Intelligent Design

Truth is What We’re After, Ain’t it?

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I love Kantian Naturalist.  Even when I disagree with him, which is frequently, he is always good for a thought-provoking statement.

Consider this exchange in the comment thread to an earlier post:

Barry:

[Why] do we always argue about which side of some arbitrary line of demarcation our theory falls on? If my beliefs about biological origins are true, what difference does it make to me whether Karl Popper would have said those beliefs are on one side or the other of the line?

The issue is the truth of the matter, not the boxes in which we choose to put that truth.

In arriving at truth we summon and employ to the best of our ability our powers of observation and thought. We consider the alternatives. We attempt to put aside our biases and prejudices. We reach a conclusion. And if we are right, if our conclusion is true, why should we care if someone says, “Your conclusion is not valid because it doesn’t fit into this arbitrary epistemic box”? For the life of me I can’t see why we should.

To which KN responds:

Perhaps the design hypothesis is true. (It certainly is logically possible, after all!) But it does not (yet) warrant the privilege we normally bestow on scientific theories. But isn’t that what the whole debate is about — whether ID is a scientific theory or not? If the design hypothesis is true as the conclusion of a philosophical argument, or as a piece of metaphysical speculation, that’s a very different kettle of fish!

Yes, KN, you have put your finger on it.  Why does ID fight so hard to be considered a scientific theory?  Because we live in a culture in which truth claims wrapped in the mantle of “science” are privileged.  Those who have quaffed deeply the Kool-Aid of scientism would even say that if a truth claim is not scientific it cannot be considered a truth claim at all.

Doubtless scientists’ wildly successful achievements in the last 3-4 centuries in easing the material conditions of most of the world has much to do with science’s privileged epistemic status.  Add to that Descartes’ influence on the Western imagination especially, and you have a pretty powerful brew.

But my question remains.  Should we privilege the scientific program over all other quests for truth.  It is, after all, truth that we are after, isn’t it?  And manifestly there are truth claims that all reasonable people agree are valid but which are not in any sense “scientific.”

1+1=2:   True but not scientific.

There are exactly 360 degrees in a circle.  True but not scientific.

The universe is subject to rational inquiry.  True but not scientific.

A proposition cannot be true and false at the same time and in the same sense.  True but not scientific.

Abraham Lincoln was president of the United States in 1863.  True but not scientific.

Moscow is the capital of Russia.  True but not scientific.

I could go on and on.

Lest anyone misunderstand me, I am not conceding that ID is not a scientific theory*.  I am saying that in the larger sense it does not matter.  My point is that truth is what we are after, and classification into epistemic categories should take a back seat to the search for truth.  If ID is true and not scientific, then so much the worse for science.  And if ID is false and scientific, its scientific status does not make it any less false.
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*I am tempted to say that ID is just as much a scientific theory as Neo-Darwinian Evolution, but I fear that would be damning ID with faint praise. 🙂

22 Replies to “Truth is What We’re After, Ain’t it?

  1. 1
    Kantian Naturalist says:

    If there aren’t a priori truths, then we’re on the slippery slope to post-modern nihilism, in which case it’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.

    The criticism of scientism is one of the points at which I’m more closely aligned with most Uncommon Descent participants than I am with Internet residents on the other side of the aisle.

    (Though thus far I have persuaded exactly no one that “non-scientistic naturalism” is even coherent, and most people regard me as if I were a cross-dressing nudist (meaning, if you’re one, you can’t be the other). But I persevere!)

    Suppose we lived in a non-scientistic culture — one in which science didn’t have the cultural and political cachet that it does — then would it matter if intelligent design were considered to be a scientific theory or not?

  2. 2
    Barry Arrington says:

    KN @1: “Suppose we lived in a non-scientistic culture — one in which science didn’t have the cultural and political cachet that it does — then would it matter if intelligent design were considered to be a scientific theory or not?”

    Not trying to be cute here KN, but it seems as though you are asking “If it did not matter would it matter?” Well, I guess not.

  3. 3
    Kantian Naturalist says:

    Not necessarily.

    By a non-scientistic society, I had in mind a culture in which the sciences are epistemologically distinctive but not epistemologically privileged.

    By that, I mean a society that recognizes and respects what scientific methods disclose about the causal order, but those methods and results don’t translate into cultural-political cachet, and in which scientists don’t benefit from the quasi-mystical authority in which they are often represented and from which they often benefit.

    But, under those conditions, I can see how it still might matter a great deal whether neo-Darwinism, intelligent design, self-organization theory, etc. offers a better explanation for biological phenomena. It’s just that it wouldn’t matter for cultural-political reasons.

  4. 4
    Neil Rickert says:

    It is, after all, truth that we are after, isn’t it?

    No, it isn’t. We are after what works. Science is a fundamentally pragmatic enterprise. What matters is whether a scientific theory works, particularly as a guide to continued scientific research. And yes, philosophers of science get this wrong.

    My own view is that a scientific theory should be considered neither true nor false. It is a starting point for further investigation. We do not have any adequate account of the meaning of “true” that allows us to decide whether a scientific theory is true.

    The Theory of Evolution is succesful precisely because it works very well to guide research in biology. ID is rejected because, even if it were true, it would be completely useless.

    I’ll note that I probably agree with KN on the question of scientism. What science does, it does very well. But there is much of importance that is outside of the domain of science.

  5. 5
    Querius says:

    Neil Rickart wrote

    We are after what works.

    Very true. In Science, we create pragmatic models of reality, which are tools to be improved or replaced as needed.

    The Theory of Evolution is succesful precisely because it works very well to guide research in biology. ID is rejected because, even if it were true, it would be completely useless.

    Completely false. The theory of evolution has a terrible record of predicting things, except in retrospect.

    For example, which was a better theory in predicting the function of non-coding DNA (or at least in guiding scientific inquiry):

    a. Darwinism, which labeled it “junk” and assumed that it to be a useless artifact of evolution.

    b. ID, which assumed it had some unknown function.

    Think about it.

    Incidentally, I’d consider both Darwinism and ID as paradigms rather than theories.

  6. 6
    Kantian Naturalist says:

    In re: Neil Rickert:

    Science is a fundamentally pragmatic enterprise. What matters is whether a scientific theory works, particularly as a guide to continued scientific research. And yes, philosophers of science get this wrong.

    In fairness to philosophers of science, there’s a debate between “instrumentalism” and “scientific realism,” with pragmatists on both sides of the question.

    The pragmatic scientific realist would say that when a theory works better than its competitors, esp. as as guide to continued research, it is because that theory contains a more accurate description of reality. The instrumentalist doesn’t see the point of adding “it is because that theory contains a more accurate description of reality”.

    My own view is that a scientific theory should be considered neither true nor false. It is a starting point for further investigation. We do not have any adequate account of the meaning of “true” that allows us to decide whether a scientific theory is true.

    That last sentence is probably true. (Philosophers can’t agree on anything, can they?)

    My own preference is to adopt scientific realism and say that a theory that is more conducive to opening up further avenues of research is therefore closer to absolute truth and so should be taken-as-true until replaced by a better theory.

  7. 7
    jstanley01 says:

    We do not have any adequate account of the meaning of “true” that allows us to decide whether a scientific theory is true.

    That last sentence is probably true.

    Eegads! I just spewed a big chug of Mountain Dew all over my keyboard.

  8. 8
    Kantian Naturalist says:

    As I intended — I was aware of the irony when I wrote it.

  9. 9
    jstanley01 says:

    You owe me a keyboard, bub.

  10. 10
    Mung says:

    “Truth is What We’re After, Ain’t it?”

    I’m after the chicks, and ID chicks are the best!

    But not Axel. Axel’s not a chick. Fool me once…

  11. 11
    Axel says:

    Careful, Mung… Greg may be about. He doesn’t like to be contradicted. (Still less ordered to answer a question)

    Tell the truth, though, I was kind of relieved. I’d rather receive a Valentine card through the post because he thinks I’m a bird than, well, not…., if you get my drift. Without my having to supply you with its GPS coordinates.

    You know, I was athinking about those coordinates, and though it was a great jest in the context, when you think about it, it wasn’t so far-fetched at all, was it? In essence, that’s what the talk was actually about… locating the mind, presumably spatially, in relation to the brain.

    Truly, truth is stranger than fiction. My My We’re we’re back where we started from! In Sanatogen veritas!

  12. 12
    Mung says:

    Well, Axel, Greg has one more OP here than Timaeus, and that’s enough for me!

    Not sure how that fits in to the “I have no posting privileges at UD” claim that Gregory made, but heck, who cares to be so pedantic?

  13. 13
    RD Miksa says:

    Maybe its just me, but in terms of something like ID and for science in general, I am not interested in what is absolutely/ultimately true (for science, nor any abductive/inductive reasoning, can ever give us this), nor am I interested in what “works”–and you would need to coherently define that term before it could even be accepted–but rather, I am interested in what is rational to believe. Perhaps you could call this something like “truth beyond a reasonable doubt,” but it most certainly is not truth in the ultimate sense.

    And note the interesting thing: if science really is only about what “works,” then it is essentially useless as a truth-seeking enterprise–unless there is a clear connection between truth and what “works,”–and if that really was the case, then I would actually prefer that ID was not considered scientific.

    RD Miksa

  14. 14
    Robert Byers says:

    Is evolutionary biology a scientific theory?? Then!
    before ID/YEC is denied its science spurs or given them SETTLE if evolution is a theory of science as opposed to a hypothesis.
    ID people ARE accepting evolution as a theory of science and then bedazzled as to why ID is not a science as the bad guys say.
    What is science? what is scientific evidence?
    Canadians want to know!

  15. 15
    Querius says:

    Hi RD Miksa,

    One of the fundamental assumptions of Science is that humans are capable of understanding it. This is not necessarily even likely.

    After all, none of the other primates on this planet understand even simple scientific concepts such as the inverse square law, entropy, haploid and diploid stages in development, refraction of light, the causes of ferromagnetism, and so on.

    For example, most school children in America are tested rigorously in Science and many of them are able to answer tough questions such as these samples from the 2008 California Grade 5 Science Standardized Testing and Reporting Program:

    Which of the following is a property of CO2 gas?

    A It feels like a rock.
    B It smells like a lemon.
    C It is colorless.
    D It is hard.

    All living things contain which element?

    A helium
    B sodium
    C copper
    D carbon

    The last question is pretty tricky. While some plants can survive without Sodium, I can’t for the life of me think of any living things that can support metabolic functions without the Copper for cytochrome c oxidase.

    Relax, I looked it up. 🙂

    But even these questions, challenging as they are, might be no match for what’s truly out there! So, simplified models might indeed be as close to the truth as we can comprehend.

  16. 16
    kairosfocus says:

    Kn, re 1:

    If there aren’t a priori [self-evident] truths [including first principles of right reason], then we’re on the slippery slope to post-modern nihilism

    This of course goes to the heart of the issues we have discussed.

    KF

    PS: For a discussion of same for those needing it, cf here.

  17. 17
    kairosfocus says:

    F/N: On the old what is truth point, I suggest Ari in Metaphysics 1011b, truth says of what is that it is and of what is not that it is not. I suggest further that when science loses sight of this as a value and ideal, it tends to go adrift, especially in this era. There is a big, though perhaps subtle distinction between science seeks to ever more accurately understand our world in light of empirical evidence, and science seeks to be a source of power [“success”] in light of empirical reliability of models. In the end, power is about control of others. And maybe that is a deep underlying issue in the debates over design. You can rest assured that anyone whose goal is power is in my cross-hairs big time as a potential source of serious danger. KF

  18. 18
    kairosfocus says:

    PS: I believe Lord Acton: power tends to corrupt, absolute — unaccountable — power corrupts absolutely. Truth as a prime value is a principle of accountability, among other things.

  19. 19
    Box says:

    KF: I believe Lord Acton: power tends to corrupt, absolute — unaccountable — power corrupts absolutely.

    There is always an exception to the rule, this time it is God. That is…..let’s hope so.

  20. 20
    Kantian Naturalist says:

    A few points worth making:

    (1) On some accounts, we have a pretty good meaning of the meaning of “is true.” The problem is that those accounts are semantic accounts — about the meaning of “is true” — and they seem fairly useless for resolving issues in epistemology and metaphysics. In other words, there’s a difference between a semantic account that tells us what “is true” means, and an epistemological theory of truth that tells us how to aim at truth in inquiry.

    (2) The version of scientific realism that I espouse is called ‘convergent realism’, and it claims that the progression of scientific theories is an asymptotic approximation of how the world really is. So, no particular theory is absolutely true, but of two theories, we can say that one contains a more (or less) adequate description of reality than the other. (I would not say “more true” or “less true”, because truth-value is usually considered bivalent — true or false — unless we’re getting into funky, eccentric logics.)

    (3) But convergent realism also holds that empirical success — resolving problems, opening up new lines of inquiry, predicting new data, fitting old data better, etc. — is central to our epistemic access to reality. That is, we know that one theory contains a more adequate description of reality than another because that is how we explain why it is that one theory accommodates old data better, predicts new data, and opens up new lines of research.

    (In other words, pragmatists can be realists!)

  21. 21
    RD Miksa says:

    Dear KN (and I hope that you do not mind the shortened form):

    Would you then say that science, at best, can give us a type of “reasonable/rational faith”, meaning that science gives us rational reasons to hold certain beliefs, but these beliefs are still ultimately uncertain and thus held on a form of faith (rather than certain truth).

    Take care,

    RD Miksa

  22. 22
    Kantian Naturalist says:

    Dear KN (and I hope that you do not mind the shortened form):

    Not at all.

    Would you then say that science, at best, can give us a type of “reasonable/rational faith”, meaning that science gives us rational reasons to hold certain beliefs, but these beliefs are still ultimately uncertain and thus held on a form of faith (rather than certain truth).

    I’m willing to accept this is a translation of my position, but I wouldn’t adopt this specific language myself.

    “Faith” is not a word I use in doing epistemology, or in doing philosophy generally. I might say things like, “I have faith that things will work out for the best,” but that’s a way of expressing a confident hope or a deeply grounded existential orientation.

    The problem, I think, is that English uses the word “belief” in two different ways: to refer to the language in which expresses one’s basic existential orientation, and to refer to elements of one’s rationally assessable theories. In the first sense, beliefs are more like hopes or ideals, and are neither true nor false in the strict sense. (Though they can be assessed according to other criteria.) In the second sense, beliefs are true if the proposition corresponds to the facts, and false if otherwise.

    In any event: I’m the kind of person who distinguishes between what I do as a professional philosopher and what I do as a living, breathing human being who has intellectual, aesthetic, and spiritual needs that professional philosophy cannot satisfy.

    So what I would say, as a philosopher, is not that anything is taken on faith, but that simply that our scientific theories are reliable and provisional, fallible and corrigible. Si they are taken-as-true, or justified, in light of the available evidence — and since there’s always new evidence, the dust never really settles.

    Wilfrid Sellars had a nice way of putting this idea in his “Is There a Synthetic ‘A Priori’?

    Let us suppose that a person has acquired a firmly embedded conceptual frame. In employing this frame, he will distinguish between those propositions which are certain, and those which are at best merely probable on the evidence. The former will coincide with propositions which, in his frame, are true ex vi terminorum. Notice, however, that when the learning process begins to bring about a modification of his conceptual frame, he will admit to being “uncertain” of even those propositions which, in that frame, are true ex vi terminorum. It is clear from this description that we are dealing with two different senses of the contrast between certainty and uncertainty. The first may be called the “intraconceptual,” the second the “extraconceptual” sense. Thus, it makes good sense to say “I am uncertain about its being certain that all A’s are B.” Uncertainty in this second sense is not something that can be remedied by “paying closer attention to what we mean.” It can be overcome (should this be desirable) only by more firmly learning to apply the conceptual system in question to experience, without hesitation or uneasiness.

    But is this the goal of wisdom? Not if we are correct in maintaining that to all conceptual structures there are alternatives; and that no conceptual frame carries the imprint “sterling” certifying it to be the conceptual frame to which all others, to the extent that they are “coherent,” approximate. The essence of scientific wisdom consists in being uncertain about what is certain, in a readiness to move (in circumstances the discussion of which belongs rather to a paper on Induction) from one conceptual frame to another. For not only can we be caused to modify our linguistic frame, we can deliberately modify it — teach ourselves new habits — and give reasons for doing so. It is the idea that because (in terms of our present use of “A” and “B”) we have found all observed A’s to be B, it would be reasonable to adopt “All A is B” as an unconditionally assertible sentence, which finds expression in “It is probable that all A is necessarily B.” Now, the use of a conceptual frame is the awareness of a system of logical and extralogical necessities. The essence of scientific wisdom, therefore, lies in being tentative about what one takes to be extralogically necessary.

    Despite its clumsy phrasing — Sellars not being the most graceful of writers — I find this “The essence of scientific wisdom, therefore, lies in being tentative about what one takes to be extralogically necessary” to be exactly right and not badly said.

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