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What is objective reality?

2009-08-07

This is in response to a discussion over on Secular Right.

Tom Piatak :

Collins doesn’t reject the scientific method. Someone who rejects the scientific method would say, “I do not believe that man can learn anything that is true from the type of experimentation and observation in which scientists engage.” Of course, Collins doesn’t say this. What Collins doesn’t agree with is the proposition the only way to know anything that is true is from the type of experimentation and observation in which scientists engage.

First, let’s get away from the language, “the type of experimentation and observation in which scientists engage”. That’s not the standard for scientific evidence. Obviously, there are a lot of practical limits on science. We can’t observe Earth from Alpha Centauri, but such observation would satisfy the demands of scientific naturalism and serve as evidence that might support a scientific theory. Just because it’s outside the realm of things we can do now or in the immediately foreseeable future does not mean that it’s bad science per se.

So let’s tackle the problem epistemologically.

  1. Certain claims and theories are supported by scientific evidence.Sane people call these theories: “true”, their evidence: “facts”, and the resulting conclusions: “knowledge”.
  2. Evolution clearly falls in this category. Cosmology and abiogenesis do too, although the degree of evidentiary support, and the fine details of the theory, leave open many opportunities for investigation (see (3) below).

    Dr. Collins would probably agree with all this, and this is one reason you want to call him a scientist.

  3. Claims and theories inconsistent with scientific evidence.

    Sane people call these theories: “false”, and their conclusions: “fantasy”. Evidence that might support them may be invented, unreliable, anecdotal, or otherwise fail basic tests for valid observation.

  4. People who claim they are true are often confused or intentionally deceptive. Flat earth, invisible unicorns, the flying spaghetti monster. Also the kind of stuff James Randi likes to hunt down.

    Dr. Collins would almost certainly agree with us here, and I do not think all of his claims fall in this category, although it could be argued that some do (leading to diagnosis: confused).

  5. Claims and theories that could be supported by scientific evidence, but we currently lack the knowledge and observational capability to confirm or deny them.

    Sane people call these “speculation” or colloquially, “theory”. Scientists might call them, “exciting”. Our friend the Higgs boson might live here.

    To be fair, I’m being a touch sloppy here. The cutting edges of science often have one foot in realm (1) and one foot in realm (3); the Higgs boson is supported by theory that has otherwise been supported by evidence. This specific part of the theory still needs to be tested. Much of science is like that.

    Again, no problems with Dr. Collins. No doubt he has worked in cutting edge research and approached many problems with the statement, “I just don’t know. What would it take to find out?”

  6. Claims and theories that, due to the way they are constructed and proposed, cannot be tested by scientific methods or evidence, even hypothetically.

    And here is the problem. Dr. Collins’ claims about “the universe created and tuned to engineer humanity as a vessel for God’s moral law”, clearly falls into this category. Even if we take the suggestion seriously, it is impossible to conceive of what evidence might support such a claim, or what theory is actually being promulgated with these statements.

    Why so much trouble? Because these claims fail the natural requirement of scientific naturalism. By asserting that phenomena result from causes and events whose parameters cannot be known, the claimant is stepping right outside of the realm of science. Scientists who accept scientific naturalism would call these claims “mysticism”, and their resulting conclusions, “false”. Scientists who don’t accept the naturalism of scientific naturalism, or simply people who fail to understand it, might think these claims are in group (3), and they are not.
    But Dr. Collins insists that they are true, which leads me to two possibilities: either he doesn’t understand that genuine phenomena proceed from natural causes and events, or he does not actually believe it (that is, he believes in phenomena which he knows do not proceed from natural causes and events). Either way, it’s right to throw the issues into the light. It’s also possible, and I think this is what grates on you so much, that he holds the dual position of believing in and demanding scientific naturalism for certain claims, but withholding naturalism for others because they are part of his “faith”.

These are philosophically difficult waters, as it’s often difficult to elaborate the difference between claims about phenomena that assert intrinsic randomness as part of the claim (e.g. the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics), and claims that assert “forces beyond our ken” (mysticism). That’s why Einstein was so frustrated by quantum physics, because it seemed to imply reliance on something fundamentally unnatural. However, there’s a difference between theory that includes intrinsic randomness (which is tractable scientifically) and “divine forces” (which are not).

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