Theories and thinkers on the natural sciences
Here is a brief selection of important ideas in the natural sciences, as well as some of the figures who have helped to shape our thinking on this area of knowledge. Use them in your TOK essay or presentation as a way of exploring knowledge claims, and supporting your own opinions and assertions.
The causation of a phenomenon is what directly makes it occur. This is in distinct contrast to correlation, in which two phenomena are linked only by a third factor, or by accident.
Unlike causation, correlation suggests that two events or phenomena are linked only because they both share a third factor, or simply because they have happened at the same or similar time.
Deduction is a form of reasoning in which you go from a general rule to a specific rule. If you use deduction strictly, it gives you certain knowledge.
Induction is a form of reasoning in which you go from a specific rule to a general rule. Unlike deduction, induction never gives us certain knowledge, unless you are dealing with mathematics.
Unlike naturalist observation, interpretivism involves the human scientist interacting and relating with the subject matter in order to understand it better. The German term for this is Verstehen.
In the human and natural sciences, naturalist observation relies on the investigator remaining removed from the subject matter, so as not to influence it in any way.
A term coined by Thomas Kuhn, who said that instead of our scientific knowledge progressing in a linear, passive fashion, new ideas occur violently, and completely revolutionize (or shift) our view of the world (our paradigm).
A pseudo-science is a discipline that may claim to follow the scientific method, but which does not do so in a strict way. Its results are therefore not as objective or reliable as a true science.
Quantitative data is anything that gives us subjective information that may involve values and opinions about something. It is the type of evidence valued more by those who follow the inside method in human sciences.
Quantitative data is anything that gives us objective, value-free information about something. It is the type of evidence valued more by those who follow the outside method in human sciences.
The scientific method is what defines an investigation as truly scientific more than the subject matter of the investigation. It involves several strict stages, all of which must be followed, to arrive at a demonstrable conclusion.
Superstition is either discerning a pattern in the natural world when there isn’t one, or not discerning a pattern when there is one, and then ascribing such a phenomenon to an entity ungoverned by the laws of nature.
Aristarchos (310 BC – 230 BC)
Aristarchos was the first thinker to propose the heliocentric theory of astronomy, suggesting that the earth, rather than the sun, was the centre of the solar system. He was also responsible for placing the planets in their correct order. Aristarchos’s ideas were generally rejected in favour of those of Aristotle and Ptolemy, who both favoured the geocentric theory. It took over 1800 years for his ideas to be confirmed, (largely because of the resistance of secular and religious authorities, who were reluctant to see the earth demoted in importance in the universe) first by the observations of Copernicus, then by the work of Kepler and Newton.
Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC)
Together with Plato and Socrates (Plato’s teacher), Aristotle is one of the most important founding figures in Western philosophy. Aristotle’s writings were the first to create a comprehensive system of Western philosophy, encompassing morality and aesthetics, logic and science, politics and metaphysics.
Copernicus, Nicolaus (1473-1543)
Copernicus was the first person to present a complete version of the heliocentric theory of the universe, removing the earth from the centre of the cosmos. This idea is often cited as the best example of a paradigm shift in scientific thinking.
Dawkins, Richard (1941- )
Dawkins is probably the most famous biologist in the world, best known for his book The Selfish Gene. He has staunch opinions on superstition and religion, which he believes are actively harmful to society. He argues that one’s approach to life should be based on the scientific method.
Descartes, Rene (1596-1650)
Descartes was a French physicist and mathematician, and has been dubbed the father of modern philosophy. His philosophical approach was built up from the fundamental idea that we can doubt everything other than the fact that we are doubting, which led him to state in 1637, ‘Je pense, donc je suis’ (I think therefore I am).
Einstein, Albert (1879-1955)
Probably the best known scientist of the last 300 years, Einstein’s name has become synonymous with genius and creativity. His personal advice to the US government in 1939 led them to become the only country during the war to possess nuclear weapons. He believed in the power of imagination in helping to acquire knowledge.
Galilei, Galileo (1564-1642)
Along with Descartes and Newton, Galileo helped to get the scientific revolution underway, in particular with his emphasis on empirical observation of experiments as a way of ascertaining their results. He also developed Copernicus’s heliocentric theory.
Hawking, Stephen (1942- )
Hawking is a Cambridge cosmologist and theoretical physicist. His book A Brief History of Time has sold more copies than any other science book ever written. One key question associated with his ideas is whether they provide us with the complete picture when considering the origins of the universe.
Kuhn, Thomas (1922-1996)
Kuhn was an American physicist who wrote extensively on the philosophy of science. According to him, scientific knowledge progresses in a violent and revolutionary way, rather than in a linear and passively accumulative fashion. He coined the term ‘paradigm shifts’ for the way in which our knowledge advances.
Newton, Isaac (1643-1727)
Newton was so many things – a physicist, a mathematician, an astronomer, a theologian, and even a alchemist. He is considered to be one of the most influential people in history, alongside figures such as Plato, Kant, Descartes, and Darwin. In the early part of his career, at least, he was known for his modesty, saying ‘if I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.
Pasteur, Louis (1822-1895)
Pasteur was a French chemist and micro-biologist. For the purposes of TOK, he is of interest for what he said about the role of serendipity in scientific discoveries. According to him, it is only the prepared mind that benefits from it.
Planck, Max (1858-1947)
Planck, a German physicist, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1918. His views on the progression of ideas in the natural sciences can be seen as a forerunner to the paradigm shift idea, and are summed up by his statement: ‘A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it’.
Popper, Karl (1902-1994)
Popper, an Austro-British academic, wrote on just about every subject there is. His philosophy of science is particularly relevant, and one of his central ideas is that our knowledge of reality is severely limited, and for a theory to be truly scientific, it should be possible to empirically falsify it.
Russell, Bertrand (1872-1970)
Russell is one of the towering figures of 20th century thought, and wrote on subjects as diverse as mathematics and the morality of nuclear weapons. His thoughts scatter the TOK course, beginning with the nature of knowledge, and the definition of truth.
Skinner, BF (1904-1990)
Skinner was many things; among them, a philosopher, psychologist, author, and inventor. His experiment on pigeons, in which he observed them behaving ‘superstitiously’, suggests that such a tendency is not limited to human beings.