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Let's say I believe this statement: "all swans are white". Someone comes and asks me these Socratic questions: "is it true that all swans are white?", "is there an instance that a swan is not white?", etc. These questions make me realize a belief that I'm not aware of, force me to verbalize it as a form of hypothesis, and find evidence to verify it. I feel like this is the scientific method.

So is it fine to say that whenever one has to continuously answer Socratic questions, they are conducting the scientific method? It's possible that the original statement cannot be made falsifiable (e.g. the original belief is "all gods live in Olympus"), but I'm not sure whether it's relevant or not, as long as I follow the steps to reach a falsifiable statement ("falsify" it). The questioning method is more about eliciting implicit information, not aiming to look for new evidence, form an hypothesis, and test it itself, but answering them would. Even when this method was alien to Socrates himself, the more you answer the questions the closer you are to the scientific method.

But if so, then wouldn't any questioning activity be the same as the scientific method? I don't think the answer is yes, but I'm not sure.

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    No, not really. Socratic method aims at eliciting information one already has implicitly, not looking for new evidence, or forming new hypotheses, or testing them. Socrates still believed in "deriving" everything from "first principles", hypothetico-deductive approach with spontaneously generated hypotheticals and testing was completely alien to him. – Conifold Aug 7 '19 at 21:03
  • Why would “all swans are white” not be falsifiable? – Mark Andrews Aug 7 '19 at 23:41
  • @Conifold I mean, even though the act of questioning is not, the act of answering them would. Even when this method was alien to Socrates himself, the more you answer the questions the closer you are to the scientific method. Is that correct? – Ooker Aug 8 '19 at 4:01
  • @MarkAndrews I can use an unfalsifiable statement like "all gods live in Olympus" – Ooker Aug 8 '19 at 4:02
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Socratic method uses questions for the purpose of finding weakness in arguments – elenchus. It has broad uses. Socratic questioning, in particular, uses questions to educate students by identifying weaknesses in their current mental models and leading students to refine those models.

Scientific method is an idealized process that is only loosely tied to how science is really practiced. The steps are: question, hypothesis, prediction, testing, analysis. To the extent that the "question" is intended to identify weaknesses in prior scientific inquiries, the method may be considered Socratic. But the question can be based on anything. Strict adherence to the method results in wasted time asking and answering questions not based on reality – "pseudoscience". Such inquiries are not Socratic, and while they do follow the "Scientific Method", Science, proper, tends to disown them.

The "proper" place for questions in science is after observation (testing). These are the directions for further study found in the discussion section of most scientific articles. The proper place for prediction is after analysis. Attempting to predict results prior to testing is an unacceptable source of bias in the modern practice of science, which broadly, has at its disposal any tool that can be used to advance knowledge in any area. The Socratic method is one tool. The "scientific method" another. All methods of reasoning from philosophy and mathematics may be used in the practice of science.

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Consider how both of the referenced Wikipedia articles describe Socratic reasoning and the scientific method:

Here is Socratic questioning:

Socratic questioning is a form of disciplined questioning that can be used to pursue thought in many directions and for many purposes, including: to explore complex ideas, to get to the truth of things, to open up issues and problems, to uncover assumptions, to analyze concepts, to distinguish what we know from what we do not know, to follow out logical consequences of thought or to control discussions. Socratic questioning is based on the foundation that thinking has structured logic, and allows underlying thoughts to be questioned. [my emphasis]

Here is the scientific method:

The scientific method is an empirical method of acquiring knowledge that has characterized the development of science since at least the 17th century. It involves careful observation, applying rigorous skepticism about what is observed, given that cognitive assumptions can distort how one interprets the observation. [my emphasis]

Both of these approaches involve questioning. The Socratic method involves questioning another person. The scientific method involves questioning nature through observations.

The Socratic questioning should help someone develop a sound scientific theory. That theory is then tested to see if it can be falsified by performing careful observation.

Since who (or what) is being questioned is different for each of these it may be best to view these as separate activities although both valuable.


Wikipedia contributors. (2019, June 25). Scientific method. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 14:29, August 8, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Scientific_method&oldid=903463949

Wikipedia contributors. (2019, July 23). Socratic questioning. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 14:29, August 8, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Socratic_questioning&oldid=907510100

  • Socratic questioning can inspire ideas on experiments to perform, but to do science, you need to actually perform the experiments and pay attention to the results. – user3294068 Aug 8 '19 at 15:24
  • If I were to emphasize the scientific method excerpt, I would emphasize "applying rigorous skepticism about what is observed, given that cognitive assumptions can distort how one interprets the observation". I think this sentence shows that Socratic questioning (SQ) is in fact a part of scientific method (SM). However, your emphases show that SM is more than just SQ – Ooker Aug 8 '19 at 15:41
  • @Ooker They are both valuable in science. However, the Socratic questioning can help formulate a rigorous theory even outside science. The scientific method would attempt to describe what is peculiar to science to help distinguish scientific activity from non-scientific intellectual activity. – Frank Hubeny Aug 8 '19 at 17:37
  • Socratic method doesn't necessarily involve other people, or even real people. Plato's dialogues involve fictitious characters and scenarios. Scientific method doesn't necessarily involve questions. – xiota Aug 8 '19 at 20:04
  • @xiota I imagine one could also apply Socratic questioning to oneself. One doesn't think of careful observation of nature as a dialogue with nature, but I think it could metaphorically be viewed as "questioning" nature. This doesn't mean they are the same or even very similar activities. I think it is more useful to see how they differ than how they are the same. Socratic question is a more general technique, used in science and elsewhere, but it is not what sets science apart from other intellectual activity. The careful observation of nature does seem peculiar to science. – Frank Hubeny Aug 8 '19 at 20:17

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