May 14, 2016 | David F. Coppedge

Science Evolves

Science has a historical and cultural character that cannot be extricated from its current consensus.

The history of science (meaning, the influence of history and culture on scientific conclusions) is a relatively recent branch of philosophy of science. In courses such as Science Wars: What Scientists Know and How They Know It from the Teaching Company, professor Steven Goldman emphasizes the historical character of science with many examples, showing that scientific “truths” evolve over time. As such, they can never be trusted as “true with a capital T”—as genuine cases of knowledge about reality (with a capital R). Let’s see how this works out in two recent articles from the science news.

Evolving SETI

Calla Cofield, writing for Space.com, reported on a recent conference in Salt Lake City about SETI. Looking past the flashy infographics and usual arguments why aliens should exist, we find ways that SETI thinking itself has evolved. Speaking of the famous Drake Equation that launched whole books to calculate the probability of finding alien intelligence, she says:

When Drake wrote his equation in the 1960s, the value for L was thought of as the time between when a civilization discovered atomic energy and when that society managed to destroy itself through nuclear annihilation, Stanley said.

“That’s a totally reasonable way to think about the length of time of a civilization at the height of the Cold War,” he said. “But there’s been recent work … arguing that we shouldn’t think about ‘L’ in terms of nuclear war. We should think about it in terms of environmental destruction. … That is, it’s the time between the discovery of a steam engine and catastrophic climate change.

Another term in the equation has also evolved:

The equation also includes the variable fc, which represents the fraction of alien civilizations that “develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence” (such as radio communications or television broadcast signals sprayed out into space), the SETI Institute said.

Today, however, many of Earth’s communications no longer leak out into space, but are instead passed neatly between ground sources and satellites. There are still projects searching for leaky alien communications, and some scientists have proposed that humans should look for focused, laser-based systems used by alien civilizations to communicate between multiple planets or even multiple star systems. But Stanley’s larger point is that to some extent, humanity can only look for alien civilizations that bear some resemblance to our own.

But since our civilization has changed in these fundamental ways, the concept of an alien civilization has also evolved. SETI enthusiasts in the 1960s knew about TV and radio broadcasts; they could not have foreseen internet radio and video streaming. What forthcoming changes to culture and technology will require potentially major changes to the Drake Equation – not only the estimates for each term, but wholesale removal of terms or addition of terms? There’s no way to know. Matthew Stanley, a historian of science from New York University, embraced these changes as good things:

It may be impossible for humans to be purely objective in their speculation about life the universe, Stanley said. He added that he thinks personal bias and human experiences will always infuse science, but that those things can also help lead to successes in science. Having different perspectives helps people look at things in new ways, which can lead to breakthroughs, he said. That’s why, he said, it’s actually a good idea for scientists to “talk to people outside your field … listen to marginal people. Get a diversity of people, people from different backgrounds, different genders [and] different kinds of cultures.

“I think it’s actually helpful to embrace the fact that this is always how science is done,” he said. “And to accept that everybody’s different, everybody has weird ideas, and that’s actually a source of strength rather than weakness.”

Would Stanley welcome input from PhD scientists in the intelligent design camp? According to what he just said, he should. Taken to the extreme, he would have to embrace weird ideas of witch doctors or psychopaths, and incorporate their beliefs into science to make it stronger! Science already embraces weird ideas, like quantum mechanics. Some think SETI is weird. Could there be a weirder concept than the multiverse, which some cosmologists already embrace? The take-home point is in the first sentence: it is impossible to be objective, because personal bias and human experiences will always infuse science. Science evolves.

Evolving Chemistry

On The Conversation, Vanessa Seifert introduces listeners to the “Philosophy of Chemistry.” The phrase seems odd to students raised on triumphal scientism (the march of progress); chemistry is hard science. How can you philosophize about reality?

Philosophy asks some fundamental and probing questions of itself. What is it? Why do we do it? What can it achieve? As a starting point, the word “philosophy” comes from the Greek words meaning a love of wisdom. And anyone who does it is trying to make sense of the world around them. In that way, philosophers are a bit like scientists.

But science is a big enough subject in itself, so warrants its very own branch of philosophy [i.e., the philosophy of science]. And if we can break scientific inquiry down into various subjects, why not do the same with its philosophy? This is what has happened with the development of the Philosophy of Chemistry, a relatively young and niche field of philosophical investigation. It poses unique and interesting questions concerning both the kind of knowledge acquired in science, and the understanding of nature itself.

This raises an interesting question; did the Philosophy of Chemistry exist before its “development”? The answer is yes; but it was just assumed, not explored with “fundamental and probing questions.” It’s like the assertion that everyone does philosophy, but not all do it well. Everyone has assumptions about the nature of reality. That applies to even a hard science like chemistry.

The philosophy of science is a broad, controversial field of erudite scholarship, investigating questions about “explanation, laws of nature, and realism” among other things (for a superb introduction, take Dr. Jeffrey Kasser’s Philosophy of Science course at the Teaching Company). Seifert indicates that students cannot take for granted they know what is meant by a chemical bond or a molecule. Consider also that quantum mechanics changed our understanding of chemistry in fundamental ways less than a century ago. How is chemistry distinct from physics? How did its nomenclature develop over time? What is the meaning of the Periodic Table? Do the methods of chemists produce a different “kind” of knowledge than those of other sciences? Can chemistry be “reduced” to physics? These are big questions. The field is in a state of ferment:

Just as individuals that are composed of millions of cells exhibit unique features and properties as a whole, molecules and chemical bonds are real entities that deserve a separate investigation from the electrons and nuclei of which they are composed. These are issues that create heated debates among philosophers of chemistry and which have important implications for our view of the significance of the sciences, and on our view of nature.

Seifert then brings in the historical development of chemistry to support our theme that science evolves:

The historical investigation of how such classifications changed over time and what kind of discoveries contributed to these changes, plays an important part in these discussions.

In fact, it would be wrong to ignore the importance of the history of chemistry to the current philosophical investigations within the field. The perception of chemical concepts, such as the atom, has significantly changed since antiquity with the progress both in chemical experimentation and in physics.

“Progress” is a philosophical word deserving its own “fundamental and probing questions.” At the level of discovery, scientists have clearly made monumental progress because of technological advances: we have seen the landforms on Pluto and Mercury, we know that atoms are not hard balls but composed of numerous subatomic particles, and we know the spectra of quasars. Scientific explanation and understanding, though, evolve over time – as can be seen by historical examples even in the hard sciences. Scarcely any scientific concept trusted as fact in Victorian Europe has survived unscathed to the present day, whether in geology, chemistry, astronomy, physics, biology, or genetics. It’s a different world, a different universe now.

Given the record of history, we cannot boast that “now we know” or have confidence that scientific revolutions to come will leave our dearly-held concepts unmodified, perhaps drastically. Seifert, Stanley and the profs at the Teaching Company remind us that historical and cultural movements can make our most cherished beliefs “subject to change without notice.”

We pointed out yesterday (5/13/16) that the theory of evolution is evolving. New ideas are nearly 180 degrees out of phase with neo-Darwinism (which evolved from old Darwinism). Logically, this means that the theory of evolution itself could go on the chopping block at any time (indeed, many believe that it already has). Despite the screaming from its devotees, evolution is not a fact (unless one defines it as “change over time,” the Stuff Happens Law, which is meaningless). Science can only offer tentative ideas. One may call them the best theories we have, but according to the Best-in-Field Fallacy, they could be the best of the worst. Like the only lame horse able to waddle forward at the gate, it’s not the best in any objective sense. We can never know any of our contenders will reach the finish line.

The only things that must not evolve are our concepts of truth and morality. If those evolve, science becomes impossible. If truth today evolves into tomorrow’s lie, it was never true to begin with. If honesty today is tomorrow’s evil, it was never honest. Yet Darwinism would predict those things evolve, too. Unchanging pole stars are needed for truth and morality. This puts them outside the realm of the physical. Those who love science, therefore, are supernaturalists (trusting in realities “beyond natural”) in spite of any claims otherwise. Think about it.

By thinking about it, you just assumed the existence of a conceptual realm outside of nature that cannot evolve, whether or not your finite mind can apprehend it. Since the constancy of truth and morality must be assumed to have science, embrace them. Then seek a worldview that can justify those two assumptions. You’ll be happier if they are not a leap in the dark, but come from a Cause necessary and sufficient to account for them.

 

 

 

 

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