Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Misuse of a Scientific Theory

If I were to claim to explain the rise and fall of the stock market based on Maxwell's equations for electromagnetism, you would consider me the victim of a metaphor. But there is a scientific theory that is widely applied to areas beyond its area of legitimate application, and that is evolution. Now I have problems with evolution as a biological theory. But within that realm it is a legitimate theory, with a proposed mechanism and claims of evidence. But this concept is frequently applied in other departments of knowledge without clear a mechanism or evidential basis. I remember that my wife had a sociology class in college, where the teacher said that a society would always do that which would promote its survival. When my wife asked multiple times what the mechanism was for that, he simply repeated the statement.

If we look at the world around us, the obvious tendency is for things to fall apart and decay. We do see things that go in cycles: seed to flower to seed again. But real progress in terms of producing something new and better is the result of deliberate planning and effort. Now it is possible to try to argue that biological evolution is an exception to the general pattern. (I am cynical of this, but it can be argued.) It can be argued that biological evolution does not really involve progress, but only change. But there seems to be no basis whatsoever to apply it as a principle in other disciplines. Steven Jay Gould wanted to claim that one of the virtues of evolution was its application to disciplines outside biology, but this application seems to me entirely fallacious. As for arguing for universal evolution based on its elegance as a theory, there is a problem with that. Once there was an elegant theory that saw the universe as a series of concentric spheres. Each of those spheres had its own significance and effect on things on earth. To replace that with a theory that there are a number of stars out there of various types and stages of development, and some of those stars have planets going around them, and they are grouped together in larger groups called galaxies seems prosaic in the extreme. I do not want to say that the universe is not elegant and poetic, but just because something is elegant and poetic does not make it true.

Part of the problem here is, as C. S. Lewis points out, that evolution as a philosophical concept (or as Lewis described it, a myth) existed before the scientific theory. I am convinced the biological theory came from the philosophical concept, but even if it did not, the theory cannot justify the concept. And it is from the concept that we get the application of evolution to other areas of thought. And the applications are totally lacking any legitimate grounds.       

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