What’s not to envy (I mean, besides the clothes and hair)? Feynman, a physicist who knows baloney when he sees it, chilling at a Caltech blackboard. Image courtesy of the American Institute of Physics
Of late I have been engaged in a discussion with Tom and Todd about whether or not Intelligent Design (ID) is scientific. Todd and I say it is not; Tom says it is. Related to this, the question I would like to address is: Is my — admittedly cursory — definition of science as a “search for physical explanations for physical phenomena” acceptable? That is, by confining science to the physical, am I doing it injustice? Tom seems says yes to this question in the following statement:
As scientists, we don’t blindly and obstinately hold to the less explanatory and more inconsistent theory for some philosophical reason, i.e., that only other physical phenomena can be responsible for the current state of physical phenomena. There is no a priori reason why that explanation has to itself be physical. It either could be, or it could not be. Thus, if there are supernatural “realities,” as I believe, then we cannot assume that they have no interaction with the physical.
IMO there is a category mistake here. Under my definition of science, Tom slips from talking about science to talking about knowledge in general. Yes, it may be that there are nonphysical sources of physical phenomena, but to say that this is so in any case is not being scientific. It may well be that God reached in and assembled the first bacterial flagella, for example, but to say this is so is a philosophical or religious statement and not a scientific one. It is not testable, it is not falsifiable, it makes no predictions. These (to my mind) are hallmarks of scientific knowledge.
Just because something is not scientific does not mean that it is untrue. It is simply to say that it can’t be shown — even in principle — to be untrue.
This tendency to blur the line between the scientific and nonscientific comes from what I call science envy, and it not only afflicts ID supporters who so desire the scientific stamp of approval. It rears its head in many disciplines, from the so-called social sciences like anthropology and psychology all the way to the humanities. I think of the Jesus Seminar as a particularly obvious manifestation of science envy. Here we have people trying to isolate the historical Jesus, insisting on a kind of detachment and literalness that seems, perhaps to them, scientific. The sad result is that it drains the subject — here, Jesus — of its life and its lived expression. Science envy is a malaise.
Words have meanings, and science is more than just being literal, or being objective, or using numbers, or being systematic. People — including even the good folks at NASA — often insist there is a thing called the scientific method, but such a thing does not exist. There are many scientific methods, each suited to a particular scientific field or subfield or nature of inquiry.
Despite its complexity, however, science is a way of knowing and therefore is not every way of knowing. And the knowledge — whether or not it is true — that the bacterial flagellum is irreducibly complex and therefore made directly by the divine hand, is not scientific. To call this knowledge scientific is to render the word science nearly, if not completely, meaningless.
There is one feature I notice that is generally missing in cargo cult science. It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty — a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid — not only what you think is right about it; other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked — to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.
Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can — if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong — to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.
In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.
Leaning over backwards, straining in utter honesty to show how your claim could be wrong, pushing one’s idea as far as it can go to find its weaknesses and speaking up about it, and making this not a kind of appendix to one’s work but a central part of it, drawing with absolute clarity the limits of knowledge: This is not all there is to science, but it is essentially scientific. And it is something I do not see in ID. Because how could you possibly show that the claim, God did this directly, is wrong? You can show that there are other possible mechanisms perhaps, but you can’t show absolutely — even in principle — that your claim is wrong.
IMO, the reason this claim — God did this directly — is not scientific can be traced to the fact that it transcends the merely physical. Science is severely limited to the land of the physical, and if this is not apparent to someone, it may be the result of science envy.
Your thoughts, Tom?