Science as Design

Science as Design

DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-0131-4.ch011
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The purpose of this chapter is to demonstrate that traditional science is a kind of design. Scientific research can be viewed as a type of reverse engineering. Alternatively, one could entertain a highly hypothetical thought about how an engineer would have designed the world as we experience it. The artifact nature of scientific knowledge can be seen in different sciences through examples. Mathematics is the domain of the purely abstract, where the difference between the invented and discovered disappears. History of Astronomy provides examples of how the sense of beauty led the scientists to invent early models involving celestial bodies. Creativity and inventiveness are often needed in Physics to construct artifacts involving the unobservable. Purpose and corresponding design distinguishes Biology, which focuses on living forms displaying high levels of sophistication in their organization.
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Re-Inventing The World

Previous chapters have defended the view of design of meta-artifacts as being akin to traditional science. Thus, it was argued that the scientific principles and scientific method should be applicable to design-type research. As mentioned earlier, the opposite view suggested that science itself is a form of design (Glanville, 1999). These perspectives do not really contradict each other, but imply a sort of equivalence between scientific and design-type research. The key point is that the focus is on discovering relevant common forms, either those manufactured by nature, or those yet-to-be-made by means of the human invention. The objective of this chapter is to treat some well-known examples of discovery in traditional sciences as acts of design. In this respect the chapter does not deals directly with information systems or their components. Nonetheless, demonstrating the artificial nature of scientific knowledge could help conveying the parity between conventional notion of science and design-oriented science view.

Traditional explanation-oriented scientific research is essentially equivalent to the process of reverse engineering. By observing phenomena scientists are trying to get insight into the workings behind the observable. They invent models and put them to the test by comparing the outputs predicted by these models with the observations. Often these models are assumed to work under idealized conditions. The whole process has a strong design orientation. A scientist acts as a designer with the definite purpose in mind. The kind of phenomena studied represents a problem context. Finding a solution (form) to fit this context is the purpose of the scientist. Science, as design is thus a purpose-driven activity.

In fact it would be interesting to entertain an illusion of forward engineering in this respect. Suppose one would be given a problem of designing the world as ours with all of its key ingredients and physical laws. Notwithstanding pure philosophical implications of such an artificial scenario (the designer would have to exist in some world to do the designing), it would be curious to consider what kind of design choices would have been made. Or rather, assume that an engineer attempts to simulate some world with interesting dynamics of its own in a virtual environment. In fact, the well-known game of life is an example of constructing a simulated world which can exhibit a variety of dynamic stable patterns. Conceived by John Horton Conway (Gardner, 1970) the game runs on a grid of squares, which could be either turned on or off. If a given cell has any two of its neighbouring cells on, then that cell preserves its state. If three of the neighbouring cells are on, then this cell will be on in the next step. A Dennett puts it: “The entire physics of the Life world is captured in that single unexceptional law” (Dennett, 1995, p. 167).

The original motivation behind the design of the game was to enable artificial self-reproduction. A number of stable patterns have been discovered including, for example, gliders, eaters, pulsars, and others. Some of these stable patterns, in interaction could produce a form of a Turing machine. Dennett makes a beautiful insight into the implications of the game that to a large extent relates to the point of this book: “…notice how the distinction between Order and Design gets blurred here…Conway designed the whole Life world – that is he set out to articulate an Order that would function in a certain way. But do gliders, for instance, count as designed things, or as just natural objects? …the simplest glider would seem just fall out of the basic physics of the Life world “automatically” …it just was discovered to be implied by the physics of the Life world.” (Dennett, 1995, p. 173).

Game of Life represented a remarkable attempt to define (design) the structure and physics of an artificial world in terms of very simple structure and law governing its dynamics. The area of artificial life looks to simulate a variety of different aspects of the living organisms and their populations (Adami, 1998). Here, again research can be considered as a form of forward engineering. Life is being re-invented in the digital medium. Human designers sort of “produce” the “natural.”

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