try a dried bird's nest. Such an inspirational breakthrough has been repeated thousands of times since, as numerous scientists have pondered and pondered and pondered the question, "Why?" and received a flash of insight. Subsequent to Andon and Fonta's discovery, their descendants have refined, embellished, and perfected the making of fire, until today the chemical release of energy drives much of the civilized world. That's not a bad legacy from the first scientists.

The victories of modern science did not come about until it had established one other essential principle, free and cooperative communication among all scientists. Although this principle seems obvious now, and scientists the world over constantly fight their governments over this issue, it was not obvious to the philosophers of ancient and medieval times. They formed secret societies and deliberately obscured their writings to keep their findings within as small a circle as possible. The world still waxes and wanes over this issue, particularly when national security and profit stakes are perceived to be high. But, secrecy is not an issue confined to science. What is unique to scientific endeavor is the process which links ideas to facts and facts to ideas in a rising vortical path of progress. The 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant mused, "Concepts without factual content are empty; sensory data without concepts are blindThe understanding cannot see. The senses cannot think. Only by their union can knowledge be produced."4 The production of knowledge is the only business of science. The application of knowledge is the business of technology.

The purpose of this symposium is to share our understanding of our human-derived knowledge as it relates to that given by the fifth epochal revelation. Allow me to paraphrase the two theme sentences of this symposium:

Our increasing understanding of the world in which we live; our enlarging capacity for the comprehension of the material facts of time, the meaningful ideas of thought, and the valuable ideals of spiritual insight are augmenting man's vision. However, as long as we measure only by the yardstick of physical nature, we can never hope to find unity in time and space. (*1306)

The great quest in science today is the search for unity, the Unified Field. As science delves deeper into the vastness of outer space and the equally vast inner space of subatomic phenomena, chemical reactions, biologic puzzles, and sociological processes, it is becoming increasingly clear that, as Descartes said, each is inseparably linked. Today, we are seeing the beginning of a new-age shift in the scientific model; moving from the mechanistic, reductionist model of the past toward a holistic science--a model in which the whole is greater than the sum of the physical parts; a model which may require the assumption of spiritual guidance in order to explain observed phenomena. I'd like to end with the last sentence in Paul Davis' book, Superforce--The Search for a Grand Unified Theory of Nature. "If physics is the product of design, the universe must have a purpose, and the evidence of modern physics suggests strongly to me that the purpose includes us."2 We know from the Urantia revelation that not only does the purpose include us, in many respects, we are that purpose. It is a wonderful and exciting adventure, this quest for knowledge and understanding; there is no doubt that in the long term we will be completely successful. I wish you much short-term success during the remainder of today and tomorrow. May our Father's peace fill you.


1. Asimov, Isaac. Asimov's Guide To Science, Basic Books, Inc, New York, NY, 1972

2. Davies, Paul. Superforce--The Search for a Grand Unified Theory of Nature, Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, NY, 1984

3. Harman, Willis and Rheingold, Howard. Higher Creativity, Institute of Noetic Sciences, Sausalito, CA, 1984

4. Margenau, Henry, Bregamini, David, and the Editors of Life. The Scientist, Time-Life Books, New York, NY 1964

5. The Urantia Book, Uversa Press, Chicago, IL, 1996

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