Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Perspectives on an Evolving Creation, 2c - Evolution and Creation - Excursus 2: Science

#4 in an ongoing series on Perspectives on an Evolving Creation edited by Keith B. Miller. Previous post in this series: Perspectives on an Evolving Creation, 2b - Evolution and Creation - Excursus 1: Naturalism. First post in the series: Perspectives on an Evolving Creation, 1 - Introduction.

In my last post in this series, I mentioned a co-worker who told me he found the Haarsmas' and Glover's presentations--at least as far as I quoted them--quite unconvincing [see my posts from January 21st and 28th and then, finally, on February 1st].

I suggested that the first reason he may have found them unconvincing had to do with my failure adequately to distinguish the methodological naturalism of science (as science, i.e., science per se) from the thoroughgoing ontological naturalism of those we can properly describe as scientists who are committed to advancing an atheistic philosophy.

I urged that we need to distinguish philosophy from science. [I wrote further on the subject, yesterday.]

Today, I'd like to address a second objection my friend raised: that the study of evolution/creation is not and cannot be science--"after all, you can't engage in replicable experiments; you can't follow the scientific method. . . . Creation (or evolution) was a singular event, therefore, by definition, unreproducible." Indeed, "If we're going to let science impinge on our Scriptural understanding of creation, then, logically, we have to permit it to adjust our understanding of the Virgin Birth as well, aren't we? It's a short step from having 'science' redefine our view of creation to having 'science' throw out all the miracles of the Bible."

Let me note: I placed these statements in quotation marks, but this is my [I'm sure faulty] recollection of our conversation. I believe what I have "quoted" him as saying accurately represents the basic sentiments he attempted to communicate, but I hope he will forgive me if I have failed fully and accurately to state his "argument" as he presented it to me.

"Before discussing how the relationship of 'creation' and 'evolution' might be best understood, it is useful first to define the terms." writes Keith Miller in the first sentence of his opening essay in Perspectives on an Evolving Creation. (Essay title: "An Evolving Creation: Oxymoron or Fruitful Insight?")

After "creation" and "evolution," there is a third term I believe we need to define. That is science.

What is science?

Miller writes:
Science is a methodology, a limited way of knowing about the natural world. Scientific research proceeds by the search for chains of cause-and-in fact and confines itself to the investigation of 'natural' entities and forces. This self-limitation is sometimes referred to as 'methodological naturalism.' Science restricts itself to proximate causes, and the confirmation or denial of ultimate causes is beyond its capacity. Science does not deny the existence of a creator--it is simply silent on the existence or action of God. The term 'methodological naturalism' is intended to communicate that only natural (as opposed to supernatural) causes can in principle be investigated using scientific methodologies. Methodological naturalism describes what empirical inquiry is--it is certainly not a statement of the nature of cosmic reality. . . . Our most profound questions about the nature of reality (questions of ultimate meaning, purpose, and morality), while they may arise from within science, are theological or philosophical in nature, and their answers lie beyond the reach of science.

--Op. cit., p. 7

"Ahh!" many of us think: "The scientific method." And we think of what we learned in high school about making observations, forming hypotheses that might explain the observations, then creating experiments that might confirm, disconfirm, or force one to modify one's hypotheses, etc.

Oh. And we think in terms of replicability: other people must be able to repeat the experiments and replicate the results--one key aspect of the scientific method I remember from high school and that my friend said he believes is lacking from any and all positive discussions of the idea that all living things descended from a common ancestor.

Despite, at this point, being in the midst of a discussion of Miller's book, I want to turn once more to the Haarsmas' Origins to respond to the objection.

Specifically, I would like to point out the different types of scientific method utilized in different types of science--a concept I think we all understand, but that our high school science teachers failed to emphasize.

The Haarsmas list three different scientific methods in their book (pp. 48-50): experimental, observational, and historical. Once you think about it, I expect you, too, will agree that all three of these qualify as legitimate science, even though they don't all partake of the character of what we were taught concerning the scientific method back in high school.

1. Experimental Science

The Haarsmas write:
Experimental science is the primary type of science done in the fields of physics, chemistry, and molecular biology, as well as parts of ecology and geology. [Done i]n the laboratory, experiments are accessible; the scientist can measure what is happening, monitor the experiment from beginning to end, destroy the products of the experiment, and start over at any time. She can control many variables in the experiment . . . and remove external variables. . . . And she can repeat experiments in the lab if necessary to confirm the first results. . . . Experimental scientists make testable predictions . . . that can be confirmed or contradicted in future experiments.
2. Observational Science
Sometimes controlled experiments cannot be done because the system under study won't fit in the lab, is too far away, or is too dependent on its environment. In those cases, scientists can still do careful observations. . . .

Observational science is commonly done in the fields of meteorology, ecology, medicine, astronomy, and geology. . . . The ecologist can't sit all year and watch the plants grow, and an astronomer can't travel to a star to measure its temperature. But scientists devise alternate methods to get around these difficulties, such as counting plants periodically or analyzing the light of the star to deduce its temperature. Observational science is not controlled; meteorologists cannot produce a cold front whenever they like, nor do ecologists burn down forests just so they can watch how they recover. Observational science must take nature as it comes.

A lack of control makes observational science less repeatable than experimental science. The forest fire can't be repeated whenever the ecologist wants, but fires happen often enough that many are available to study. Usually enough examples are available that the consistency of the underlying laws of nature can be tested on several cases. . . . [J]ust like experimental science, observational science makes testable predictions (like the wildflower growth rate after a fire) that can be confirmed or contradicted in observations of other similar systems.
And then, finally, there is

Historical Science
[This] third method of scientific investigation [involves] modeling the past behavior of systems, including events that occurred before they could be directly observed. Here's an example:

An ecologist travels to a remote forest in order to study its history. She first examines a large tree that has recently fallen down in a storm. She takes a thin slice of the trunk to the laboratory and counts the tree rings. She finds that a 131 years ago a particular ring is extremely thin (indicating drought) and shows evidence of mild fire damage. She hypothesizes that much of the surrounding forest earned down 131 years ago, but this tree survived. Based on the work of her colleague who studies recent forest fires, she makes predictions about the other trees living in the forest: the largest trees will show similar fire damage 131 years ago; many of the smaller trees will prove to be a 120-125 years old, having sprouted 5-10 years after the fire. To test this prediction, she takes core samples of several living trees and looks at their rings. The results confirm her prediction: the older trees all show fire damage 131 years ago, and many of the smaller trees are about 120 years old.

Historical science is common in the fields of ecology, climatology, astronomy, cosmology, evolutionary biology, geology, and paleontology. The goal of historical science is to deduce the natural history of systems. . . . Historical science is not directly accessible because no scientists were around at the time to make observations; however, those events are indirectly accessible because of the evidence they left behind. Like a detective, a historical scientist uses the evidence available today to deduce the history.

Like observational science, historical science is not controlled: scientists cannot go back in time to change the initial event, so they have to work with what actually happened. Historical science investigations can be repeatable when many similar historical situations are available to study (such as the many different trees born after the same forest fire). In some cases, however, the event is not repeated (as in the case of the universe: there is only one universe for cosmologists to study), but scientists can still find evidence that tells them about the natural processes that occurred during that event.

Historical science, at its best, is particularly useful for testing whether physical laws remain unchanged over the years, because historical science gathers data related to events that happened over as wide a period of time as possible.

Most important, historical science makes testable predictions, just as experimental and observational science do. Scientists routinely study one system (such as one tree or one star cluster), make a model for its history, and then predict what they will find in additional observations. These observations could be of other similar systems, or they could be of the same system but made with different instruments. In either case, the observations test the prediction, supporting or contradicting their model for the history of the system.
The Haarsmas suggest you check out the article K-T Boundary Investigation for "another real-life example of historical science."

Can--indeed, should--the results of historical science investigations be questioned? Absolutely!

Should we question the assumptions of those who engage in such investigation? Yes!

Is it legitimate to suggest that such investigations are, necessarily, and by definition, unscientific? No. I think not! Some (maybe even most) such investigations may be unscientific. Indeed, I imagine many are. But I believe it absolutely is illegitimate to suggest they are unscientific by definition.

As I attempted to clarify yesterday, the scientific enterprise is, by definition, all about seeking "proximate, material causes for whatever phenomena scientists determine they want to discover proximate, material causes."

Is their enterprise doomed to failure?

In some areas, I expect, it will, indeed, fail. I lack faith in the idea that the material universe is all that exists. I believe there is evidence that a "supernatural"--i.e., beyond-nature, spiritual--reality exists. And I believe this supernatural realm impinges upon the "natural" or physical. Indeed, as I have often noted in the past (and as the Haarsmas, and Glover, and just about every other Christian evolutionist I have met note), the Bible teaches this and I (and they) believe it: God supervenes over history . . . all history . . . even those portions where, to our eyes, "pure, unadulterated, random chance" seems to rule. Some of the Scriptures that bear on the subject:
  • With respect to pure, unadulterated chance (at least as as it is perceivable from a human perspective): Proverbs 16:33--"The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from [Jehovah]."
  • Colossians 1:17: "[I]n [Jesus] all things hold together."
  • Hebrews 1:3: "[Jesus] upholds all things by the word of His power."
  • Proverbs 16:9: "The mind of man plans his way, But [Jehovah] directs his steps."
  • Proverbs 19:21: "Many plans are in a man's heart, But the counsel of [Jehovah] will stand."
  • Proverbs 21:31: "The horse is prepared for the day of battle, But victory belongs to [Jehovah]."
  • Genesis 50:20 (where Joseph speaks to his brothers who had sold him into slavery): "As for you, you meant evil against me, {but} God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive."
  • And so forth.

The point in all of this: It doesn't matter whether we, as humans, can discern a supernatural prevenience at work; Christians are convinced--to the point that we would say we "know" (by faith), God is in control . . . just as, I might add, atheists also are convinced--to the point that they would say they "know" (and, I would note, "by faith"), "There is no God."

And in both cases, I can state with absolute assurance, the claims are non-scientific.
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