Lets say I am a scientists and I want to write a scientific paper about some matter of a physics for example. In that paper I would say for example that the universe is expanding (or some other well well accepted things). Yet all those things I basically argue are true, I do not further specify based on which I write those things. For example, if I say that it is true that the universe is expanding, I implicitly say that the universe is expanding if you accept that physical objective reality exists and you are able to see at least roughly an image of this actual real world. But who knows, maybe I am just a brain in a vat (or other kinds of skeptical hypothesis) and no one should therefore say things - at least not in science - based on what belief they argue something.

What I mean is that in every scientific paper, there are things scientists implicitly suppose are true (some axioms we could call it) and they do not explicitly name those axioms, based on which they are arguing those things.

My question is, why there is no standard for writing some of these axioms in the beginning of a scientific paper? It would make clear for any person reading it, that it is not something that we are sure is true and what we need to accept to declare it as a truth. The other things is that it would be much easier to read a paper, if I would know before, what their dogmatic system is and based on which they argue things written in that paper. (I have always been thinking that the science is right and everything other is not true, but after reading some philosophy now, I have realized that science is not certain at all and I am surprised that scientists do not highlight this importance of being aware of a position of science in philosophy.)

Does exist for example some axiomatic system for a science to have a more rigid foundation?

(Hope you understand my question. This question crystallized in me after watching a video between a theoretical physicists and Buddhist scholar. I realized in this video that a lot of things physicists are arguing, are just based on some beliefs. The video, in which they talk about implicit axioms in a physical paper: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pLbSlC0Pucw )

  • 4
    Because it is impossible. "All assumptions" would include rules of English grammar and unspellable conventions about using words. Writing out even most of the subject-specific assumptions explicitly would turn even a short note into an encyclopedia volume. Articles are mostly written for experts in the field, and those already mastered the background assumptions of their discipline. They spend years in college and in postdoc to do so. Papers do not even always spell out the leftover, experts can mostly figure that out from context.
    – Conifold
    Commented Oct 25, 2019 at 22:00
  • 1
    What is "problematic" is in the eye of the beholder, and if they are popular science books inducing people into philosophy isn't their purpose. They do often highlight controversies prominent in the current pop-culture, and that is as much as one can expect from them. People interested in philosophy are welcome to read philosophy books. But if books could cure overconfidence it'd be cured by now.
    – Conifold
    Commented Oct 26, 2019 at 7:00
  • 1
    SE is not in the business of telling people what they should do, this is a Q&A site. If you wish to advocate a policy prescription, there are other venues for that.
    – Conifold
    Commented Oct 26, 2019 at 7:29
  • 2
    We do not host discussions, you can try Philosophy Forum. You can also ask if philosophers advocate presenting science differently, or something like that, in a new question. But this one is a very different question.
    – Conifold
    Commented Oct 26, 2019 at 9:42
  • 1
    Honestly I sympathize with you position, passing of science theory as science "fact" can have hugely damaging consequences ( as the for and against global warming debate shows). But the problem stems not from science writers but rather from its readers... Maybe you can ask a question about who and how that has been addressed.
    – christo183
    Commented Oct 26, 2019 at 11:04

4 Answers 4


Scientific papers are written by scientists, for scientists, and that is usually within a particular community that revolves around a theory or theories. For instance, geologists write for geologists, geneticists for geneticists, sociologists for sociologists, and there are generally some presumptions that are made in every community, often around methods. For instance, in the Journal of the American Medical Association, medical scientists publish based on commonly held assumptions about anatomy-physiology, medical practice, and other aspects of the medical model. Note, that this functions as a paradigm in the sense science historian Thomas Kuhn delineated in his famous work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

But disagreement always occurs not only among adherents and proponents of facts and methods, but among the definition of science itself among different camps of scientists. This is known as the demarcation of science which is in effect a philosophical debate over the definition of just what constitutes science. Some physicists historically have questioned that a science like psychology is a science at all, and many pseudoscientists claim their methods are scientific.

With so much diversity in belief, it would be very difficult to not only cover the claims made in regards to a specific piece of research, but then address broader questions within the discipline, among closely aligned disciplines (do social psychologists do too much "sociology" and not enough "psychology"?) and then remotely aligned ones. In fact, human beings have a limited span of time, attention, and education, and having theoretical debate requires groundings in various philosophical and metaphysical camps. From practicing scientists to practicing philosophers of science again there is a leap of terminology and methods. If one considers every epistemological and ontological disagreement, a seemingly endless varieties of positions among topics can be taken.

Psychologists disagree and philosophers of mind disagree, and it takes an acolyte many years of dedication just to learn all of the current methods, research, and philosophical problems in the field. No one paper could possibly cover such daunting technical, philosophical, and metaphysical territory. And to top it all, there are aspects of argumentation that are based in common sense that are still not clearly understood.

The closest one can come to doing what you suggest is doing what is actually done: men and women spend their lives practicing and learning some limited field with its myriad journals and various publications which are constantly embodying the Zeitgeist in an attempt to extend reason to new places and in new ways. And sometimes there are attempts to reach out and have exchanges between scientists and non-scientists, like those that have been had with the Dalai Llama, Tenzin Gyatso, as exemplified in his book on science, in which he seeks to find common ground with what he believes is a phenomenological science of his religious tradition.


Scientists do declare the supporting evidence they use in their arguments. They're called citations. Papers can have 100+ references to past work that support their arguments so science is too complex to be written neatly like a syllogism. In fact there are articles that focus specifically on sorting out the supporting evidence and facts on a topic. They're called reviews.

You're right though, science is not the rigid, purely objectively fact based practice that some people think it is. It's a foolish concept. As some who researches in science there is very much subjectivity in science. Unfortunately many people with only a high school level education are exposed to textbooks with knowledge that can be over 50 years old and of course those facts are well established by now after repeated testing and arguing. But new ideas in science are often controversial. Somebody thinks they showed how something works. While I see the same results and I don't think it did. That is what scientists deal with.

FYI the core sciences are implicitly based on naturalism. So questions 'maybe I'm a brain in a vat' are irrelevant in science. If the sciences got hung up on whether we really exist, no bridges would ever get built or therapeutic drugs invented.


Great question. You're right about this and it's not a healthy situation. Scientists have a habit of ignoring metaphysics and plucking their philosophical assumptions out of a hat. This is most obvious in theoretical physics and consciousness studies.

I like you idea of asking authors to state their underlying assumptions up-front. The problem would be that drawing attention to them will often undermines their project. Imaging, for instance, if Dennett had listed his metaphysical assumptions at the start of his book on consciousness. Imagine if Dawkins was required to explain his metaphysical ideas as part of his argument against religion.

The work of many scientists takes place in a metaphysical vacuum called naive realism and I'd agree that where appropriate this should be openly acknowledged. The examples that always bother me are interpretations of QM that assume space-time is fundamental and the endorsement of materialistic theories that fail under analysis. Ignoring metaphysics seems to be an acceptable approach in the sciences and perhaps asking authors to state their assumptions up-front, thus to properly think them through, might help change this situation.

It may be argued that it is not the task of scientists to do metaphysics but in this case they should not do it. Most of them hold strong metaphysical views that do not survive analysis yet provide the context for all their theorising. Thus they do metaphysics but badly and under-cover of hidden assumptions and unmentioned problems. This is not an intellectually-sound approach.

The problem arises from the failure of metaphysics in our academic tradition. This leads scientists to assume it is not worth paying any attention to it and then to endorse scientism or to simply ignore metaphysical problems. It is not an intellectually healthy situation and your proposal might help to improve it.

  • Thanks for your answer! Good point.
    – TKN
    Commented Oct 27, 2019 at 11:35

I will be writing this answer using 2010 conversational English with a Flesh-Kinkaid grade level no higher than 14. I will be using the definitions of pragmatics and context found in the corresponding Wikipedia article.

Check out this video by Guy Steele. It's exactly what you need to see!

Did I get your interest with that opening paragraph? Do you know what I'm about to say? Do you care that the answer is "there's a pragmatic context present in the communication between scientists?" Even if I didn't, I highly recommend reading the transcript of the video I just linked. It actually does what you describe, so it's pretty much an answer in speech form! I'll put the specifics in a spoiler tag, in case you want to watch it unfold instead.

Guy Steele does not use a multi-syllable word in this presentation unless he has defined it using only single-syllable words and words he has defined. He bootstraps enough to actually explain those rules part way through, and then goes on to explain what he thinks a language should be.

Call me crazy, but I get a grin on my face every time he gets to the point where he can explain himself. That little strange loop gives me such mirth!

A fundamental challenge is that there is not always a noun which satisfies your needs. While one person may be satisfied with knowing that an article is "Christian," another person may believe the header should have mentioned that it was an article from the "Baptist" perspective. Another may think it obligatory to mention that the opinions were based off of Ralph Abernathy Sr.

In science, one might think that this is easier, but there's many fine distinctions between similar theories. Which of them should be mentioned at the start of the article?

The solution is best defined in terms of pragmatics. One of the successful models therein is Jakobson's functions of language.

Jakobson's funtions of langauage

Your question shows interest in the referential function of language which operates on the context. This blurb of assumptions would frame the assumptions and meanings for the rest of the article. Instead, scientific papers typically assume a context based on the expected reader of the article. If you're reading about environmentalism, you certainly have a sense of what "global warming" is, even if you don't believe it is occurring.

These papers then rely on small cues to adjust the context. I would argue that these are found in the "code" associated with scientific literature. These metalingual rules capture things you say and do not say in a paper. If a writer believes you may not understand what they mean by some word, they will give you clues via this code that they are about to say things differently. One great example of this is "Conclusion." In the conclusion section, you will see authors say things that they would not say anywhere else in the paper because it is accepted that conclusions have a little bit more subjectivity than the data which goes into the conclusion.

Why do they do this? Because, for the intended purpose of scientific papers, this is the best balance that we have come up with. An astronomer does not worry all that much about the planet he calls Saturn being confused with the Saturn from the Electric Universe (which does all sorts of things an astronomer would not associate with planets). This is the realm of scientists, and they define the language.

And the context cannot be completely defined using rigorous axioms. You can do decently, but anyone talking about axoims of science is soon going to have to dig into the axioms of mathematics. Past mathematicians who dabbled into the axioms of mathematics (Godel, Whitehead, etc.) have found that its impossible to do so within the frameworks they considered worthwhile. It's really a best effort.

The interesting question is how one can adapt. In a discussion between a theoretical physicist and a Buddhist, one may need to use more precise words when describing the discoveries of science. In a science classroom, where scientific realism is the lingua franca, you can just say things like "all matter is made up of atoms" and not have to dive into the noodely little assumptions that went into that.

Practically speaking, no field holds themselves to that level of rigor, not even mathematics. (okay, sometimes mathematics. I keep getting brutally corrected when I talk about "set theory" and someone has to point out to me that there are many set theories, not just ZF(C). Usually this happens because I asked a question right at the heart of why set theory comes in so many flavors!) The Buddhists don't. Nor do the Christians, or the Asian scholars, or the Aboriginal teachers.

If I may close with an anecdote, I've been studying Chinese martial arts for several years now. They'll typically have meanings for the Chinese words they use, but they steadfastly refuse to define some words (Yin, Yang, Tao, Wuji being the four that I find most noticeable in this sense). They'll give examples, but no definitions. For many years this infuriated me, because my Western beliefs in math and science always came with clear crisp definitions if I wanted them. So what do I do? I start trying to use my Western words to define the Chinese ones.

So what happens? This forces me to dig deeper into the clear crisp definitions that I rely on. As I dug deeper, what I found was that the Western words I used depended on for their crispness were founded in other words which were much less crisp.

Which brings me back to Guy Steele. I'll spoil a bit of my spoiler -- his presentation starts by assuming the meaning of all monosylabic words is agreed upon. Words like "True" are monosylabic. And if you look into philosophy, you'll find just how much thought has gone into trying to pin down a meaning for "True." And it brings me to a quote I love from Stranger in a Strange Land, from the perspective of a Martian who was never raised in a human society:

Short human words were never like a short Martian word — such as "grok" which forever meant exactly the same thing. Short human words were like trying to lift water with a knife.

And [God] had been a very short word.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .