Saturday, September 10, 2005

 

Suppositions and Science


Ken Ham complains (Creation: ‘where’s the proof?’) that "evolutionsists" start with presuppositions of the nonexistence of God (or, at least, no creative God). Such presuppositions are supposed to be no different than some creationists’ assumption that the Bible is an accurate historical account of the origin of the universe and life on Earth.

A common response to this complaint is to assert that science is concerned only with empirical evidence. As usual with real-world problems, the truth is not so neat.

There is a well-worn debate in the philosophy of science between the "internalists" and the "externalists". Internalists hold that scientists by in large accept, reject or ignore new arguments solely because of the weight of the evidence and the cogency of the arguments. In other words, the recognition of the validity of a scientific proposition is "internal" to the proposition and its evidence. Externalists, on the other hand, think a wide variety of factors, social and personal, are in operation in the acceptance or rejection of scientific propositions. A common example given is the claim that Darwin formulated, and other scientists of the time rapidly accepted, evolution in the form of "competition in the struggle for life" because the society they lived in was individualistic and competitive. [1]

At one extreme you have the logical positivists, who insist that science, when properly done, eliminates all metaphysics and, at the other, the post-modernists, to whom science is a social construct with no claim to objective truth. Neither are completely right nor completely wrong.

Certainly, an individual scientist will approach new evidence in ways to attempt to reconcile it to his/her own theories. To paraphrase (a little) philosopher of science David Hull, "Scientists rarely refute their own pet theories. But that's all right. Their fellow scientists will be happy to oblige." Alan Fedducia is a recent, perhaps extreme, example of this in science. There is not as much difference as we might like to think between how Fedducia has approached the recent evidence on bird evolution and Ham's proclamation that his pet theory, that the Bible is "the right basis to understand this universe and correctly interpret the facts around me", is the best one.

The difference is ultimately in the nature of the communities science and "creation science" seek to operate in. The aim of both groups is to influence a community. They both have to at least try to play by that communities' rules (and if they don't, they are marginalized within or excluded from it). But in the "competition" among all the various ways humans have sought knowledge of the world around them, science is the least exclusive and the most inclusive community. Unlike the "creation scientists", who seek to influence only a particular (and, as Ham's article shows, aggressively exclusive) community, science doesn't ask at the door what your theological or philosophical beliefs are. It only asks to see if you have evidence that can be checked by anyone, regardless of whether or not they share those beliefs. To Ham, you cannot even recognize the evidence he does, unless you believe in "the spiritual nature of the battle" already. In science, if a philosophical naturalist, such as Dawkins, begins to let his philosophy impinge on his interpretation of the evidence, there is a balance in the form of a Ken Miller or even a Stephen Jay Gould and his NOMA.

Ham and his ilk not only don't have any such check on what they accept, they will actively seek to remove anyone who attempts it within "their" community, which explains the often-noted animosity of young-Earth creationists towards "theistic evolutionists" greater even than they have toward "secular evolutionists". Theistic evolutionists challenge them where they live, while the secular scientists are already excluded from the community they care about.
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[1] David Hull’s Science as a Process has a good discussion of this, as well as much more about how science really works.

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