Educational theory: science or philosophy?

From the archives: The original post was posted on 10th April, 1996

The framework theory of evolution is not scientific. So what?

I have said (Post 1, this series) that some of the main impediments to understanding the non-coercion idea are misconceptions about the similarities and differences between scientific theories and philosophical theories. I shall elucidate my point in part by criticising the arguments of two posters in a debate on the Home-ed List about science, philosophy and evolutionary theory.

Poster 2 wrote:

Science is concerned with the process of building models which describe nature to the best extent allowed by current experimental accuracy.

It is true that the purpose of science is to build models which describe nature, but to say “to the best extent allowed by current experimental accuracy” suggests that by “describing” nature you mean predicting. Describing nature is largely not predicting: it is about explaining nature. Predictions follow logically from explanations.

Moreover, many of our theories are overwhelmingly better than experimental accuracy. Scientific theories are not induced from observations and experiments; they are bold attempts to explain reality, and they are not the product of any mechanical process but of human creativity. The theory always comes before the testing, and indeed sometimes theories cannot be tested immediately they are created, because of the limits of technology, for example.

Poster 2 has suggested that the theory that coercion diminishes creativity could be tested experimentally in principle. The reason this notion is mistaken is given in the post “Educational theory: science or philosophy? Post 3 – Poster 2 and Heather revisited.” See also other posts in this series.

Poster 1 wrote:

Evolution is usually considered a “belief” precisely because experimentation – and observation – are both impossible with regard to finding out the actual origins of the various species on earth. Since observation and experimentation are both so essential to science, it is hardly appropriate to consider anything “scientific” where these are both impossible to be applied.

Evolution is a philosophical theory which really amounts to saying that the world is not supernatural. If the world is not supernatural, then it follows essentially by logic, that complexity must have arisen through evolution. (Complexity is evidence that some computation has happened. Computation is a physical process which transforms some input information into some more useful output information – it gets an answer that satisfies a criterion where that criterion is hard to satisfy in that not all answers would satisfy it.)

To me, “supernatural” means that there is complexity that is not physically explicable. So the theory of evolution says that all the complexity we see around us is physically explicable in principle. Clearly, that can’t be tested against a theory that says the complexity around us is of supernatural origin, because the supernatural origin could always be such as to mimic any evidence that we might present; therefore, evidence can’t test between those two theories. So in that sense, the theory of evolution is a philosophical theory and is empirically irrefutable.

However much I might like this not to be so, solipsism (the theory that the self is all that exists or all that can be known) too is empirically irrefutable because the solipsist can just say that any evidence presented is all in his mind or whatever. Solipsism must be rejected on philosophical grounds. No amount of empirical evidence is enough to refute it. This is only a problem if you think that empirical evidence has authority in a way that philosophical arguments do not. There are some very powerful philosophical arguments against solipsism.

When Popper said that evolution is a metaphysical theory, everyone jumped on him, and he later tried to put it in different language, describing evolution as a philosophical “framework” or something. But that does not mean that it is optional! In other words, it is not, I conjecture, a philosophical framework such that someone else might have a better philosophical framework. A philosophical framework is a framework within which we construct specific theories. Those specific theories are testable, although very hard to test. For instance, one might have a theory that the evolutionary advantage of sexual reproduction is that it mixes genes, and then one might test that by testing first of all whether genes are mixed when species undergo the earliest forms of sexual reproduction such as gene transfers.

But it is fallacious to say (as do some who believe that the universe was created in 4004 BC) that evolution is “just a theory”. It is an equivocation designed to disparage the status of evolutionary theory by implying that it is an irrational belief rather than a true theory having deep explanatory power that the 4004 BC theory lacks. As Poster 2 has said wisely, all our best ideas are theories. So what?

Poster 1 wrote:

Evolution is usually considered a “belief” precisely because experimentation – and observation – are both impossible with regard to finding out the actual origins of the various species on earth.

Depending upon what you mean by that, it is either a truism without much importance, or it is false. The origins of particular species on Earth are testable scientific theories, for instance that humans are descended from apes is testable by matching our DNA with that of apes. It has frequently happened in evolutionary biology that it was thought that one species was descended from another, but when we have examined their DNA, we have found that they were too far apart for the one to have descended from the other, and that actually it was descended from another species that looks completely different. In the case of human beings and apes, we could hardly be closer related, but we are different enough to know that we can’t actually be descended from present day ape species: we are their cousins rather than their descendants. So in fact in its fine detail the theory that humans are descended from apes is not only testable, but has been tested and refuted.

Poster 2 replied to Poster 1:

That’s clearly nonsense. We observe massive numbers of fossil remnants of animals and plants that once were. We observe a striking pattern of radiation amongst these fossil remnants. it is very difficult to have even the most basic knowledge of geology and cling to superstitious beliefs about the origin of life on earth.

True, but none of that makes the framework theory of evolution testable. All these things you are pointing out are confirmations of the theory, and thus do not make it a scientific theory. It is a fallacy to say that because we observe massive numbers of fossil remnants the theory of evolution must be true; because the rival theory – namely that God created those fossil remnants – also predicts that they will be there. The rival theory must be rejected on philosophical grounds, not because it has been tested. No number of fossils will refute it, only philosophical reasoning.

It is not true that “…experimentation – and observation – are both impossible with regard to finding out the actual origins of the various species on earth,”as Poster 1 suggests. Experimentation can address the actual origins, given the philosophical framework (e.g., the humans and apes stuff).

Poster 2 again:

We can experiment and produce new species in the laboratory.

I know we can produce new variants of species and new strains of breeds but I am not aware of actual new species produced in the lab (but if we can’t now we soon will be able to).

Poster 2 again:

We can observe new species evolving in nature.

I am not aware of this but I’d be interested to hear more.

Poster 2 again:

We can observe the striking patterns of anatomical variation amongst extant species.

Yes, for that matter we can observe evolution amongst extant species, for instance, the famous butterflies that turned black because of industrialisation. (There is a species of butterfly which used to be white but slowly turned black over a couple of hundred years, probably because the trees on which it bred turned black because of industrial pollution. I don’t know but I should imagine that they are slowly turning white again. 🙂 )

Poster 1 wrote:

Since observation and experimentation are both so essential to science, it is hardly appropriate to consider anything “scientific” where these are both impossible to be applied.

Isn’t this the fallacy of division?

Poster 2 replied to Poster 1 again:

This is silly. You’re creating a very nutty definition of science, which would rule out all of cosmology, the study of the history of the universe. We can’t recreate universes in the lab. The evolution of the universe as a whole is a one time thing. All we can do is observe what is here now, and infer how it got to be this way as accurately as possible.

Cosmology is scientific. Different cosmological models make different predictions about what the world would be like today. Cosmology is not the same sort of theory as the evolutionary framework. Poster 1’s statement doesn’t rule out cosmology any more than it rules out any other part of science. (You are both wrong!) All science is in the context of philosophical frameworks such as realism, evolution, physicalism, or whatever.

If Poster 1 were to think that lightning is God’s punishment for being wicked, and you were to point out that actually lightning occurs when the voltage between the cloud and the earth exceeds a certain level, he would simply say that God decreed it that way, in precisely such a way that it would punish the right people at the right time. So seeing lightning and seeing that it obeys the theory does not tell you that the rival – God – explanation is false. In other words, you have to already think that the philosophical framework is true in order to believe the explanation. (That is what I meant by saying that scientific theories are in a philosophical context.) But the philosophical framework is not less convincing for being “merely philosophical”. On the contrary, it is not an entrenched irrational belief; it is still open to criticism.

Furthermore, these kinds of frameworks are among the most severely tested in the critical sense; they have no real rivals other than religious ideas. Some of these frameworks are philosophical beliefs which are better tested, better corroborated, in the sense of having survived criticism, than any scientific theory. So they shouldn’t be downgraded because they are not scientific – they are actually better than scientific theories. All scientific theories rely on them.

Poster 2 again:

Similarly, from the pitted surface of the moon, we can infer the characteristics of the meteorites which have bombarded it in the past. According to you, such study is not scientific, because we can’t recreate the moon and it’s history.

That isn’t so. We can test the theory that the meteorites had a certain property in the past other ways than by creating another moon. For instance, if that property was the density of meteorites over the past few billions of years, then we might ask how would that density have affected other planets with say atmospheres, or different sizes or different gravities? Then one could look at those planets to see whether they have the pattern that they would have if that had been the density of meteorites. If they haven’t, the theory from which that prediction followed is refuted.

Poster 1 wrote:

“That’s clearly nonsense. We observe massive numbers of fossil remnants of animals and plants that once were.”

There are also “massive amounts” of relics and writings. That does not make religion scientific. Experiments can even be, and often are, performed on relics to determine their origin. That still doesn’t make it scientific, just as looking at fossils and experimenting with them doesn’t make evolution scientific, because its foundation is unobservable and beyond the realm of experimentation.

Looking at relics is scientific (or can be).

Poster 2 had written:

According to you, such study is not scientific, because we can’t recreate the moon and it’s history.

Poster 1 replied:

That’s right, because though hypotheses can be formed, they can never be tested to determine whether or not they describe what actually did happen.

It seems to me that when you all say “test” you mean “confirm”.

What I have tried to show here is that one of our best theories (the framework theory of evolution) is not scientific, but that it is none the worse for that, and that scientific theories all rely upon a philosophical framework.

See also:

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1996, ‘Educational theory: science or philosophy?’,