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Thursday, February 14, 2013

Science, the Divine, Dogma and Mystery

Becher - Phlogiston Theory - Wikipedia
We start off with Missouri House Bill #291 introduced by representatives Brattin (Sponsor), Koenig and Bahr (Cosponors) - link via this Ars Technica article by John Timmer.

The bill outlines some interesting definitions:

Scientific Theory - an inferred explanation of incompletely understood phenomena about the physical universe based on limited knowledge, whose components are data, logic, and faith-based philosophy. The inferred explanation may be proven, mostly proven, partially proven, unproven or false and may be based on data which is supportive, inconsistent, conflicting, incomplete, or inaccurate. The inferred explanation may be described as a scientific theoretical model;

Scientific Law - a statement describing specific phenomena about the physical universe which has been verified by observation or experimentation and has no exceptions of verified empirical data. The statement may be described by formula;

Standard Science - knowledge disclosed in a truthful and objective manner and the physical universe without any preconceived philosophical demands concerning origin or destiny. Knowledge is based upon verified empirical data obtained through observation and experimentation and serves as the factual basis for formulae, events, processes, principles, and laws and may be a component of theory, hypothesis, conjecture and extrapolation. Knowledge growth as a result of human endeavor serves as the foundation for the continuous reevaluation of theory, hypothesis, conjecture, and extrapolation to determine their correctness based on supporting or conflicting verified empirical data.

Timmer objects to these definitions, the "Scientific Theory" in particular, and serves up the Wikipedia definition of "scientific theory" as a more proper definition (from Wikipedia):

The United States National Academy of Sciences (USNAS) defines scientific theories as follows:

    The formal scientific definition of theory is quite different from the everyday meaning of the word. It refers to a comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is supported by a vast body of evidence. Many scientific theories are so well established that no new evidence is likely to alter them substantially. For example, no new evidence will demonstrate that the Earth does not orbit around the sun (heliocentric theory), or that living things are not made of cells (cell theory), that matter is not composed of atoms, or that the surface of the Earth is not divided into solid plates that have moved over geological timescales (the theory of plate tectonics)...One of the most useful properties of scientific theories is that they can be used to make predictions about natural events or phenomena that have not yet been observed
 The Ars author Timmer, who according to his bio, spent "15 years doing research at places like Berkeley and Cornell" dislikes the Brattin definition of "scientific theory" presumably because later on Brattin uses it as a means of injecting "Intelligent Design" into Missouri text books.

So let's look at the USNAS version.

Its explicitly says that definition of a (presumably) scientific theory is "a comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is supported by a vast body of evidence."

The Brattin definition is to me much clearer and does not conflict with the Academy of Sciences version.

What I think Timmer does not like is that Brattin's version explicitly lays bare the truth about science: its incomplete and the best explanation we have based on limited knowledge made up of "data, logic, and faith-based philosophy."

The USNAS version implies the notion of a "vast body of evidence" makes science right.  It then goes on to provide examples.

One I find particularly interesting is "matter is composed of atoms."

While this is "true" at a certain level it is no more true than matter is "earth, air, fire and water."

The "earth, air, fire and water" explanation acceptable to ancients who had no notion of atoms.

The atom explanation acceptable to those without apparent knowledge of quarks and quantum mechanics.

Timmer's world would have us believe that "atoms" are an acceptable notion for what things are made of because its supported by a "vast body of evidence" I suppose.

But Brattin's explanation of scientific theory is much more flexible and correct: it admits that some elements of explanation, quarks, quantum mechanics might be unclear (for example, what quantum mechanics means when you think about things like the "Observer Effect," entanglement, faster-than-light communication, and the implications of quantum mechanics as they apply to the macro (non-quantum) world).

Would Timmer have us believing still in "phlogiston theory?"

Apparently the USNAS version of theory doesn't account for new ideas replacing old ones.

The real problem is that quantum things like the Observer Effect makes it clear that we, as the observers in science, can and do affect what we observe.  And there is also the domain of theories of "consciousness" which are, by nature, observer dependent because the only observer of a conscious mind is the person who inhabits it.

Another problem is one of "scope" - yes, at some level - perhaps 1965 third grade science atoms make up the entire universe.  But only from the third grade perspective.  Simultaneously someone in graduate school in 1965 might have been advancing quantum theory or the understanding of quarks.

Is the third grader wrong?  Or is the third grader just working at a level of scope commensurate with his mental capability?  Does that make him wrong?

These things and others make at least some of what is called science today, at least by USNAS, fall outside the simple observation/hypothesis/theory model.  (For example, there is no known reason why macro objects cannot and/or do not behave like quantum objects.)

Over all I reject the Timmer model of constrained science.

Science is about truth.

Science is about mystery.

Science is also about "scope."

So who is to say that, at some level of scope, a religious perspective of the universe is wrong?

Certainly this is no different than trying to wrap up the notion of an "observer" in quantum mechanics.

Today's scientists certainly don't seem qualified to address these larger issues.

Instead it seems like "they" have a vested interest in keeping the definition narrow in order to keep the dogma where it is.

I think that we do a disservice to our children when we boil the world down to standard scientific "dogma" for them.

What does this do to their sense of wonder (I wonder)?

Quantum physics shows us that the standard scientific model is not going to hold up in the long run.

So how can anyone rule Divinity out of science - is it any more mysterious than quantum physics?

Today's science is not science.

Its "Facebook" - let's all click "Like" if we think this should be standard dogma.

But the Timmer's of the world should take a lesson from Facebook.

Just because everyone "Like's" something doesn't mean that its true...

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