Theory of Science 101: Introduction to the Series

This is a series exploring the theory of science (short “TOS”) and related ideas, inspired by Tiago Forte’s series on the Theory of Constraints. Like he, I don’t yet know how long this series will go on and will also challenge myself by constraining (hah!) each post’s length to a reading time of 5 minutes. TOS begins with a mix of familiar and not-so-familiar observations, but builds towards a number of profound insights as the series progresses and we leave shallower waters behind us.

Like any endeavor, embarking on an exploration of a complex subject like science requires us to know why we do so. Why does science matter?

Let us start with a rough definition:

The term science refers to that subset of human action that extends the practitioners ability to perceive, calculate, comprehend, and manipulate those phenomena not immediately accessible to the senses.

We humans want to “act effectively in a world we don’t understand”, if I may paraphrase Taleb here, and in modernity the number of things we don’t understand, but are strongly affected by, has increased dramatically.

You may ask yourself why I would identify this as a unique feature of modernity. Haven’t humans always been affected by things they didn’t understand (weather, disease, cognition, etc)? Weren’t humans that much more ignorant in times past than they are today? I would answer in the affirmative for both questions. But a specific phenomenon has led us to a situation where

the number of things that at least one member of the human species understands has increased exponentially, while
the number of things that even the most knowledgeable individuals understand has only increased linearly,
the number of things that materially affect the life and livelihood of any random individual has increased proportionately to the increases in complexity, and
the number of things that, if understood and paid attention to by an individual, allow it to more accurately predict the world’s behavior and thus act more effectively in it, has increased a great deal.

Read the hilarious “The illustrated guide to a Ph.D.” by Matt Might for a good laugh on this (image credits are his)

I have already written extensively about the phenomenon that produced this in my primer on Alternate Reality Design, but the short version is that

the scope of human activity surpassed human scale.

In all areas of life we went from considering and perceiving only the immediate, the visible, and the obvious, to extending our consideration and perception to include the distant, the invisible, and the nuanced. We did this by inventing novel mental and physical tools that improved our abilities in perception, cognition, communication, and application of force to physical objects and people. Specifically, the introduction of telegraph and radio (long distance communication) as well as trains and later automobiles (mass transportation) reduced the cost of moving information (perception by proxy) and people (direct perception). This unlocked opportunities for cooperation (and competition) between large numbers of people that previously proved too costly to exploit.

Why does this matter?

Because cooperation provides humans with disproportionate discounts on the acquisition of energy by distributing tasks across a group such that it exploits the comparative advantages of each member in perception, cognition, communication, and application of force to physical objects or people.

As biological creatures, and like any other animal, humans act within the laws of nature, and — specifically relevant here — the laws of thermodynamics. This constraint forces us to make the acquisition and preservation of energy, mainly in the form of nutrition, our number one priority — for those who wish to live, that is. As a natural consequence of this imperative, humans constantly try to limit the amount of energy they expend and look for opportunities to acquire energy at lowest possible cost. Naturally, their strategies for going about this differ depending on

their emotional state,
the resources at their disposal,
the conditions of their surrounding environment, and
their individual abilities in perception, imagination, cognition, communication, and application of force to objects or people.

In effect, we can reduce the entirety of human activity to the drive for acquiring and preserving energy under their control, and by extension analyze the value of specific activities by the amount of energy they save or make available.

Let me give you a simple example.

I am writing this post sitting in a café that I had known about for quite some time but only last Monday decided to start working in. That Monday morning, for whatever reason, I experienced an unprecedented surge of energy and mental clarity that led me to complete a week’s worth of work in a day and form the idea for this article series. Naturally, I decided to return the following day in an attempt to repeat that experience and, to my great satisfaction, wasn’t let down. The next day I switched to a different co-working space and didn’t get anything done — but I also hadn’t slept enough the previous night. Since then I’ve returned every day and experienced the same high level of productivity. You can guess where I’ll be spending most of my working days from now on…

Now, admittedly I also use breathing techniques, a morning routine, 15 minute walks, and a number of other tools and techniques that may have contributed to my unexpected breakthrough. But the point is that I systematically use strategies and tools that I encounter in my ongoing learning process, test their results, analyze these results, and iterate on my strategies for future use.

And that is what it means to use scientific practices: systematically employing techniques to act more effectively in a world we don’t understand. What we call science in colloquial use simply refers to a big number of people doing that and sharing their findings, then critiquing and learning from each other. Seen through the energy lens I introduced above, it refers to

the way that the “human organism” calculates worthwhile opportunities for reductions in energy expenditures and detects new sources of energy acquisition.

Because we all, at any point in time, have limited energy at our disposal, we naturally search for ways of obtaining discounts on the cost of energy acquisition. So our ability to communicate with and comprehend other people allows us to benefit from the results (i.e. tools, ideas, ways of life, decision making processes) of other people’s energy expenditure, whether we call that science or something else.

The next article in the series will explore the risks of relying on others for information and how to guard against them.

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