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Time was when the students of the physical sciences sought to judge the truth or correctness of any particular statement about a particular physical thing–plant, heavenly body, or case of chemical change–by assuming that they had already in hand "a general truth with which to compare the particular empirical occurrence." The assumption was, as John Dewey, from whom I am quoting, puts it, that the human "mind was already in possession of fixed truths, universal principles, preordained axioms" and that "only by their means could contingent, varying particular events be truly known." So long as this assumption maintained its hold upon men's minds no real advance in physical science was possible. Modern science really began only when "men trusted themselves to embarking upon the uncertain sea of events and were willing to be instructed by changes in the concrete. Then antecedent principles were tentatively employed as methods for conducting observations and experiments, and for organizing special facts: as hypotheses. In the field of the physical sciences, therefore, the deductive method of ascertaining the truth about nature has given way to what is called–perhaps with not entire accuracy–the inductive method of modern science, in which the so-called "laws of nature" are reached by collecting data, i.e. by observing concrete phenomena, and then forming, by a process of "trial and error," generalizations which are merely useful tools by means of which we describe in mental shorthand as wide a range as possible of the observed physical phenomena, choosing that form of description which on the whole works most simply in the way of enabling us to describe past observations and to predict future observations.
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