Friday, June 26, 2009

8.3 Philosophy of Science

Whether individuals could describe it or not, the scientific method is deeply ingrained in the consciousness of Western culture. Our teachers in middle school and high school at least tried to teach it to us. But we probably learn it more effectively from watching police and crime shows where they gather evidence and form hypotheses about "who done it." They test these hypotheses against the evidence, gather further evidence, test the hypothesis some more.

[textbox: scientific method, hypothesis, theory]

At some point they move beyond considering someone a "person of interest" and they will declare them a "suspect" in the case. Eventually they may arrest the person and put them on trial. Finally, a jury will, at least in theory, weigh the evidence again to decide whether guilt is the most logical conclusion given the evidence, at least "beyond a reasonable doubt." As we have argued previously, it would seem impossible to prove anything of this sort absolutely--the world of inductive thinking is a world of probabilities, not absolute certainties.

The process is so common sensical that it hardly seems something anyone would question. After all, isn't this the way we operate in our day to day activities? I hear a thumping on the roof. I go and investigate. Is it a burglar? Santa Claus? Too big for a squirrel. Not sure if it was heavy enough for a person. I go upstairs and look out the window. Oh, it's a raccoon.

On the other hand, most of us are scarcely consistent. Sometimes--perhaps more often than we might admit to ourselves--we form conclusions on the basis of almost no evidence at all. We "pre-judge" someone or something on some irrelevant basis. This is the stuff of prejudice. We see a person's color, race, or gender and presume that they must be a certain way. In chapter 2, we called this the informal fallacy of hasty generalization, with other fallacies often involved as well.

[textbox: prejudice]

Nevertheless, even if we are not good inductive thinkers, most Westerners would likely claim in theory that they consider this method of investigation legitimate and valuable. You'll remember from chapter 2 that inductive thinking is when you look at a collection of data and induce a general truth from it. We are so used to this way of thinking in science that it is hard for most of us to imagine a time when the best known thinkers were primarily talking about truth from a deductive standpoint, where you start with certain assumptions and then play them out in particular details.

To be sure, we are seeing a resurgence of this older deductive approach to truth today, especially since postmodernism raises questions about whether we can really induce truth from our observations of the world. We live in a climate where it is acceptable simply to start with large, unproved assumptions and talk about reality from there. Some Christians, such as the radical orthodoxy movement we mentioned in chapter 2, see this situation as a great climate for Christian faith.

Many of postmodernism's criticisms seem to be valid, as we will see later in this section. However, our hunch is that the usefulness of inductive thinking will continue to predominate in the days to come. Its usefulness in expressing accurately what happens in the world, as well as in enabling us to do things in the world is too great for it not to continue. If every group simply starts with their own untouchable assumptions and proceeds from there, then such groups can hardly even talk to each other.

Historians often trace the re-emergence of inductive reasoning and scientific method to Sir Francis Bacon in the 1500s (1561-1626). But others might suggest that Bacon himself was riding a wave that goes further back to the theologian Thomas Aquinas in the 1200s (ca. 1225-74), and then beyond him to Islamic philosophers like Ibn Sina (sometimes called Avicenna, ca.980-1037) and Ibn Rushd (sometimes called Averroes, 1126-98). These individuals did use deductive reasoning to a significant extent. But their reasoning often began with some observation of the world, such as the fact that for something to move, it has to be pushed. In that sense, Bacon more represents the culmination of a trajectory rather than a completely new beginning.

Francis Bacon secured his name as the "father of scientific method" primarily because of a book he wrote called the New Organon. In it, he suggested that when trying to arrive at a conclusion on some matter relating to the world, a person should create tables of data. You would put data relating to something you were studying, like heat, in one column. Then you would put data relating to the opposite, like coldness, in another. Then you would test hypotheses against the columns, to see if your understanding matched the way the data played out. This grounded the study of the world in observation rather than in making deductions from "axioms" you assume as a starting point.

[Organon quote]

A few features of Bacon's approach are significant. First, he assumes that a person can be more or less objective or unbiased as he or she looks at the data. Secondly, he assumes that you can come to a definite and final answer to the question you are posing to the data. Both of these assumptions came under serious question in the twentieth century.

[quote: "knowledge is power"]

One of the main figures to question these two assumptions was Karl Popper (1902-94). Popper rightly pointed out that the very questions with which we come to some set of data colors the answers we will draw from that data. No one comes to a set of data without certain presuppositions or expectations. No one can look at a set of data with a God's eye view. No one is perfectly objective.

Secondly, Popper seriously questioned whether we could ever come to a final answer and verify that a scientific theory was true. A claim like "all snow is white" cannot be finally verified. The very nature of inductive thinking is open-ended. So it was that after Europeans had thought for years that all swans were white, they came across black swans in Australia. So Popper suggested that science was based on the quest not to verify theories, but to falsify them. Good theories were theories that, thus far, had resisted falsification.

In this approach, he rejected another approach that enjoyed a brief moment of popularity in the early twentieth century, logical positivism. [1] Logical positivists held that only things a person could observe and verify had any real claim to being called "true." The fundamental problem with this theory, of course, is that it cannot be observed or verified. It is thus incoherent on a most basic level. Popper's suggested that the best theories are those that have not yet been falsified is at least an improvement on logical positivism, although it still assumes that with scientific theory we are basically dealing with theories that are either "true" or "false."

However, by far the most significant philosopher of science in the twentieth century was Thomas Kuhn (1922-96). In the first edition of Kuhn's, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, he argued that no scientific paradigm is ultimately better than another. You will remember that a paradigm is a way of looking at a particular subject, like the diversity of animal species. To Kuhn, what we think of as scientific development is a kind of organized wandering from one paradigm to another, following a predictable process. In the second edition, he tempered his thinking a little, particularly over protests at the thought that creation science might be equally valid in comparison to evolutionary science. [2]

[text box: paradigm, normal science]

Kuhn's basic idea was that science operates most of the time according to a dominant paradigm, the normal science. So in the early 1500s, the dominant astronomical paradigm was that the sun went around the earth. In the 1800s, the paradigm of physics was Newtonian. In the twentieth century, the dominant biological paradigm was evolutionary. These are the lenses through which a particular set of data are viewed and organized.

So you are at the Grand Canyon and you see a set of layers of earth and rock. In the typical creation science paradigm, you might assume that these layers were laid down over a relatively short period of time, perhaps in the aftermath of a world wide flood. [3] Alternatively, such a person might suggest that God created the earth to have "apparent age." In other words, the earth may look like it is billions of years old, but it only appears this way because God made the earth and universe to look old. The dominant geological paradigm in these matters, of course, is that these layers represent millions of years of slow, largely uniform conditions in which layer was gradually laid down over time. [4]

According to Kuhn, the reason paradigms change is not so much because we get smarter or that science gets better. Rather, all paradigms leave explained or seemingly contradictory data. I like to call it "naughty data." After a paradigm has shifted, most "normal scientists" expend their energy trying to fit anomalous data into the new, dominant paradigm. Such operations may go for a long time without changing the current paradigm too much.

For example, evolution has been the dominant scientific paradigm perhaps for over a century now. But it has not gone unchanged. For example, while Charles Darwin (1809-82) suggested that the more complex organisms we know today evolved from less complex ones, he could not really explain how such changes took place. His version of evolution simply saw organisms gradually changing bit by bit, with nature over time selecting the bits that best helped organisms adapt and survive.

But Darwin's version of evolution could not really explain how the new changes came about in the first place. This element of evolutionary theory did not enter the equation until after Darwin, when the idea of mutation entered the scene. So we have here an example of "normal science" persisting, in this case, the paradigm of evolution. But when encountering a problem with the theory, normal scientists did not abandon the overall idea of evolution. Rather, they modified the theory to account for some "naughty data" that did not fit.

Kuhn suggested that there will always be anomalous data in relation to a dominant paradigm. This data is the seed of a paradigm shift, which Kuhn predicted would always take place eventually. At some point, Kuhn argued, someone would suggest a completely different way of looking at the data--one that focused on the data that did not fit the current paradigm.

[text box: Thomas Kuhn]

Of course normal science resists such radical rethinking. Copernicus' (1473-1543) suggestion that the earth went round the sun was not met with open arms by either the Roman Catholic Church or the scientists of the day. [5] Indeed, one of Kuhn's points was that it was not scientifically obvious at the time that Copernicus was correct. For example, his mathematical explanations of the planets' movements did not work as well as the "Ptolemaic" scientists who defended the normal science of the day--that the heavenly bodies moved around the earth. [6]

[insert figure of Ptolemaic universe]

But the math of the Ptolemaic scientists was much more complex than Copernicus'. So while they might account for the motions of the heavenly bodies more accurately, Occam's Razor was against them--the idea that the simplest explanation is usually a better explanation. As Christians, we should take warning. We Christians have paradigms about Christianity as well. We have paradigms of interpretations, for example.

A Baptist will emphasize certain verses that fit with their way of thinking and tend to de-emphasize other verses, "naughty verses," that do not fit as well. The same is true of a Methodist or a Presbyterian or a Reformed thinker. At the same time, we often find that Christians in a particular tradition expend a good deal of intellectual energy trying to account for the passages that do not fit their paradigm as well. Often new churches and denominations are born off such naughty verses. [7]

A great example of applying great intellect to account for problem data is that of mid-twentieth century fundamentalism and its understanding of inerrancy. In a famous book called The Battle for the Bible, Harold Lindsell took a very rigid view of how minutely the gospels of the New Testament need to fit together historically in order to be truthful. [8] In a famous example, he tries to explain how all four gospel accounts of Peter denying Jesus can be historically accurate down to the smallest detail and still fit together. Ingeniously, he suggests that Peter might have denied Jesus six times--three before a first rooster crow and three more before a second crowing! [9]

Lindsell's reconstruction is a great illustration of a paradigm ripe for a shift. Yes, he managed to account for some naughty data. He applied his significant intellect to problem data and found a way to make it fit into his paradigm. But his thesis was so complex that it begged for a paradigm overhaul. His scenario created a "fifth" gospel that is more different from any of the individual gospels than they are from each other! It is no wonder that evangelicals of the late twentieth century generally came to take a looser view of how minutely accurate the gospels need to be historically in order to be considered truthful or even inerrant.

In the case of the planets, Copernicus' heliocentric solar system (sun at center) did not fit all the details as precisely as the geocentric one (earth as center) defended by the math of the Ptolemaic scientists, but it was simpler and not far off. Less than a century later, Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) made the heliocentric math both simpler and more accurate by arguing that the planets moved around the sun in ellipses rather than circles. As Kuhn argued, however, what now seem to us as obvious steps forward in a progression of knowledge were not clear at all at the time.

According to Kuhn, paradigms shift in a political struggle between those who support the old paradigm and those who focus on data that does not fit. Since normal science operates by trying to fit anomalous data into the old paradigm, it usually resists strongly the advent of new paradigms that form around the problem data. The old paradigm establishment may keep new paradigm supporters from publishing or speaking at conferences or getting jobs. But if the new paradigm gets its foot in the door, if its supporters increase--usually among younger scientists--the older scientists will eventually die off.

So it was that Albert Einstein (1879-1955) never supported the radical version of quantum mechanics that developed in the 1920s and is now the normal paradigm of physics. "God does not throw dice," he once wrote in a letter to a fellow scientist. But Einstein has been dead for over fifty years now, and it would be hard to find a reputable nuclear physicist today who agrees with him on the issue in question.

Although Kuhn's theory applies to paradigm shifts in science, the basic principles clearly apply to paradigm shifts in any field of knowledge that involves the organization of data. For example, one important shift in the study of Paul's writings in the New Testament has flowed naturally from greater attention to passages in Jewish literature that view God's relationship with Israel as one of grace rather than as something Israel primarily earned or worked to achieve. When certain interpreters focused on the importance of God's grace in Judaism, the seeds of a paradigm shift came into play. And it is predictable that they have encountered angry resistance by the "normal scientists" of the old paradigm. [10]

In the years since the Protestant Reformation, Lutheran and Calvinist interpreters had interpreted certain passages in Paul to oppose human "works" as having any role at all in God's acceptance of us, in our "justification." Accordingly, not only did these interpreters accentuate any passages in which human action seemed to play a role in God's acceptance, they also read Paul and the New Testament in such a way as to deny any role of works in God's acceptance there. But of course, there are any number of New Testament passages that connect God's final acceptance of us to our actions in this life, both in Paul and elsewhere (e.g., Matt. 25:31-46; Rom. 2:5-6; 2 Cor. 5:10; Jas. 2:24-25). And so the "new perspective on Paul" in its various forms has both emphasized that Judaism was also a religion of grace and that Paul had a significant place for works in his understanding of God's acceptance of us.

There is therefore much in Kuhn's approach to science that is helpful in understanding the way in which scientific paradigms change. We can wonder, however, if he were not too pessimistic in his sense that such paradigms were not really headed anywhere. For example, quantum mechanics--even though it may very well be superceded at some point--certainly accounts for the workings of the world on a vastly different scale than Newtonian physics did. As we mentioned in the first section of this chapter, it may still only be an "expression" of what we observe in the world, a kind of scientific myth. But it is a myth that has served and continues to serve us very well. Quantum mechanics is a vastly more useful scientific approach to the world than Newtonian physics was. And in that respect, surely it deserves to be called a better, even a "truer" theory than Newton's.

[1] The best known logical positivist was A. J. Ayer (1910-89).

[2] "Creation science" here refers to those Christian scientists who argue for a relatively young earth with only a minimal amount of evolution around the level of individual species or orders.

[3] This paradigm is called catastrophism, the idea that the earth's geology is best explained on the basis of world wide catastrophies, particularly a world wide flood.

[4] A paradigm we might call uniformitarianism. Certainly mainstream geology also would allow for major earth catastrophies as well. A common theory for why the dinosaurs went extinct involves a rather large asteroid hitting the earth and changing its climate.

[5] We should point out that the Roman Catholic Church today actually has scientists on retainer and could not in any way be described accurately as being against science. For example, Roman Catholic thinkers would more likely engage themselves in how evolution might connect to Christian faith than with trying to disprove it.

[6] "Ptolemaic" here refers to the Greek astronomer Ptolemy (**), who argued that the planets, sun, and moon moved in perfect circles around the earth.

[7] The Seventh Day Adventist Church is a great example of a church formed around naughty verses. This church worships on Saturday because they emphasize the fact that the Sabbath in the Bible always refers to Saturday. They have noticed verses in 1 Corinthians 15 and 1 Thessalonians 4 where Paul speaks of death as sleep and so do not believe we are conscious in between death and resurrection.

[8] **


[10] In my opinion, we are currently witnessing continued resistance by the old Pauline paradigm in such "Ptolemaic" works such as John Piper's The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright (Crossway, 2007), and the two volume work edited by D. A. Carson, Peter T. O'Brien, and Mark Siefrid, Justification and Variegated Nomism (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001, 2004).


Keith Drury said...

You have an amazing ability of explaining complex things so clearly in writing. And of integrating faith issues with philosophy. Thanks for sharing these drafts online!

Angie Van De Merwe said...

You point out that in scientific understanding, the earth ceased to be the center and the sun became the center. So, how come Christians believe that the earth is the "center" and focus of "God's purposes" and "plan"?

Ken Schenck said...

Yes, all Christians are stupid and think exactly the same thing. Lucky the world has more insightful people out there like scientists.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I don't suppose that all Christians believe the same, as you point out in your article. But, some Christians have depended on text and tradition to "fill in the gaps" of scientific understanding. Fundamentalists believe that all truth is contained within the text, therefore, nothing else should be investigated. So, it is a question whether one wants to believe or not. And how one wants to believe.

Moral government theories are suggested by those that want to depend on a natural order, which helps society to function, organizations to fulfill their purpose, etc. and is the basis of the natural order of the universe. But, the world and science is too complex to suggest that one theory of everything will "hold water". Our government affirms certain "rights" of the citizen that protect from "immoral governning", such as discrimnation on age, race, religion etc., as justice is about equality under law.

Prejuidice denies justice, as it presupposes or assumes something about someone else without knowing them. But, as a general rule, we all are prejuidiced in certain ways, as we cannot have any conviction or commitment without prejuidice/bias. Those who adhere to a radical ideology can be "judged" by what they choose to believe. And it affects their behavior.

Those who subvert government do injustice, unless it is for a higher purpose of protecting the "moral order" itself, such as human rights violations, etc..

Science is atheistic, because experiments are done on the basis that there will be an outcome without some "supernatural intervention". Therefore, how are scientists believers in any religion? Faith. They choose to believe.

So, the question is, does one want to be associated with believers? And does one have to believe the same way, if at all, and "do" or "act" in a certain way to be "included"? Immigration policy is relevant here. We all divide ourselves into groups of identification. This is normal. And I think it helps define boundaries that are helpful and necessary, as these are the "laws" whereby we define ourselves. Citizens know the "language" and "buy into" the culture.

Martin LaBar said...

I believe that you meant "unexplained," not "explained" in the paragraph beginning "According to . . ."

Good job.