What is, formulated in a nutshell, the real aim of science? – I doubt that it is explanation. After detailed study, I came to the conclusion that explanation is rather part of technology.


Further details (in answer to the queries below by jobermark and André Souza Lemos):

  1. I am myself amazed when I read my question (with the adjunct about explanation/technology), but I just realized (once again) some hours ago that the usual explanations only reuse previously collected measurements/observations, after they have been compiled in tables (or as mathematical formulas adapted from such collected data; similar is also the use of chemical structural formulas, which were adapted from such previously collected research data); then they call this circle “explanation”. (This is simultaneously the answer to André concerning the definition of “explanation”.)

  2. Scientists use these “explanations” of course in a kind of technological method to advance science. But these “explanations” are only a method but not the aim of science.

  3. Science cannot be the technology of providing explanations because these explanations (produced by science) are, as just explained above, in Nr.1, deceptive explanations. That’s why H.-C. Hung wrote his article with this title (see Nr. 5 below).

  4. When someone is building a house or saving a live, he will of course apply the above mentioned (cf. 1.) circular process of “explanation” because just this is the essence of technology! − Joberman, I think you are wrong: technology is mostly about explanation, although nobody ever reflects about that, because explanation has always been depicted (in school, at the university and in the media etc.) as the main issue of science.

  5. The object of the distinction is that there are two terms, technology and science. Technology is applied science, but it should not be confused with science unless we will misunderstand what science really is. I was encouraged to put this question, when I incidentally reread in an article of H.-C. Hung who wrote that “(…) explanation is not really the aim of science (…)” (in: “Scientific Explanation or Deceptive Explanation?”, Methodology and Science, 1978, 11, p. 203).

  • I don't get the objection in the distinction. It seems like a false distinction. Technology is clearly not mostly about explanation: what does using technology to build a building or save a life, explain? Technology generally has other purposes. Why can't science be the technology of providing explanations?
    – user9166
    Commented Jun 3, 2017 at 0:38
  • You would have to offer us a definition of explanation. As it is, the question is disorienting. Commented Jun 3, 2017 at 0:55
  • @jobermark and André: Thank you, I intend to add (within the question) further details in answer of your comments, in about 30 minutes.
    – user26880
    Commented Jun 3, 2017 at 1:09
  • It is not possible for science to have an aim, it is collection of sctivities and records loosely connected by the methods they use/used. Only scientists can have an aim and I very much doubt you will find even two of them who have exactly the same aim, but even if you could, it would be a question for social psychology, not philosophy.
    – user22791
    Commented Jun 3, 2017 at 12:08
  • 1
    @Zeus "Study of the... theory of chemical potential" is an action, the verb "to study" not an aim, which would be a description of a state of affairs. Also, someone having written what they think the aim of a science is does not demonstrate that it is possible to formulate an aim of science. It is possible they are wrong.
    – user22791
    Commented Jun 3, 2017 at 15:25

7 Answers 7


There's no consensus on this, but different answers that correspond to different doctrines. In "the scientific image", van Fraassen actually casts the distinction between empiricism and scientific realism in terms of different positions about the aim of science. For an empiricist, this is to produce empirically adequate theories: theories that could ideally account for all observable phenomena in the universe, whether they are true or not. For a realist, this is to produce true or approximately true theories: theories that not only account for observable phenomena, but also correctly describe the world as it exists independently of us, including unobservable entities.

We're not talking about the aim of particular scientists here, nor about the aim of teams of scientists, but about the aim of science as a collective human enterprise. Since scientists can differ in their particular intentions, according to van Fraassen, we should look at scientific practice in general to determine what the aim of science is. He proposes some kind of reconstruction of scientific rationality on the basis of the observation of scientific practice. And since what is the most widely shared attitude among different scientists is the willing to confront their hypotheses to experience, he concludes that the aim of science, as a collective enterprise, is to produce empirically adequate theories: theories that "save the phenomena".

As for the explanatory role, this is certainly an important feature of theories, and here again realists and empiricists will disagree: empiricists will tend to view the explanatory power of theories as a byproduct of their empirical adequacy, as you seem to do here, while realists often view it as a justification for our theories truth (the ability of theories to produce good explanations is an indicator of their truth) and will also claim that the truth of our theories explains their empirical adequacy, which is some kind of "meta-explanation". So explanations are more important for realists, whereas empiricists can have a pragmatic approach towards them. But in any case they do not constitute the aim of science, rather, for empiricists, a byproduct, or, for realists, an heuristic to achieve its true aim, which is to produce true or approximately true theories.

  • I wonder what the difference between empirically adequate and approximately true amounts to in practice. I saw Rickles argue that the main plus of string theory is neither heuristic nor new predictions but "unification", i.e. explanation of what's behind GR and QFT.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 0:48
  • I'm not sure there could be a practical difference. It's more a question of attitude towards the content of theories. People who put emphasis on unification and all non-empiric virtues are generally realist: they would say, for example, that unification is a reason to believe a theory is true. Empiricists will have a more sceptical attitude. Commented Jun 7, 2017 at 14:07

Science doesn't have an explicit aim, science is a methodology to uncover facts about the known universe.

A common misconception about the practice of science is that it's tied to ideology or dogma, it's not. 'Science' is one and the same with the 'scientific method', which is the process that scientists uses to conceive of and make tests to uncover the truth/reality about things.

Scientists may have a particular aim in mind when applying science to a problem, but contextualising science itself as having an aim or raison d'etre, shows a misunderstanding of what it is. The problem is that science often undermines other practices that are tied into specific ideologies or frameworks, and so it gets pulled into all of the debates and arguments that that entails.

  • 1
    As opposed to the other long and ideological answers, this one pretty much cuts to the chase, science cannot have an aim, it is a classification, it can no more have an aim than cooking aims to cook, chefs aim to cook, "cooking" does not aim to do anything.
    – user22791
    Commented Jun 4, 2017 at 7:21
  • 1
    I interpret his use of "aim" as purpose. "Science is a methodology to..." The keyword here is "to." So the aim of science is "to uncover facts about the known universe." That is the purpose. Going deeper: There are direct purposes and indirect purposes. So, the direct purpose of cooking @Isaacson would be to cook food. The direct purpose of cooking food in most cases is to eat food. The indirect purpose arises by linking the two direct purposes. So, the indirect purpose of cooking in most cases to eat food.
    – Tariq
    Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 3:58

I think the best way to think of it is that science's main aim is to build models with as good a predictive value as possible. When you think about the meaning of explanation for long enough, it becomes clearer that an explanation in science is a new model which allows you to generate better predictions than before. Scientific realists might disagree with that and say that it's not just model creation, the explanations are really "telling you what's really there" or "carving nature at its joints". I would say that that involves a bigger metaphysical and ontological commitment than is necessary.

When a schoolchild asks " what makes things fall to the ground", a typical answer is "gravity does". When explained with Newton's law of universal gravitation, etc, this could be useful as it allows you to predict lots of what we see, such as planetary motion, orbits, etc. But I think people in general have a slightly confused idea of what an explanation is, where they feel like the model is a kind of " ultimate " cause. This can lead to people getting confused and looking for "ultimate" explanations. E.g. Gravity causes things to fall, but what causes gravity? You end up with an infinite possibility of looking for causes, causes of causes and so on. Maybe the better way of thinking is to say - "We have the notion of gravity because things around us fall down and planets move in a certain way".

The easiest parallel I can think to explain what I mean is in a subject like music theory. Somebody might ask something like, why do these two chords (G B D F) (C E G) sound good at the end of a piece of music. Sometimes a music theorist will say " because it's a V7 - I cadence, which involves strong tension and resolution." The important thing to realize about this explanation is that music theory is not an "ultimate" explanation - maybe we should say V7 - I is a strong cadence because it sounds good, not the other way around. There's a tendency to get confused about the nature of explanations - people tend to look at them with more of a metaphysical nature than is necessary.

For me, music theory, and science, are both useful for creating models. We notice these chords sound nice, so we come up with principles which seem to work for multiple examples - that doesn't mean that a music theory explanations are anything more than a good way to conceptualize previous music and a way to generate music of a particular style. Similarly in science we generate models, equations, laws which have great predictive value. An explanation is then something which allows you to stop asking questions or to generate better predictions.

  • A Pythagorean would say that a cadence sounds good because of the simple mathematical relations between different frequencies/wavelenghts. (But then a Pythagorean would probably disagree that a (G B D F) (C E G) sequence "sounds good"...) Commented Jun 3, 2017 at 12:48
  • Interesting point. Some people find the 12 tone equal tempered system an abomination - (I don't think so, I actually think it was a great development) because it loses that mathematical perfection. A barbershop group singing a chord does sound harmonically better than a piano to me though. I guess Pythagoras still might not be a good model for generating the kind of music found on blues, or Stravinsky, or Ravel
    – Franz
    Commented Jun 3, 2017 at 14:04
  • Hm, I fear Pythagoras would be baffled by the absurd modernities of Janequin or Ockeghem... Commented Jun 3, 2017 at 23:05
  • You might like this discussion of music: Why are minor chords perceived as melancholic?
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jan 20, 2022 at 9:52

The central chapters of my dissertation (available at https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B6oYmzobonqobTNBdDNveF9uazg/view?usp=sharing&resourcekey=0-3pUY_XrS_2QZKUdynF4zFw) are about two different ways of understanding the aims of science. quen_tin's answer is fine as far as it goes, but on my analysis there's an even deeper disagreement.

Science produces a variety of different goods. Very generally, these can be grouped into three categories:

  • representational knowledge, which might be theories or abstract mathematical models or even physical models (for example, the San Francisco Bay model: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/U.S._Army_Corps_of_Engineers_Bay_Model);
  • practical knowledge, or knowledge of how to do things; and
  • technology, which I define as artifacts (human-made things) that reliably behave in certain ways in a certain range of environments.

(I'm going to circle back to explanation in the second half of this answer.)

quen_tin's answer is about a disagreement over the virtues of representational knowledge: do these representations have to be true, or is empirical adequacy good enough? My dissertation was about a disagreement over the relationship between representational knowledge, on the one hand, and practical knowledge and technology, on the other.

On what I call the narrow view, representation takes precedence over the other two. Science, in the strict sense, is about producing good representations of the world (whether "good" means "true" or "empirically adequate" or something else); practical knowledge and technology are merely "applied science" or "engineering" based on those good representations. The narrow view is closely related to the linear model of innovation (see here), and like the linear model appears to have developed or been widely adopted during the Cold War. Until a couple decades ago, the narrow view dominated academic philosophy of science; however, things are less settled today.

The narrow view contrasts with the broad view. According to the broad view, the three kinds of goods are equally important and interdependent. Practical knowledge and technology don't belong to some subordinate stage of innovation; science, in the strict sense, includes both "pure" and "applied" science, as well as engineering. To illustrate the broad view, think of academic robotics researchers. These researchers generally aren't building whole commercially-useful robots; instead, more often they're working on one small scientific problem — how to get a bipedal robot to navigate rocky terrain, say. This is foundational research; but it's aimed at technology development, not a true or even empirically adequate representation of the world.

How does explanation fit into this picture of the narrow view vs. the broad view? First, note that there are many different philosophical accounts of explanation (see the Stanford Encyclopedia article). Among philosophers of science today, I think there's general agreement that (a) explanations support human understanding of phenomena (somehow), and (b) explanations have some kind of representational adequacy conditions. Maybe explanations don't have to be strictly true or even empirically adequate (see here), but in order to support "genuine understanding" they do have to avoid being "deceptive."

But "understanding" is ambiguous, and I suggest that there are two senses of "understanding," corresponding to the narrow and broad view. On the broad view, understanding why things behave the way they do is useful for predicting that doing X will cause Y to happen (supporting the development of know-how) or diagnosing why technology A isn't behaving as expected in environment B. Explanations support a kind of practical understanding, and thereby connect representational knowledge with practical knowledge and technology. This means that explanation is quite valuable on the broad view. Indeed, insofar as it can be nearly impossible to develop sophisticated know-how or technology without some degree of understanding, explanations are necessary for science to achieve its goals. (For a very readable example of the broad view, and specifically the importance of understanding, I recommend Cartwright and Hardie's Evidence-Based Policy.)

But the narrow view either (a) can't accept this account of understanding and explanation, or (b) concludes that it's less valuable than representation by itself. Understanding and explanation are useful for producing practical knowledge and technology. But, on the narrow view, those are the goods of applied science and engineering, not science in the pure or strict sense. So either (a) the narrow view needs a different account of explanation, that connects it to representation; or (b) it concludes that explanation isn't that valuable.

To go back to quen_tin's answer, the realist who defends inference to the best explanation takes option (a): explanations are valuable because they help us reach the goal of true representations. Van Fraassen explicitly chooses option (b). His book The Scientific Image has a whole chapter on "The Pragmatics of Explanation," which is a beautiful discussion of the relationship between explanation and understanding. But, based on this connection to understanding, van Fraassen concludes that explanation is basically irrelevant to science, because the primary aim of science is empirically adequate representation. As quen_tin puts it, "But in any case [explanations] do not constitute the aim of science, rather, for empiricists, a byproduct, or, for realists, an heuristic to achieve its true aim, which is to produce true or approximately true theories."

This is why I think quen_tin's answer — again, which was good as far as it went — missed the deeper disagreement. Realists and empiricists share the assumptions of the narrow view, which has trouble accounting for the value of explanation and understanding. But philosophers taking the broad view see explanation and understanding as extremely important.


On the suppressed real aim of science

The formulation of the aim of science is so easy, that it is difficult to explain it to you, because you have been trained to think that it is very complicated. So you will downvote me, if I tell you the truth now.

The great chemist Justus von Liebig, who was since 1860 president of the Bavarian academy of sciences, said that the aim of science is the investigation of the causes of things.

Later in 1957, Popper tried to banalize science by introducing his useless term “falsification” and said that circular explanations (for technical uses) are the aim of science. With this he destroyed the identity of things, because identities cannot be falsified, hence they would not exist as scientific kinds according to Popper. Popper was an agent of a sect dominating the whole Anglophone western world, which propagated these false points of view after WWII, intending to falsify or distort and destroy real science by denying identities.

But back to Liebig again: He separated utility (i.e. technology and practical application) from science, because he regarded it as the open enemy of science. For instance, he produced a meat extract, of which he was very proud, but he didn't mix it with science.

What are now the causes of things? − In 1697, Tachenius°) said that acids and bases are the causes of all things. As sketched here,°°) he was right. Of course, the formulation of this theory in detail, is the aim of chemistry. However (as Bancroft, p. 80 explained) the search for a theory of the chemical potential, is also the aim of chemistry, and hence identical with Tachenius’ above dictum. Furthermore, since the chemical potential is the intension of physics, the aim of chemistry coincides with the aim of physics (and hence with the aim of science generally).

Hence, it has been demonstrated that the aim of science is the development of a non-circular theory of the chemical potential. As hold out here, this will lead to a system, where the class members compare and explain themselves.


°) Tachenius, O.: Antiquissimae hippocraticae medicinae clavis. Roselli, Neapoli (1697), p. 2.
°°) The chemists downvoted this article eagerly, because they are offended since I unveil that they are treacherous collaborateurs of ch = f (ph).

  • 1
    Popper's views were rejected wholesale by philosophers. See "Realism and the aim of science" by Popper part I chapter I sections 1 and 2 for an explanation. Also, you have falsely stated Popper's position on identities, see section 15 of the same chapter.
    – alanf
    Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 8:57
  • @alanf: Now I have "Realism and the aim of science", 1983, on my table. I have difficulty to read Popper, because he is so vacuous. On p. 134 (in the middle) he says that "an explanation in terms of testable and falsifiable universal laws …” is necessary. But by “falsifiable” he excludes identities, because identities often consist of qualitative insights and intuitions, which are not falsifiable. ...
    – user26880
    Commented Jun 6, 2017 at 23:43
  • That’s why he also coined the term “conspiracy theories”, because they can never be falsified. Of course he had, because of his role as agent (as mentioned in a previous comment), a vital interest that philosophers do not sense what’s really going on. According to Popper we should think like robots solely things that may be falsified, so he excludes identities and coherences.
    – user26880
    Commented Jun 6, 2017 at 23:43
  • A falsifiable law must have some falsifiable consequences. It is not the case that all of the consequences have to be falsifiable. Your account of Popper's objections to conspiracy theories is also wrong: see "toward a rational theory of tradition" in "conjectures and refutations".
    – alanf
    Commented Jun 7, 2017 at 8:25

There is also "replication" which is not always used just for confirmation of a theory. Some instances of replication serve important needs of humanity. The creation of anti-biotics is a classic example.

Thus utilitarianism is quite often one of the "aims" of science, but not always the only "aim".

I would also add that "aim" depends on the target. This lends itself to the probability that there is no single over-arching "aim" to science itself. It becomes as much a subjective matter as flavors of ice cream.

After additional thought, I would add that it might be the case that as many possible scientific aims as are feasible could be assembled and some sort of gradient devised to gauge the value of each aim in order of whatever the defining characteristics are of each aim that can be shown to contribute to some, as yet, undefined principle or axiom. Order of importance, order of utility, order of...n

Iff such a mechanism were devised could it then be used as a means of further evaluating any given specific theory or explanation or application to arrive at a specific pigeon hole for that specific subject matter.

But an argument for the postulate that such a human endeavor has one specific "aim", as this question implies, is tantamount to asking what is the aim of copulation? Both can be equally gratifying...or frustrating, depending on the outcome.


The aim of science is to replace philosophy as a means of understanding absolute reality.

Absolute reality is that with exists objectively whether or not we are aware of it and believe it. Absolute reality exists totally seperate from anyone's capacity to observe, measure, define and/or believe it. It exists independent from any source or origin.

Philosophy is a methodology developed to contemplate the nature of absolute truth and incrementally improve our understanding thereof by first making hypotheses and validating those hypotheses with thought experiments applied to our subjective experience.

The scientific method is a refinement of philosophical methodology replacing thought experiments with empirical data and eliminating logical fallacies, making the validation mechanism far more reliable and therewith significantly reducing error.

The scientific method is thus a methodology that gradually reveals objective reality with increasing detail and accuracy and therewith also allows us see the interconnection between the different elements and attributes of objective reality that in turn helps us manipulating objective reality to our advantage. It allows us to understand how we can find happiness and safety and build the tools to fulfill them.

Questions the scientific method cannot answer with any degree of certainty or accuracy whatsoever are therefor also questions philosophy cannot answer with any degree of certainty or accuracy whatsoever. Abandoning the scientific method to answer questions it cannot answer at this point in time and looking for an answer in philosophy instead is therefore utterly pointless.

The vast majority of things that were mysteries to our ancestors have already conslusively been answered by science and science alone. Wherever mysteries remain, science is indefinitely the most reliable methodology to answer it. The belief that any mystery left unsolved by science can be solved or has been solved by any other means is nothing but wishful thinking and a naive response to fear of the unknown.

So, what about ethics, you may say?! Well, science both teaches us a lot about how our actions influence our happiness and stability. Herein, neuropsychology typically focuses on individual behavior, whereas sociology focuses on the collective components components and biology focuses on genetic components of our behavior.

Combined, neuropsychology, sociology, biology and other sciences give a rather complete picture of human behavior and human consciousness. It allows us to model human nature in a consistent way, which in turn allows us to develop a rational moral foundation based this model.

Adding to that, mathematical studies like game theory can help us determine the impact of our actions and assess that impact with greater clarity.

  • "Absolute reality is that with exists objectively" Is it? I think you underline the case, that in so far as scientists seek to do away with philosophy, they simply do philosophy badly. I'd make the case scientists do science until they can't, then they have to do philosophy to get unstuck: How much philosophy should a physicist know?
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jan 20, 2022 at 10:00
  • @CriglCragl : In my humble opinion, science pretty much makes philosophy obsolete much the same way philosophy made superstition / faith obsolete. How is science anything but what you get if you take philosophy and remove everything that is not based on emprical data aka everything that is pure conjecture and thus completely unsubstantiated? Commented Jan 21, 2022 at 11:09
  • Read the thread I linked, for why I disagree. ""You don't get to say I'm not doing philosophy, or I don't care about philosophy. All these people are doing philosophy in one way or another, you can only do it well, or do it badly. And I think a lot of physicists are secretly doing philosophy, they're just not doing it very well." - Sean Carroll
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jan 21, 2022 at 12:59
  • @CriglCragl : "When the programme of physics gets stuck, and the longer it gets stuck the more so, then the community must scrutinise assumptions, definitions, frameworks, and discontinuities between subdisciplines - in other words, do philosophy." --> This statement is false. Science is self-correcting. Science only needs science to improve. And when the limits of science are reached, philosophy offers nothing but intellectual masturbation! Commented Jan 24, 2022 at 0:54
  • Why are you here then? I take it that's your picture of what you are doing. The questions of determinism and causal closure are absolutely live debates, revealing relations between information & energy from Maxwell's demon, to what it means for indeterminism of 3 interacting black holes to be unpredictable with position differences below the Planck scale. Wheeler's 'It From Bit' doctrine is a great example of a philosophical stance from a physicist. All the interpretations of the measurement problem are philosophy, & unfalsiable. You just don't understand science.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jan 24, 2022 at 12:50