One cannot become too exercised with the proponents of Creationism because, unlike a religion-based doctrine, science has the ability to refute itself, a faculty that is usually destructive to any faith-based discipline.
The property of falsification is the best answer to that most subtle of philosophical dilemmas, the inductive argument. Also known as the Fallacy of False Cause, it is the problem of ascribing an effect to a particular cause, or, deriving a general conclusion from its particulars. (The method of mathematical induction is not quite the same as it involves a type of pattern recognition.) For example, if we start with an axiomatic first premise in the syllogism below, we might be led to this:
God is Everywhere
Everywhere there is a Little Evil
Therefore, God is a Little Evil
The inductive reasoning is in the second premise. How can I infer that there’s a little evil everywhere? Have I been everywhere? Define “Evil.” Define “Little Evil.” And how can I know any of this with absolute certainty?
Strictly speaking, though the syllogism above is structurally sound, the middle premise is not, scientifically, permissible.
Consider a more prosaic example:
Every time I walk down the street past my neighbor’s very angry dog, my neighbor’s very angry dog barks at me and tries to jump the fence to bite me. Therefore, the next time I walk down the street, I can expect my neighbor’s very angry dog to bark at me again.
Now, how can I possibly get away with this reasoning? I mean, if I linger in front of the gate, surely, one of these days that dog is going jump the fence and bite me.
David Hume solved the problem for us ordinary folk when he wrote that, “All inferences from experience, therefore, are effects of custom, not of reasoning.” That is, if I am accustomed to something always happening, then I can be reasonably certain that it’s going to happen again. Theologians call this “faith.” Scientists call it “theory.”
Karl Popper formulated an extreme rejoinder to Hume by asserting that scientific theory evolves by surviving a series of tests seeking to falsify it. Max Black summed up Popper this way: “The task of empirical science is falsification, putting to the trial of experience bold conjectures’ about the world, and not the impossible task of discovering truth.”
In “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” Thomas Kuhn is chary of Popper’s absolutism, but admits that Kuhn’s “anomalous experience” is nearly the same thing as Popper’s “falsification.” Anomalous experience is the unexpected experimental result that, when correctly explained, becomes part of a paradigm. And when anomalies accrue, science experiences a crisis that, when driven by increasingly contradictory evidence (and social pressure), is rectified by a scientific revolution that replaces the old paradigm (theory) with a new one.
However, Kuhn argues, the old paradigm doesn’t cease being part of science. James Clerk Maxwell based his electromagnetic field equations on the eddies and pressures of a universal ether. Though the theory of the ether was falsified in the 1880s, Maxwell’s equations remain valid. In fact, Kuhn might argue, a series of discoveries and falsifications in the last 20 years of the 19th Century eventually gave us the theory of relativity.
Imre Kakatos even posited that a mathematical theorem (think theory) is only INFORMALLY true (this is the radical part of his philosophy) until its suspect error is revealed by counterexample or refutation. That Kakatos rejected the idea of formal proof is an extension perhaps of Popper’s trial by experiment.
And Popper’s trial by experiment explains the methodology of Kuhn’s “normal science,” especially since the chemical revolution of the late 1700s.
This is why there’s no single discoverer of anything. All discoveries must be verified by at least one other investigator. Which is why history records not one, but three independent astronomers who reported discovering stellar parallax in the 1830s. But once one discovers stellar parallax, it can’t be undiscovered.
And a field observation or controlled experiment, if purporting to discover something new, will be re-performed in PERPETUITY as part of the classroom experience, until some graduate student announces the conclusion to be erroneous some 5 to 500 years later.
Aristotle claimed that there are only three perfect sciences, geometry, astronomy, and theology, because all three ascribe to study the “perfect.”
Today, it is the rare working scientist who would not regard a theory to be credible unless it can be observed, tested, measured, deduced, reduced, rationalized, explained, and capable of refutation. For how can we know anything with any certainty if perceived through the prejudice of our own subjectivity? This is the Achilles’ heel of plain old everyday perception.
Ultimately, what Popper meant was that if we can eliminate what isn’t true by falsification, then at least we can attempt to understand what’s possibly true.
The following references were consulted for the composition of this article:
Thomas S. Kuhn, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” “Foundations of the Unity of Science,” Vol. II, No. 2, 2nd ed., The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1974.
From: “Introductory Philosophy,” eds. Frank A. Tillman, Bernard Berofsky, John O’Connor, Harper and Sons, Publishers, NY, 1971.
David Hume, “Causality and Induction.”
Max Black, “Justification of Induction.”
Carl G. Hempel, “Explanation in Science and in History.”
And, given that I typed most of this at my sister’s house without specific references or an encyclopedia (except for the ones I toted in a book bag), I must confess to cramming up on Imre Kakatos on Wikipedia.