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Signs, Symbols, and Science

by Dr. Boris Zakharov


Prof. Boris Zakharov began to study spiders in 1995 in AMNH, his PhD thesis was on orb-weaving spiders of USSR South Far East. He began to teach in 2005 at Hostos Community College/CUNY. Boris joined the Natural Sciences department at LaGuardia in 2009.

It is customary to think about science as a very rich and diverse source of modern knowledge. However, that is not really what science is about. Knowledge is simply a product of the scientific process, and, in and of itself, does not constitute the intellectual framework that is science. For example, computers sold in the marketplace do not define the computer industry, but rather, they are merely products of this industry. An industry consists of resources (natural and human) and processes that transform these resources into final products, e.g., computers. In its own right, science is a set of observable phenomena and rules (you may call them logical algorithms) by which the human mind creates relations among these phenomena. Given this understanding, medicine and architecture are not sciences. Yes, they are based on knowledge, i.e., both use scientific products, but the way in which they implement these products makes them more closely related to art than science. Engineering, medicine, architecture are arts founded upon scientific knowledge. Their existence demonstrates a deep, intrinsic relationship between art and science, which is another story entirely albeit a very interesting one.

Hans Dreisch, a nineteenth century German scientist, was more than likely the first who acknowledged a dichotomy within the scientific process. He found that there are two indispensable modes of doing science: 1) classification, which aims to give objects appropriate and precise names, and group them in classes of likeness; and 2) nomothetics, which searches for causal connections and "discovers" laws that govern the existence of observable natural diversity. Systematics (classification) studies structure; nomothetics investigates underlying functions of the world. It appears that these two processes of acquiring scientific knowledge reflect the way the human mind organizes information. The human mind can study the world by grouping observations in classes and concentrate its attention on phenomena as deemed necessary, or by searching for hidden connections among them. A grouping based on similarity in classical logic is called a class or taxon (in biology). Searching for hidden connections yields natural laws. In actuality, both do not explain, but rather describe, the workings of the natural world. The general aim of both is to grasp the whole body of natural phenomena with the help of as small a number of universal concepts or symbols as possible. Ideally, there has to be a comparatively small number of universal symbols and rules of manipulations with these symbols. In this way, every symbol can be attributed to a rich description of natural phenomena, like an egg containing a whole organism in its interior. Such an attitude of making sense of our natural world, as well as our place within it, serves as science’s ultimate goal, which, though not really attainable, is certainly desirable. It is obvious that the scientific approaches of classification and nomothetics are complementary and cannot exist without one another (Fig. 1).

Systematic vs. Nomothetics
Fig. 1: Systematics and Nomothetics are two sides of the same scientific process.

An aspiration of science is to attain a mental grasp of universal phenomena by systematically arranging a body of observable phenomena. Each attempt begins with defining the subject of study and the parameters involved. These definitions, coded by words and scientific terms, comprise the system of universal symbols, which aptly represent the perceived phenomena in the deep well of human consciousness. The tradition of emphasizing a word’s symbolic character dates back to the time of Aristotle, who stipulated that inarticulate sound, which really expresses a basic animal sensation, becomes a word only through its use as a symbol.

By assigning a name to a phenomenon, we tag the name as a symbol. This process takes place every time we differentiate a particular phenomenon from the total body of observations. And in the process of naming, there is no point-by-point correspondence between each identified phenomenon or its characteristics. The characteristics of the phenomenon are defined by virtue of the system of thought and experience, which underlies the intent to designate the word as a symbol. The function of language is not merely to reiterate definitions and distinctions, but to formulate them, and thus, make the world surrounding us intelligible. The chaos of sensory impressions dissipates and assumes a fixed form through a range of symbolic labeling. This means that language is not simply a compilation of representations of objective things and processes, but rather, ideas that we form of them. These representations do not so much reflect the nature of things inasmuch as capture the human understanding of them. Language, in its complex conceptual terms, is not so much a reflection of material reality as it is one of mental operations.

In forming a symbol, consciousness separates from sensation, and reveals its inherent propensity to synthesize and unify. The clearest manifestation of this tendency is the system of scientific terms and signs. An abstract chemical formula that is used to designate a particular substance contains no trace of direct observation or sensory perception of the substance; instead, it encapsulates that body of information in an extraordinarily rich and finely articulated system of relationships that tells us nothing of perception. It no longer designates an object according to its immediate sensory data and content, but represents it as a sum of potential "reactions", of possible chains of causality, which are defined by general rules. It is one of the essential advantages of symbols and signs — as Leibniz pointed out in his Characteristica generalis. A word serves not only to represent, but above all to reveal certain logical relations. It not only offers a symbolic abbreviation of what is already known, but it paves new roads into the unknown. Language consists of not just signs that represent natural phenomena, but of signs that represent ideas about them. In the human mind, every "law" of nature assumes the form of a universal "formula". This formula can only be expressed through a combination of universal and specific symbols.

Systematics and nomothetics are two major scientific methods of studying natural phenomena, and these methods that cannot exist without each other. Nevertheless, their goals are different. One defines and groups the infinite diversity of natural phenomena into classes of similarities, while the other looks for causal relations between phenomena: past, present, and future states of the universe. If their goals are different, then their methods and applications are also different. Methods of systematics do not apply to nomothetics, and vice versa. Thus, it is possible to view systematics as an independent scientific discipline. Its subjects are universal concepts and classificatory systems. Knowledge, as Aristotle noted, exists and develops only in the frame of general, universal concepts. And if there were no such concepts, then, given the infinite diversity of the world, there would be no possibility for knowledge of the world (Aristotle, 1984; p. 1578). This is why the first step of any cognitive process is the creation of definitions and universal concepts, and the final step of science is a creation of the "big picture" of the world. Every developmental stage of every scientific discipline begins and ends with classification.

Let’s imagine that somewhere in the universe there is another civilization with its own brand of science. Does this kind of science have to be the same as ours? Common sense would dictate the answer to be yes. At the core, we and they both reside in the same world (universe) and observe the same phenomena. However, science, as we see, is a set of symbols and rules of processing these symbols. Symbols are not exact representations of observations, but include an intent of the learning mind, which can be very different from ours. Rules of processing symbols in order to find relations between events may very well differ from ours. As a result, theoretically, there can be a science that is created with a different set of fundamental symbols (ideas, concepts) and with different logical rules of their processing, which results in a different science and its ultimate product, which is knowledge. These two sciences have an equal power and equal internal logical structure. Analytical critique of both will be possible only inside each and in a frame of reference of its internal symbolism and processing. Critique of one science from the position of another is not sensible because of their different foundations.