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Did past cultures have Scientific Theories?

Post of the Month: January 2013


Subject:    | Wilkins defends Christian Evolutionists
Date:       | 16 Jan 2013
Message-ID: |

Within a more extended conversation Ray Martinez, an old earth creationist who believes species are fixed, asserts:
> There is no such thing as "creationist theory." Real Victorian
> Creationism is a scientific paradigm based on observation; no theory
> (multiple inferences) involved.

Beginning his POTM Burkhard replies:
There is no theory free science, science is all about theory. If the Victorian creationists really had no theory, then they also had no science. Science explains what we observe in a methodologically guided and structured way, by positing hypothesised causes (as few as possible), from this predicting things that are not yet observed, and then testing systematically the interpretation of the data by experiments. Observations play only a small part, and the least interesting one (these days done by research assistants). This gives us the theory or gravity, the theory of (Newtonian) particle mechanics, the theory of ideal gases, the theory of atomism etc etc. Many of them of course preceding the Victorians, this was already settled by that time.

Heck, if science were nothing but list of observations, then my three year old niece would be a top scientist. She tells me every evening in much detail all the new things she observed. In fact being exceedingly clever, she is already now going way beyond this. She just discovered a flaw in the theory that flowers go to sleep at night, by noting that "nights" are of different length over the year, but she still has to sleep the same amount. She also came up with an explanation (that challenges much that we know about plant behaviour), if I now make her test that theory, we are much closer to proper science than were, according to you, the Victorians.

Botany is not (all of) biology, and stamp collecting and train spotting are not science either, just uninteresting observations without inferences.

Luckily enough for the Victorians, you also misrepresent them - mainly because you don't understand what "observations" "theories" and "inferences" are.

The design inference by Paley in particular involves several inferences - I gave you the exact quote where he uses the term himself.

What he observes are simply lots of small parts that work together to produce an output. That is as close to a "bare observation" as you get with him (it is for all sorts of reasons still a theoretically guided and influenced observation, e.g. to identify parts) From this he infers that the object is designed by two steps.

a) an argument from ignorance: we (in the 18th century) do not know any processes that create small, interacting parts. This is then followed by an argument by analogy.
b) we do however observe human designers create things with small, interacting parts.

Therefore we can infer or hypothesise an invisible, unobserved entity that designed these things just like humans design watches. This postulated designer then accounts for the observations or data.

This is a quite natural and not at all a fallacious way of thinking. We find it across many cultures, where the creator god(s) typically use methods that are close to whatever the culture in question considers as "high technology" - because it is based on an analogy of actually observed human behaviour. So for cultures where the main design activity is pottery, we find gods that create/design like a potter does. That includes the Christian creation account from clay, the Egyptian story of Kuhm and his pottery wheel, and several Mezoamerican deities. For other cultures, it was wood carving (where the supernatural designer carves people from wood) like Ngai; or they have just discovered farming, and there the gods typically use seeds. For the victorians of course, the main new thing was fine mechanics, so god looks like a watchmaker. All are based on the same analogical inference from observed human behaviour to behaviour by an invisible agent.

The inference is also quite plausible and not invalid - but depends crucially on the premise that there is no other explanation. As soon as there are alternative accounts around, the ball game changes. Now we have to evaluate the competitors, by the degree that they are testable, parsimonious, comprehensive and detailed.

Of course, Darwin provided just such an alternative. Interestingly enough, he actually uses an analogical argument that is quite similar. By observing human breeders, we can see that they create certain patterns in their stock. Since we observe similar pattens in wild species, we can infer that there is some causal agency that works just like a breeder. Only that he does not postulate a breeder god (which would have been just another version of the watchmaker god) but gives reasons why the environment itself can have the exact same effects.

What that crucially allows is to devise new tests for the theory, and make specific claims about specific animals and their traits - the theory is productive in the sense that "it leads to new, small problems and open questions that can be solved with the means of the theory" - what Laudan hails as the main feature of a good theory. It allows us as a result to learn new things. To stay with the analogy, Paley's approach does not allow us to explain why some watches have a Bridge movement and others a Full plate movement, and it also does not explain why we find on one beach watches that look all very similar, to each other, and on another watches that again look similar to each other, but are different from those on the first beach - apart from an empty "because for some inscrutable reason, the designer wanted it that way".

Darwin's theory of course allows us to formulate just those sorts of mid-range, testable theories that explain specific features of specific animals, the main advantage of his approach which explains why historically, it won out.

> Intelligence created unintelligence is not logical.

It is factual. We, intelligent humans, create unintelligent things all the time. We create houses or chairs, which are not themselves intelligent. We create mechanical processes. We create arable land by the random process of setting fire to the forest that was there before, or deposit land mines which blindly explode whenever an environmental trigger happens to land on them. Artist like Jackson Pollock create through random processes. etc etc

All these examples falsify your claim.

> Peter: IF deistic or theistic Deity is consistent with random process,
> then what type of process is inconsistent?

None of course. That is pretty much what we mean with "omnipotent": an omnipotent being (or even a very powerful being short of omnipotence) can create however he chooses to, through random processes or not, it is only creationists that want to prescribe to God how he is allowed (or able, in your case) to create.

Heck, we puny humans can create through random processes and through plans, and do so, so every half competent deity should have the same range of methods available, Again, only creationists dream up a god even less capable than themselves.

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