Monday, April 25, 2011

Scientific Method in Practice (Pt. 3)

In this series of posts, I'm re-reading Hugh G. Gauch, Jr.'s philosophy of science textbook Scientific Method in Practice (Google Books).

[Series Index]

Philosophy of science — parts of it anyway — has been the subject of debate since classical times. I will examine three periods of this history in the next three posts.

Why bother with what people thought about science when they were so ignorant and mistaken about things we take for granted today? Because their discussions of scientific method are still relevant. If there's one thing I want everyone to take from this series, it's that science is primarily about how we find things out, not what we've found so far.

Three Extremes
There is an overarching theme regarding scientific method that runs throughout this entire history, and by being alerted to that theme from the outset, a reader is likely to gain twice or thrice as much insight. That overarching theme is the subtle and indecisive struggle over the centuries among empiricism, rationalism, and skepticism, caused by an underlying confusion about how to integrate science's evidence, logic, and presuppositions.1 (emphasis added)
The other major theme is the interplay of scientific discovery and divine revelation. What should we believe when there is tension between the discovered and the revealed?

Early History

Aristotle rejected his teacher Plato's idealism in favor of believing the world we experience is the real world (nutty I know). He outlined deduction and induction, and had very high expectations of scientific knowledge: "Consequently the proper object of unqualified scientific knowledge is something which cannot be other than it is" and "For indeed the conviction of pure science must be unshakable."2 The desire for certain knowledge about the natural world would shortly be reinforced by the success of Euclid's geometry treatise Elements which was widely taken to offer certainty of that domain's basics and much of what follows from it.

Gauch praises Aristotle as a pioneer who got things mostly right, then points out one general and one specific flaw in his approach:
Aristotle's choice of geometry as the standard of success and truth for the natural sciences amounts to asking deduction to do a job that can be done only by a scientific method that combines presuppositions, observational evidence, deduction, and induction. [....] The greatest specific deficiency of Aristotle's science was profound distaste in manipulating nature to carry out experiments.3
This 'brief history of truth' — as Gauch calls it — moves from Aristotle in the 300s BCE to St. Augustine who wrote around 400 CE. In Against the Academics, Aristotle argued that skepticism need not make us think knowledge is unobtainable and judgment should be perpetually suspended. He also dealt with the relationship between Christian revelation and the findings of natural science. I would like to share two relevant passages not quoted by Gauch. The first expresses Augustine's view of truth discovered by 'heathens,' including facts about the natural world.
Moreover, if those who are called philosophers, and especially the Platonists, have said anything that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it. For, as the Egyptians had not only the idols and heavy burdens which the people of Israel hated and fled from, but also vessels and ornaments of gold and silver, and garments [….] in the same way all branches of heathen learning have not only false and superstitious fancies [….] but they contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth [….] These, therefore, the Christian, when he separates himself in spirit from the miserable fellowship of these men, ought to take away from them, and to devote to their proper use in preaching the gospel.4
Here the relationship is one of pre-commitment to religious teachings and plundering of natural science (and philosophy) only as far as agrees with and benefits these religious teachings. But Augustine was a man of many opinions over time. This second excerpt shows a much different perspective:
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.5
It's clear from context that Augustine is not only talking public relations but that he recognizes the competence of non-Christians in discovering truth about the natural world; truth which can even shed light on the meaning of scripture. He still holds that divine revelation is certain, but he's willing to place confidence in well-established natural science over human understanding of scripture, when the two are in conflict.

Albert the Great of the 13th century is the last stop in my abbreviated version of Gauch's abbreviated early history. It's my habit to look up citations and primary sources when convenient, but this time what little I found doesn't quite back up Gauch's explanation. So let's suppose he got it right for the sake of what right? Suppositional reasoning, appropriately enough!
Following Albertus's example, the statement "You are sitting" has suppositional truth given that "I see you sitting," given the presupposition of business as usual between us and the world [....] Any any rate, what was so brilliant about suppositional reasoning was that it admitted that science had been in need of presuppositions, and yet in granted those presuppositions in the context of science's business as usual. [....] Furthermore, suppositional reasoning provides partial and yet substantial common ground for all scientists, regardless whether an individual's worldview is Christianity, Islam, naturalism, or something else.6
The idea here is that scientists can set aside many deep metaphysical worries by presupposing something like common sense realism as a starting point. Today, the popular notion which is supposed to provide a separation between science and metaphysical debates is methodological naturalism, but I would probably find this objectionable if I were religious. I ask naturalist readers to consider how they would feel about the term 'methodological deism.' Can't we use suppositional reasoning that starts closer to the human level in a way that doesn't borrow language from a contentious 'deep' view like naturalism?

There's a whole chapter on scientific presuppositions coming, so more on this topic soon!

1. Gauch, H. G., Jr. (2006). Scientific method in practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 42
2. Aristotle. Posterior analytics. Book I, Part 2.
3. Gauch. p. 48 
4. St. Augustine. On christian doctrine. Book II, Chapter 40.
5. St. Augustine. The literal meaning of genesis. Book I, Chapter 19, Section 39.
6. Gauch. p. 54

1 comment:

  1. In order:

    An interesting over-arching theme.

    I would say the primary general flaw in Aristotle's reasoning was his biological mindset, and specifically his teleology. His disdain for experiments stemmed from this same root - he sought to understand nature as it was naturally, not in artificial contexts, which is an approach that seems fitting for biology (not much sense in investigating how carrots grow in a vacuum...).

    I would say the biggest issue with Augustine (and Christian science more generally) is the role of science as the "handmaiden" of theology. Since it was revelation and spiritual meaning that was primary, science was delegated to a trivial pursuit at best. It is this disdain for scientific knowledge that led to its loss.

    I would like to hear more about the suppositions of science. I certainly don't know about Albert the Great's contributions there. I would say, however, that "methodological naturalism" is more like a scientific conclusion, a meta-theory, than a presupposition. We hold to methodological naturalism because it has proven itself historically. If theology was as productive, we would be using methodological theism.

    But the most important point, which is what I most wanted to write here, is simply this - thanks for the series. The book seems interesting, and your analysis insightful. I'm looking forward to reading the next segments.