I have a new essay up at CSICOP’s Creation Watch site. The subject: What is Science? Figured it was high time to polish off that little question once and for all. Enjoy!
In that essay you remarked
In defending some assertion about the natural world, what more can we say than, “It agrees with the data we have?” Even the most well tested scientific theory must face up to the possibility that it is effective only because it amuses some race of super beings to make it so. Indeed, knowing about such super beings would be an important part of any comprehensive understanding of nature. But since there is no practical difference between, “This theory is effective in predicting the outcomes of experiments,” on the one hand and “This theory is effective because super beings wish it to be so,” on the other, scientists are not being dogmatic in ignoring the possible reality of super beings.
The first sentence needs an addendum: “And, according to our theory/explanation, the data could not have come out some other way.” That is, our assertions are not merely about the data observed, they are about other data which, had they been observed, would have invalidated our assertion. Scientific explanations (“theories”) put contraints on potential observations: that’s how we test them. Supernatural “theories” do not put constraints on potential observations because supernatural “theories” (at least in their contemporary Christian-based form) put no constraints whatsoever on the skill set of the supernatural entity alleged to be involved.
I’m aware that’s a restatement of a sort of Popperian ‘falsifiability’ demarcation criterion, and I’m aware of the various critiques of that criterion. But it’s a useful rule of thumb, which is all working scientists require: pragmatism is a strong guide.
Finally, with respect to philosophers’ flailings about demarcation criteria, I will remark only that while I can rarely tell exactly when dusk ends and actual night begins, I can sure as hell tell the difference between night and day.
1) I thought that Alvin Plantinga was dead. Yet you refer to him in the present tense. Am I confused?
2) You talk about “truth”. I think that you say something like: science is not concerned with truth.
If I am close, here is an example: the heliocentric theory is accepted over the geocentric theory. But this is only for mathematical convenience. In “fact” neither theory is “really true”. Isn’t it more “true” that the sun and all of its satellites revolve around a common center of attraction?
If I am completely wrong on either of these, please correct me gently. I am not trying to be negative, just curious.
As far as I know Plantinga is still alive. He’s still listed as an active faculty member at the home page of the Notre Dame philosophy department, for example. But if there is anyone out there who can resolve this for certain I’d appreciate it.
Concerning truth, my point was that science isn’t concerned with ultimate truth. When scientists refer to some theory as being true, they mean simply that it has been consistently successful at explaining the results of experiments. (Incedentally, the term “experiment” should be interpreted loosely here. I’m not just talking about activities in laboratories here. Rather, I mean any sort of situation where the predictions of theory can be tested against the facts of the natural world).
Thanks for the comment, which I agree with completely. Your point about theories putting constarints on observations is what I had in mind in stressing predictability, both in this paragraph and elsewhere in the essay, but perhaps I should have spelled things out more carefully.
I also like your night/dusk/day example.
I was pretty sure that’s what you meant by stressing predictability, and a few years ago that’s how I’d have put it, too. But I’m coming to believe that making it very explicit that there are constraints on potential observations might be clearer to non-scientists, and I’m practicing my prose in that respect. 🙂
“I also like your night/dusk/day example.”
Me too. I am keeping that one for future reference.
Am I the only one who finds the difference between “natural” and “supernatural” unclear? What makes the umpteen dimensions of string theory natural, but a poltergeist supernatural? Neither can be observed directly and they both explain a lot phenomena. I suspect it is because the poltergeist is not observable AND has some of the characteristics of a mind ascribed to it.
I would reject ID because it does not provide any predictions and leave the natural/supernatural bit out of it. Put it another way: if ID were to hypothesise something about the designer’s intentions and how the designer implements its designs then I would say it was a scientific hypothesis (it would also be observably wrong)but it would still be supernatural.
I thought that Alvin Plantinga was dead. But I’m coming to believe that making it very explicit that there are constraints on potential observations might be clearer to non-scientists, and I’m practicing my prose in that respect.
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