Friday, August 20, 2010

Cornelius Hunter and the Nature of Science

Cornelius Hunter has an interesting piece on his blog "Darwin's God." He waxes about the nature of science and how theory is constructed. Then he, inexplicably fails to apply these insights to the one theory he apparently hates so much: evolution. I once heard a comedian talk about someone that was so narrow-minded he could "look through a keyhole with both eyes." Here, the myopia is extreme. He writes:
A friend of mine likes to invest in stocks. He understands computer companies so he trades only those stocks. This limitation makes for a simple and straightforward investing strategy. Evolutionists also limit themselves. They investigate only those phenomena that are the result of strictly natural causes. This limitation makes for a simple and straightforward research strategy, though it does create a blind spot.

An investor who buys only computer company stocks can easily identify those companies. He can find companies that build computers, computer components, computer software, and so forth. But how can evolutionists know whether the causes of a past event are strictly natural? How can evolutionists decide which phenomena fall into their research program?

The answer is they can't. Evolutionists have no test for naturalism. They have no way of knowing whether a phenomenon is the result of strictly natural causes.
First, the analogy doesn't hold. His friend only invests in tech stocks. But he could invest in other stocks if he wanted to. Why? Because other stocks behave the same way that tech stocks do. They are all part of the sector of the economy known as the stock market, which follows known patterns. Evolution doesn't limit itself to naturalistic explanations any more than any other scientific discipline.

It soon becomes clear that, when using the term 'evolutionist,' Hunter means modern science in general, since he imputes this problem to all scientific disciplines. What seems lost on him is that this applies to his own area of research, biochemistry. Hunter's argument is that, because we have no test for naturalism, we have no way of testing whether an unsolved problem is simply that: an unsolved problem, or whether it is an unsolvable problem requiring a paradigm shift. He continues:
How can we decide when a scientific problem is not a research problem, but a paradigm problem? Naturalism has no criteria, no set of rules by which to make such a judgment. And no one wants to turn science's attention away from the future discoveries. In fact, phenomena that are more daunting for naturalism are also more tantalizing, for their explanations will be more surprising and dramatic. Not only does science have a blind spot, not knowing if it has stumbled upon an unsolvable problem, but there is a certain allure of such problems. No one knows what will be science's next "Neptune."

This helps to explain the hesitancy of scientists to admit that non natural phenomena might exist. In science we follow Descartes' prescription and approach everything using naturalistic explanations. It also helps to explain the tolerance for improbable theories. Historical theories, no matter how erroneous they may seem, could be just a "Neptune" away from falling into place.

All of this helps to explain how such an implausible theory as evolution persists. It is underwritten not only by theological conviction that natural causes must suffice, but by a philosophy of science that cannot abide any other possibility, no matter how implausible evolution becomes.
Notice the segue from "this is how science operates" to "in doing science we put up with some junk" to "evolution is junk." He provides no evidence for this, merely a blanket statement that evolution is not science. We are supposed to take it on face value that he is correct. In his musings on paradigm shifts, though, he has forgotten something: paradigm shifts only happen when a truly intractable problem affects central tenets of a theory. Such a paradigm shift occurred when Alfred Wegener proposed a solution to many unanswered questions in the form of continental drift. It was a radical change in the understanding of how land masses behaved. Unfortunately, evidence for this did not come to light until the 1950s, when plate tectonics was discovered.

The only major paradigm shift in evolution occurred in the early part of the twentieth century with the discovery of genes and how they functioned. Up until that time, Darwin and others knew that evolution was taking place, but had no understanding of exactly how. Since that time, evolutionary theory has only become more robust. To be sure, there have been changes in understanding regarding tempo and mode and the recent emphasis on evolutionary development, but there are extremely few naturalists or palaeontologists who are not convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that evolution is and has happened throughout the history of this planet. If Hunter wishes to relegate evolution to junk science, he will have to do better than this.

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