Wednesday, June 15, 2005

A Protestant Misunderstanding of the Nature of Science

It may seem an excess of caution to feel a need to argue for the real presence of flour in the host, but our motto has always been “Dare to be dull.” We purpose to get it right even though the truth is bound to be pretty banal: it is largely banal, after all, since so much of it resides in the box labeled “Of Course.” Repeating the facts too often violates Grice’s rules of pragmatics and Shannon’s information theory, both of which mandate that every utterance must surprise or else it cannot inform. Fortunately for the leaden literalist, however, the world is full of fictions that people actually believe; and so long as they do, it will remain relevant to dispute them. Thanks to all.

Where was I? O, yeah. I was fixing to comment on how popular discussions of science presume that the sciences are really just debating societies whose output is a body of propositions. If you bother to click on the link to Panda’s Thumb over to the right of these paragraphs, you’ll discover that both the partisans of Intelligent Design and the defenders of evolutionary theory sound like participants in a particularly ill tempered 18th Century salon. That’s pretty much inevitable, of course, but only because the political debate over evolution and creationism doesn’t take place in the sciences at all. It is a sham combat, a clown fight with pig bladders. Real scientists really do argue with one another in the course of practicing science, obviously; but the novelty and value of the science derives from the degree to which it is not merely a conversation among people but a process that gives a voice to the objects its studies.

Back in the 16th Century, the Reformers made the error of thinking that Holy Writ sufficed to define right belief so long as it was read in good faith. The Genevan variety of intolerance followed from scriptura sola like a theorem; for if the doctrinal content of the Bible was clear, if followed that the Papists and the Socinians and Anabaptists and the Libertines just had to be lying. Even the most literal-minded of the Lutherans and Calvinists eventually had to finesse the theory of reading that underlay their theology, however, because at a minimum they themselves had to add a little something to the interpretation of the Old Testament to go on claiming that it made reference to Christ and the Trinity and they also had to tweak their own rendition of the New Testament to defend the utterly unscriptural practice of infant baptism. Meanwhile the Catholics made things much easier for themselves by maintaining that the basis of the faith was not the inert text itself but the scriptures as interpreted by a tradition continuously inspired by the spirit of God.

The sciences cleave to the Catholic view of the matter. The intelligibility, let alone the reliability, of scientific results does not derive from right reason or human authority but from the continuing real presence of the world in the process of research, which plays the same essential role for them that the holy ghost is said to play for the church. The novelty of the scientific method was to invite the things into the lab where they could offer their sometimes-coerced testimony to supplement and eventually supplant the testimonials of learned. Obviously this process crucially involved the development of new social and political institutions, but the whole point of the emerging research establishment was to get beyond merely human input and the interminable repetition of our favorite fantasies. Only a cartoon social constructionist could imagine that the content of the often unexpected findings of physics and biology originate from the fiat of any human mind since our minds just aren’t that creative—Millikan may have fudged his data, but he surely couldn’t have found the value of the charge on an electron in his head since -1.6 x 10-19 is not the sort of thing to be found in human heads.