Science is the systematic study of nature. And we oppose this to the study of culture, the disciplines that are traditionally called the humanities. Sure, there are the “social sciences”, but in the form the term was meant originally, it comprised only the study of nature.
But what is nature. If we look at it more closely, it turns out we are lumping together some very different phenomena under this term. Maybe it would make sense to group academic disciplines in a different way.
Let us start with physics. Physics is concerned with the study of the laws of nature. We can think of the laws of nature as the invariants of the world, i.e. those of its properties that remain unchanged through all the transformations the things in the universe go through. We might put other sciences like chemistry here as well.
But what about biology? If you look at living things, there seems to be some law-like order as well. From an acorn, an oak tree will grow. From a fish egg, a fish is going to hatch. But these organisms may change. The acorn behaves the way it does not because of some unchanging laws of nature but because it contains an oak tree’s genetic information. This genetic information is the result of a historical process of evolution. It may change in the course of further evolution and it may disappear altogether when this kind of tree becomes extinct. The “laws” of the oak tree don not spring up from physics.
If you look at a drop of water, on the other hand, its properties are determine by the laws of physics that make sure molecules of water and the elementary particles in it always behave the same, now as well as a billion years ago, on earth or in a remote galaxy.
The molecules and ions entering the oak tree through its roots and leafs know nothing about how to make an oak tree. They are “orchestrated” by the tree’s genetic information. So the tree is “programmed matter”. What is providing its order is completely different from what is giving order to a drop of water.
One can view human culture as “programmed mater” as well. The cultural information passed on by talking and listening, by writing and reading or by showing and imitating resembles genetic information. The genetic information of an organism resembles the cultural information in our societies and cultures more than the laws of physics. Both are processes in which information is created and governs what is happening. Both are historical processes. In both, new and unique structures may arise and disappear again. In both, a complete description is impossible because it would have to include all possible ways evolution could go.
So why do we put physics and biology together into one basket, instead of grouping biology and culture (i.e. the humanities) together as the study of programmed systems or systems governed by (historical) information, as opposed to the physical sciences?
The reason, I think, lies in the history of the concept of nature. The Latin word “natura” was used to translate the older Greek term physis (φύσις) whose original meaning is something like “growth”. What the ancient Greek natural philosophers observed was that there was some order in the world. There was order in movements (for example, a stone you drop will fall down), order in living things (see the above examples about acorns or eggs) and order in the movement of the stars (well known to the ancient Greeks from centuries of observations made by Babylonian and Egyptian astronomers). People like Aristotle looked for a unified view of describing this order. There was no a priori reason to suspect that they were dealing with phenomena of totally different kinds. In the Aristotelian view, all things, like falling stones or growing trees, have an intrinsic “nature” governing their changes. Opposed to this is the artificial change enforced on them by humans. So in this view, human art and technology – techne, (τέχνη) – is unnatural.
In the medieval Christian culture (whose philosophy was strongly influenced by Aristotle), nature is seen as what is created by god, again as opposed to what is artificial. Even after the religious component of this concept became less important, the concept of nature was not questioned and then later served as the coining die for the concept of “science”. In this sense, the concept of science, a historical entity like everything else in culture, is of pre-scientific origin, as is the concept of nature.
Maybe the time has come to question these old concepts and to redefine the borders and groupings of the academic disciplines.
(The image is from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Frosterley_Marble_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1273619.jpg?uselang=de. It shows a polished slab of “Fosterley Marble”, a limestone containing fossils. This object has properties deriving from the laws of physics (which, for example determine the structure of the crystallites inside it), from geological and hydrological history (being a patch of former sea floor), from biology and the history of organisms on earth (containing fossilized imprints of former organisms whose shapes where programmed by DNA that arose in a long process of evolution) and from human culture (it is a cut and polished piece intended for use in buildings, following a tradition tracable to ancient cultures).)