[From a philosopher colleague:]
I am visiting Harvard, and I was reading the conservative student
paper here, and came across an interesting quote from from Richard
Wrangham, a biologist, on the gaps in science that Intelligent Design
theorists point to: “Given that everything we know about science
gives us confidence that these details either have already or will
shortly be provided, this is both an unhelpful and an improbable claim.”
Nevermind the Intelligent Design context specifically. What I am
interested in is whether there can be a good reason for a naturalist
(and this guy may not be one, though his being a biologist, alas, makes
it more likely than not given the stats) to believe of an unsolved
scientific problem that a solution will eventually be found
(“shortly” or not). The argument seems to be an induction: We have
solved so many prior scientific problems that we have a reasonable
confidence that we will solve this one.
Now, if one were a theist who believed with Descartes that God made
a world for us to get to know and understand, this would be an
eminently reasonable claim. But I wonder if a naturalist can have
reason to be confident about the solvability of currently unsolved
scientific problems. A naturalist has no _a priori_ reason to
suppose that nature is easily knowable. Wrangham, though, is making
an _a posteriori_ claim. However, even that seems unjustified. Yes,
we have solved many problems that seem insoluble, and the solutions
have tended to be relatively simple.
However that seems to be no grounds for an inductive conclusion that
all scientific problems have relatively simple solutions, as one’s
inductive sample is relevantly biased: All the problems in one’s
inductive sample are ones that we managed to solve. Moreover, we
cannot usefully say that (*) the solutions have tended to be
relatively simple. For the only sense of “relatively simple” that
makes (*) true is “simple enough to be solved by us” (after all, some
problems are very complicated–hours and hours of computer simulation
are needed, really messy equations appear, complex non-selective
“spandrel”-type evolutionary stories are given, etc.) But then all
we have as inductive data is that we have solved many problems and
these have turned out to be solvable by us. And that, of course, is
simply equivalent to the claim that we have solved many problems.
And this, in turn, at most justifies the conclusion that we will
solve many more.
Now if the data available to us said: (**) Of any set of scientific
problems humans would like answers to, most get solved eventually,
then an argument could get off the ground. But I am not sure (**) is
true or even makes sense. Counting and individuating scientific
problems is a dubious endeavor. Moreover, for many scientific
problems we only have outlines of solutions. We have a confidence
that the details can be filled in, e.g., in our knowledge of why
hurricanes happen (is that a good example?), but this confidence is
not grounded in us actually having filled in the details.
So, the question is this: Can one argue that if one is a naturalist,
one has no reason to expect currently open scientific problems to
ever get solved (maybe with the exception of some problems where our
present knowledge of the laws of nature assures us that a solution is
available in principle and it is just a matter of plugging ahead and
figuring out various parameters, and we are assured of a solution)?
And could one turn this into an argument against naturalism?