Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Science and Theology (5)

Fourth, we ought to be more skeptical than we are both of scientific taxonomy and of the translation of the world outside our heads into numbers.  That is, scientists do not simply deal with the world as they find it, they manipulate that world into words of their own choosing, into categories of their own making, into experiments of their own devising, and into numbers.  Forcing a creature into one or more categories based upon our intellectual manipulations and speculations regarding its body pattern and parts, or upon our understanding of its physical makeup and upon our conjectures regarding its biological descent, is at least partly arbitrary, partly subjective.  Such categories, though helpful and serviceable, are man-made.  They unintentionally, and sometimes unwittingly, collapse the distinction between what we discover and what we invent.  While the beings that populate such categories most emphatically do exist, the families, orders, classes and phyla into which we have pigeon-holed them do not.  Such pigeon-holings are a taxonomist’s useful fiction, but do not exist outside the taxonomist's mind.   That is, while those taxonomical categories are constructs based upon careful observation, they are constructs nevertheless.  Of course, I am not saying anything so silly as that there exist no genuine and recognizable differences between a dog and a man, or that “dog” and “man” are useless fictions devoid of all external reference or reality.  But let us not too quickly or uncritically identify “useful” as “true” or as “real,” categories that in many cases and ways are quite different.  
         Yet, not only are we required to accept the taxonomist's scheme of classification as both real and true, we are required to accept that the occupants of these various man-made categories are linked by a long series of non-living intermediate creatures (also duly classified and arranged), most of whom are not found to exist anywhere in the fossil record, a radically incomplete record we interpret according to the taxonomical grid provided for us.  (The circularity of this procedure seems to go unnoticed and unremarked.)  Furthermore, we are also required to believe that all the seemingly discontinuous and taxonomically divisible groups now alive are the descendants of a common ancestor, another phantom of which (or of whom) we have no direct evidence.  Please note that “ancestor” and “descendant” are part of a taxonomical scheme, and are no less so than is “phantom,” a word from which my scientist readers would naturally recoil.  Their own language, the scientists must remember, is the source of great recoil as well.  It rarely seems to occur to some scientists that the rapid evolutionary branchings posited in some theories are but a euphemism for mystical scientific leaps, though they are called by other names, such as Stephen Jay Gould’s “punctuated equilibrium.”  Of such leaps I am more than a little skeptical.
         Further, not only is taxonomical classification significantly theory laden, it is context dependent and subtly subjective.  That which we classify as the observed in one case fails to be so classified in another, even though the thing itself is the same.  That is, what is foreground and what is background vary according to the judgment of the observer, an observer who is never context-free or presuppositionless.  Thus, scientists are driven back, whether they acknowledge it or not, upon the problem “What is context and what is content?”,  the answer to which seems to vary from situation to situation depending upon the experimenter and the experiment, even though the aggregation of things involved might be basically the same.  Nor are the experiments themselves pristinely empirical and objective, for experiments are highly stylized sets of phenomena, sets from which as many variables as possible have been artificially eliminated by the will and work of the experimenter, however well or however poorly.  Of course, I am not saying that the data yielded by such experimentation are therefore untrue, only that they are not pristine.  In other words, some scientists need frequently to be reminded of the significantly non-literal and pragmatic nature of their experiments, of their theories, and of the language in which those experiments and theories are conceived and articulated.          
         Like taxonomy, quantification might itself be a movement away from the world around us, not into it.  The translation of things into numbers is, after all, a translation.  Neither the words nor the numbers in scientific theories are complete and exact re-presentations of the constitution and behavior of the universe, much less are they the things themselves which they are intended to describe in words or embody in numbers and formulae.  Newton had his numbers; Einstein had his; post-Einsteinians have theirs.  Newton’s and Einstein’s formulae worked (so to speak) and were the basis for considerable correct prediction regarding natural phenomena.  Nevertheless, on many important points, Newton and Einstein were also quite wrong, something from which their seemingly correct numbers did not and could not save them.  I am not reluctant to think that the same fate awaits many of their scientific descendants. 
         The classification of physical phenomena as suitable and useable scientific data, the arrangement of that data into groups, the translation of that data into numbers, the manipulation of those numbers via computation, and the transformation of the results of that computation into more data and new conclusions are all guided by philosophical deliberations that are prior to and apart from science’s alleged empirical nature and militate against it, all of which ought to cause us to hold science’s supposedly assured results with less assurance.  Judging from the philosophical and theological naiveté of most of the scientists with whom I have ever spoken, those intellectual deliberations might not have been deliberations at all, but merely the unexamined and unacknowledged a priori assumptions of a mind utterly untrained in a number of difficult but acutely relevant fields throughout the humanities.   
         The related assertion that science is measurement is, of course, a philosophical assertion, an assertion that is flatly unprovable.  Indeed, as even a moment’s reflection will demonstrate, because it is not itself measurable, this assertion is unscientific on its own terms.  It is, in fact, autophagic -- it eats itself up.  Nor can we prove this assertion by invoking the principle of prediction and thereby assert that a scientific hypothesis is true if it can be shown accurately and successfully to predict the action of physical phenomena.  The principle of prediction, while clearly important and serviceable, is at least as closely related to pragmatism as to truth.  That is, to be able to predict more accurately than all other theories means only that one’s theory is pragmatically preferable, not that it is necessarily true.  We must remember that false, or partly false, theories have demonstrated impressive powers of prediction in the past.  The ancient Babylonian astronomers, for example, by no means shabby forecasters, were working from premises and principles quite off the mark.  In other words, while prediction seems to be a necessary attribute of a true scientific theory, it must not be considered a sufficient attribute.  Prediction is not proof, no matter how impressive it seems.  Too many scientists, nevertheless, still think, write, argue, and teach as if accurate prediction demonstrated truth.  How many times this has been done, is being done, and shall continue to be done, only God knows.  But it seems not at all likely to stop.  Or, to make the case in a different direction, if prediction were really the reliable indicator of truth that some think it to be, then physics itself, which has an abysmal record of prediction with regard to some individual entities, would be radically undermined.  Furthermore, as clear thinking philosophers and theologians understand, pragmatic preference is an utterly insufficient basis for determining the virtue of an action.  If pragmatic preference is an exploded mode of justification in ethics, I am inclined to regard it as such in scientific epistemology.  Its epistemological failures are not magically eradicated simply because we now concern ourselves with a laboratory.  
         Those, at any rate, are my observations and caveats.  That is how the laboratory looks from the seminary, or at least to this member of it.  Having watched many of them in action, I think the scientists would be better served (and would serve better) if they were more humble and more eclectic in pursuit of their worthy enterprise.  I should hope that when they do their work the scientists would listen at least as much to those outside the laboratory as they would like those outside the laboratory to listen to them.  This, after all, is the golden rule of scholarship.
         Finally, though it is clearly beyond both my intention and my competence to dictate to the scientists exactly how their jobs ought to be conducted and in what specific direction they ought to proceed, let me offer but one outsider’s opinion, an opinion motivated by sincere goodwill for my laboratory colleagues.  I believe that what we need now is not something akin to an aimless collection of more data, but research (of every sort) directed by principles, illumined by ideas.  Those guiding principles and those illuminating ideas must, by their very nature, come to science from outside science, at least until we figure out how science ought to be restructured and redefined in order to avoid its current myopia.  Science, to be kept serviceable and humane, must be kept humble and teachable.  And it must acknowledge its debts, debts it always has. 
         To the question “Is science enough?” the answer is emphatically “No.”      


Jack Spell said...

"The extreme rarity of transitional forms in the fossil record persists as the trade secret of paleontology. The evolutionary trees that adorn our textbooks have data only at the tips and nodes of their branches; the rest is inference, however reasonable, not the evidence of fossils."

(Stephen Jay Gould, The Panda's Thumb (New York: W.W. Norton, 1985) as quoted by Woodward, Doubts About Darwin, 40, 41.)

Dr. Michael Bauman said...

Jack, Thanks for your comment, which i agree with and appreciate.

Please feel free to contribute whenever you wish.

Best to you, MB