"Science is built of facts the way a house is built of bricks: but an accumulation of facts is no more science than a pile of bricks is a house” (Henri Poincaré). Discuss in relation to science and at least one other area of knowledge.

The nature of science is an issue addressed by many and I’m another one that raises it. To fully analyze its complexity I need to ask a few basic questions. What is Science? What do we mean when saying it? Generally, what is the nature of science, its facts and theories? According to a World English Dictionary it is the systematic study of the nature and behavior of the material and physical universe, based on observation, experiment and measurement, and organizing  knowledge about them by the formulation of laws.[1] In this essay I will try to find the solution of mainly one problem of science - it’s relation to facts, theories etc. so its “ingredients”. As a point of reference I will take Henri Poincaré who stated that "Science is built of facts the way a house is built of bricks: but an accumulation of facts is no more science than a pile of bricks is a house”

In accordance with Poincare’s statement, science is quite similar to the idea of a house.  Just like bricks are for a house , facts are for science the basic essentials of construction. Simply stacking bricks on top of each other will not lead to a house. Why? Because such thing as “a house” is built of bricks; because in “house” it’s not only about a pile of material but in fact the acts of creation, composition, organization and construction are far more important. Fact and formulas are extremely important but without connection between them they are not laws yet and so on they are not science yet.

House do not even need to have strong foundation to be called “a house”. Now, it may seem that foundations aspect may differ in case of science, but it is not! Theories and laws without strong foundation will eventually disappear. It is true that a house without a strong foundation is unable to survive the forces of nature, much like how a science without a strong paradigm is unable to survive the questioning. However, in the end all of these theories were once called science, weren’t they?

Some people claim that bricks also need to be stuck together, but they are wrong! Without bricks being joined a construction can still be a house as it is in case of mud huts or tipis. The same is with science, facts do not have to concern the same aspect, they do not even have to be similar to form the science.

Eventually, what is the nature of the science, so what the house consists of? In my opinion a house is a structure that consists of smaller, more stable but simpler subunits placed around each other in an organized, planned  pattern using systematic methods.

Foregoing metaphorical quote applies to other areas of knowledge, such as the arts, as well. If it is about the way they are organized art and science are not as remote as it may be seemed. A great evidence for that, are works of Leonardo da Vinci which is considered to be the greatest genius, that ever lived[2]. All of his works based on deep observation, reasoning and creativity are probably the best examples of a perfect composition of creative, sensitive, mathematical and scientific mind. In every painting of his we are able to find precise proportions and patterns[3]. Still they are called art, even though he used scientific methods in their creation. This comes from that very similarity I minded before: a painting is built of strokes, a song is built of notes, but without the organization and composition, art cease to exist.

The key to understanding the quote is to realize that bricks are not “just” bricks but something greater. They are also a house. Therefore, no matter how many bricks there will be nor if they will be joined or not, it is still going to be a house. What I think Henri Poincaré had in mind is that even though the bricks may not always be properly aligned, the bricks themselves will remain strong and adamant. Thus, there is always a possibility to rearrange their order into more stable and firm pattern. The same is with science. Although, facts are not always composing ideal theory or law, they will remain unchangeable facts. Then after realizing that their composition is inapplicable their order can be reorganized to create “better” science. Science does not change, the products of science just get reevaluated- science is not a pile of facts but an art of creation, a way of building and composing. Moreover, it is an art or recreation, rearranging and constant change of our beliefs. In order to understand the nature of science my advice is to never take anything for granted. Even such logical and vaguely stable area as Science. Be ready to rearrange your knowledge, because as I like to say “certainly nothing is certain”.

On the other hand, some people may argue that not the organization is important but all the extras that are inside. What I mean is that a house is a residence of human beings[4], so It can be a tent as well as an igloo or a villa. What comprises a solid house then? The answer is simple, it’s furniture, paintings, lamps, kitchen facilities etc. So all the things that make living there possible. How does it refer to science? This area is also wide and things that make it valuable are e.g. beliefs, emotions, ethical points of views, biased opinions. All these things are essential for evolution and progress because without them there would be no mistakes and therefore no development and but for that people would still be wondering how fire works. Does it refer to other areas of knowledge? Yes, it refers to e.g. art as well. In maestro’s[5] painting, dye wasn’t the only thing composing it. The way he put it on the oil, the way he operated the brush etc. are the most important parts. They are secrets of his perfection. The same is with music. Orchestra does not only need notes. It needs someone to compose their parts and make them sound matching. So arranging the notes and the music in greater parts with special sense is far more important than just playing the right notes.

Let me give an example illustrating the ideology of rearranging facts, bricks etc. You want to solve a puzzle so imagine hundreds of parts that need to be put together in order to create an image. At this time the relations between the parts and the bricks are significant for completing the task but not always logical, reasonable thinking is needed.Eventually you don’t have to link puzzles as they are supposed to be connected. Using your creativity and imagination you can glue them, or stick them together creating a sculpture. That, in the end can probably be more eccentric but can also give an interesting outcome.

The novel “Alamut” or strictly spiking its maxim, perfectly demonstrate the meaningfulness of foregoing explanation.The maxim of the novel is “Laa shay’a waqi’un moutlaq bale kouloun moumkine” which is in Arabic. In English it means "Nothing is true, everything is permitted” and in Renaissance Italian it is "Nulla é reale, tutto é lecito."[6]. “Alamut” is a novel written by Vladimir Bartol, first published in 1938 in Slovenian. It deals with the story of Hassan ibn Sabbah and the Hashshashin. The novel is situated in the 11th century at the fortress of Alamut, which was seized by the leader Hassan ibn Sabbah. The story starts with the journey of young ibn Tahir, who is intending to join the Alamut garrison. There, he is appointed to the squad of fedai. Fedai obey orders without any demur. During their demanding training, they come to be convinced that they shall go to heaven immediately after their death if they die in the line of duty. Hassan managed to achieve such level of obedience by deceiving his soldiers - he gave them drugs (hashish) to numb. Therefore, fedai believe that Allah had given Hassan the power to send anybody into the Heaven.[7]

In the end, after a time of conflicts etc. Ibn Tahir returns from mission, Hassan receives him and also reveals him his true motto: "Nothing is true, everything is permitted" explaining why he did what he did. Then, he lets ibn Tahir go, to start a long journey around the world.

The motto hides a deep thought that also refers to science and its nature.

"Nothing is true" relates to the fundamental uncertainty of our existence. The laws we create based on religion, science, or even logic are not absolutes. We create our social world and acting like our assumptions and accepted guidelines are "real" or "true," the Arabic can mean either, is myopic. Additionally, we likely cannot know the will of the divine or the entirety of the system of universe. Acting like we can or, more often, like we do is dangerous. We must analyze all that is around us to avoid falling prey to social, existential, or even scientific delusion.

"Everything is permitted" is an acceptance of the previous statement's implications. To some this could open the door to anarchy or nihilism but it is not nearly so depressing. It is simply an acknowledgment that everything is possible once our assumptions and self-imposed limits are recognized. The word used in the Arabic is "moumkine" which can mean either permitted or possible and this again reminds us to look for hidden meanings. Since everything is possible we have to remind ourselves to be purposeful in what we do, what is sometimes referred to in Buddhism as "mindful action."[8][9]

As it can be clearly seen, Henri Poincaré’s quote is absolutely true. Although, it can be discussed at different angles, I think this quote is emphasizing that science isn’t just a cluster of information but the methods for organization, handling, consideration, etc. of that information. I think the primary intent of the analogy is just to suggest how naive Poincaré feels a particular view of science is, not to suggest a strong or literal likeness between the construction of a house and science. Therefore, in my opinion every man is the architect of his own fortune and nothing, including science, is fixed. Thus everything can be changed, as soon as we realize that “Nothing is true and everything is permitted.”


  • Eileen Dombrowski, Lena Rotenberg, Mimi Bick “Theory Of Knowledge Course Compnion” Oxford University Press, 2007
  • science. Dictionary.com. Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. HarperCollins Publishers. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/science (accessed: March 24, 2012).
  • Tony Buzan, Raymond Keene, Buzan's book of genius: and how to unleash your own, Stanley Paul, 1994
  • Michael J. Gelb „How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day” Random House, Inc. 2004
  • http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/house (accessed: March 24, 2012)
  • http://assassinscreed.wikia.com/wiki/The_Creed (accessed: March 24, 2012)
  • http://iam-bc.com/blog/call-be-zorba-buddha-mindful-actions (accessed: March 24, 2012)
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mindfulness (accessed: March 23, 2012)
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alamut_(1938_novel) (accessed: March 24, 2012)

[1] Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. HarperCollins Publishers. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/science (accessed: April 01, 2012).

[2] Tony Buzan, Raymond Keene, Buzan's book of genius: and how to unleash your own, Stanley Paul, 1994

[3] Michael J. Gelb „How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day” Random House, Inc. 2004

[4] http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/house

[5] Maestro [it.] – master, here: Leonardo da Vinci

[6] http://assassinscreed.wikia.com/wiki/The_Creed

[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alamut_(1938_novel)


[9] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mindfulness