Introduction: Observations

Be warned here that this is my particular view of what happens and how to name and describe it. If this were a schoolroom situation and I were giving the test, what I am saying here would be the correct answers. But only on my test. Some other person asking the same questions would look for different use of words.

The process of science leads from some ordinary observations made by an ordinary human being in an ordinary location during ordinary time to the most extraordinary theories about the extremely small, the extremely large, the extremely brief and extremely long. How is that done? What is the experiential pathway that leads from concrete daily experience to the most abstract ideas?

The pathway to theory starts with observation.


“The eye sleeps until the mind awakens it with a question.” I tried to find a correct source for this quote and found too many. Rather than argue about who said it first, I will just take it as is and add my own amendment:

“The mind sleeps until the body awakens it with a problem!”

What the eye sees when it awakens is an image- in the mind. But it is at this stage only a percept, not an observation. Out of all the image-percepts that flash across our minds, a few are noted. That is, some kind of language statement is connected to the image. If that language statement is recorded in some manner, that recording is an observation.

This is what I mean when I use the term “observation”. A human perceptual apparatus interacts with its environment. The perceptual image is connected to a language statement that is recorded in the environment.

  • The perceptual apparatus may be visual, tactile, olfactory, etc.
  • The language may be verbal, visual, or mathematical.
  • The recording must be in the environment, outside the perceiving person, so that other persons can perceive the observation.

It follows from this, I think, that all observations are incomplete. That is, the total perceptual field cannot possibly be recorded in its entirety. Further, the total perceptual field is NOT identical to the existing world from which it is derived. Science takes it as a matter of faith that there is a world external to our perceptions of it that honestly generates those perceptions, however maladroitly we form them.

This means that everything that we build on the foundation of observation is incomplete and therefore faulty. There are (at least) two ways to go from here. Plato would take us into the world of ideal virtuality where the ideal takes precedence in terms of what is real over what actually exists. The other path, which I prefer, acknowledges the faults in perception, acknowledges the flaws inherent in theories because of that, and imposes on ourselves the stricture to make the theory as simple as possible. Since the 14th Century this stricture has been called Occam’s Razor, after the Franciscan William of Ockham. But we don’t have to reach back to that authority. William knew no more about perception than Plato, but we know a great deal more today than either of them. Knowing that our theories are at least incomplete and most likely wrong, we should make them as simple as the data allows to reduce the perpetuation of error.

Subjective and Objective

Observations range from those that note a private, internal or personal response to the percept to those that are public, external and shared with other persons. The criterion for objectivity is agreement with others, with the proviso that the group of others can, and sometimes does, enforce a collective sense of objectivity by classifying dissidents as “crazy”. If you see the world in a threateningly different way than your crowd, you may or may not actually have a better handle on the world, but in either case, you should be careful about how you express it!

Science is a public enterprise. It is based on objective observations.

Subjective observations are the basis of the human activity called  the creative arts.

In the world of our actual experience, all observations partake of both dimensions.

Scales of Observations

All observations are made by human beings. Frequently, in the modern world, there are complexes of instruments and machinery interposed between the human and the actual phenomena. But no device makes an observation on its own volition, having none. Ultimately it is a human in  a lab coat or field gear that converts the percept into a thought.

That means that all observations are made at what is properly called the local scale. We generate from the local scale all the theories that apply to the larger and smaller scales. Passing from one scale to another too casually leads to confusion for the learner and so we need to attend to the process. A geologic example may help clarify what I am concerned about here.

You are standing on a hillside looking across Tomales Bay at the hills that make up the Point Reyes Peninsula in Northern California. Your guide exclaims “You are standing on the North American Plate looking across the San Andreas Fault at the Pacific Plate that is sliding past you to the right at about the rate that your fingernails grow.” You might find this a little hard to believe. You can see the hillside you are on and the hillsides across the water, and the water itself plus various other things depending on the season, the time of day and whatever you are prompted to look at by your imagination or fantasy. You certainly cannot see the fault nor the “Plates”. If you want to see them, you must look at the map that is flapping in the wind in your hand.

It has seemed to me as a teacher that a great deal of confusion in learning could be avoided if we strive to make it clear when we are talking about something you can actually perceive through the senses as opposed to conjuring them up conceptually of theoretically. That is the strategy I will follow here. If I deviate or you get lost, yell at me!


  • Observations are a people thing to do.
  • Sensory perceptions are converted into language statements and recorded externally.
  • Observations range from subjective to objective. Science strives to be objective.
  • All observations are incomplete; sometimes they are actually wrong.
  • Observations are made at the local scale. Theories based on observations extend to larger and smaller scales.

Observations versus Measurements

It may be insightful to bear in mind that observations as I have defined them here could not be made before the invention of writing. That is, in a purely oral culture, people could talk about the world they were experiencing, just as we can today in a literate world. Just as we did when we were growing up and do not yet know how to write our language thoughts down. For my purposes here, I arbitrarily exclude those oral expressions from the category of observation, not because I think it is wrong to do so, but merely to make my argument clear.

Bearing that in mind, consider that amongst the first words written down were words for numbers. Separate literate symbols for numbers came along later. Words and numbers are like twins separated at birth, each following a different ontogeny into modern times.

Science in the tradition of Galileo and Newton has traditionally leaned on mathematics-the language of numbers- as being a more reliable method than verbal expression which are typically fraught with cultural overtones. The experimental technique was developed to get  past the inexactness of ordinary language into the more reliable form of numbers. Measurement is the core of that technique.

In this argument, measurement is treated as a kind of observation, specifically an observation that asserts an identity between some phenomenon in the world and a number system. For example, if you measure a table top and say “The table is 2 meters long.” That statement is a formal assertion that the property called length that exists between the ends of the table bears the same relationship to the property of length between two scratch marks on a platinum-iridium metal bar in the International Bureau of Standards that the number 2 bears to the number 1. That means, in turn, anything you can do with the numbers has a counterpart for the real space: add, subtract, multiply, divide, integrate,differentiate, etc.- I didn’t think this up on my own. I got it out of a Physical Science textbook  (J. A.  Ripley: The Elements and Structure of the Physical Sciences, 1964 Wiley). There is much more to be said about this subject, but I am going to leave it here in order to get back on my own path, which is the path that takes you from the most mundane observations to the most sublime theories. That path starts here.

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