Tuesday, May 23, 2006

My Response to Steve (with clarification of the scientific method)

` Here, I examine yet more typical misunderstandings of the point of science and skepticism, this time from another commenter known as Steve. For Steve and anyone else with the same sort of opinions, feel free to sit back for several minutes and let me break down precisely what a skeptic would disagree with myself:
I suppose if youre looking to maintain simplistic explanations then applying Ockham's Razor is the way to go. The problem with applying it, seems to me to automatically bias one from considering a more complex solution. Ockham's Razor is about playing probabilities based on "available" evidence. Which is basically what science needs to adhere to so it doesnt play a game of speculation. Just because applying the Razor with todays available evidence points to not needing an intelligent source, it should not block our mind from possibilities thus biasing further research.
` If you are talking about further research of Intelligent Design, it does not: If there is evidence for such a thing, Ockham’s Razor will tell you; ‘Oh, evidently, Darwinian evolution cannot explain this bit, and so it would be very important for biologists to test for it and, if confirmed, use that as an assumption in their experiments to see if they make more sense’ and so on. Only then could an alternate theory of evolution or even something called a ‘Theory of Intelligent Design’ be developed.
` After a century and a half of unwittingly searching for anomalies, Darwin’s theory has yet to be falsified (though it has been expanded upon, and certain details have had to be changed).
` Thus, if there’s no way to tell whether there is an intelligent creator or not, as you say, then what effect would that have on the predictions of experiments? You would not need to add it onto evolutionary theory because that would not clarify anything, nor would it offer any kind of new insight.
` If, however, experimental evidence pointed toward Intelligent Design, that would inevitably have to lead scientists to that conclusion, after a lot of failing to falsify this evidence (which everything in science must be rigorously subjected to).
` The purported evidence put forth by ID advocates mostly involves ignoring or distorting research that already exists, as well as giving the public the wrong impression about what science is and what is going on in the minds of scientists.
` Which is easy, since most people don’t quite grasp its significance or its usefulness – almost nobody is sufficiently taught the point of scientific thought in school.
As a follower of science i recognise human limitations on researching an intelligent source and therefore i tend to just state "we just dont know"...as opposed to the more rigid " its too complex a solution and theres no need to even consider it".
` Despite your own personal impression, the scientific opinion actually is that we don’t know if there’s an intelligent creator – there is simply no evidence (so far) to support that it exists. That’s the thing with being a skeptic – you suspend judgement until there is hard evidence.
` You don’t need to invoke an intelligent creator to explain any of what we know, including experimental methods based on what we know. So, what purpose would adding a creator into the equation of perfectly adequate experimental predictions if it changed nothing about them?
` Naturally, some scientists studying evolution do, in fact, believe that God made the universe and that evolution is one of His many amazing inventions. This does not contradict anything they know about, or have found in, their evolutionary research, so they feel no need to invoke the idea that God needed to suspend the laws of physics during the process.
` Apparently, the careful, scientific act of closely observing nature says to these scientists that God was brilliant enough not to have to intervene with the process of evolution because He set it up so well!
` In other words, they don’t use their beliefs about God to disrupt what little we know about the world because they have not seen any evidence of the laws of physics being violated in the creation of life or the universe.
` Furthermore, to such scientists, the yearning for finding physics-suspending miracles in the universe is not important to them because they have unshakable faith: There is no reason to strengthen it by going out of the way and leaving the realm of objectivity, which is one thing that is absolutely crucial for science to work.
` Can you seriously think of any difference it might make to science if people looked at it this way; ‘evolution occured because of the laws of physics and that’s as far as we can trace it, and we don’t know where they came from, we just know that they exist’ compared to; ‘evolution occurred because of the laws of physics and God created the laws of physics.’
` So, if evolution stems from the laws of physics, it does not matter where they came from. It won’t affect what you think about the laws of physics, just as long as they exist. Everything we know about the universe says that the laws of physics exist. However, there is no suggestion that a creator of any intelligence brought them into existence.
` Perhaps this is not quite what you meant, though it might give you a small idea of the kinds of thoughts that go through my head when I see comments like these.
Lets say we humans finally get around to really advanced stage in artificial intelligence field and begin making robots that design and make other robots. A few million years from now a scientist comes upon one of these robots traveling through space. Hes going to study this robot and see its amazing capabilities at regeneration. Hes going to study this advanced robot and see its evolved state of being biologically driven creatures like ourselves, instead of the nuts , bolts and electricly driven machine we began with. Hes then going to apply Ockham's Razor principle and conclude this robot creature had no intelligent source before it? Only problem is he would be wrong.
` Of course. However, the robots are already evolving on their own. So, that part needs no intervention. There is no evidence that robots – at least anything we would recognize as robots – could arise on their own. You might speculate that futuristic robots with cellular structures might hypothetically evolve on planets that are full of whatever materials they’re made of.
` Still, the reality here is that we are talking about biological things. First of all, there is no real evidence that evolution may not have happened, despite rigorous and mostly unwitting attempts to falsify both evolution and any concept it crucially depends on since before the twentieth century.

` (Intelligent Design arguments to this point, as I have demonstrated in my last post and will go into at some point in the future, merely exist because ID promoters have garbled, selectively ignored and totally misprepresented the methods and findings of existing research: Only after they have chopped up legitimate scientific findings and methods and made it into salad do the remains appear questionable.)

` In your analogy, however, you must keep in mind that evolution does not cover the origins of life; it can only tell us about the way life changes after it has arisen. If there were no life forms to select for, then how could evolution work?
` So, in reality, your robot analogy is about origins, not evolution. In comparison to the vast amounts of knowledge we have concerning evolution, scientists don’t really know much about how life could have begun – they have simply narrowed down what one might consider to be plausible.
` And yet, what they do know still does not suggest that anything that breaks the laws of physics had to have happened. Indeed, at least three teams of researchers – one from the Scripps Research Institution, one from MIT, and the other I think was from Germany – have created conditions in which different kinds of organic molecules spontaneously began to replicate themselves in different ways.
` I can’t say I know that much about the subject, though apparently, organic molecules can spontaneously arise under certain conditions. (In fact, various types of amino acids, both ones that are found in terrestrial life and ones that are not, have been discovered inside of asteroids.) Also, it is not such a huge stretch of the imagination to suppose that these molecules may be able to begin replicating by themselves.
` Therefore, this part has been found possible, instead of impossible. So far, there are no huge problems with this idea as far as anyone knows. Furthermore, what we know of replicating molecules going through various stages of some sort or another and ultimately resulting in life has also not been found to be impossible – what little we do know tells us that it could happen.
` Unless the whole idea of life being able to arise through the laws of physics is falsified, then judgement is being suspended on precisely how it could have occured – scientists are simply leaning in the direction of hypotheses on the subject that make the most sense. And, at the same time, there has been no reason to invoke an Intelligent Designer – that idea has so far not been useful for any part of science.
We have to be careful to guard against thinking science offers us certainties when in fact it can only offer us probabilities. We have to be careful in discounting ideas that surpass current scientific capabilities. The wonders of science should humble us to possibilities, not bias us with rigid dogma.
` Which is why the object of science is to avoid dogma: It is carefully constructed to catch anything that has greater explanatory power than what may be currently accepted. That is why scientific ideas are tentative and provisionary – any theory that is consistently found to have superior explanatory power compared to a prevailing theory will inevitably replace it.
` Of course, scientists are human and sometimes become attached to certain ideas, especially if they were their own. This does not at all prevent them from scientifically being proven wrong, as the entire scientific method and the larger community is carefully constructed to have checks and balances for inconsistencies.
You say you dont want to teach kids to "not break the rules" and steer clear of "complete contradictions". Maybe if Albert Einstein had been "taught" a little more he would have just been known as a pretty good patent clerk.
` You would most certainly not have said that about Einstein if you had understood what ‘rules’ and ‘contradictions’ I was referring to.
` Albert Einstein, being a scientist, did not deviate from the scientific method, which is what I had meant: He used the scientific method to figure out what was going on, and that is how he made progress! When observations based on his ideas did not result in what he had expected, he went back to the blackboard instead of selfishly pretending he hadn’t seen what he had seen.

` Honestly, I did not want to go into this subject before because it is quite lengthy to explain. Still, in retrospect, it was rather foolish of me to answer to you as if you would understand where I was coming from. It sounds almost as if you think the scientific method is an arbitrary set of rules that can be broken and still yield results that have realistic applications.
` And so, to be absolutely clear, let us review:

The Scientific Method

` I have checked out the comments section yesterday and noticed that Steve had indeed left a comment saying that he was indeed fairly familiar with the scientific method. Still, I think perhaps it might be good to go over it again in a new light:

` The standard procedures and criteria of the scientific method allow for the most reliable and consistent picture of the world by far. This is because they are fairly good at maintaining objectivity by keeping bias and prejudice well-contained. Objectivity is the key!
` Now, suppose you were a scientist. How would you come up with a theory or a law? As you must know by now, there are four main stages:

1. It all generally starts with an intriguing observation of some sort that perhaps runs counter to what most people would expect.

` Keep in mind that Intelligent Design, which as you say there is indeed no evidence for, starts with none such thing. That is easily demonstrated, though not in this space – another time, surely.

2. With this observation in mind, you must try to account for it with a very tentative explanation that does not seriously contradict other observations that have already been made. This kind of explanation is called a (/an) hypothesis.
` Now; if your hypothesis is correct, then anyone at all could expect to be able to make a new observation that would bear it out.

` As you may be aware, Intelligent Design firstly predicts things that we already know are not even true, due to the distortion of facts by proponents in order to create evidence. Secondly, it also predicts things that evolutionary theory also both predicts and explains scores of times better:
` Even though this is so, ID proponents will say that these very things evolutionary theory predicts and explains perfectly well are actually evidence against evolution! It’s really quite insane, that’s all I can say for now.

3. So, you, along with other scientists who are willing and able, will need to conduct further experiments and observations to see if they confirm what your hypothesis predicts will happen. If everyone’s observations are utterly contradictory, your hypothesis is clearly falsified! Sorry.
` However; if many observations and experiments are consistent with your hypothesis being a reality, though not every one, all you may need to do is modify it to fit what has really been found. In reality. Which is real.
` The object is, therefore, to make your ideas represent reality as closely as you can in order to predict what will follow in various situations.

` Intelligent Design people are not doing this. There is plenty in the real world which blatantly contradicts their hypothesis, and they aren’t even changing it one bit!
` What they do instead is to distort or misinterpret data as well as the implications of evolutionary theory, and cook up thought experiments which are not even analogous to the subjects on which they are referring to. In that way, they create the illusion that evolutionary theory is not good enough to explain what it actually does explain, and on top of this, they distort the idea of what evolutionary theory is expected to explain.

4. If your hypothesis can be changed so that its predictions are accurate in light of new experiments, it is doing quite well! As you and your colleagues go about testing your new and improved hypothesis’ plausibility, you need to make sure that it does not contradict what all of you find; it cannot depend on things that have been proven false!
` If your hypothesis, as it evolves, predicts what will be found among you, and if all of you do indeed find that it is reasonably consistent with reality, then by all means, keep testing it!
` Only after you have amassed as much essential evidence as you can collect, and adjusted your hypothesis to the point where there are no discrepancies with reality, can it become a theory.

` Newton’s theory of gravity is a good example: It explains such things as falling objects, tides, and why we see the sun, the moon and the planets in the positions that we see them. So far, it has had no serious problem predicting where you can expect to see the sun, moon, and planets, nor has it run into any significant problem when scientists use it to guide spacecraft.
` And so, it is very practical!

` Since ID proponents have never been able to get through the first three steps, it is clear that Intelligent Design Theory is not an actual scientific theory. In fact, based on what we know about the world, I don’t see how it could be considered a ‘theory’ in the common vernacular, either!

` In the scientific sense, of course, a theory is a framework which both can consistently make sense of observations in a certain field, as well as predict what any other explorations, by anyone, will turn up.
` You see, no other scientist has to believe your results are true – they can simply perform the experiment themselves to see, as many times as they want. Therefore, if anyone has a prejudice against you, they will have to admit that your results are correct anyway if they should also find them.
` It should be sufficiently clear to you now that:

1. There is no faith involved because anyone can see what there is to see – thus, objectivity!

2. When an experiment is repeated by anyone, they should get the same results no matter what their personal opinions may be!

3. Evidence from these objective experiments is what theories are based on!

(4. None of this is true for Intelligent Design.)

` Importantly, all scientific theories must make predictions that can be proven wrong. For example, Einstein’s theory of General Relativity is useful only because nothing has contradicted it in its usage: The experiments made to test this particular theory did not prove it to be untrue – even though they very well could have!
` As it is, it is still a tremendously useful theory with no fundamentally serious flaws. Even so, it could still be proven wrong in the future.
` Now let’s say that you come up with an idea that there are space-traveling pterosaurs which live in another galaxy. (Of course, when you’re making theories about the cosmos, you can’t perform experiments – you can only look at things that haven’t been seen before.) So, if you cannot be expected to see the pterosaurs, much less their space vehicles or planet, then how can you have any evidence for them? Even if you proposed that they came to earth sometimes but never showed themselves to humans, how could you possibly perform an experiment meant to reveal them?

` The reason this idea isn’t scientific is not because the proposed subjects are pterosaurs that travel intergalactically: It is not scientific because you could not ever be expected to see them!
` On the other hand, if you propose the idea that space pterosaurs do not visit earth, you could prove it wrong if you caught one and were able to record it! Therefore, saying that there are no space pterosaurs (or no civilizations of intelligent moles, or no tomato plants with magical powers), is scientific, not because it sounds silly but because it can be falsified!
` Truly, a lot of scientific theories sound incredibly silly, yet they managed to survive falsification and become theories! I mean, we can seat two hundred people into a giant metal tube with wings and fly them across the world? Please! Time is not the same for one person standing on the ground as it is for someone else who is moving at a different speed and direction, say, in one of the giant metal tubes? Give me a break!
` It’s all because reality doesn’t care what we think; instead, we have to care about what is going on around us (and inside of us)!

` Science, despite popular myth, is all about challenging assumptions. Unfortunately, you can’t challenge an assumption if it is a negative one. Meaning, if you want someone to prove that something doesn’t exist, you could not: Not finding something does not mean that it doesn’t exist.
` On the other hand, you could prove that it doesn’t not exist! The weight of evidence, therefore, is on whoever is making the claim – they could find a way to prove something’s existence by discovering it!
` Therefore, you can prove that something exists by observation. Yet, you cannot prove that something does not exist through observation.
` So, the scientific hypothesis behind the idea is; ‘Such-and-such does not exist’, no matter what it is, is scientific because you can test it to see if it’s wrong!

` What is the practicality of this?

` Because; if something has no observable ramifications in reality, then what difference does it make if it exists or not?
` For example, if there was a hypothetical particle that affected nothing, not even gravity, and so could not be detected by any means, then what use would it be in a scientific theory?
` I mean, think about it; you cannot know something about anything that affects nothing in the world. It might as well exist in another universe not attached to ours!
` Surely, it would be neat to know about, but if it affected nothing about what we could do in the world, then how could we even hope to know if it existed? Importantly, it wouldn’t help to explain anything we can observe or do!
` Science, you see, is about figuring out how the universe works so far as it can be seen, and being able to use that information to do things. Even if we did know that the universe was made by a gigantic chicken or something, what effect would that have on what we can do in the world?
` How could it possibly affect what types of experiments we can perform, or what kinds of technology we can develop? It wouldn’t! One bit.

` So, back to Steve’s complaint, which as I recall was something along the lines of: “The fact that Intelligent Design is being pushed out of schools is censorship.” Okay... Darwin’s theory explains the evolution of life just fine. Adding Intelligent Design wouldn’t change anything, right?

` Let’s look at it this way:

` The modern theory of evolution explains not only the diversity of life, but everything we know in the biological, geological, and chemical fields of science is in agreement and supports it.
` Intelligent Design (which, as I’ve stated, is not based on the scientific method to begin with) cannot be observed in any case, and so it changes nothing. Therefore, how could it be useful to science?
` It can’t. Neither can the idea that all the energy the universe is made of was once a giant dragon. Dragon or not, its relations to our observations and manipulations of the universe would make no difference at all.

` Look at it this way; all we know about the diversity of life fits into modern evolutionary theory, somewhat like a cup. Intelligent Design (which is not even close to being a scientific theory) explains nothing that evolution can’t explain, and mainly seems to explain evidence and other parts of science after they have been twisted into something else.
` Therefore, the cup representing the Not-Theory of Intelligent Design mostly holds fiction rather than all the facts that are available.

` Similarly, the theory of evolution explains all we know about the diversity of life, and so, all of that knowledge supports it like a huge column (or, at least, none of the evidence threatens to knock it off). Intelligent Design is not supported by much that has been found in the real world, and so it has very little to stand on.
` (Of course, if something were found that supports it, it might have a chance at becoming a hypothesis which actually has something to do with reality.)

` Now, look at it another way; if there is proposed hypothesis of Intelligent Design, which you are not actually expected to detect, then how could it contribute to evolutionary theory?
` Let’s say that all that is known about biology is like lattice work, and that evolution is like a vine that requires this latticework for its existence. It has wonderful explanatory power, and so it continues to sprawl, shooting its tendrils into more areas of fact as they are discovered.
` But now there’s another vine called Intelligent Design. If it had to compete with the vine representing evolution, it couldn’t support itself on the latticework of reality. Ah... I’m getting ahead of myself again. More about vines and latticework shortly:

` And yet, there’s more to this whole thing than sheer explanatory power: Let’s say that a theory makes sense until we realize its applications are useless outside of a certain set of parameters. That’s okay, because it’s still useful within those boundaries!
` Newton’s laws of classical mechanics are a perfectly good example of this. They apply to all sorts of things. However, they are only useful to a limit: They actually don’t work at all for velocities over a certain speed!
` And still, since most things are slow enough in day-to-day life, you can still apply them below that threshold without being unscientific!
` On a larger scale, Einstein’s equations can explain not only Newton’s laws, but other things in addition!
` Similarly, Newton’s laws are only good on scales smaller than a certain threshold, so they cannot apply on the atomic level. However, the equations of quantum mechanics explain not only motions at the infinitesimal; they also describe what happens on larger scales.
` And so, while Newton’s equations are quite useful, they do not explain everything. Thus:

1. Einstein’s equations do include the observations that Newton made at the speeds that he did, as well as explaining more.

2. Similarly, quantum mechanics embraces all sizes and explains the motions of all scales, including reasons why Newton’s observations had occured.

` So, Newton wasn’t really wrong, so much as the applications for his laws are limited. So, let’s go back to the vine analogy:
` If a theory were to replace evolutionary theory, and since evolutionary theory predicts and explains pretty much everything we know, then another theory would have to come along that would explain why evolutionary theory appears to be the way it is.
` Put another way: Evolutionary theory explains and predicts so much about so many things! The only way that another theory could replace it would be if it could explain why evolutionary theory explains what it explains!
` For this to occur, we need new observations and experimental results that evolution cannot explain. This hasn’t happened yet; and so, it seems as though there is nothing evolution cannot potentially explain.
` So, if this new theory were a vine it would have to have the ability to grow on top of evolutionary theory, and essentially engulf it, as well as explain whatever hypothetical thing that evolutionary theory could not.
` Still, evolutionary theory would not be wrong per se, – it would simply not explain everything.

` There is more, of course, though I think I’ve written quite enough for one post: The important thing here is that whatever lies outside of the reach of science is simply redundant and inane in the intrest of all practicality.


Galtron said...

Couldn't have said it better myself.

S E E Quine said...

` I see in the comments as displayed in my gmail account that you've been doing a pretty good job yourself!
` Really, thanks for taking such an interest in my skeptical debates! You're not tripping me up too badly ;)

Galtron said...

No problem! I think it's fun. I don't know why, I just get this satisfaction from being able to figure out a flaw in someone's logic and then being able to point it out to them.

It's kind of addictive.

I think I would spontaneously die if I woke up in 1984 and had to talk in NewSpeak. So, I'm happy to be your underling - I mean, bulldog!

Galtron said...

P.S. You do know what NewSpeak is, don't you?

S E E Quine said...

` Why yes I do, and I understand your feelings entirely. That's why I spent all that time and money getting my responses for Dawn and Steve ready.
` Next post will probably be another Noci-Note as soon as I get back to finishing it.

` Hopefully, perhaps my next set of Noci-Notes won't create such a controversy among the teeming millions!

Galtron said...

You know, I think you scared both Dawn and Steve away. They'll probably never come back. Poor things. Of course I don't know their reactions because I was busy hiding in my bomb shelter.

S E E Quine said...

` They probably are overwhelmed by the sheer amount of material I've written down and don't think it's worth their time reading.