Why Evolution Is True

Is this the worst popular philosophy piece ever? A philosopher argues that science is no more reliable than philosophy at finding truth

When I read the title of this New York Times piece in The Stone philosophy section, “There is no scientific method,” I thought at first it would be about Paul Feyerabend’s contention that, in science, “anything goes.” I discuss this in Faith versus Fact, agreeing that the classic presentation of “The Scientific Method” in the classroom is misleading.  That presentation usually goes like this: concoct hypothesis—> test hypothesis —>support or reject hypothesis based on test.

But not all science is done like that. For example, facts usually precede hypotheses, at least in biology (Darwin often used that method to concoct his theories).  And much good science can be done without any hypotheses at all. An example would be describing all the species in an area like a patch of Amazonian rain forest. Those facts may be useful some day (e.g., for conservation or for finding new drugs from plants), and also can turn up fascinating nuggets of information about natural history—knowledge. The only thing in common among all “scientific methods” is that they use empirical tools and rationality to find out the nature of reality, and produce conclusions that can be empirically checked by others. In the case of theoretical work, that usually involves producing results that either are testable or might someday be testable by empirical methods.

Sadly, that is not what this article, by James Blachowicz—professor emeritus of philosophy at Loyola University here in Chicago—is about.  It’s about Blachowicz’s misguided claim that there is no scientific method that differs from the way an artist writes a poem, or the way a philosopher arrives at a definition of a term.

His first example comes from Stephen Spender’s description of how he wrote a poem, showing successive drafts up to the final one. As Blachowicz says,

I was immediately struck by the similarities between [Spender’s] editing process and those associated with scientific investigation and began to wonder whether there was such a thing as a scientific method. Maybe the method on which science relies exists wherever we find systematic investigation. In saying there is no scientific method, what I mean, more precisely, is that there is no distinctly scientific method.

There is meaning, which we can grasp and anchor in a short phrase, and then there is the expression of that meaning that accounts for it, whether in a literal explanation or in poetry or in some other way. Our knowledge separates into layers: Experience provides a base for a higher layer of more conceptual understanding. This is as true for poetry as for science.

Right away you can see this man (Blachowicz, not Spender) is deeply confused. Poetry is not at all like science: it’s a way to express emotions in a lyrical way, and if a poem has a message, it tells us nothing about the nature of reality save a) that the poet felt that way and b) if it conveys anything about reality beyond the poet’s feelings (which of course can be misguided), it would need to be checked empirically, by science.  This is not to denigrate poetry, which I love, but to say that the intent of poetry, and the way poets write, are completely different from the way a scientist goes about finding truth.

Blachowicz then goes on to compare the scientific method to the way a philosopher like Socrates would go about defining “justice” or “courage.” That, of course, involves interrogation of people’s notions, refining them in view of contradictions, and so on until one arrives at a satisfactory concept. Again, he sees this as pretty much the same way that scientists find truth:

It’s important to see that this process — like that whereby a poem is written — rests on two requirements that have to be met. A good definition or poem must be one (a) whose expressed meaning matches the actual meaning that was grasped in a pre-articulated way and (b) which satisfies some criterion of form (embodies an explanatory principle or satisfies poetic form).

The problem, of course, is that every person has a different notion of “justice” or “courage,” and what the philosopher’s trying to do here is simply come up with a definition that comports with the individual’s notion.  There is no objective definition of what constitutes “courage” or “justice” that everyone can agree on, nor will everyone agree on whether a given act is “courageous” or a given result represents “justice.” For reasons that escape me, Blachowicz doesn’t see the fundamental difference between this semantic exercise and an exercise like discovering how many carbon atoms there are in a benzene molecule, or finding out when the hominin lineage diverged from that which produced modern chimps and bonobos.

To defend this wonky notion, Blackowicz says that scientists like Kepler (his example is Kepler’s analysis of the orbit of Mars) do the same thing: we tweak our hypotheses if they don’t fit the data (note: the data, not some intuitive notion of “courage”), until we arrive at a satisfactory result.  The final empirical understanding, as embodied, for example, in classical mechanics, is supposed to be like Socrates concocting a definition of “justice” that fits someone’s preconceived notion. The ad-hocery of science is described like this:

Kepler could have hammered out a patchwork equation that would have represented the oval orbit of Mars. It would have fit the facts better than the earlier circle hypothesis. But it would have failed to meet the second criterion that all such explanation requires: that it be simple, with a single explanatory principle devoid of tacked-on ad hoc exceptions, analogous to the case of courage as acting in the face of great fear, except for running away, tying one’s shoelace and yelling profanities.

Yet in science, just as in defining a concept like courage, ad hoc exceptions are sometimes exactly what are needed. While Galileo’s law prescribes that the trajectory of a projectile like a cannonball follows a parabolic path, the true path deviates from a parabola, mostly because of air resistance. That is, a second, separate causal element must be accounted for. And so we add the ad hoc exception “except when resisted by air.”

Note the difference, though: we have two different physical forces acting on the cannonball: air resistance and its momentum imparted by the cannon. This differs from tweaking a definition until it jibes with someone’s preconceived notion: in the case of physics, it’s simply the momentum of the cannon ball acted upon by two external forces: gravity and air resistance. The sum of these two vectors explains the motion of the cannonball: straight classical mechanics.  Someone’s opinion is not the same as an objective fact about nature: the observation of a cannonball’s trajectory. You can explain the latter with physics in a way that can be generalized to all cannonballs in the air, and every rational person can confirm that physics. In the case of defining a philosophical term, the “satisfactory” result holds for only a single person or a subset of people, and there’s no objective way to see if “courage” really does comport with that notion. We are not finding out a truth about nature that holds for everyone.

At the end, Blachowicz descends into complete gibberish as he ponders why science is so much more reliable than philosophy:

An obvious question at this point is this:

If scientific method is only one form of a general method employed in all human inquiry, how is it that the results of science are more reliable than what is provided by these other forms? I think the answer is that science deals with highly quantified variables and that it is the precision of its results that supplies this reliability. But make no mistake: Quantified precision is not to be confused with a superior method of thinking.

I am not a practicing scientist. So who am I to criticize scientists’ understanding of their method?

I would turn this question around. Scientific method is not itself an object of study for scientists, but it is an object of study for philosophers of science. It is not scientists who are trained specifically to provide analyses of scientific method.

All I can say here is “WTF”? Does this man have any inkling of the difference between science on the one hand and philosophy or poetry on the other? The reason the results of science are reliable (and how does he know that the results of philosophy aren’t reliable?) is because science is in the business of finding objective truth. Poetry is in the business of expressing emotions and communicating the writer’s apprehensions and feelings to others. Philosophy is in the business of working out the consequences of a logical system, or, as Blachjowicz describes, digging into people’s beliefs to see what they entail. Neither philosophy nor poetry are “ways of knowing,” as I discuss in Faith Versus Fact. That’s not to denigrate either enterprise, for it’s not the business of either to find out truth. (I hasten to add that the application of philosophy and rational thinking to empirical observation may hasten the discovery of truths. And, of course, as always, “truth” is provisional in science.)

I would further add that scientists do what they do, by and large, without the input from academic philosophers—especially those who analyze what the “scientific method” entails. That’s again no criticism of philosophy, which I can often be a valuable enterprise (but often is not), but simply to say that the job of philosophers of science is to describe and analyze, post facto, how science works—not to tell us how to do it.  (But again, philosophers can sometimes point out errors of thinking or logic that can be useful to scientists; Dan Dennett is good at this.)

I’ll close with a quote from Greg Mayer, who, among others, sent me this link. He’s a herpetologist and evolutionary biologist, but at his small school he was once appointed as temporary head of the philosophy department. His quote about Blachowicz’s piece is this:

“As you know, I’m a former philosophy department chairman, and hold philosophy in high esteem. But junk like this gives license to those who would dismiss the whole enterprise.”

If the NYT can publish tripe like this, perhaps it’s time for someone to pull a Sokal-like stunt, writing a bogus philosophical analysis of science and submitting it to The Stone. But perhaps that’s exactly what Blachowicz has done!

h/t: Reader Jerry M. for correcting a stupid physics error I made.