Thursday, December 09, 2010

Is Science True?

In my experience, everyone bases their "arguments on certain metaphysical suppositions, scientists and non-scientists included. As a good friend and student of E. A. Burtt, I have found his Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science to be extraordinarily useful in this regard. In fact, I have begun work on what I hope will be a companion volume: Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Biological Science, in which I will examine the assumptions that underlie the science of biology as it is practiced today.

One of the bedrock assumptions underlying both modern physics and modern biology is non-teleology: the assumption that natural processes do not include any teleological input. I personally think that this is wrong, and base my objection to this idea on Ernst Mayr's monumental book, Toward a New Philosophy of Biology, published in 1988. Mayr argued very persuasively that teleological explanations are entirely appropriate in biology insofar as they refer to the development and maintenance of living organisms. According to Mayr, both of these processes (and indeed all biological processes) are directed by programs (i.e. genomes, etc.) that pre-exist the entities and processes that they specify and regulate. In the jargon of the current debate, genomes and other developmental programs are "designs" for the assembly and operation of living organisms.

However, Mayr also argued very strongly that the origin of biological programs – that is, the various mechanisms of biological evolution – need not (and apparently do not) include any teleological component. Like all physical processes, there is no detectable "grand design" (much less a Grand Designer) which/Who has formulated beforehand the programs that regulate life. In other words, teleology is entirely appropriate when applied to life and the operation of living programs, but not when applied to the origin of life or the origin of living programs.

So, what does this say about the question of whose opinions to trust when considering these issues? My first criterion is skepticism: if someone claims to know the truth about anything at all (including, of course, the contents of their own mind), my immediate reaction is intense skepticism. Science (at least that version of it that has been practiced since the 17th century) isn't about truth. It's about reasonable confidence in explanatory models, all of which are grounded on a metaphysical assumption of the usefulness of methodological naturalism. Notice I wrote "usefulness", not "truth", because as far as I can tell the only "truth" that exists on either side of the evolution/ID divide is a version of Colbert's "truthiness". It feels like "truth", but isn't really. In my opinion, "experts" are people who keep these distinctions in mind at all times, and do not easily (if ever) use absolute statements when talking about nature.

For example, I have an immediate, knee-jerk negative reaction to the title of Jerry Coyne's book, Why Evolution is True, and indeed to much of what he writes for the general public. Consider a similar title, Why Quantum Mechanics is True, or if you prefer Why the Gas Laws are True. How would a physicist react to titles such as these? I hope (and my general experience has been) that they would object to the word "true", and also perhaps to the question "why". Physics isn't about "truth" and doesn't usually ask about "why" things happen. Physics is about "useful" and "consistent" and "empirically testable" models of reality, and it's about "how" things happen, not "why" they happen.

Indeed, in the natural sciences (including biology) the answer to the question "how" is the same as the answer to the question "why". How do birds come to have wings? They inherit a genetic and developmental program that, via interactions with their environment, produces those structures we call "wings". Why do birds come to have wings? Same answer. How have birds acquired these genetic and developmental programs? They evolved by natural selection and other evolutionary mechanisms. Why have birds acquired these genetic and developmental programs? Again, same answer.

Speculating as to whether the biological processes by which the programs that specify and regulate living organisms and processes are somehow externally/supernaturally directed seems to me to be metaphysical arguments, rather than scientific ones. Interesting, compelling even, but not part of science, at least as it has been practiced for a very long time.


As always, comments, criticisms, and suggestions are warmly welcomed!


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At 12/19/2010 08:10:00 AM, Blogger Tom English said...

My recollection is that Mayr preferred "teleonomy" to "teleology." Is my memory playing tricks on me?

At 12/19/2010 09:00:00 AM, Blogger Allen MacNeill said...

Hi, Tom:
Mayr distinguished between teleology and teleonomy. The latter he used to refer to any process that was the result of a pre-existing program (such as the genome). He used teleology in the traditional sense, to refer to any process that was goal-directed, regardless of where the program for the goal-direction came from. Therefore, teleonomy is a subset of teleology, which also includes the behavior of self-aware animals like ourselves.

Personally, I think that a rigorous use of Mayr's concept of teleonomy eliminates any distinction between it and the more traditional "teleology", as the "program" for human goal-directed behavior is contained in our nervous systems (and the books, documents, plans, etc. with which we augment our "onboard" programs). In other words, a program is a program, regardless of whether it is coded in the form of nucleotides, action potentials, words, or ASCI.

Mayr was also very careful to point out that, although the programs were goal-directed, the processes by which they came about (i.e. natural selection, etc.) were not.

I agree, and would only add that this presents a curious paradox: that a non-goal-directed process such as natural selection can bring about the existence of a goal-directed process such as human cognition. To me, there is no paradox, but to many people there seems to be one. I am currently working on a book in which I explore these issues. Indeed, I modestly think of it as the book that resolves once and for all the perennial "problem" of purpose. That book and one on the metaphysical foundations of the biological sciences will be the projects with which I will take up the rest of my professional life.

At 1/08/2011 06:44:00 PM, Anonymous David said...

Of course we really can't know whether anything is "true," save for our own mental existence. But that shouldn't stop us from using the word "true" to refer to things that are so overwhelmingly evident that it would be unreasonable to doubt them. Sure, we could be wrong about evolution or heliocentrism, but the probability of that is so low that we might as well call them "true" theories, if only for pragmatic reasons. What's wrong with a purely pragmatic, all-intents-and-purposes "truth"? That kind of truth is the kind of truth we use in everyday conversation, and without it, clear communication would be next to impossible. Take the sentence: "it is not true that Obama is a muslim." Just because I say that it is not true doesn't mean that I've commited myself to that position until the end of time, or that this fact is somehow written into the fabric of the universe. If new facts come along that prove me wrong I will be happy to recant my position. Similarly, if new facts are ushered in that cast doubt on evolution, I will be happy to change my mind about it. But until then, there is nothing wrong with saying that evolution is "true." In fact, given the vast number of people who don't appreciate the enormity of the evidence supporting it, a degree of assertiveness on the matter may even be necesarry.

At 1/17/2011 11:06:00 PM, Blogger ragzy said...

I have to agree with David's take that we may as well call evolution "truth." Of course it's quite easy to get all philosophical and metaphysical about things and say that there is no such thing as truth, but for the sake of our "sanity," I believe, like he, that if evidence overwhelmingly supports a statement, then that statement is "truth." Yes, it's possible that our existence may be purely a false reality such as depicted in "The Matrix" or "Inception," but we work from the basic premise that everything in our universe is relative to our own perception. If someone presents me with evidence to oppose Darwinian evolution, then I will be the first to admit my error, but until then, I think the scientific community has established that it we do indeed, have "truth."

At 12/15/2011 08:17:00 PM, Anonymous rigadoon said...

I agree that science is (generally) "useful" but not "true". When science turned its back on metaphysical debates, it left philosophy and truth for others to tackle. But that means those who desire truth (perhaps more than utility) cannot look to science.


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