Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Jousting at Windmills:Intelligent Design

Liberals and scientists who object to intelligent design in the school curriculum are jousting at windmills. The incorporation of a theory of intelligent design into a science curriculum will not influence or harm the education of any budding scientist. This is because the theory of intelligent design cannot be a scientific theory.

Scientific theories are mnemonic devices for both remembering procedures for experiments and for suggesting new experimental procedures and predicting the results. Experiments are repeatable procedures that produce predictable results, though they lose the name of experiment (except in classrooms) once we know what the result will be. When a theory suggests an experiment, predicting a result that turns out to be true, we call the theory true. Later, when its predictions fail, we supersede it with a new theory but retain it for use in recalling the procedures it earlier revealed. We discard it as theory without a qualm and yet continue to use it to produce the old results though it may contradict the new theory. It lasts as long as it is useful as a mnemonic device.

The solidity, and only real content, of science, is these repeatable predictable procedures found through experiment. These endure the demise of the theories that spawned them. The rest is, at best, reminders and suggestions for more experiments, and at worst, dangerous overreaching hubris like the scientific assurances of nuclear reactor safety where no science could guarantee any such thing. The whole of real science is identical in form to a cookbook. Theories are ways for remembering and generating recipes. They are equivalent to a line at the end of a cookbook that reads : Now use your imagination and the recipes you have learned to make up new recipes of your own! The cookbook can tell us how to do many things, but has no predictive power with regard to unforeseen events, like tsunamis, that violate the experimental procedures. Science is a compendium of ways of doing things, not a collection of knowledge about nature, except to the extent that nature mimics repetition.

The theory of intelligent design does not suggest an experiment whose result we can predict. It offers us no recipes. It's complete lack of connection to any procedure rules it out as a “scientific” theory. Scientifically, it is empty. Whether some intelligent designer did or did not make the world is scientifically irrelevant. What experimental procedure does it suggest, what result predict? If someone wanted to introduce it into a, say, biology course, he could only mention it and thereafter ignore it. For science is not in the business of producing airy unfounded explanations, it is in the business of cataloging experiments whose results we can predict ahead of time. Such experiments can be of use. Not so airy explanations. Newton offers no explanation of why gravity works as it does. His theory predicts the location of bodies at given times. That's it. Why they are there is not a scientific question. To understand the nature of an experiment is to dismiss the theory of intelligent design as beside the point. The budding scientist, once he grasps the nature of experiment, will find no use for intelligent design regardless of how often his unscientific teachers have drummed it into his head.

The theory of intelligent design does not fail because it is nonsense. After all, it's not nonsense, it is just not scientifically relevant. Logically, many scientific theories are nonsense. Scientists are poor at logic. For example, let us consider theories about light. Light is thought to behave sometimes like a wave and sometimes like a particle. These are incompatible theories. That light sometimes behaves like a wave rules out the theoretical particle, and vice versa. Logically, the experimental evidence rules out both theories. Instead a physicist accepts both, using each where it is convenient. And he is quite right to do so, once we realize that the purpose of theory is only to indicate the procedures for experiments, theories need not be logically coherent. Kuhn's work on scientific revolutions shows just how reluctant scientists are to yield to logic and give up fruitful theories. The physicist solves his logical problem with a smug smile that he substitutes for logical thought. For such thought is really not part of his business.

I mention one more silliness, though there are many – space-time. Both “space” and “time” are, scientifically, measurements. Measurements too suggest procedures, but do not predict results except in one important way: With the exception of measurements of time, a measurement predicts the result of a remeasurement. We all know procedures for measuring distance— laying out yardsticks and such. Measurement of time is quite different. It is simply a rhythmic counting, best done mechanically, or, even better, electronically. A period of time, once counted can never be recounted. Remeasurements of time are impossible. We can remeasure the same space because we ignore the ways in which it is different, just as we cannot remeasure a period of time because we ignore the way periods of time are the same.

The procedures for measuring time are quite different from those with which we measure space. Taken together these procedures do not form some kind of invisible four dimensional cube that fills up the nothing of space for all time. They are what they are, human activities, counting on the one hand and laying out rulers on the other. Space and time do have a link because we can do both procedures at the same time. We we can find out just how long it takes us to go from here to there, or how far we can go in an hour, both by counting while we walk. But there is no “something” called space-time, no matter how intricately they can be tied together mathematically.

Through theory, science has puffed itself up far beyond its true size. It's pretensions to tell us of the past all rest on assumptions we may or may not think plausible, but which have no ground. All scientific theories, without exception are, and can only be, interpretations of experiments we do in the here and now. For everything we do, we do here and now. Scientific theories about the past gain scientific validity, like any other scientific theory, if they successfully predict the result of some experiment we can do. Such a theory is like a connect the dots picture. We know some dots, our theory accords with them and predicts the location of other dots. If we find dots where we expect to, we believe the theory until some dots turn up missing. So the form of a scientific theory about the past is this: Procedures this picture “implies” produce accurately the results of certain experiments and this picture also suggests another experiment predicting a result that was correct, therefore the implications this picture makes about the past are true. The problem with this is that the last part of this argument is an unscientific statement unless it means that we might find some experiment that would disprove it. If so, the real meaning falls back again into the here and now.

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