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Observation is an activity of a sapient or sentient living being (e.g. humans), which senses and assimiliates the knowledge of a phenomenon in its framework of previous knowledge and ideas. With reference to science and academic disciplines, observation is the observing of phenomena, actions, or events and reasoning the knowledge gathered through such observing with previously acquired knowledge from abstract thought and everyday experience.
Observations aroused by self-defining instruments are often unreliable¹. Such observations are hard to reproduce because they may vary even with respect to the same stimuli. Therefore they are not of much use in exact sciences like physics which require instruments which do not define themselves. It is therefore often necessary to use various engineered instruments like: spectrometers, oscilloscopes, cameras, telescopes, interferometers, taperecorders, thermometers etc. and tools like clocks, scale that help in improving the accuracy, quality and utility of the information obtained from an observation. Invariable observation requires uniformity of responses to a given stimulus, and devices promoting such observation must not give out rebellious output as if having "a mind (or opinion) of their own". In statistics, an observation, whether of a sample or the population, measures one or more properties (weight, location, etc.) of an observable entity enumerated to distinguish objects or individuals.
The accuracy and tremendous success of science is primarily attributed to the accuracy and objectivity (i.e. repeatability) of observation of the reality that science explores.
The role of observation in the scientific method
The scientific method includes the following steps:
- 'observe' a phenomenon,
- 'Hypothesize' an explanation for the phenomenon,
- 'predict' a logical consequence of the guess,
- 'Test' the prediction, and
- 'review' for any mistakes.
Observation plays a role in the first and fourth steps in the above list. Reliance is placed upon the five physical senses: visual perception, hearing (sense), taste, feeling, and olfaction, and upon measurement techniques. It is therefore understood that there are always certain limitations in making observations.
The role of observation in philosophy
"Observe always that everything is the result of a change, and get used to thinking that there is nothing Nature loves so well as to change existing forms and to make new ones like them." Meditations. iv. 36. -Marcus Aurelius
Observation in philosophical terms is the process of filtering sensory information through the thought process. Input is received via hearing, sight, smell, taste, or touch and then analyzed through either rational or irrational thought. You see a parent beat their child; you observe that such an action is either good or bad. Deductions about what behaviors are good or bad may be based on no way preferences about building relationships, or study of the consequences resulting from the observed behavior. With the passage of time, impressions stored in the consciousness about many related observations, together with the resulting relationships and consequences, permit the individual to build a construct about the moral implications of behavior.
The defining characteristic of observation is that it involves drawing conclusions, as well as building personal views about how to handle similar situations in the future, rather than simply registering that something has happened. But according to J.Krishnamurti, an eminent 20th century philosopher, observation does not imply drawing conclusions and building personal views. He stresses on the non-accumulation of knowledge. Such an observation, he asserts will make the mind free.
Observing is part of the process of developing a morality.
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