Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Limits of Science

Science is very useful for doing the things that it does well. The principal thing science does well is to make generalizations about repeatable events. This is especially true if those events can be repeated under laboratory conditions. There are, however, events with which science can not deal well. That is, events that are unique and not repeatable. Whether it is Washington crossing the Delaware or the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., these things cannot be dealt with by science. While I am dubious, there are those who would claim that all these events will one day ultimately be reduced to scientific generalizations. But until they are explained that way, we must deal with them as unique incidents. This is not a criticism of science; it is not a criticism of a spoon to say it is not a knife. But partly because of the popularity of science, there is a tendency to apply it in ways it should not be applied. It is like reenacting Washington's crossing of the Delaware to prove it happened. The truth is that a scientific experiment done this way does not prove what did happen, but what can happen.

This can be made complicated by trying to reach conclusions that go beyond the facts of the observation. It is an unquestionable fact that people in general can jump. It is also clear that some people can jump higher than others. It is also true that if we practice we can increase the height of our jumps. It is also true that human beings have gone to the moon. However, if we were to conclude that people simply jumped higher and higher until they reached the moon, we would be very much mistaken.

One place we see this fallacy being practiced repeatedly is in a certain class of arguments used to support evolution. It is concluded that because amino acids can be produced in the controlled conditions of the laboratory, this proves that it happened at some earlier period in the history of the earth and is the explanation for the existence of life here. A considerable stretch. Or it is claimed that minor instances of natural selection with finches and moths prove that this process is capable of producing complex structures like eyes and wings and that this is, in fact, where they did come from. (And this is in the face of repeated experiments with fruit flies which have failed to produce a new species.) But the cause seems woefully inadequate to the effect. The truth is that if someone were able to start from a batch of chemicals and somehow recreate in a laboratory the evolutionary process and end up with a human being, while it would give considerable credence to evolution, it would not prove that it did happen, only it could have happened. But the very limited cases that are generally put forth in this area really prove nothing at all.

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