Would You Like Fries With That Theory? Part Four

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August 2, 2010 Tags: Christianity & Science - Then and Now

Today's entry was written by Karl Giberson. You can read more about what we believe here.

Would You Like Fries With That Theory? Part Four

The history of science is the history of great revolutions. The actors are bold rebels who come charging in, waving new swords and laying waste to the status quo. “Who was that masked man?” ask astonished onlookers as they survey the carnage and drag venerable (but now useless) ideas off to be buried. When the dust settles, a new scientific hero—Galileo, Einstein, Hawking—emerges through the haze, standing—or sitting in a wheelchair—atop the vanquished ideas of what was, just yesterday, settled truths about the natural world. You gotta love the history of science.

Unfortunately, this is not the history of science.

This is what passes for history of science in a “World Civilization” course, or some such superficial survey that leaps from Aristotle to Galileo to Newton to Einstein like a child playing hopscotch. This exciting romp is not remotely the history of science, any more than home run moments are the history of baseball.

The history of science is almost entirely a history of the status quo being refined, extended, tested and retested as new technologies become available. It can be quite boring to outsiders. Take the lowly electron. It was a really big deal when the really little electron was discovered. Physicists now understood that charge was not a big gob of electricity but a set of tiny charged particles, every one of which had exactly the same charge. The discovery of the electron is the sort of thing that might get into your survey course but my guess is you have never even heard of J.J. Thomson, who discovered the electron.

In the century since the electron was discovered tremendous energies have been invested in figuring out exactly what it is like. Robert Millikan—you remember him, right?— performed a “famous” experiment getting oil drops to move in an electrical field. It was a clever way to estimate the charge on an individual electron. I spent countless hours as an undergraduate physics major trying to duplicate his result, staring through a tiny scope at dimly lit drops of oil, wondering if the story about Millikan’s assistant going blind doing this was true. In the decades since Millikan originally performed his experiment, it has been repeated every time a new technology made it possible to measure the charge on the electron to a higher level of accuracy. In the back of all our physics books we find a table informing us that the charge on an electron is −1.602×10−19 coulombs. No doubt you have that highlighted in the back of your physics book and have commented on it numerous times.

I mention this mundane example to make a point about the nature of science. Scientists spends most of their time refining their understanding of the central ideas of science, and very little time overturning those ideas. But the long period of refinement is quiet and of limited interest to outsiders who would wrongly perceive that nothing of interest is happening. Only when something disruptive occurs does everyone take notice, like a vase on a mantle falling off and shattering on the hearth. Then we all notice the formerly obscure vase. For a brief and shining moment that vase was truly exciting.

The great revolutionaries in science almost always begin as honest toilers working diligently within the status quo, making modest refinements on existing theories, extending the explanatory domain of a theory into new territory, or solving a puzzle of some sort that doesn’t quite fit into the received wisdom of the community. Virtually all of them fully understand and accept the consensus of the community and then, through some fortunate circumstance, they are presented with the golden opportunity to modify or even overturn that consensus with a radical new idea—they become the revolutionary heroes with the gleaming sword. They get to push the vase off the mantle and watch it smash. Such scientific heroes are almost never outsiders who are not even a part of the scientific community.

The Intelligent Design Movement desperately wants a scientific revolution where it topples the vase that Darwin set on the mantle and smashes it into a million pieces. Followers of ID want to be the Einsteins and the Galileos of a major breakthrough in our understanding of natural history. Rob Koons, a philosopher at the University of Texas at Austin, endorsed William Dembski’s popular book, Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science & Theology, with these words: “William Dembski is the Isaac Newton of information theory, and since this is the Age of Information, that makes Dembski one of the most important thinkers of our time. His "law of conservation of information" represents a revolutionary breakthrough.”

I am not sure what Rob Koons thinks of these comments now—he has not responded to my email—but they represent a thoroughly unrealistic view of scientific revolutionaries. William Dembski works at a Baptist Seminary; he teaches apologetics and publishes popular work with evangelical presses and not in scholarly journals. If another Newton arises out of this generation of scientists, he—or she—will not be on the faculty of a seminary writing popular books. I hasten to add that I am also not going to be the Newton of this generation. I work at a Christian College; I teach Science & Religion; I publish primarily popular work. I am nowhere near that vase needing to be smashed.

If this generation gets a Newton, it will be someone working at the heart of the scientific enterprise on ordinary scientific problems. They will hold the consensus view, with their peers, as taught to them by their mentors. They will publish in conventional journals. One day their computerized printout or digital image will have an odd glitch in it—a number will be too large, a speck of light too bright, a graph too asymmetric. They will show it to their colleagues who will puzzle with them. They will repeat the measurements several times until they dare show it to their supervisor, who will be dismissive at first but finally concede that it is worth veering off on this side road for a few weeks. Excitement will build as they work in obscurity for a while and then finally publish something that startles the scientific community, who are initially skeptical but finally come around. Ten years later a key idea has been overturned. Twenty years later they win a Nobel Prize.

That is how Newtons are born.


Karl Giberson directs the new science & religion writing program at Gordon College in Boston. He has published more than 100 articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. He has written seven books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.

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Chip - #24529

August 4th 2010

Hi Katz,

we’re never absolutely sure about anything.

You should read more mainstream evolutionary stuff.  We are told again and again that the neodarwinian account of origins is an unassailable fact, that nothing could be more sure. Until you look under the hood, where the most dyed-in-the-wool proponents do exactly what Bilbo said they do—they speculate.

I understand that we don’t know everything, and actually agree that we should qualify statements when we don’t know.  But the disconnect comes in when you compare the grand claims made at 30,000 feet to what is known down in the weeds.  Given this, the point is simply that if we don’t know how a given structure or function evolved, its reasonable to ask if it evolved. 

But this doesn’t seem to ever be permissible.  Is this really “how science works?”


Mike Gene - #24530

August 4th 2010

Hi Katz,

You wrote, “I am also supporting my argument that people who use appeals to authority (that is, everyone) are tacitly supporting Giberson’s whole point, which is basically a defense of the argument from authority.”

Which raises a question. When it comes to viewing evolution through a teleological prism, just who are the authorities and experts?


John VanZwieten - #24534

August 4th 2010

Chip wrote:

Given this, the point is simply that if we don’t know how a given structure or function evolved, its reasonable to ask if it evolved.

Say you come across a set of human remains.  You have no idea how the person died.  Is it really reasonable to ask if a person died?

Wouldn’t you instead assume a person did die, and begin to hypothesize how it might have happened, based on the evidence available?  You might even develop an entire story about how it could have happened, without being at all sure that it did happen that way.  But that wouldn’t cause you to disbelieve that it really did happen.


katz - #24536

August 5th 2010

You should read more mainstream evolutionary stuff.  We are told again and again that the neodarwinian account of origins is an unassailable fact, that nothing could be more sure. Until you look under the hood, where the most dyed-in-the-wool proponents do exactly what Bilbo said they do—they speculate.

Of course popular literature will express more certainty than scientific journals.  There are several reasons for this.  First, if you’ve been reading single-author books, remember that every book has a thesis.  An author may write a book about why he thinks that, say, this particular fossil was formed one way when other scientists disagree, and of course he’ll express more certainty about it.  This doesn’t mean the field as a whole is particularly uncertain, just that detail (for instance, a chemist may be unsure about the mechanism of a chemical reaction, but that doesn’t mean all of chemistry is uncertain).


katz - #24537

August 5th 2010

Second, the audiences are different.  Scientific journals are addressed to other experts in the same field who are expected to analyze and critique the new findings.  Popular publications are by their very nature didactic; their purpose is education.  That’s also why they are often less accurate (mostly through oversimplification); they have to be phrased in a way their target audience will understand.  There’s no point in putting a lot of qualifiers in your writings if your audience may not even understand the difference between theories and hypotheses: people will just interpret every one to mean “Ha!  He’s just guessing!  He has no idea what he’s talking about!”


katz - #24538

August 5th 2010

Third and most importantly, consider chronology.  The article in the scientific journal was always published first; those are always essentially preliminary findings.  If they weren’t new and potentially debatable, there would be no point in publishing them.  There’s a reason there’s no Journal of Inarguably Well-Established Theories: things that are obviously true go without saying.

No self-respecting scientist would write a book about unpublished results; no self-respecting magazine would publish an article about them.  The book gets published when the evidence becomes clear enough that you can inform the general public about it.  If you go dig up the original publications, they’ll be from before the conclusion was so clear, so of course they’ll express more hesitation.


Gregory - #24539

August 5th 2010

“When it comes to viewing evolution through a teleological prism, just who are the authorities and experts?” - MIke Gene

A good and fair question, Mike! (I’ll answer later.)

Who would be considered the most popular, talented and/or persuasive (‘authorities and experts’) of those who view “evolution through a teleological prism”?

Maybe ID-evolutionists are actually better at this than are EC or T(E)evolutionists?

And then there are those who, though they tend to view eVo (or try to) through such a ‘teleological prism,’ yet when they speak or write professionally in public about eVo they don’t involve any of the teleological language or meaning in their speech. It vanishes like a poof!

Do evolutionary creationism, theistic evolutionism or BioLogos view “evolution through a teleological prism”?

I am doubtful that ECs or TEs who are biologists are doing *any science at all* involving ‘teleology’ (don’t give us again the ‘fitness’ schwing!). They have likely, perhaps even the younger ones, rejected ‘teleology’ as heresy in biology, as also is done in many if not most other natural-physical sciences.

The teleology, folks, a little hint fwiw: its in the human-social sciences.


katz - #24540

August 5th 2010

P.S.  I hope you’ve been reading reasonable pop sci publications.  Scientific American and Discover are good; Popular Science and New Scientist can get thrown out the window.

Very often people who take issue with science are in fact just taking issue with popular science publications, and I’d estimate 90-99% of scientists would gladly join that battle.


Mike Gene - #24568

August 5th 2010

Hi Gregory,

Who would be considered the most popular, talented and/or persuasive (‘authorities and experts’) of those who view “evolution through a teleological prism”?

There are no such authorities or experts.  When it comes to claims such as “evolution could not have done this” or “natural laws could not have done that,” Karl’s argument for authority applies, as there are experts who probe how evolution/natural law could have done this or that.  But when it comes to viewing evolution through a teleological prism, or the claim that evolution cannot be viewed through a teleological prism, there are no experts.  In that case, Karl’s argument collapses. 

You can only have arguments for authority on topics in which there are authorities.


Chip - #24587

August 5th 2010

Is it really reasonable to ask if a person died?

No.  But that misrepresents what I’m saying.  Perhaps I should have said, “it is reasonable to ask if it evolved through purely naturalistic mechanisms.”  (but c’mon, this is what “evolved” usually means…)

But I’ll work with your analogy.  Of course the person died—no one questions that.  The question is did the person die of purely natural causes.  Let’s say the remains you refer to show strong evidence of a particular wound, about which there is little or no controversy, and which appears to have been the cause of death.  But in spite of the fact that the police department has been unable to reconstruct a scenario showing how lightening killed the guy, they continue to insist that lightening killed him.  In fact, if any attempt is made even to suggest that intent might have been involved, this is met with “murderer of the gaps” and “that’s not how police work is done” criticisms.


Chip - #24588

August 5th 2010

—2—
I try to get in under the space limit and just can’t do it most of the time…

Yes, its possible that as forensic techniques advance, the police department will eventually be able to demonstrate that lightening was the cause.  And my own view is that of course, this work should continue.  But in the meantime,  why is it so unreasonable even to consider broadening the scope of the investigation to include intelligence as a possibility?


Gregory - #24590

August 5th 2010

“when it comes to viewing evolution through a teleological prism, or the claim that evolution cannot be viewed through a teleological prism, there are no experts” - Mike Gene

O.k. then Mike Gene. I’m going to WoW you today! = )

There *are* such experts who view “evolution through a teleological prism.”

These are most likely, however, none of the ECs or TEs you perhaps considered for a moment as ‘authorities’ or ‘experts.’

But people I speak about are authorities and they are experts and they *do* undoubtedly see “evolution through a teleological prism.”

I’ll put something together for you on this when I’m at the office later.

Are you ready for WoWdom?


Chip - #24593

August 5th 2010

Katz,

Of course popular literature will express more certainty than scientific journals.

You’re making a distinction between technical and popular literature.  My distinction was between whether vs. how evolution ostensibly accomplishes its work.  My contention is that in spite of the uncertainty surrounding the latter, no uncertainty will or can ever be considered in the former. 

But just to be clear, are you saying that technical literature will express uncertainty about whether  fully naturalistic evolutionary mechanisms caused structure or function XYZ?  I seriously doubt this is true, but if you are, I’d love some citations.


unapologetic catholic - #24612

August 5th 2010

”  But in the meantime,  why is it so unreasonable even to consider broadening the scope of the investigation to include intelligence as a possibility?”


Intelligence is the usual suspect in a murder investigation.  Are you suggestignthat that demons, fairiers, goblin orcs and vampires must all be carefully investigated adn leiminated as suspects bythe police?

Can a criminal defendant be allowed to put on a defense that “Some other demon did it?”

I think the clear answer is no.

The term “Intelligence” is used equivocally.  The only intelligent sentient creatures we have ever observed are human beings.  All other intelligeneces that appear in literature are of the “magic” kind.  There is no way to address magic interactions as a cause of human death or any other occurrence becasue we don’t know the rules of magic.

The reasonbaleness of expandign investigatiosn or criminal trials to include or expcldue magic as a cause is based on a cost benefit analysis.  It costs a lot and there’s no evidence of any benefit.


katz - #24614

August 5th 2010

Chip:

I was responding to this statement:

You should read more mainstream evolutionary stuff.  We are told again and again that the neodarwinian account of origins is an unassailable fact, that nothing could be more sure. Until you look under the hood, where the most dyed-in-the-wool proponents do exactly what Bilbo said they do—they speculate.

Wherein you put forth the difference between the tone of assurance in popular works and the tone of speculation in technical journals as evidence that scientists aren’t actually as sure of themselves as they seem to be; I was explaining why that isn’t the case.


Rock - #24750

August 6th 2010

Ironically, it appears as if the consensus of expert opinion is to reject the “argument from authority.” Professor Giberson was certainly well aware of that before he began this series of essays. Yet he endeavors little (if at all) to redeem the argument.

Someone (above) had argued that rejection “in principle” is belied by constant resort to the argument “in practice.”

But I think what “authority” science appeals to is misidentified. Science appeals directly to the qualified authority of one’s own senses and reason. I suppose it must necessarily find itself in conflict with many religions that appeal to an absolute “Higher Authority,” that cannot be known by senses and reason alone. An “authority” that can’t be known in a “scientific way” cannot be any kind of authority for science.


katz - #24764

August 6th 2010

Ironically, it appears as if the consensus of expert opinion is to reject the “argument from authority.”

[Citation needed]


Gregory - #24810

August 6th 2010

‘Experts’ who view “evolution through a teleological prism”:

L. von Bertalanffy (Aus, 1901-1972) – biologist & systems theorist. He wrote a paper that might especially interest people here called “Evolution: Chance or Law,” in “Beyond Reductionism” ed. A. Koestler (1969), but others works by him are well worth consulting too. He is founder of General Systems Theory (GST). (cf. synthesis-seeking theories of T. Dobzhansky)

B. Banathy (Hun, 1919-2003) – linguist, systems theorist, Scout & White Stag leader. Wrote @ education & training.
“Guided Evolution of Society: A Systems View” (2000)

E. Laszlo (Hun, b. 1932), philosopher of science, systems theorist
“Evolution – the Grand Synthesis” (1987)
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ervin-laszlo/cosmic-symphony-a-deeper_b_532315.html

These are all systems thinkers whose ideas of ‘evolution by design’ are quite widely spread & they *all* view “evolution through a teleological prism.”

You thought they didn’t exist, Mike.  - - > But they do.

Of course, this is not even touching the cyberneticians.

(Cont’d)

Hodgson, Geoffrey – economist. “Evolution and Institutions: On Evolutionary Economics and the Evolution of Economics “(1999).


Gregory - #24811

August 6th 2010

R. Ackoff (USA, 1919-2009), management, systems & operations, wrote about ‘purposeful systems’ & discussed their ‘transformations’ as examples of ‘evolution.’ In his view what distinguishes ‘natural systems’ from ‘social systems’ is ‘teleology.’

If one isn’t tuned in to such a channel, this message will not be heard or will only be translated through a third party who may or may not know what they are communicating.

K. Boulding (U.K., 1910-1993) is perhaps the most interesting, at least at this point in my interpreting. I’ve been reading his work for > decade, while studying economics and sociology. Only now have I discovered his links to ‘systems science,’ his speech on ‘evolution’ of the Quaker-Christian religion & his sonnets.

“In social systems, however, mutation has probably never been as random as it may have been in the biosphere.”- K.B. (1972)

“What we have in evolutionary theory, therefore, is a programme for a pattern, but we do not really know the pattern itself. A programme for a pattern, however, is better than nothing.” - K.B. (1967)


Mike Gene - #24920

August 7th 2010

Thanks for that list, Gregory.  I’ll be checking into some of those folks.  Unfortunately, from my perspective, only one seems to be a biologist and he died about 40 years ago. I guess I’m looking for some expert biologist who would acknowledge, “Yes, I am studying evolution from a teleological perspective.”  I’m cynical and skeptical because evolutionary theory has been undergoing some major upheavals (the discovery of deep homology, for example) that are very friendly to the teleological perspective. 

This is good:

“What we have in evolutionary theory, therefore, is a programme for a pattern, but we do not really know the pattern itself. A programme for a pattern, however, is better than nothing.” - K.B.

It’s been almost 50 years since that was written.  And now, more than then, we can make a much stronger argument that evolution itself is a “programme for a pattern.”


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