Evolving Thoughts

Demarcating science

PvM, in The Panda’s Thumb: Laudan, demarcation and the vacuity of Intelligent design, has done a masterful job of pointing out that a favourite quotemine source of the Intelligent Design crowd, Larry Laudan, doesn’t say what they say he says, quelle surprise. The issue is epistemological naturalism and the demarcation of science from non-science.

The problem arose when Karl Popper did two things simultaneously: he denied there was a scientific method of discovery, and he tried to show what was different about science from all other human endeavours (primarily Marxist sociology and Freudian psychoanalytics, both of which he despised). Popper’s well-known answer was that any epistemic enterprise was scientific just to the extent that any claim made could be tested and shown to be false – its falsifiability.

Falsifiability was taken up with gusto by scientists, but criticisms from the philosophy of science were immediately forthcoming, and Thomas Kuhn’s subsequent view of science as a series of worldviews that replaced each other was used by anti-evolutionists immediately as a way to show that ID or creationism was just another “paradigm”. Pro-evolutionists such as Michael Ruse pointed out that creationism was “bad science” because it wasn’t falsifiable. But if the demarcation criterion was not applicable, then it was open to claim that creationism might just be scientific. A similar claim is made on behalf of ID, as PvM documents.

Larry Laudan, a well-respected philosopher of science, rejects Popper’s view of science, unlike Ruse, who is a staunch Popperian. According to Laudan, and it’s a view I share, there is no demarcation criterion between science and other human activities, but that doesn’t mean there is no way to tell if something is good or bad science. We don’t have a sharp line between them, but good science is well marked by its explanatory successes, predictive value, and contribution to further research. A “theory” that offered no avenues of further investigation is useless in science, unless it offered the final explanation of all the phenomena it purported to explain. And no theory has reached that state of blessedness.

Bad science is obvious to scientists. Most scientists at any rate. It has no techniques, no methods or no models. ID is such a beast, lacking, in fact all three. Dembski’s so-called explanatory filter, which has been eviscerated many times, including by myself and Wesley Elsberry, is not an explanation or a method – it is in fact an argument from ignorance – what we don’t know can be put down to the “Designer” (by which they of course mean God, despite the disingenuous protestations). And there are no other methods – no way to identify the action of the Designer, no way to find out if the Designer did a particular thing or it is natural, and so on. Just the bland and, as John Jones III put it in the Dover judgement, breathtakingly inane, claim that intelligence must be the cause of anythign we don’t presently have an explanation for and which looks like it might be designed (despite the complete lack of criteria for design identification).

To be sure, there are grey areas in science itself. We don’t know which avenues will be fruitful to pursue ahead of time – success is measured after the fact, not before it. So there are many claims in the literature that might be true, but which aren’t yet substantiated. Science needs its greay areas. But there are black areas too, and ID and creationism (which are the same thing anyway) falls squarely in the black. As a philosophical claim it may have legs, despite the continual solid criticisms of philosophers including Kant, Hume and so on, but science it definitely isn’t. Despite the lack of a demarcation criterion, we know nonscience when we see it.

As someone once noted – possibly Johnson – day may shade into night but day and night are, on the whole, tolerably well defined.

Comments

  1. #1 Corkscrew
    June 12, 2006

    I guess it fundamentally relies on what you consider the goal of science to be. I tend to think of it as a continuing effort to develop the most predictive possible worldview, in which case Popper follows naturally.

    I’m never quite sure, though, why people think there’s a conflict between Popper and Kuhn – surely they’re describing essentially the same process, just at different levels?

  2. #2 Richard Wein
    June 12, 2006

    I take it, then, that like me you are disagree with those who insist that science requires a principle of “methodological naturalism”, i.e. that “supernatural” theories are necessarily unscientific.

  3. #3 John Wilkins
    June 12, 2006

    Corkscrew: I do not think that prediction is always and only the goal of science. Basically the goal of science is to know. Sometimes this results in predictive hypotheses, sometimes it result is catalogues, sometimes a mix.

    Kuhn is a historicised version of Popper in some respects – he certainly thought so – but one thing that Kuhn does that Popper didn’t is assert that there are things that cannot be falsified because they are the very basis of the worldview/paradigm. As far as I am concerned it’s a dead issue – there are no worldviews of the kind either implied or asserted, and science doesn’t work the way either said it did, or should.

    Richard: I’m not at all sure what a “methodological naturalism” could be. Either it is just the claim that we know things in virtue of evidence, and make inferences solely upon that, or it is the somewhat philosophical claim that knowledge itself is a natural process (which is better called epistemological naturalism, the claim that knowledge is not dependent upon any non-natural a priori assumptions). We cannot admit into science anything that doesn’t have a nature – that is, can change its outcomes randomly or at a whim – because otherwise we could not make any inferences or generalisations. Suppose we did admit God’s workings. Unless we had a strictly circumscribed set of rules about what God would do, it does no explanatory work. If there were non-physical causes, they had better be something we can generalise over, or they do no work in science. It isn’t the nature/supernature divide that is at issue here, for ontology might be queerer than we can imagine, but the lawlike behaviour of the causes. If God is not constrained in His actions, then we cannot investigate them, trhough science or any other manner.

  4. #4 Andrew Lee
    June 12, 2006

    Never trust a creationist to keep his political claims separate from his philosophical claims. The “gotcha” lurking just behind their citation of Laudan has bugger all to do with any arguments about the truth of IDC; it goes to their legal strategy. While it is unconstitutional to teach religion in public schools in the United States, it is not unconstitutional to teach falsehoods. As one commenter remarked recently, paraphrasing Justice Scalia, “What if creationists are just stupid? It’s not against the law to be stupid.”

    Remember the big laugh we all had when Behe redefined science to include Astrology, or when the Kansas board attempted a similar trick? The invocation of Laudan is meant to short-circuit those laughs. Like it or not, the good guys’ legal strategy for the last two and a half decades has been built around demarcation. “Infertile”, “empty”, “bad” science does not violate the Establishment Clause.

  5. #5 RBH
    June 12, 2006

    Every time I read another set of philosphers arguing about the demarcation issue I’m reminded of my father saying “I may not know exactly when dusk ends and night begins, but I sure as hell can tell the difference between day and night”.

  6. #6 Richard Wein
    June 12, 2006

    John wrote: “It isn’t the nature/supernature divide that is at issue here, for ontology might be queerer than we can imagine, but the lawlike behaviour of the causes.”

    I quite agree with you. But unfortunately most proponents of MN do seem to think it is the nature/supernature divide that is at issue. Moreover PvM appears to be one of them. While claiming to accept Laudan’s point of view, he continues to argue for what in effect are demarcation criteria, including MN, which makes it hard for me to understand why you consider his post to be “masterful”.

  7. #7 John Wilkins
    June 13, 2006

    I find the masterful element in the way Pim has dissected the sources. That doesn’t mean I have to agree with him on his philosophy.

  8. #8 Macht
    June 14, 2006

    “To be sure, there are grey areas in science itself. We don’t know which avenues will be fruitful to pursue ahead of time – success is measured after the fact, not before it. So there are many claims in the literature that might be true, but which aren’t yet substantiated. Science needs its greay areas. But there are black areas too, and ID and creationism (which are the same thing anyway) falls squarely in the black. As a philosophical claim it may have legs, despite the continual solid criticisms of philosophers including Kant, Hume and so on, but science it definitely isn’t. Despite the lack of a demarcation criterion, we know nonscience when we see it.”

    Question: How do we distinguish the grey areas from the black? In other words, if it is true that we “don’t know which avenues will be fruitful to pursue ahead of time – success is measured after the fact, not before it” – then how do we determine the black areas?