What is the goal of scientific reseach? Finding the truth or what?

I think this issue is well overdue at TSZ. I have quoted professor Lewontin’s well known statement on another OP that received some mixed feelings. To me, at least, it sheds doubt as to how science is done vs how it is supposed to be done…
Judge it for yourself:

“Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism.

It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.

The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that Miracles may happen. “- Professor Richard Lewontin, a geneticist and one of the world’s leaders in evolutionary biology.

It is quite baffling how a relatively small group of people has been able to implement this kind of ideology into the world of science and education and bully anyone who dared to challenge this ideology…

There is no difference between Darwinian ideology and Communism, Nazism or any other tyrannical rule by the iron fist…

The minority bullies the majority into their ideology or beliefs system they call “science”.

“A lie repeated often enough becomes true”… – said the best propaganda man of the Nazis…” …and you may even find yourself believing it”

192 thoughts on “What is the goal of scientific reseach? Finding the truth or what?

  1. J-Mac,
    I’ll give you credit for at least trying to provide some context to the ‘divine foot’ quote; creationists rarely do.
    Let’s add the first half of the preceding paragraph, which reads

    With great perception, Sagan sees that there is an impediment to the popular credibility of scientific claims about the world, an impediment that is almost invisible to most scientists. Many of the most fundamental claims of science are against common sense and seem absurd on their face. Do physicists really expect me to accept without serious qualms that the pungent cheese that I had for lunch is really made up of tiny, tasteless, odorless, colorless packets of energy with nothing but empty space between them? Astronomers tell us without apparent embarrassment that they can see stellar events that occurred millions of years ago, whereas we all know that we see things as they happen.

    and makes it clear that Lewontin is pointing out that scientific “truths” are often counter-intuitive, but correct. So, when he says that we take the side of science in spite of its patent absurdity [emphasis in original], he is NOT dissing science.
    Oh and congratulations on Godwinning your own OP.

    Science is not the search for TRUTH, it is the search for ever-more-useful models.
    Take Newton’s Laws of Motion and Newton’s Law of Gravity. Both mind-bogglingly useful – simple, wide scope, highly predictive- but are they “true”? Not so much.

    Academic scientists are driven by ego: they reckon they are smarter than everybody else, and can figure out puzzles that no-one has ever solved. Proving all their predecessors wrong would be AWESOME! Would also guarantee a trip to Stockholm.
    Commercial scientists are interested in what works; their employers, in making money.
    Strange that these groups all buy into the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis.

  2. All that Lewontin is saying is that we must assume naturalism in order to do science. And he is correct. A theist who is open to the belief that any result of any experiment may be a violation of the laws of nature — i.e. a miracle — cannot do science in any meaningful sense at all. That’s Lewontin’s point in quoting Beck.

  3. Of course we’d like to figure out “the truth” J-Mac, whatever that might mean. The problem is that our limited minds can handle very little, and experience very little, while the universe, even our locality, is immense in detail and scope. Thus we have to accept those simplifications that we call models.

    I am a scientist, and I never heard of this guy Lewontin during my training as a scientist. The first time I read those quotes was when talking to creationists, which comes only to show that you guys think that we scientists are just like you, some bunch of people following some credo. Sorry to disappoint, but hell no. We learn how to handle our disciplines by performing research, by learning about the state of the art in whatever fields we decide to pursue, and then going into it. But learning that we should not allow a divine foot in the door? Nobody tells us such a thing. Nobody commands us such a thing. It just naturally doesn’t occur to us because we understand, on our own, that “god-did-it” doesn’t work very well as a model of reality. Even scientists who believe in the magical being in the sky understand that problem. So, stop projecting. Science is not a religion. Scientists don’t think like you do.

  4. When a child asks why the sky is blue, even most parents aren’t familiar with the physics of Rayleigh scattering, and those few who are would have a difficult time explaining it to a child (who is unfamiliar with, and would need detailed background in, wavelengths, components of light, refraction, the optical nature of particles smaller than the light’s wavelength, etc.)

    So the simple response is, the sky is blue because that’s God’s Will. This response SOUNDS like an explanation, and most children will be satisfied. Some, alas, will ALWAYS consider this an explanation, and remain satisfied without ever in their lives getting a sensible answer.

    For these people, the scientific answer will strike them as no more valid than their preferred beliefs, and be seen as simply a competing assertion resting on perhaps an even more uncertain foundation. They would refuse to be bullied by the ideological belief system labeled “Rayleigh scattering”, whatever the hell that is.

  5. Entropy: I am a scientist, and I never heard of this guy Lewontin during my training as a scientist.

    Clearly you aren’t an evolutionary biologist or geneticist, then.

  6. My only issue is that I have a hard time seeing how you could ascribe natural or divine causes to observations of phenomena. You could give that interpretation to an event or phenomenon, but how do you really know whether what you’re seeing is “natural” or “supernatural”? It seems to me these labels are essentially meaningless and superfluous.

    Particularly when some theists insist that the “regularities of nature” are manifestations of God’s divine will. Well then it is impossible to tell the difference. The whole endeavour with trying to put a label on things becomes a meaningless exercise in trying to score points for naturalism or supernaturalism, and neither party can prove the other wrong.

    At best, at best you could say that the null hypothesis is that there is just the world we see behaving as it does (and you can stick whatever label on that you want), but to posit that there’s something more behind it is an uneconomical interpretation that isn’t needed. And then it’s not that you’re against the idea that God could be causing events to happen, at least in principle, the issue is that there doesn’t seem to be any way you could actually discover that to be the case. How would it look if God intervened and how do you know that? How do you know it isn’t just another manifestation of, for lack of a better term, “the natural world”?

  7. I’d say that we do science to increase our understanding of the world. The theory of gravity explains both why apples fall from trees and why planets go round the sun, without invoking God in the explanation. It provides a link between these intuitively very different phenomena, and in doing so it makes us understand the world better.

    Claiming that things are as they are because God made them so doesn’t really improve our understanding at all, because God’s ways are inscrutable. It would not lead to an understanding that falling apples and orbiting planets have something in common.

    Of course science doesn’t forbid scientists to believe that God has a hand in it all, and is the ultimate origin of apples, planets and gravity. That, however, is theology and not science, because there is no empirical data to confirm or reject such an idea.

  8. I’m astounded that the OP makes no mention of the round-earth Nazis who have infiltrated our schools.

    Luckily, the New Yorker has published an exposé of their nefarious plot. Thrill to its description of the small band of intrepid YouTube video artists who have falsified this round-earth hypothesis by rigorous experimentation, for example involving spirit levels on commercial airline flights.

  9. Alan Fox:
    Is it not curiosity that has always driven science?

    Science is done by scientists and scientists are human beings. Sure, curiosity is one reason they do science. But prestige is another, even if it is the first to know and publish something that is only of interest of small group of specialists. How else can you explain priority battles? From the linked article:

    The dispute invites us to ask one final question: “Why is it sometimes not easy for scientists to share credit, or to follow the adage that, if you really want to get something done, let others take credit?” The answer has to do with the role of prestige and reputation in science. These play a role in getting prizes, and – especially when funding for expensive future projects is involved – securing the resources for doing more and better science. Which true scientist is not interested in that?

    I’m not saying this is a bad thing for society. Adam Smith wrote about the a similar issue — individual self-interest versus the benefits of markets for society. The paper on credit in science that Walt and I discussed in the thread on Walt’s paper that Keith started is about quantifying that idea of he benefits of credit in science for a society interested in increasing scientific knowledge..

  10. John Harshman:
    Clearly you aren’t an evolutionary biologist or geneticist, then.

    Structural biologist by training. Venturing into evolutionary analyses only when necessary.

  11. BruceS,

    Priority battles occur in philosophy too. Jim Holt writes about who deserves credit for new ideas in how reference works for names. It involves Saul Kripke and how much he took from a lecture he heard from Ruth Barcan Marcus.

    (ETA: typos)

  12. DNA_Jock:

    Science is not the search for TRUTH, it is the search for ever-more-useful models.

    […]

    Strange that these groups all buy into the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis.

    I agree science proceeds by looking for better models. Usefulness for successful prediction is one criterion for “better” . But others apply: simplicity, generating novel predictions, falsifiable, consistency with other science, etc.

    But why care about models at all? Just to make predictions? Or because they are telling us something about the world. Why care about “the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis.” unless you think it is tell us something about how the diversity of life came to be?

    The question of what it means for a theory to be true and how that relates to the reality of its unobservables* is one for philosophy. Plenty on that on other active threads.

    ETA: I need to clarify that there are two issues at play in the above.

    First, what motivates scientists:. I say it is more than improving models. Scientists want better models not just for their own sake but because they want a better way to understand how the world works.

    The second issue is whether that hope motivating scientists succeeds in providing truth about reality. That’s the philosophical issue.
    ———————-
    *I’m assuming no one is arguing about the reality of finches.

  13. BruceS,

    Yes. Let me again recommend Psillos’s book, Scientific Realism: How Science Tracks Truth. He discusses all of these issues clearly and well.

  14. BruceS,

    Yeah, that’s an old and famous accusation. It’s resurfaced again, maybe because of #METOO. I hadn’t seen this Holt piece before, but it interestingly leaves out any credit for Keith Donellan for some of the key theses.

    Also, though he got a lot of stuff wrong (in his inimitable way), it turns out that G.E. Moore proposed a causal theory of naming many years before any of those people in some lectures. His notes were published posthumously in “Lectures on Philosophy.”

  15. First up, I was being a mite provocative about scientists` motivation. They are intellectually motivated by curiosity, both in the academic and the commercial setting, in addition to the previously mentioned ego and pragmatism. The ‘ego’ line originally came from my thesis advisor…

    BruceS: I agree science proceeds by looking for better models. Usefulness for successful prediction is one criterion for “better” . But others apply: simplicity, generating novel predictions, falsifiable, consistency with other science, etc.

    I agree 100%. I didn’t mean to imply otherwise.

    But why care about models at all? Just to make predictions? Or because they are telling us something about the world. Why care about “the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis.” unless you think it is tell us something about how the diversity of life came to be?

    The question of what it means for a theory to be true and how that relates to the reality of its unobservables* is one for philosophy. Plenty on that on other active threads.

    Exactly. There is a second step here, which does not affect how science is done, but does affect how we treat the results.

  16. Kantian Naturalist: All that Lewontin is saying is that we must assume naturalism in order to do science.

    What if science reaches beyond naturalism? What if the only explanation is supernatural?
    I didn’t notice any of your comments on “Does embryo development process require ID?” OP…

  17. BruceS: I’m astounded that the OP makes no mention of the round-earth Nazis who have infiltrated our schools.

    I might not be aware that Nazis lost the war…;-)
    If they hadn’t… well…speculative science, or philosophy, are not my specialty…
    The winner writes history books and sets up its own propaganda machine…

    This is one of my favourite propaganda movies:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KkXTd9v56LQ

  18. Entropy:
    Of course we’d like to figure out “the truth” J-Mac, whatever that might mean. The problem is that our limited minds can handle very little, and experience very little, while the universe, even our locality, is immense in detail and scope. Thus we have to accept those simplifications that we call models.

    I am a scientist, and I never heard of this guy Lewontin during my training as a scientist. The first time I read those quotes was when talking to creationists, which comes only to show that you guys think that we scientists are just like you, some bunch of people following some credo. Sorry to disappoint, but hell no. We learn how to handle our disciplines by performing research, by learning about the state of the art in whatever fields we decide to pursue, and then going into it. But learning that we should not allow a divine foot in the door? Nobody tells us such a thing. Nobody commands us such a thing. It just naturally doesn’t occur to us because we understand, on our own, that “god-did-it” doesn’t work very well as a model of reality. Even scientists who believe in the magical being in the sky understand that problem. So, stop projecting. Science is not a religion. Scientists don’t think like you do.

    This is exactly what I meant in the OP and the comment to KN.
    Whenever science reaches the point of supernatural, just like in case of abiogenesis, they mock god-did-it, and move on to optimism bias and proclaim that ” …just because science is clueless now, it doesn’t mean science will be clueless in the future…” something like that…
    When, or if, scientists recreate life, then, and only then, it will have been proven beyond any doubt the life was created by random, natural processes…

    Can’t argue with this kind of logic… lol

  19. J-Mac: Whenever science reaches the point of supernatural, just like in case of abiogenesis, they mock god-did-it, and move on to optimism bias and proclaim that ” …just because science is clueless now, it doesn’t mean science will be clueless in the future…” something like that…

    Science never “reaches the point of supernatural.” Unless and until you can measure “supernatural”, science cannot reach such a point. And if you could measure the supernatural, it would no longer be considered supernatural.

  20. Neil Rickert: Unless and until you can measure “supernatural”, science cannot reach such a point.

    How about we rephrase J-mac’s statement to a more charitable “when science reaches a point where measurement is impossible.”

    The conclusion that measurement is impossible is also measurement of sorts is it not?

    Is “science” incapable of ever determining that a particular point is beyond it’s purview??

    peace

  21. fifthmonarchyman: How about we rephrase J-mac’s statement to a more charitable “when science reaches a point where measurement is impossible.”

    That sounds like QM. And I’m inclined to doubt that we will see much further progress in that direction. However, other parts of science are doing fine.

  22. J-Mac:
    Whenever science reaches the point of supernatural, just like in case of abiogenesis,

    Abiogenesis has reached the point of supernatural? Really? Do you seriously want to say that if there’s something whose answer is unknown to science we’ve reached the “point of supernatural”?

    J-Mac:
    they mock god-did-it,

    I mock god-did-it because all gods I’ve ever heard about are fantasies. Because it doesn’t explain or solve anything, and because people like you think that ignorance about something is evidence for magical beings in the sky. It’s blatantly ridiculous, thus the mockery.

    J-Mac:
    and move on to optimism bias and proclaim that ” …just because science is clueless now, it doesn’t mean science will be clueless in the future…” something like that…

    Well, welcome to a reality check: I doubt that we will know the details as to how life started in our planet. I seriously doubt it. I see no reason to therefore say “god-did-it.” Not one. Ignorance, no matter how hard to overcome, is just ignorance. It’s not evidence for magical beings in the sky. Let alone for one that magically impregnates virgins and has a triple personality disorder.

  23. Neil Rickert: That sounds like QM. And I’m inclined to doubt that we will see much further progress in that direction.

    That was not quite the question.

    I’m not too interested in what you doubt. I’m really interested in the boundaries of the scientific enterprise.

    Let me try again

    Is it impossible for “science” to make the determination that a particular point in time or space is immeasurable??

    If not why not??

    It seems to me that that sort of determination would itself be a measurement so it should be within the powers of “science”. What am I missing?

    peace

  24. Entropy: : I doubt that we will know the details as to how life started in our planet. I seriously doubt it. I see no reason to therefore say “god-did-it.” Not one.

    “I doubt”, ………”I see no reason”

    Why does this always have to come down to personal opinion??

    It seems to me that there is no reason that that sort of question could not be answered definitively.

    I think an acceptable to his question answer should look this something like this

    “Science is not capable of explaining X because X is not measurable”

    or

    “Even though we have no explanation now Science is in principle capable of explaining X because X is in principle measurable”

    peace

  25. fifthmonarchyman: Is it impossible for “science” to make the determination that a particular point in time or space is immeasurable??

    They can tell you what the scientific method can do with the tools and technology we have now.

    It seems to me that that sort of determination would itself be a measurement so it should be within the powers of “science”. What am I missing?

    Per our former Secretary of Defense”

    Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

    Science has the same limitations as all human endeavors

  26. fifthmonarchyman: Is it impossible for “science” to make the determination that a particular point in time or space is immeasurable??

    That’s about what the Heisenberg uncertainty principle does.

    You can’t just say “our attempts to measure have failed, therefore we have reached a limit of measurement.” But Heisenberg gives a strong theoretical reason for the limitation. Of course, it is possible that there’s something wrong with the theory used, but nobody has been able to show that.

  27. fifthmonarchyman: “Even though we have no explanation now Science is in principle capable of explaining X because X is in principle measurable”

    Best not to use “in principle” arguments until you are sure that you have the principle.

  28. newton: They can tell you what the scientific method can do with the tools and technology we have now.

    Is there nothing for which we can say “this is forever beyond measurement no matter what”?

    newton: Science has the same limitations as all human endeavors

    Oh I agree,

    I’m curious as to whether “science” is the one human endeavor that is unable to categorically say that there are certain things that are beyond it’s purview?

    peace

  29. Neil Rickert: That’s about what the Heisenberg uncertainty principle does.

    interesting

    are you saying that since a particles combined exact position and momentum are un-measurable then they are supernatural?

    Neil Rickert: Best not to use “in principle” arguments until you are sure that you have the principle.

    The “principle” in this case is that “science” has boundaries like all human endeavors that should be able to be delineated.

    peace

  30. J-Mac: What if science reaches beyond naturalism? What if the only explanation is supernatural?

    These questions aren’t specific enough for me to know what to do with them. I don’t really know what “supernatural” means, for starters, or what it would mean for a scientific explanation to involve “the supernatural”.

    I could give all sorts of interpretations to that notion that would make sense to me, given my philosophical commitments, but I have no idea if you would accept any of them.

    I didn’t notice any of your comments on “Does embryo development process require ID?” OP…

    That’s because I regard the question as too silly to be worth my time.

  31. Neil Rickert: You can’t just say “our attempts to measure have failed, therefore we have reached a limit of measurement.” But Heisenberg gives a strong theoretical reason for the limitation. Of course, it is possible that there’s something wrong with the theory used, but nobody has been able to show that.

    As I understand it, Heisenberg shows that there’s an inverse proportional relationship between the precision of the measure of position and the precision of the measure of momentum. I’m not sure what this shows about “the limits of science,” whatever that might mean.

  32. Kantian Naturalist: These questions aren’t specific enough for me to know what to do with them.

    Of course you would say that.

    Neil Rickert seems to equate supernatural with un-measureable. Is that specific enough?

    If not why not?

    peace

  33. fifthmonarchyman: “Science is not capable of explaining X because X is not measurable”

    We have no idea how to take measurements that aren’t indexed to spatio-temporal events or intervals, so we no idea how to measure anything that isn’t part of the universe. Under those conditions I’m willing to say that no claim about reality other than what is empirically measurable as part of our universe can be part of a scientific theory.

    If one wanted to say that the term “supernatural” refers to what is “outside” our universe (though the term “outside” is deeply problematic in this context), I’d be happy with that.

    The corollary would be that claims about the “multiverse” end up being “supernatural” claims. I’m OK with that. Others might not be.

  34. Kantian Naturalist: Heisenberg shows that there’s an inverse proportional relationship between the precision of the measure of position and the precision of the measure of momentum. I’m not sure what this shows about “the limits of science,” whatever that might mean.

    Neil Rickert seems to be claiming that science reaches it’s limit when measurement is impossible.

    If that is true it seems that we could point to certain things as being forever beyond those limits. Perhaps the exact position/momentum of elementary particles is something outside those limits in principle.

    I’m interested in exploring the implications of that line of thought.

    peace

  35. Kantian Naturalist: I’m willing to say that no claim about reality other than what is empirically measurable as part of our universe can be part of a scientific theory.

    you need to be more specific as to what you mean by “part of our universe”.

    Is Love part of our universe? What about Truth? What about consciousness? What about Life? What about Mathematics? What about the exact position/momentum of elementary particles?

    Those things certainly don’t appear to be empirically measurable

    peace

  36. fifthmonarchyman: If that is true it seems that we could point to certain things as being forever beyond those limits. Perhaps the exact position/momentum of elementary particles is something outside those limits in principle.

    It’s a principle of quantum mechanics that it’s impossible to simultaneously measure the position and momentum of an elementary particle with equal precision. But while quantum mechanics is our current best explanation of atomic and sub-atomic phenomena, it’s at least conceivable that it will be replaced by some better theory in which the Uncertainty Principle doesn’t hold. So we should be extremely cautious in our pronouncements about what is and what is not possible “in principle”.

  37. fifthmonarchyman: I’m curious as to whether “science” is the one human endeavor that is unable to categorically say that there are certain things that are beyond it’s purview?

    Would philosophy or theology ever say that something is beyond its purview? Or art, or poetry or journalism?

  38. Kantian Naturalist: They certainly aren’t if one insists on simplistic reifications of complex social, political, and biological relationships.

    I don’t insist on that sort of thing.

    which brings us very quickly back to the questions at hand

    1) Are those things empirically measurable?
    2) Are they part of our universe?

    peace

  39. Neil Rickert: Would philosophy or theology ever say that something is beyond its purview?

    1) So you are saying science is akin to philosophy or theology?
    2) theology would say that knowledge of things that are not related to God are outside it’s purview
    3) I think philosophy would say that the price of an Adam Sandler movie on netflix was beyond it’s purview.

    peace

  40. fifthmonarchyman: Neil Rickert seems to be claiming that science reaches it’s limit when measurement is impossible.

    If you want to get technical about that, I’ll note that I oversimplified. The more precise limit would be when categorization/discrimination is impossible. Most of the time, that’s near enough to the same thing.

  41. fifthmonarchyman: Is Love part of our universe? What about Truth? What about consciousness? What about Life? What about Mathematics? What about the exact position/momentum of elementary particles?

    Those things certainly don’t appear to be empirically measurable

    Can you tell when there is love? If you can, it is measurable. It might not currently be measurable in a way that science can use, but I would not rule that out as a future possibility.

  42. fifthmonarchyman: Is Love part of our universe? What about Truth? What about consciousness? What about Life? What about Mathematics? What about the exact position/momentum of elementary particles?

    Those things certainly don’t appear to be empirically measurable

    Everything here depends on one’s understanding of what these phenomena are.

    The odd capitalization here suggests that you’re imagining these concepts as referring to things, only rather weird ones.

    (This is similar to Plato’s error: having correctly recognized that one needs a theory of what concepts are in order to explain what understanding is, he suggested that concepts are just like objects, only really weird ones. The vast difficulties implied by this suggestion were soon made apparent, even to Plato himself.)

    By contrast, if one tries to think in terms of dynamic systems, then it’s not difficult to see that the basic structure of the empirical universe consists of dynamical systems nested within larger more encompassing dynamical systems. Then one can understand living things as a special kind of dynamical system and build up the account of affective dispositions and cognitive mappings from there.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.