Science as Storytelling or Story Telling?
(see latest: 7 March 2006 and 26 March 2006
A Conversation About Science Education ... and Science
and on line forum)
PG to BB/DG, 26 November 2005
Barry Bickmore and David Grandy are respectively faculty members in the Departments of Geology and of Philosophy at Brigham Young University, and during the fall of 2005 collaborated on an essay titled "Science As Storytelling". They sent the essay to Paul Grobstein, whose own article, "Revisiting Science in Culture: Science as Story Telling and Story Revising" had appeared earlier that year, and who has a longstanding commitment to the rethinking of both science education and science itself (see Science as Story Telling in Action).
Explaining the origin and intent of the "Science As Storytelling", Barry Bickmore wrote
One of my specialties is Geoscience Education (I'm also a geochemist), and for the past few years I and my graduate students have been testing some educational strategies on my Earth Science class for elementary education majors. The major problem we have been trying to tackle is that these particular students (in general) don't like science very much, and their negative attitudes get passed on to their own elementary school students ...
I have been crystallizing some thoughts about teaching the nature of science to my students, and trying to make them see it as relevant to their own lives. I remembered a comment by Paul Feyerabend that modern scientists serve a function equivalent to court jesters in earlier times, and came up with the idea that science is a form of storytelling. I thought that if I could effectively explain this idea, and adopt this "Science As Storytelling" theme throughout my course curriculum, maybe this would serve to enhance my students' attitudes toward science even further. Furthermore, I have also noticed that in the Evolution/Creationism/Intelligent Design debate that has been going on, science educators often complain that, "If they could just understand the Nature of Science, they would see that ID is not science!" But then, when they go on to explain their concept of the nature of science, it turns out to be demonstrably false, and usually patronizing towards religious students. Therefore, I set out to write an essay that will form the basis of class discussion on the Nature of Science ... and designed to help students see science as thoroughly human and non-threatening.
Paul Grobstein had earlier written in a different context
There are very real obstacles against teaching science in even the beginning "less wrong" way described here. Teaching science as a work in progress, one in which students are active participants, is enormously more time consuming than teaching science as truth. And it is a kind of teaching which depends on faculty who have not only the time, but also the inclination, background, and experience to treat science as a broad human activity ... Can appealing and engaging "less wrong" science teaching spread through disciplines and institutions and become a stable part of undergraduate science education? Yes, of course, but some other aspects of our educational and scientific communities are going to have to become "less wrong" too if they and we seriously want it to be so.
The continuing conversation presented here is excerpted from an ongoing email exchange among Bickmore, Grandy, and Grobstein and is intended as a contribution to wider public conversation about Story as Story Telling in Action. Join the conversation yourself in the on-line forum or email us.
I was very pleased to receive and read your essay, and enjoyed thinking about it in relation to my own. Its always encouraging to find that a place one has gotten to by one route has been reached as well by other people following other paths. Such a convergence of stories increases one's sense that there is a there there, that something one thinks worth exploring and developing further is not fully idiosyncratic but instead connects to the experiences/aspirations of at least some other people. Its nice as well that between us we have both "story telling" and "storytelling" covered in terms of google searches. That should make it easier for all of us to discover how many other people out there share some of our common interests/concerns.
There are lots of obvious similarities between storytelling and story telling, but also some intriging differences. The differences please me as much as the similarities, since they provide the grist for further exploration and development. So, let's start with those, and see what evolves?
An obvious difference is that your essay has a much better defined target audience than mine: college students who "don't like science very much" but who will be the educators of future generations. I certainly think the story needs to be told in different ways for different audiences (cf "Revisions for Particular Audiences" at Science as Story Telling and Story Revision: A Conversation), and that that is obviously a very important audience to reach. I'll be very interested in hearing how your classes react to the essay and hope you'll keep me (and others) posted on your experiences along these lines.
My essay was written with your target audience in mind, but with a number of additional ones as well. I had in mind both students who have some aversion to science and those who are already engaged with science, professional scientists as well as academics in other realms, and the general public. I have to date a small sample of reactions to the article from K-12 teachers and a few others (see also Religion as Testing: Another Sort of Story Revising as well as enlarging the local and the following postings in a faculty discussion group).
There are of course some costs in trying to write for such a broad and diverse audience but perhaps some benefits as well, particularly if one feels (as I do) that the "problem" one is addressing is not a problem specific to a particular audience but a more general one that requires for its resolution a change of perspective more generally. Among the things on my mind was the challenge offered by a student in one of my classes (and quoted in my article)
"This is a stirring appraisal of science and one that I would very much like to believe. In my conversations with others about the natural sciences and the social sciences, I have represented the views that you express in class - about the noble skepticism of science - as those of the scientific community at large. Now I sense my own naïveté in having done so ... you and what army?"
Clearly its important but not enough to find a way to engage "students who don't like science very much". One needs, even if only to support that ambition, a broader set of changes in perceptions of science among a variety of groups of people, including scientists themselves. In fact, in my experience, the story of science as story is generally more appealing to people who have felt disengaged from science and hardest to sell to scientists, and others with professional interests in this area (cf "Getting It Less Wrong, the Brain's Way: Science, Pragmatism, and Multiplism
"). I assume you have similar experiences among geologists? among philosophers of science? I think your article has some useful things to say in these realms as well. Are you comfortable using it also for such additional audiences?
I very much like your bottom line "it is our hope that you will be ready to make your own informed judgments about where scientific stories should fit in your own life, and in contemporary society", and think your notion that "scientific storytelling follows certain rules that set it apart from other genres" is valuable, as is your characterization of some of those "rules". I think the latter will be useful not only for students (both those so far disenchanged with science and those engaged with it who might not have thought deeply about what is involved) but for others as well (professionals included). At the same time, I'm inclined to take (as I do in my own article) a somewhat broader approach to what differentiates (and doesn't differentiate) scientific story telling from other kinds of story telling (cf On Beyond Post-Modernism: Discriminating Stories for some current thinking along these lines). For our own purposes, as well as others sharing our broader objectives, let me briefly sketch where I see the differences to be using a few quotations from your paper followed by my thoughts.
"In order to help you understand why things like astrology (or history, or any number of other fields of study ...) are not considered science, we must explain the kind of standards scientists set for themselves ..."
I am, I suspect, less interested in the "demarcation" problem that you are, in setting a sharp border between what is termed "science" and other things. There are several reasons for this. One is that as a scientist and observer of science (past and present) I have been impressed by the important permeability of the science/non-science border. Much of the modern "scientific" understanding of the universe stems from people observing the stars in order to try and predict the future ("astrology"), from people manipulating matter in order to try and make gold ("alchemy") and so forth and so on (see, for example, the recent Soul Made Flesh on the rise of modern physiology). In short, relevant observations and stories have come from a variety of places, not only from those who follow the current rules you outline, and there is every reason to think they will continue to do so.
A second reason for being less interested in/concerned about "demarcation" is that I don't think there actually is, in fact, a consensus among scientists about "the kind of standards [they] set for themselves". That's not to say most contemporary scientists might not agree with the rules you lay out, nor that it is not valuable to try and make explicit a broad set of cultural practices, but the scientific community is actually pretty heterogenous, probably usefully so, and that is an important point to make about science as well. "it is not, and never has been, particular techniques or styles that create the power of science or assure its continuing progress. What does so is the underlying principle of skepticism, of continually questioning both stories and the styles in which they are told."
The third, and perhaps most important reason for not putting too much emphasis on "demarcation" is that such emphasis itself tends to encourage people to opt in or out, and that can and does reduce the likelihood that people will "make your own informed judgments about scientific stories", to say nothing of becoming sufficiently engaged with them to be both critical and creative with them. I don't think it is at all what you had in mind but there is a risk, in laying out a set of "rules", of characterizing science as an activity in which one is invited to engage if and only if one satisfies certain "litmus tests". My own preference, as I wrote, is
to stress that "participation in creating scientific stories should not be presumed to depend on any litmus test other than the ability and inclination to be curious and skeptical ... There is no risk in doing so and a great deal to be gained, not only in relieving unnecessary tensions between science and other aspects of culture but also in terms of science itself.".
"Science is the art of creating explanations for natural phenomena that could be useful for controlling or predicting nature
I'm glad to see your emphasis on "useful" since my own story of science, like yours, is very much that science is about what works rather than about "Truth", as for example:
"Scientific stories are ... not heard as competitors in the arena of "Truth," nor as guarantors of human safety and well being, but rather as valuable contributors to the diversity of influences on individual lives ... Science is therefore fundamentally not about security but about doubt, not about knowing but about asking, not about certainty but about skepticism."
"Moreover, as science evolves, it is entering realms where human perspectives (and their effects) appear increasingly to be unavoidably (and perhaps even desirably) intertwined with much of what is being explored."
Notice though a slightly different tone here, one that perhaps reflects some deeper and more significant differences. "controlling or predicting nature" may be a desideratum for some scientists but it is certainly not for all scientists nor for all humans. For many, in fact, that aspiration calls up images (not all inappropriate) of a scientific arrogance that has arguably made most peoples' lives less predictable and satisfying rather than more so. Equally importantly, there is increasing reason within science itself to doubt that predictability, much less control, is either an attainable or a desirable objective (cf Variability in Brain Function and Behavior). Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the notion of science as an objective observer of a realm of "natural phenomena" is increasingly under question, both within the traditional physical sciences and as science increasingly becomes engaged with an exploration of a variety of human behaviors and activities.
I don't at all deny that scientific stories must make predictions; without that they cannot motivate new observations and further story evolution. I'm less sure that it is still appropriate/useful to connect that to "control" and that in turn to "useful". Hence my effort to ground science somewhat differently: "not about security but about doubt, not about knowing but about asking, not about certainty but about skepticism". "Useful" in science, I would contend, means "opening new questions, motivating new observations, encouraging new stories". And this in turn is "useful" to humanity insofar as it contributes "to the diversity of influences on individual lives" and so provides all humans the wherewithal for an "open-ended and continuing exploration of what might be".
"Rule #1. Scientific stories are crafted to explain observations, but the observations that are used as a basis for these must be reproducible."
I do think its terribly important to stress that the meat of science is "observations", from which stories follow as ways to make sense of those. And so one does indeed have to worry about the reliability of observations; people can of course be tricked, can hallucinate, see "what they expected or wanted to see, or even lie". And certainly one way to try and deal with this that has been reasonably effective in the past is to insist of "reproducibility". ie to accept a criterion for observations that "narrows the field ... to experiences that are, in principle, transferable from person to person". My guess, actually, is that this narrowing was accepted not only for practical reasons but also as a sort of Faustian bargain: scientists (at least some) agreed to this limitation to avoid coming into conflict with other forms of exploration that took personal experience as their own basic set of observations.
Whether or not there was a Faustian bargain involved here in the past, it is increasingly clear that science cannot continue to decline to accept "personal experience" as a legitimate source of observations. Consciousness as a significant aspect of human brain function, for example, cannot be explored without making use of "personal experience" as relevant observations, and the same holds for much of contemporary cognitive science. In both of these areas, scientists have developed and are actively using criteria to assure the "reliability" of observations that do not depend on "experiences that are, in principle, transferable from person to person". The genuinely distinctive is an essential component of what is being explored. This can (and does) include, among other things, "inner religious experiences, strange phenomea that only ever occur to single observers", and the like.
"Rule #3. Scientific stories should be subject to an infinitely repeating process of evaluation mean to generate more and more useful stories
On the continual recursive process we are very dramatically in the same place, using somewhat (perhap usefully?) different words and images. There may, though, be a perhaps interesting hidden difference. You speak of a "human enterprise, prone to human limitations", with the assumption that were we more perfect our stories would be correspondingly more perfect. And I'm inclined instead to think of the "humanity" of the process as an asset, as a feature rather than a bug. Perhaps it would be a "bug" if the task was to uncover a pre-existing "reality" but if it is instead, as you say, to continually come up with improved ("less wrong") explanations then our humanness (in the sense of being able to imagine all sorts of different things) may well be an asset rather than a problem.
"Rule #4. Scientific explanations cannot appeal to the supernatural. Only naturalistic explanations are allowed.
Just as there is a problem with grounding science in "natural phenomena", I think one has to be a little careful in ruling out "supernatural" explanations. Apollo carrying the sun around on his back was actually a quite good "scientific" story at the time. It and the flat earth and the sun going around the earth were perfectly reasonable "summaries of observations" (see Evolution (and revolution?)) that in turn motivated new observations. The real problem isn't the "supernatural" per se; that term can be understood to mean only "what we have not yet understood" and can equally be applied to a number of constructs of contemporary science. The real problem, as you point out, is the state of mind that says "No other natural explanation ... can be conceived" or when a story presumes absolutely ad hoc and arbitrary causal influences that cannot themselves be further explored. The conflict with some religions is a real one (cf Fundamentalism and Relativism: Finding a New Direction but is actually about whether there are causally significant things that can't be explored rather than about whether there are things of that kind that we don't yet understand. Its about settling for existing stories as opposed to continuing exploration of what might be.
"Rule #5. Any scientific explanation involving events in the past must square with the principle of "Uniformitarianism"-the assumption that past events can be explained in terms of the "natural laws" that apply today"
Not being myself a geologist, I hadn't thought about this one and am delighted to have it put on the table. And I do think its a good "heuristic", that many good scientific stories have this characteristic and that its a good starting point for trying to create good new ones. My reservations about "natural" laws, though, still hold here and particularly so as a neurobiologist with interests in evolution. There are a number of "laws" currently operating (as a result of, among other things, the evolution of the brain) that didn't operate in the past, and so shouldn't in fact be used to try and make sense of the past. A particularly apt example is the phenomenon of intentionality, of things bringing brought into being by agents who intend to create such a thing. We currently plan and create a variety of complex entities, for example, but that ought not to be taken as reason to presume that there was in the past an intelligent designer that accounts for the appearance of complex entitites (like ourselves) in the past.
"Rule #6. Scientists assume that nature is simple enough for human minds to understand.
This one caught me by surprise too, and also intrigues me. I'm not sure science actually needs a presumption that what it explores ("nature" including humans and their workings/creations) is "simple enough", but ... we do indeed tend to make that assumption. What's interesting to me as a neurobiologist is that science is actually done by brains and brains are altered by doing science (as they are by all action) and so ... there is no reason to believe that however complex what we are trying to understand is we can't make a tool of the needed required compexity. Which in turn would, of course, make what neurobiologists try to understand still more complex and hence require .... Yep, here too its about ... unending exploration/story telling/story revising.
I trust you'll take all this in a spirit very much intended, as an expression of interest in and admiration for both your thoughtfulness and your courage in taking on the story of science as story. Though I've touched only lightly on our points of commonality and spent much more time on our possible differences, I have done so because of how much there is we agree on (both conceptually and in terms of what we are trying to do in classrooms) and how interested I am in seeing where we can go next with the story of science as story. As story telling or as storytelling. I hope you share some of that excitement and look forward to seeing your own thoughts on the similarities and differences between our two papers.
BB to PG, 5 December 2005 (see beginning)
Isn't it interesting that our stories about "Science as Storytelling (or Story Telling)" travel to somewhat different destinations? As you said, they are similar enough to make one feel that "there is a there, there," but different enough to make it seem that "there" is a general direction rather than a precise location. You have pointed out that there are some subtle, and some not-so-subtle differences in where we are coming from and where we would like to go with this theme, although it seems that our paths cross at a number of points. As I answer some of your points, I'll try to illuminate my own background and goals a little more clearly.
In fact, in my experience, the story of science as story is generally more appealing to people who have felt disengaged from science and hardest to sell to scientists, and others with professional interests in this area. I assume you have similar experiences among geologists? among philosophers of science? I think your article has some useful things to say in these realms as well. Are you comfortable using it also for such additional audiences?
Indeed Dave and I do intend the essay for a broader audience, especially in the higher education community (although I have a friend teaching middle school science who wants to adapt it for his students.) The two main groups I am concerned about convincing are college students and science professors.
I anticipate (or have already observed) several concerns from these groups. Of course, students want to be taught a realistic view of science that is easily understandable. But also, they do not want to feel manipulated, or feel that their religious beliefs are under attack. In large part, professors share these concerns, but also want to ensure that their students do not come away with an anti-science attitude.
This last point, I believe, might partially explain why it is so difficult to convince many scientists to take a "storytelling" approach to teaching the nature of science. Even if the "science as storytelling" type of approach feels liberating to students and reduces the tension between science and religion in their minds, their professors might be concerned that such an approach would give students license to dismiss science as "just" storytelling. This is one reason I believe some attempt has to be made to distinguish science from other types of storytelling, and this brings me to your next point. You said:
I am, I suspect, less interested in the "demarcation" problem than you are, in setting a sharp border between what is termed "science" and other things ... In short, relevant observations and stories have come from a variety of places, not only from those who follow the current rules you outline, and there is every reason to think they will continue to do so.
For the most part, I agree with your point, and we tried in our essay to make clear that there are no set of criteria that can strictly demarcate the line between science and non-science. I am also sympathetic to the view that modern science grew, in large part, from activities that now seem primitive and superstitious. In fact, I myself hold to certain beliefs that some might consider primitive and superstitious, so I would hardly characterize non-scientific observations and stories as "irrelevant." But then why bother with the "demarcation problem" at all?
For me, the answer is that if we are going to discuss what science is at all, we cannot escape the question of what science isn't. This is no mere academic question, because like it or not, most modern people give scientific stories a privileged place in their minds. Why? Precisely because modern science seems to have been so much more successful than earlier attempts like astrology and alchemy. There seems to be a real difference there, whether the boundaries are sharp or fuzzy, and I think people are justified in exploring the question of why science has been so successful, even if this turns out to be a philosophical problem that is not entirely soluble. Also, there will always be those who want to include under the "science" heading certain disciplines around the fuzzy edges of our demarcation criteria in order to cash in on the prestige that the name "science" carries. Should such attempts be resisted or allowed? Again, this is no mere academic question in a country where billions of dollars are spent to fund "scientific" research and states mandate the teaching of "science" in public schools. So even though I agree that the demarcation problem is not completely soluble, I am inclined to believe that we cannot escape saying something about it.
In my opinion, even if there are not hard and fast rules governing how scientists operate, there are still useful rules of thumb that can explain why modern science has been so successful at explaining the natural world in useful ways, and why other attempts have not been so successful. I think that students need such criteria to really come to appreciate science for what it is, and I also think that a "storytelling" approach to teaching the nature of science would be a hard sale for science professors if it requires that we equate astrology with science.
Nevertheless, you are right that "the scientific community is actually pretty heterogeneous, probably usefully so, and that is an important point to make about science as well." This is why we tried to point out exceptions to many of our rules.
Your final reason for not stressing the demarcation problem is most interesting.
The third, and perhaps most important reason for not putting too much emphasis on "demarcation" is that such emphasis itself tends to encourage people to opt in or out, and that can and does reduce the likelihood that people will "make your own informed judgments about scientific stories", to say nothing of becoming sufficiently engaged with them to be both critical and creative with them.
One point we made in our essay is that certain rules are adopted by scientists for the sake of convenience. I think maybe we need to update the essay to clarify the full import of this statement. That is, I believe modern science has been so successful precisely because scientists have learned to simplify down to a manageable level the problems they wish to solve. (As the Nobel laureate and biologist Peter Medawar put it, scientific research is "the art of the soluble.") Only certain types of observations and explanations are allowed because we want to exclude possibilities that would complicate matters to the point of hobbling our ability to make choices between stories. If students fail to comprehend this point, I think they will fail to appreciate science for the powerful system it is.
That said, I think you are right to say that our emphasis on demarcation forces people to "opt in or out, " and I see this as a good thing. Let me explain. If the success of science is due to the art of constructive oversimplification, then it naturally follows that that there may be aspects of our world that science either cannot treat or for which science will provide inadequate explanations. Every day people have to choose which stories will provide the basis for their actions, and it would by no means be irrational for them to decide not to always put their faith in whatever the current scientific consensus happens to be, since it is well-established that scientific stories are not "The Truth," and are in a perpetual state of flux. If we want people to make informed choices about which stories to adopt, I see value in giving a clear exposition of the kinds of assumptions scientists are likely making when they create their stories.
At this point I might seem to be contradicting myself, because earlier I expressed concern that avoiding confrontation with the demarcation problem might provide students with the mental justification for adopting an anti-science attitude, failing to understand the true power of scientific inquiry. Now I'm claiming that a clear exposition of the "rules" for scientific storytelling would help people decide when to reject scientific stories! For me, the issue is that I believe there really are differences between scientific and other types of stories. I also believe that if most students are told about these differences, as well as the reasons scientists adopt particular "rules," they will come to appreciate science as a powerful tool, but will not feel manipulated or cornered into adopting a particular point of view about it. I am hoping they will feel a new freedom to consider all possibilities, because they will not perceive science as being something that has to be either accepted or rejected wholesale.
When you turn to our claim that scientific stories must be "useful for controlling or predicting nature," you comment:
Controlling or predicting nature" may be a desideratum for some scientists but it is certainly not for all scientists nor for all humans. For many, in fact, that aspiration calls up images (not all inappropriate) of a scientific arrogance that has arguably made most peoples' lives less predictable and satisfying rather than more so ...
I don't at all deny that scientific stories must make predictions; without that they cannot motivate new observations and further story evolution. I'm less sure that it is still appropriate/useful to connect that to "control" and that in turn to "useful".
I agree that science is not always about "control," but it certainly is part of the story (e.g., as an environmental scientist, I am concerned with predicting and controlling whether people will be poisoned as a result of various activities,) and prediction is almost essential. Therefore, maybe we should restate our definition of scientific stories as those that are useful to "predict and possibly control" nature. There certainly are limits to our ability to predict, and in fact it is an axiom of quantum mechanics that certain things cannot be predicted. However, even if it is impossible to predict the exact position and momentum of an electron at the same time, we can still predict useful things about the behavior of systems of electrons. A brief foray into chaos theory should convince anyone that even systems whose behavior can never be precisely predicted might still exhibit limits to the range they exhibit. I suspect that even in the case of the study of brain function, which you mentioned, it has turned up many things that are predictable, even if only in a general way. As you mentioned, "scientific stories must make predictions" because without that, "open-ended and continuing exploration" would come to a close.
Now on to your comments about our specific "rules."
In both of these areas, scientists have developed and are actively using criteria to assure the "reliability" of observations that do not depend on "experiences that are, in principle, transferable from person to person". The genuinely distinctive is an essential component of what is being explored. This can (and does) include, among other things, "inner religious experiences, strange phenomea that only ever occur to single observers", and the like.
I hadn't thought about this point, and so I think maybe this is another place where we should clarify our meaning. Perhaps we could say that things like "inner experiences" are not admissible as scientific observations unless those experiences are themselves the object of study. Is that more agreeable?
And I'm inclined instead to think of the "humanity" of the process as an asset, as a feature rather than a bug. Perhaps it would be a "bug" if the task was to uncover a pre-existing "reality" but if it is instead, as you say, to continually come up with improved ("less wrong") explanations then our humanness (in the sense of being able to imagine all sorts of different things) may well be an asset rather than a problem.
If one thing is "less wrong" than another, doesn't that imply some external standard against which they can be judged? Our problem is that "true reality" is not always directly accessible, but as Philip Kitcher (Science, Truth, and Democracy, Oxford, 2001, p. 22) points out, based on experiences where we can check the accuracy of our conceptual models, we generally come to the conclusion that "the correlation between success and accuracy is high. More exactly, we come to believe that people usually only manage to achieve systematic success in prediction when the views about their underlying entities are roughly right." So the upshot is that if we keep getting our stories "less wrong," then we at least have some reason to suspect that we might be getting them "more right," even if we can never quite tell "how right."
Just as there is a problem with grounding science in "natural phenomena", I think one has to be a little careful in ruling out "supernatural" explanations. Apollo carrying the sun around on his back was actually a quite good "scientific" story at the time.
I still see a definite difference between that kind of story and those generated by modern science. If you doubt this, just try to find a single paper in a modern scientific journal that refers to God or another supernatural entity as part of an explanation. Why did God go AWOL from science? We pointed out some practical reasons for this, but as you mention, it is by no means trivial to define what is meant by "supernatural," and the "real problem ... is ... when a story presumes absolutely ad hoc and arbitrary causal influences that cannot themselves be further explored." We admitted that it "might well be possible for supernatural explanations to generate new predictions," but went on to assert that modern scientists still don't allow such things in their published works, so as to avoid balkanizing science into different religious camps. In other words, scientists may also have social reasons for constructive oversimplification in some areas.
This discussion has great contemporary significance, I think, because of the current debate about whether "Intelligent Design Theory" ought to be taught in public school science classes. Most scientists seem to be vehemently opposed to it - and not just the atheists among us. Why? Because they perceive that "Methodological Naturalism" offers some real practical advantages. I believe that our exposition offers a coherent rationale for adopting Methodological Naturalism that is non-threatening because it leaves students with an "out." That is, we have framed the discussion so that the pertinent question becomes, "If it isn't strictly necessary to leave God out of science, do the practical advantages of doing so outweigh the cost of ignoring certain possibilities?" Again, I don't want my students to feel manipulated or cornered into adopting a particular point of view, and I believe that framing the issue in these terms helps students to see the issue clearly and make their own decisions about what they think should be done.
This semester, I discussed the issue of "Methodological Naturalism" in these terms with my Earth Science class for Elementary Education majors at BYU. Essentially all of my students are religious, and it was interesting to see the responses I got when I asked them to respond to the question, "Have you learned anything useful about how to deal with science/religion conflicts in this class?" I found many of the responses to this question encouraging, in that I think they generally support the notion that our approach to teaching the nature of science is on the right track with respect to our criteria for success. (Criteria: Students 1. gain a realistic understanding of the nature of science, 2. do not feel their religious beliefs are under attack, 3. do not feel manipulated or cornered into adopting a particular point of view, and 4. are not driven to become more anti-science than when they came in.)
First, even though the vast majority of my students are freshmen and sophomores, the approach I used seemed to help many of them move beyond a "black and white" mentality, and become more open to considering alternative points of view. Here are a few examples.
"I have enjoyed learning more about science in this class; the main thing for me to remember has been that I don't have to believe all I hear, but that doesn't mean I can ignore it. Putting science and religion together definitely takes time (and we won't have all the answers in this life.)"
"I am careful not to simply jump on the bandwagon if a scientific theory is discussed. I contemplate the theory and how it was developed before my personal opinion is formed."
"The very first lecture was especially useful to me as a [former] biology major and has provided a way to approach both scientific and religion issues that seem to conflict. By completely separating the issues on the basis of natural vs. supernatural explanations, it is easy to accept both at this time and await a better time to understand the whole truth. For some reason, despite my numerous biology courses already taken, the way this issue was presented in this class helped me the most."
"I have learned that we should know about the theories of the world and we should be open to the ideas, but we don't have to believe in them. We will know the truth about what really happened eventually."
"In this class I have found that saying scientists make up stories helped me a lot. I think that it is okay for me to listen and learn a theory that may go against my religion. I am glad that we addressed it in this class."
"I think that the line between [science and religion] is different for everyone, but… important to figure out."
"We can't let religious issues get in our way of understanding science. We can't let it offend us, either. Many things can be true to a point."
"I think that science and religion need to be both looked at to come to the truth, and that we shouldn't take everything in the scriptures literally (we might misinterpret the meaning). We also shouldn't look at science as the answer to everything but more as a way to build on what we know or want to know and fill in the gaps."
"I have learned that science can be kind of fun. It used to just be all of these facts and figures, but now I know that I can look at it in another way and have more fun with it. When I keep in mind the rules of science, I understand how many things about science are just stories."
"I don't mind that [evolutionary theory] excludes God. It makes the theory accessible to all people… and allows them to fit in their ideas about God as they so choose. I don't believe it needs to be science versus God, but as I have learned from this class, it is a good idea to separate the two."
"In this class I have realized the importance of leaving God out of science. In the beginning of the semester it really offended me that Dr. Bickmore kept saying to leave God out, but now I understand that it has more to do with how in depth we search in how things work. We should credit everything to God, but it is okay to figure out how He does it. If we say "Well God did it and that's all we need to know," then we do not learn and grow."
Although we did not discuss the issue of teaching "Intelligent Design Theory" or Creationism in public schools, I did intend to model a way to respectfully address science/religion issues without stomping all over the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. It was interesting for me to see how many of these very religious students came down firmly on the side of not advocating religious viewpoints in the science classroom. (In fact, I never taught this - I only explained the reasons why scientists do not use the supernatural in scientific stories.)
"I have learned that while teaching science, you should not teach about your religious beliefs."
"Teaching science/religion issues can be a touchy subject, but stay open to other people's views and say that you don't know everything."
"I think I have learned ways to teach a subject that is science/religion related and let the students decide for themselves."
I also believe that my students did not feel manipulated or cornered into adopting a particular point of view about whether God should be left out of scientific stories, but our approach seemed to help them express more understanding and tolerance for the scientists who operate in this manner. Consider the range of student responses to this issue in the following excerpts.
"I feel like, through this class, I understand better why people leave God out of things. I appreciate the advances we have made in science. For me, however, all things truly do denote that there is a God and He is involved in everything, so I don't think it does any good to just leave Him out of it."
"Science and religion are touchy subjects. You can't have everybody happy, so I believe that ignoring religion has worked fairly well. However, we need to be tolerant [of] all beliefs."
"Setting religion [and the] supernatural aside for just a moment forces us to find explanations and learn more about those natural laws and processes used to create the earth and develop life, whether or not we believe God was in charge."
"It's hard not tying science and religion into one. I learned that if scientists did this, though, many people would reject the theory because they might reject the religion."
For me, the bottom line is that scientists actually do leave God out of scientific stories nowadays, and an explicit discussion of this fact seems to help deeply religious students deal with the genuine science/religion conflicts that pop up. It seems to help them accept the fact that no one has it all figured out, yet.
The conflict with some religions is a real one (cf Fundamentalism and Relativism: Finding a New Direction) but is actually about whether there are causally significant things that can't be explored rather than about whether there are things of that kind that we don't yet understand. Its about settling for existing stories as opposed to continuing exploration of what might be.
I have considerable sympathy with the views you expressed in the linked essay, and in fact my religion actually encourages one to lean in that direction, at least. But here again I think the wisest course in the classroom is to clarify the issue, rather than advocate a particular religious position or attitude. The quickest way to shut down the brains of students with a fundamentalist mindset is to make them feel that their faith is under attack. After all, just because fundamentalism can be carried to excess or error does not necessarily mean that it is an essentially flawed way of looking at the world, and many of these students are savvy enough to know it. I believe that if "fundamentalist" students can come to understand the reasons scientists - even religious ones - have for leaving God out of their stories, they may come out feeling less bothered by the inevitable fact that there are some genuine science/religion conflicts out there, and thus become less "anti-science." The first step to improving the dialogue in this area must be to get everyone calmed down and listening to each other.
My reservations about "natural" laws, though, still hold here and particularly so as a neurobiologist with interests in evolution. There are a number of "laws" currently operating (as a result of, among other things, the evolution of the brain) that didn't operate in the past, and so shouldn't in fact be used to try and make sense of the past.
Personally, I wouldn't characterize the things you mention as "natural laws," but rather a higher-order sort of thing. I would still assert that scientists assume that the natural laws by which things like consciousness or intentionality developed (e.g., the laws governing quantum mechanics and the like) have always been the same.
You may have noticed that I am very concerned that my students come out of my class feeling that their religious beliefs have been treated with deep respect. Partly this is because I am a religious person teaching at a religious university, but here I want to highlight another point where our approaches to teaching the nature of science might differ slightly, in order to illustrate another reason why this is such a concern for me. You said:
Participation in creating scientific stories should not be presumed to depend on any litmus test other than the ability and inclination to be curious and skeptical.
Science is therefore fundamentally not about security but about doubt, not about knowing but about asking, not about certainty but about skepticism.
On the other hand, we wrote,
"Indeed, we claimed above that scientists are perfectly capable of ignoring some observations that conflict with their established explanations. Why would they do such a thing? The fact is that sometimes observations go wrong - instruments do not work correctly, experiments are contaminated, and people can be deceived in what they think they see. Furthermore, the world is a complicated place, and even if a few observations seem to conflict with an explanation, it may still be mainly correct. And if it is not immediately apparent how to fix the theory, that is no reason to throw out an otherwise perfectly good explanation."
In other words, I don't think skepticism is always a virtue, and sometimes a little bit of dogmatic tenacity can be useful. For example, when astronomers discovered that the orbit of Uranus was anomalous with respect to the predictions of Newton's Laws, they did not dump the Laws. Rather, they painstakingly calculated the mass and position of an object that might cause such deviations, and subsequently looked for, and found, Neptune.
Certainly the progress of science requires some skepticism, but also a little faith. That is, all scientific theories are confronted with anomalies, but in the face of such things the most beneficial response could either be to hang on doggedly to the prevailing paradigm, while tinkering with the details, or to skeptically ask whether a very different paradigm might work better. And here is the important part - we cannot know in advance which course will be the most productive in any particular instance.
Perhaps we could say that what is needed is a bit of "creative tension" between skepticism and faith. Even the most dogmatic of scientists can serve a useful purpose precisely because he has a vested interest in making the strongest possible case for his chosen paradigm, and beating the competition to smithereens. Getting it "less wrong" requires vigorous debate, and the most vigorous debaters tend to be "true believers." Similarly, the most inflexible bible-thumpers can be most effective at pointing out gaps and problem areas in evolutionary theory, etc. This seems to me to be a useful function, even if scientists sometimes find it annoying, and even if I wouldn't define the creation stories these people tend to promote, "scientific." (Could this be a connection with your statement that, "I'm inclined instead to think of the "humanity" of the process as an asset, as a feature rather than a bug"?)
Therefore, I would say that there should be no litmus test for participating in the creation of scientific stories that involves the attitudes a person brings to the table. Rather, as I mentioned before, I do see value in some sort of litmus test for what constitutes a scientific story. Yes, lines are drawn, even if they are a bit fuzzy. Yes, people are encouraged to opt in or out, but in such a way that this can be done on a case-by-case basis, rather than wholesale. That is, if we clearly state that science ignores certain possibilities for practical reasons, this frees one to consider when such assumptions might, or might not, be justified.
Thanks again for hosting this conversation. One reason it is so exciting for me is that I am very interested in finding problem areas in our presentation, although I think it should be obvious that I am enough of a "true believer" to try and make a vigorous argument for my point of view. Not only do you seem to have been thinking deeply about some of the same issues, but I'm also looking forward to opening up the discussion others. One measure of the "usefulness" of our ideas will be how many science teachers actually adopt them, and how many students are inclined to listen.
Do you think that the criteria I listed above for evaluating our approach (students 1. gain a realistic understanding of the nature of science, 2. do not feel their religious beliefs are under attack, 3. do not feel manipulated or cornered into adopting a particular point of view, and 4. are not driven to become more anti-science than when they came in) are sufficient? Or would you add or subtract anything from them? Finally, do you have any ideas on how either or both of our essays could be changed to better fulfill these (and possibly other) criteria?
PG to BB, 7 January 2006 (see beginning)
Thanks for your rich set of thoughts. I share your excitement in this exchange, and most particularly in its potential for causing useful revisions in both our stories, as well as for engaging others (with other stories) in productive conversation about matters of concern to all.
It seems at this point pretty clear to me that Story Telling and Storytelling overlap substantially in their similar assertions that science is a continually recursive process of creating stories based on observations that in turn motivate new observations that in turn result in revised stories (ie that scientific stories are not and cannot be "Truth"), in their shared emphasis on scientific stories as "useful", and in our common ambition to find ways to positively engage more students (and others) with science (ie to avoid a Two Cultures" dichotomy; see also Two Cultures or One?).
|The difference between "story telling" and "storytelling" is turning out, I think, to be more than an arbitrary stylistic one ... That science is "thoroughly human" and involves telling/sharing useful stories is an inherent part of this story. That it is "non-threatening" is not ...
At the same time, I very much agree that there are "some subtle, and some not-so-subtle, differences in where we are coming from and where we would like to go with this theme". The difference between "story telling" and "storytelling" is turning out, I think, to be more than an arbitrary stylistic one. Storytellers, as in Feyerabend's "court jesters", together with an account of rules distinguishing scientific from other forms of story telling, and a focus on practical "usefulness" may indeed help "religious" students (and others) "see science as thoroughly human and non-threatening". "Science as Story Telling and Story Revising"
starts in a different place, with "story" as an inevitable and fundamental characteristic of science
itself, and has a broader objective: to make that starting point and its implications better understood by both non-scientists and scientists, by both students and faculty, "religious" or otherwise, and to change not only how science is seen from the outside but how it is understood/practiced from the inside as well. That science is "thoroughly human" and involves telling/sharing useful stories is an inherent part of this story. That it is "non-threatening" is not. Indeed, a central theme of story telling
is "Science ... is not about security but about doubt, not about knowing but about asking, not about certainty but about skepticism" and hence "science is inevitably a destabilizing and revolutionary force with regard to all existing understandings ..."
There is clearly a relevant difference in background and context here, one that involves but goes beyond "religion". I am not myself "religious" (see On Being a "Lonely" Atheist and "I Believe ..." Its Significance and Limitations for Individuals, Science, and Politics ). I do though very much share your interest in assuring that students (and others) "not feel manipulated or cornered into adopting a particular points of view". Perhaps some of the differences between story telling and storytelling reflect an effort on your part to address the problem of how to avoid causing people to feel "manipulated" in the specific context of "religious" people and mine to treat it as a more general problem relevant to lots of populations (with "religious" people as a subset)? With that possibility in mind, let me look a little more closely at some particular points of current difference as they have emerged from our conversation so far. Maybe the differences can be productive for both of us. Perhaps your more specifically motived "storytelling" has important things to say for a more general audience and my more generally motivated "story telling" relevant things for a more specific one?
| Maybe the differences can be productive for both of us. Perhaps your more specifically motivated "storytelling" has important things to say for a more general audience and my more generally motivated "story telling" relevant things for a more specific one?
I'll start with some points of yours that I particularly like. It is, of course, not only "religious" people who need to learn "not always to put their faith in whatever the current scientific consensus happens to be" and who can and should be exposed to your notion of science as "constructive simplification". Understanding that science is NOT "Truth" may make religious people feel less threatened by it, but the larger and I think more important point is that anyone, religious or not, who puts their "faith" in scientific stories, rather than hearing them with some measure of skepticism, will (and does) end up confused and disillusioned about science.
There are, I think, at least two important reasons for this. One, that I lean heavily on in my essay, is that scientific stories are, at any given time, summaries of observations UP TO THAT TIME, and therefore always subject to future revision. What I spend less time on and am glad to have brought out more clearly is that scientific stories are indeed "constructive simplifications", i.e. they focus on what seems, at any given time, to be "soluble" (or at least relatively amenable to summary) and leave out a variety of other observations that don't fit (or are not so easily summarized). The scientific story that depression is a result of disturbed levels of neurotransmitters is one of many examples. It ignores, among other things, the observation that manipulations of neurotransmitter levels are therapeutically effective in some people and not in others. The scientific story of an "optimal" diet is another, in this case ignoring the substantial variation among individuals in nutritional needs. And so forth.
You offer two explanations/justifications for "constructive simplification": convenience (bring to a "manageable level the problems [scientists] wish to solve" and "social reasons" such as "to avoid balkanizing science into different religious camps". I agree very much that "constructive simplification" does, at times, serve an instrumental ("problem solving") purpose. Particular simplifications may or may not prove in fact to be useful in this way (the concept of the "ether", for example), but the overall pattern over time does indeed seem to me to be one of pragmatic usefulness. Whether an agreement to rely on "constructive simplification" is, on balance, more or less "balkanizing" I'm less certain about. The history of science is full of cases in which different groups of scientists disagree, frequently with nearly religious zeal, about which particular "constructive simplification" is the appropriate one (the legitimacy of "continental drift" is a case in point; see Story Telling for others). These, of course, also play out over time in a "useful" way but one certainly has a sense that "balkanization" may at least be a characteristic feature of science, and perhaps is even an essential one.
| Let me offer an alternative explanation for the significance of "constructive simplification" that I think can account both for your suggestions and for some of the anomalies as well ... Constructive simplifications ... provide a motivation and direction for new observations, and hence for revised stories.
Let me offer an alternative explanation for the significance of "constructive simplification" that I think can account both for your suggestions and for some of the anomalies as well. Constructive simplifications may not be "True" (or even particularly useful at particular times in specific cases) but they are in general "generative
", i.e. they provide a motivation and direction for new observations, and hence for revised stories. To put it differently, they have a high "use" value within science itself; they contribute substantially to the ongoing process of story telling and story revising. In lieu of "constructive simplification", one would have only the observations in their infinite variations and no basis for moving beyond them. To move, to alter the existing stories, one needs to find and focus on particular patterns in the variation. "Constructive simplification" yields the building blocks for the construction of new stories.
In this context, it is particularly important to recognize (as per the Einstein quote we both use) that there are at any given time a variety of different "simplifications" ("stories") and no way to know for certain which ones will be "constructive" except by trying them out. "And so there is always a choice (conscious or unconscious) to further pursue one or another way of several alternative ways of making sense of the world ... what is being tested in scientific method is necessarily not only the nature of things being investigated but also the stories chosen to further investigate them ... there is everything to be gained by having available the widest possible array of not only observations but of candidate stories as well."
In short, "constructive simplification" in science can certainly sometimes serve an instrumental ("problem solving") function, but it reflects more deeply a characteristic internal dynamic that differentiates scientific stories from (many) other kinds of stories: they use "constructive simplification" not as a way to end exploration, but rather as a tool for the "continuing exploration of what might yet be". In order to use scientific stories effectively, and to avoid misusing them, students (and others), religious and otherwise, need to understand and appreciate this internal dynamic and its role in scientific story telling. Scientific stories provide a good basis for action insofar as they are effective summaries of lots of observations. But they are also bets on what is more or less likely to yield future new stories, and to this extent may or may not be relevant guides to action in particular situations.
I think this perspective is not only entirely consistent with our common wish for people to understand that they shouldn't "always to put their faith in whatever the current scientific consensus happens to be" but helps to make clearer why that is so, for both "religious" people and others. And that in turn should contribute to our shared objective of assuring that science not contribute to people ("religious" or otherwise) being "manipulated or cornered into adopting a particular points of view". Doing so is inconsistent with the greatest strengths of science,"its provisional nature, its open-mindedness, its capacity for doubt and uncertainty" and its deepest values, "a commitment to skepticism and a resulting open-ended and continuing exploration of what might yet be". As such, science is and should be "Something that everyone can draw from and be empowered by", each in their own way.
| from this point storytelling and story telling diverge somewhat more ... My hunch is that the demarcation problem is a keystone here ...
This far I suspect we can probably go together quite happily. Some of the issues you raise though suggest that from this point storytelling
and story telling
diverge somewhat more. The divergence does not, I think, reflect a disagreement about whether "there really are differences between scientific and other types of stories", but may involve a preference for one (see above) as opposed to another way of characterizing that difference. My hunch is that the demarcation problem, defining what is and what is not science, and the reasons why one might or might not want to create such definitions, is a keystone here. So let me focus a bit on the demarcation issue, and see whether a little more exploration of it might show that in fact story telling and storytelling can usefully complement one another in this regard too.
The astrology/astronomy, alchemy/chemistry, intelligent design/evolution examples all represent, it seems to me, the traditional (philosophical) approach to the demarcation problem, and I agree with you that many scientists will not be comfortable with either storytelling or story telling unless one or the other or both provide a basis for distinguishing one from the other in each exemplary pair. I also agree that, in doing so, one needs to deal effectively as well both with existing political/economic issues and with creating an atmosphere in which "religious beliefs have been treated with deep respect". I admire your willingness and evident success in taking on this problem in the context of your students. At the same time, I think there are some problems, for a more general audience, with the demarcation rationale and criteria you use, and that you might be equally successful with a slightly modified approach that could work for a more general audience as well (see Evolution (and Revolution?)) for some efforts along these lines for a largely "religious" audience). Let me illustrate with some specific responses to some of your last set of thoughts ...
"we cannot escape the question of what science isn't ... most modern people give scientific stories a privileged place in their minds ... people want to ... to cash in on the prestige that the name of science carries ... billions of dollars are spent to fund "scientific" research and states mandate the teaching of "science" in public schools"
As I said, I agree very much that "existing political/economic issues" need to be taken into account in thinking about the demarcation problem. I don't, however, think that they should be allowed to dominate serious consideration of that issue and, in particular, don't think that one should presume that EXISTING "political/economic" circumstances are inevitable and unchangeable. For this reason, I'm reluctant to use desire for privilege/prestige/money as a motivation for demarcation. The scientific community, as it currently exists, encourages people to grant science a "privileged" place, to "mandate the teaching of 'science' in public schools", to spend "billions of dollars", and, in so doing, itself contributes to others wanting themselves to "cash in on the prestige that the name of science carries". Part of the intent of the story telling story is to encourage both scientists and others to recognize the hazards of too much self-promotion by the scientific community, and accordingly to appropriately moderate the claims made on its behalf as well as the expectations that others place on it. The excesses of science in this regard are, it seems to me, at least as much a contributor to the hazard of creating "anti-scientists" as are "genuine science/religion conflicts". And both might be lessened by a more humble and realistic posture about what science is (and isn't), rather than by defending demarcations that function in part to protect privilege, prestige, and access to resources by the scientific community.
We want students (and others) not only to be able to listen to and evaluate the usefulness of scientific stories but to participate as informed citizens in an ongoing and healthy evaluation of science itself as a component of human culture. We could then look forward to a time when people become involved with scientific stories and science itself to the degree it is actually useful to them rather than because they see it as a source of privilege and prestige (either desirable or threatening).
| We could then look forward to a time when people become involved with scientific stories and science itself to the degree it is actually useful to them rather than because they see it as a source of privilege and prestige (either desirable or threatening).
"there may be aspects of our world that science either cannot treat or for which science will provide inadequate explanations ... "Methodological Naturalism" offers some real practical advantages ... the bottom line is that scientists actually do leave God out of scientific stories nowadays ... just because fundamentalism can be carried to excess or error does not necessarily mean that it is an essentially flawed way of looking at the world ... The first step to improving the dialogue in this area must be to get everyone calmed down and listening to each other"
Among the other things we share is a sense that it is indeed important "to get everyone calmed down and listening to each other". "We need to hear each others' stories, so that we can better tell and retell our own and, in doing, contribute our own pieces to the continually evolving human story. And we need not only to feel but also to reflect and think, to find the new and still better ways to make sense of the world we find ourselves in ... and to remake it anew". But here too I think the issues at stake are more general ones (the quote is from a piece I wrote after 11 September 2001), and that science as story telling has a larger role to play in the world than science as storytelling gives it.
In the forum you wrote "This is what science is for me--a simplified method that is well-suited for solving certain types of problems", and such a picture of science can certainly contribute to helping people (particularly "religious" people) "calm down" and "listen". But it carries as well an implicit demarcation message that I think is neither necessary nor in the long run accurate. There are indeed reasons why "methodological naturalism" has played a significant role in science and why "scientists actually do leave God out of scientific stories nowadays" but they are not I hope (and strongly feel they shouldn't be) primarily "to get everyone calmed down". Presenting science as a "simplified method ... for solving certain types of problems" creates a demarcation that I think serves primarily a social/political function, undesirably constrains science itself as well as a useful role it serves in culture, and won't in fact hold in the long run.
| Presenting science as a "simplified method ... for solving certain types of problems" creates a demarcation that ... undesirably constrains science itself as well as a useful role it serves in culture, and won't in fact hold in the long run.
The story telling story offers a more expansive vision of science "as a supportive nexus for human story telling in general" one that offers
"as an available alternative for all humans in their own story telling its most characteristic value: a commitment to skepticism and a resulting open-ended and continuing exploration of what might yet be." To put it differently, science as "story telling" is not just a method of "solving certain sorts of problems" nor even just a particular problem-solving procedure. "Methodological Naturalism" has certainly been an effective method in science but to use that as a demarcation criterion, to characterize scientific inquiry as restricted either to the "natural world" or to that particular exploratory procedure seems to me both unnecessary and inappropriate. "Science should never become the advocate either of a particular story about things it is exploring or of any particular form of exploration. Beyond an insistence on grounding stories in observations, and on the open and public evaluation of both observations and stories, it is not, and never has been, particular techniques or styles that create the power of science or assure its continuing progress. What does so is the underlying principle of skepticism, of continually questioning both stories and the styles in which they are told."
My point here is not only that science always has and will always continue to expand both its range and its methods of inquiries and that students (and others) need to be aware of and prepared for this. It is also, and equally importantly, that presenting science otherwise is to cede it a particular kind of authority, the authority of the "specialist", and so to risk people either believing or dismissing stories in whose origins they haven't been involved and can't understand. That in turn not only risks people feeling manipulated but deprives them of the opportunity provided by science to be empowered themselves, to participate in finding "the new and still better ways to make sense of the world ... and to remake it anew".
With that on the table, let me look at how such a more expansive view of science might deal with the demarcation problem as well some of the other issues you raise, and then treat more specifically the question of whether such a view is viable for the "religious" context in which you are working. Let me start with the astrology/astronomy, alchemy/chemistry, intelligent design/evolution distinctions which, it seems to me, all have to be dealt with in the context of science as an ongoing work in progress, which is to say ultimately in the context of "generativity".
| let me look at how such a more expansive view of science might deal with the demarcation problem
The story that the sun goes around the earth was not "unscientific" at the time it came into existence. It was instead a perfectly good summary of observations available at the time. We regard it as "unscientific" now because there have become available since that time additional observations not well summarized by that story, with the total set of observations (the original ones plus those since) better summarized by the story "the earth goes around the sun". My point is that it is not stories themselves that are "scientific" or "unscientific". Stories are more or less "scientific" as the number of relevant available observations which they effectively summarize increases. And, equally significantly, that assay of "scientific" does not necessarily correlate with "usefulness" in all contexts. If we want to launch a space craft to Mars, the story that the earth (and Mars) are in motion around the sun is more useful, but most of us most of the time act quite happily as if the sun goes around the earth. This last point is even clearer in the case of newtonian and relativistic physics (as you point out): for the purpose of moving most objects around on the earth, it is distinctly less useful to use relativistic physics (since it increases the computational time) and more useful to use newtonian physics even though the latter has supplanted the former in terms of numbers of relevant observations effectively summarized.
The relation between classical and relativistic physics provides an additional useful lesson in the present context. While many story revisions are motivated by an increased number of observations, this wasn't for the most part the case for the theory ("story") of relativity; most of the observations that now make relativistic physics more "scientific" than classical physics were made after the development of the story and as a result of it. What made the story "scientific" originally was not only its ability to effectively summarize a large number of observations (the same number in fact as newtonian physics) but its generativity. It motivated the making of a whole new set of observations that would not otherwise have seemed significant.
So, what's a "scientific" story? Modern astronomy summarizes a much wider range of observations than astrology, has been much more generative of new observations, and seems likely to continue to be. Modern chemistry summarizes a much wider range of observations than alchemy, has been much more generative of new observations, and seems likely to continue to be. In short, science as story telling provides a clear basis for discriminating modern astronomy from contemporary astrology and modern chemistry from contemporary alchemy: the number and range of observations summarized together with a guess about the likely future of new observations motivated. Moreover, that discrimination puts the emphasis where it belongs, on the observations and the motivation for new ones. And the discrimination appropriately acknowledges some uncertainty, particularly in the need to place a bet on future generativity (a bet that all professional scientists have to make all the time), and a consequent fuzziness for some discriminations.
| science as story telling provides a clear basis for discriminating modern astronomy from contemporary astrology and modern chemistry from contemporary alchemy: the number and range of observations summarized together with a guess about the likely future of new observations motivated.
What about "intelligent design" and evolution? Does this all help there? Indeed I think it does. What most people who think there is a serious fuzziness in this particular discrimination fail to appreciate is the extraordinary number and range of relevant observations summarized by the story of evolution, of which very few were in fact available when Darwin was working. Evolution has been and continues to be not only an effective summary of a wide diversity of kinds of observations otherwise not well brought together, but also a productive motivator of new observations. In short, it is a remarkably good "scientific" story. Moreover, it is one that is demonstrably "useful", providing a way to understand an enormous array of phenomena difficult to otherwise make sense of (from antibiotic resistance in bacteria to patterns of variation in human disease and the effectiveness of medical therapies) and a foundation for a large number of new technologies in computing and elsewhere. No one making a serious judgment of "scientific" stories could fail to make a discrimination between evolution and "intelligent design". Their track records over the past hundred and fifty years are too different. Could that change? Could a scientist bet, despite the track record, on future generativity for "intelligent design"? Yes, of course, as some have. But unless and until the intelligent design story motivates substantial new sets of observations that in turn create revised stories and motivate still further observations it is irresponsible to give students (or anyone else) the impression that evolution and "intelligent design" are competing "scientific" stories. They are not. The differences between them are enormous, way outside the range of fuzziness in discriminating.
This approach to the demarcation problem has, I think, some of the benefits you were looking for without some of the problems about which I am concerned. In particular, it "leaves students [ and others as well] with an 'out'", without putting constraints on what science might or might not explore in the future. "Scientific" stories are intended for and best used in cases where the primary concern is the likelihood of future change, of seeing what has not yet been seen. For other purposes, other kinds of stories might well be legitimately preferred, either older "scientific" stories or "religious" stories or stories of some other kind.
So why bother with God? Was Laplace right that God is not a "necessary hypothesis"? My only answer to that question lies in personal religious experience. If I have had personal experiences that convince me that God is real, and that God interferes with the normal order of things once in a while, then I can't seriously treat the assumptions of Naturalism and Uniformitarianism as "The Truth." However, I can easily (and with a clear conscience) treat them as "simplifying assumptions," as long as I can accept that God has things working in a regular manner most of the time (from the forum).
We very much agree that "the assumptions of Naturalism and Uninformitarianism" should not be accepted (nor promoted) as "The Truth". The argument of science as story telling though goes beyond this to contend that those assumptions are legitimately and desirably challengeable not only by "religious" people but by all people, scientists included. "Naturalism" and "Uniformitarism" are story telling elements, whose value has been and should be continually tested by their value in generating new observations and revised stories. Either or both could in the future be relaxed (as in the modern understanding that cataclysmic events play a significant role in evolution) or given up entirely without compromise to the larger scientific process of continually collecting observations, creating stories to summarize those observations and motivate new ones, and revising the stories as required by the new observations.
| "Scientific" stories are intended for and best used in cases where the primary concern is the likelihood of future change, of seeing what has not yet been seen. For other purposes, other kinds of stories might well be legitimately preferred
Where does "God" fit in this? That, it seems to me, is entirely a matter of, as you say, "personal experience" and personal choice. Science does not and cannot prove the absence of an unknown entity that "interferes with the normal order of things once in a while". It can, and does, notice when unknown things occasionally cause things to go in an unexpected way, and uses those observations to create new stories which in turn create new expectations and so forth. One can, if one chooses, treat these as creating new understandings of "God", or of "nature" or of ... ? And one may, if one chooses, treat both personal experiences and the stories one derives from them "scientifically", ie as summaries of observations motivating new observations and revised stories. Alternatively, one may want to treat certain things as fixed and outside the scope of critical inquiry and associated story revision. What moves things outside the sphere of science (for better or for worse) is not "personal experiences" but convictions based on them (or anything else) that one chooses not to subject to the possibility of further revision.
I don't think skepticism is always a virtue, and sometimes a little bit of dogmatic tenacity can be useful ... Certainly the progress of science requires some skepticism, but also a little faith ... Perhaps we could say that what is needed is a bit of "creative tension" between skepticism and faith.
Reminds me a bit of W.B. Yeats in The Second Coming: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity". I do, of course, share your sense that some "tenacity" is a required element in science: one needs some degree of commitment to a story in order to explore its full potential. William James famously wrote in The Will to Believe "Suppose, for instance, that you are climbing a mountain, and have worked yourself into a position from which the only escape is a terrible leap. Have faith that you can successfully make it, and your feet are nerved to its accomplishment. But mistrust yourself . . . and you will hesitate so long that, at last, all unstrung and trembling, and launching yourself in a moment of despair, you roll into the abyss." Its relevant though that, in the same discussion, James said "Faith means belief in something concerning which doubt is theoretically possible". In these terms, faith and skepticism are not equivalent poles between which one negotiates a position. Instead, skepticism is the ground point that brings faith into being and makes it meaningful.
| What moves things outside the sphere of science (for better or for worse) is not "personal experiences" but convictions based on them (or anything else) that one chooses not to subject to the possibility of further revision.
At the same time, I do hear from you (and others) a sense that "skepticism" is too .... negative, that the word implies a kind of deliberate obtuseness or involuntary passivity or paralysis that I don't in fact intend by it. Would "humility" work better? As a scientist one knows that the current story, even if it is one's own, is not and will not be the final word? One expects to be wrong, and is energized rather than distressed by the potential for new things inherent in that?
If one thing is "less wrong" than another, doesn't that imply some external standard against which they can be judged? ... if we keep getting our stories "less wrong," then we at least have some reason to suspect that we might be getting them "more right," even if we can never quite tell "how right."
This is a subtle but I think very important issue. So my thanks for flagging it. "More right" certainly implies an "external standard" but "less wrong" (at least as I intend the phrase) does not. A new observation can show that an existing story is "wrong", ie no longer an adequate summary of observations (including the new one). And a new story, adequate to summarize not only all previous observations but also the current one, is by that token "less wrong". For it to be also "more right" requires the additional presumption that there is some fixed and invariant thing out there and that one's task is to more and more closely describe that thing. While this may be an appropriate assumption for some scientific explorations (of the "natural world"? at least over relatively shorter time spans?), it is not clear to me that it is at all an appropriate assumption for others where the thing being explored may be changing over time (biological systems evolving? human society?), perhaps even changing because of the act of inquiry itself (science? the brain?). In this case, one may proceed, as one normally does, by falsifying stories but since the target is always changing there need be no meaning to "more right".
| skepticism is the ground point that brings faith into being and makes it meaningful.
"More right" also requires the presumption that there is, at least in principle, a single "best" way to describe a given thing, ie that the story progression one is following by successive falsifications (acts of getting it "less wrong") is either uniquely well-suited to what is being explored or must inevitably converge with all other story progressions as they all continue. While this too may be a reasonable presumption for at least some scientific explorations, it is not obvious to me that it is for all. One can think of biological evolution, for example, as a process of exploration of reasonably stable forms of organized matter, a process that involves successive stages of getting it "less wrong" (natural selection). What is striking, of course, is the enormous diversity of existing organisms, all of which must be regarded as equally viable candidate "stories" resulting from the exploration to date. Moreover, there is no sign whatsoever of a trend towards convergence among them (elephants have not been getting any closer to rattlesnakes and there is no reason to expect they will in the future).
I think these are significant issues for scientists (and philosophers of science) to bear in mind as they try and deal with the demarcation problem, but that they have a broader significance as well. Students and others, religious and otherwise, have a legitimate sensitivity about anything that implies that there is a single "right" way to do things, and that everyone can and should be judged by that criterion. And science has a clear need to avoid not only the kinds of hostility such implications provoke in some but also the kind of homogenizing agreement they encourage in others. Describing science as a process of getting "less wrong" is intended to acknowledge not only that there is no claim being made to having "Truth" but, equally importantly, that there is no claim being made to there being any single path along which all stories can be positioned and evaluated, not even all "scientific" stories. There may well be multiple "less wrong" paths from any given point and it is in everyone's interests to have more than one being explored.
Do you think that the criteria I listed above for evaluating our approach (students 1. gain a realistic understanding of the nature of science, 2. do not feel their religious beliefs are under attack, 3. do not feel manipulated or cornered into adopting a particular point of view, and 4. are not driven to become more anti-science than when they came in) are sufficient? Or would you add or subtract anything from them?
I'm of course happy with the first of your objectives, and hope that some of the above contributes usefully to further definition of a "realistic understanding of the nature of science". I like your third objective as as well, and would be inclined to elevate it in importance to the second position on the list. Your second and fourth objectives perhaps need just a bit more discussion, particularly if we're talking (as I hope we are by this point) about not only "religious" students but students in general. Let me see if I can persuade you to combine the two existing objectives into a single third item for the list, and add a new fourth.
| Describing science as a process of getting "less wrong" is intended to acknowledge not only that there is no claim being made to having "Truth" but, equally importantly, that there is no claim being made to there being any single path along which all stories can be positioned and evaluated, not even all "scientific" stories. There may well be multiple "less wrong" paths from any given point
The second and fourth objectives, in their current form, are both negative rather than positive, and both are concerned with the issue of the relation between understandings that students come into a course with and those they leave with. And the second is, of course, specific to a particular population of students. Moreover, it might be read as promising something that we've already both agreed we can't promise, that there will not be science/religion conflicts. So, for a combined new third objective, how about something like students "take seriously whatever understandings they bring to an exploration of science and think critically and make their own informed judgments about their usefulness for themselves and others"? And, to cement the positive, as well as to complete the picture of science as either "story telling" or "storytelling", a new fourth objective: students "acquire an enhanced appreciation of the significance of science as a useful process of questioning, observing, and creating and revising stories, one that they can if they choose make continuing productive use of in their own lives". So my suggested revised list would read
- gain a realistic understanding of the nature of science
- do not feel manipulated or cornered into adopting a particular point of view
- take seriously whatever understandings they bring to the exploration of science and think critically and make their own informed judgments about its usefulness for themselves and others
- acquire an enhanced appreciation of the significance of science as a useful process of questioning, observing, and creating and revising stories, one that they can if they choose make continuing productive use of in their own lives
| Science has always been and should always be an advocate of the values of skepticism (humility?), for both cultures and individuals. That message is as relevant and potentially empowering for "religious" students as it is for students of any other kind. No one, regardless of their background, should be deprived of the opportunity to hear it and make personal choices about its relevance and significance for their own lives.
A couple of final thoughts, having to do with the particular context of "religious" students (and others). I don't actually think there IS a necessary "science/religion" conflict in general. There have been, and always will, be differences between particular scientific stories and particular religious ones, but that is a general consequence of the dynamic nature of science rather reflecting any particular problem between science and religion. Scientific stories will always be challenging older or more stable stories, "religious" or otherwise, and that is, it seems to me, not only an essential but a valuable element of the role of science in human culture. Serious problems arise only when people are uncomfortable with doubt, when they want to resist being challenged and so come to equate challenge with attack requiring attack in return. And even in this realm, the conflict is not in fact one between science and religion but rather one between people in either realm who regard doubt as valuable and productive (see, for example, The Life of Faith is Not a Life Without Doubt
) and those who don't. Science has always been and should always be an advocate of the values of skepticism (humility?), for both cultures and individuals. That message is as relevant and potentially empowering for "religious" students as it is for students of any other kind. No one, regardless of their background, should be deprived of the opportunity to hear it and make personal choices about its relevance and significance for their own lives.
Many thanks for your thoughtful responses to my last set of comments in this exchange. Obviously, I very much share your sense of pleasure and usefulness in a conversation among people who are able both to present a point of view and who take seriously the potential value of the perspectives of others. And look forward to seeing what new stories we (and others) might build from the exchange so far. I hope there are indeed things in my more general approach that might prove useful in your more focused context, as there clearly are things in yours that are useful in mine.
BB to PG, 3 February 2005 (see beginning)
It seems to me that most of the differences highlighted here between our respective approaches have not really been over issues of fact, but over the meaning of particular words, and over strategy for accomplishing somewhat similar, yet not identical, sets of goals. Following are some examples.
First, I challenged your use of the phrase "less wrong," but now that you have explained your usage a little more fully, I think I like it. It seems to me that when you say "less wrong," you might mean something very similar to what I mean when I say, "more useful." We can say a story is "less wrong" in the sense of explaining more data or being more generative - i.e., "more useful" - rather than in the sense of being closer to "The Truth." Am I right? (Or at least, "less wrong"?)
| It seems to me that when you say "less wrong," you might mean something very similar to what I mean when I say, "more useful."
Second, the phrase "summary of observations" tends to rub me the wrong way, as well. A "summary," to me, is an overview of the most important points, but scientific theories are more than that. They go beyond the observations themselves and fill in the gaps to connect the observations together. Scientific stories always include predictions that are unobservable. However, I gather that you realize this, as well, and are merely using the word differently than I would.
Third, you point out that my negative reading of the word "skepticism" goes beyond what you meant. The word "humility" sounds much better to me, and perhaps I would expand it to "questioning humility." Maybe it's my religious background. You don't often hear a sermon about the virtues of skepticism, but humility is high on the list of virtues encouraged by every religion with which I am familiar.
Finally, it seems to me that you may be misreading my intentions with regard to the "demarcation" problem. You are advocating a more expansive, or "holistic," view of science than I have. That is, you don't see any compelling reason why we should arbitrarily limit the field of inquiry for science, whereas you seem to see my attempts at demarcation to be meant to keep science and religion in separate spheres so everyone can live happily together. This isn't exactly what I intend.
I recognize that science hasn't always strictly ruled out the supernatural, and "the Rules" may change in this regard in the future. I agree that "methodological naturalism" and uniformitarianism are practical, yet somewhat arbitrary, limitations on science. I see value in applying an attitude of questioning humility to all aspects of life - not just the ones that I would classify as amenable to "scientific" investigation - and I have no problem with people who try to harmonize scientific and religious stories. I agree that science has always been balkanized in some respects, and that this has been a good thing.
| I see value in applying an attitude of questioning humility to all aspects of life ...
And yet, I am completely confident in my assertion that methodological naturalism and uniformitarianism are rather strictly enforced rules limiting what passes for "science," nowadays. (I gather that you might even agree that this is a fair description of the current situation.) Even if I want to present a vision of science as it could be, I need to come to that place via science as it is. When your student asked, "You and what army?" I think perhaps he had been under the mistaken impression that your vision of what science could or should be was the current reality, and had a rude awakening.
Furthermore, even if a little balkanization is a good thing, unlimited balkanization would undoubtedly be bad. Science is successful only as a community endeavor, and so creativity must be at least loosely confined within certain bounds to have any meaning whatsoever for the community at large.
On the other hand, I think you are right that students need to be prepared for the possibility that scientific community standards could change in the future. In fact, the whole issue with "Intelligent Design Theory" boils down to the question of whether the assumptions of methodological naturalism and uniformitarianism should be strictly enforced rules for scientific stories.
|students need to be prepared for the possibility that scientific community standards could change in the future.
Perhaps I can use that contemporary discussion to accommodate some of the excellent points you have made. Whether scientists like it or not, the discussion about standards for what passes as "science" has moved into the public sphere, and our students need to understand the debate. I think "Science As Storytelling" does a good job of explaining why the scientific community currently adopts the standards it does, but perhaps I could go further by asking my students to think about whether they might profitably ignore some of those rules once in a while when constructing their own stories to explain "Life, the Universe, and Everything." Perhaps I could ask them to think about whether they believe these rules are a good idea even for the scientific community. In this way, I think I can give my students a realistic view of science as it is and an understanding of why it is that way, but also help them realize that there is no a priori reason why science has to be that way.
|"Storytelling" gives a reasonably accurate picture of science as it is, whereas "Story Telling" is to some extent promoting an agenda for science as it could/should be ...
Would this bring our goals a little more into alignment? Do you agree that "Storytelling" gives a reasonably accurate picture of science as it is, whereas "Story Telling" is to some extent promoting an agenda for science as it could/should be? If so, exposure to both points of view might be profitable for a wide range of people.
PG to BB, 8 February 2006 (see beginning)
This is proving to be a very satisfying give and take from my end, and I hope it is as much so from yours. Yes, indeed, I see us as converging in interesting, generative ways (more on "generative" below). "Questioning humility" is indeed a good substitute for "skepticism". I also absolutely agree with you that scientific theories ("stories") are "more than a summary" ("methodology relies heavily on constructs to fill empirical gaps in the explanation of behavior", as a student wrote recently in an on line forum for a course on neurobiology and behavior I'm teaching). As for "less wrong", you have indeed gotten it so (with one small concern about "more useful" that I will also come to below).
I'm also more than delighted to endorse your suggestion that exposure to the combination of "Storytelling" and "Story Telling" might be useful ("generative") for lots of people. And agree that the "rude awakening" for my student (actually a she) reflected a "mistaken impression" that "science as story telling" was "the current reality". I do though want to suggest the differences between "Storytelling" and "Story Telling" are not quite so simple as "what currently is" and "what might (or should) be".
|"Story Telling" may not be the the consensus in the scientific community but it is at least a small part of the present. And my guess is that it is a growing part
An obvious point is that I adhere to the "Story Telling" principles in my own professional life as a scientist and I'm not unique in this regard, so "Story Telling" may not be the the consensus in the scientific community but it is at least a small part of the present. And my guess is that it is a growing part, since scientists are increasingly working with the kind of material (evolution, brains, societies, cultures) where the presumption of an objective perspective on a fixed (or only slowly changing) subject of study lacking its own intentionality is demonstrably less appropriate than it was when science primarily explored physical and chemical (including geological) phenomena.
This is not to say that "methodological naturalism" and "uniformitarianism" are not perhaps still a good way to characterize an important majority position in science, but to endorse your commitment to assuring that students "be prepared for the possibility that scientific community standards could change in the future" (since they are already heterogenous, and likely to further evolve in particular directions). And perhaps to invite your students, and you yourself, to participate actively in the ongoing evolution of "community standards".
Along these lines, one of the results of our conversation so far has been to convince me that there are issues about the "demarcation" problem that make it more significant than I had earlier thought. In consequence, I've been thinking a lot recently about the Einstein "not uniquely determined by the physical world" issue and the associated problem of how to discriminate among the several (infinite number?) of possible stories that may be equally good "summaries of the observations" (in the terms agreed to above).
Some stories are not "falsifiable" and those Popper would have us regard as not "scientific" (while acknowledging that they may nonetheless be useful foundations for potentially falsifiable (and hence "scientific") stories). But what about those that seem different from one another and seem in principle falsifiable but for which there is at the moment no immediate prospect of making observations that would distinguish between them (eg, an evolving universe lacking any initial intention or plan and an evolving universe set in motion by an initial act of intention)? How should science handle such situations (of which I think there are in fact many, at small scales and large)?
| We should falsify when we can, of course, but in the meanwhile we should seek not to find the single "best" story by (perhaps prematurely) knocking down others but rather to encourage multiple candidate lines of exploration.
I think I would argue that the simultaneous existence of multiple stories of this kind is in fact "useful" to science in a particular way, that it enhances the "generativity" of the enterprise, expands its ability to motivate the widest possible array of new observations and hence to generate new stories. An interesting implication of this is that, as scientists, we should perhaps temper a bit our emphasis on falsification by adding to it a commitment to nurturing multiple alternative "summaries of observations". We should falsify when we can, of course, but in the meanwhile we should seek not to find the single "best" story by knocking down others but rather to encourage multiple candidate lines of exploration.
As a human, I very much share your sense of "value in applying an attitude of questioning humility in all aspects of life". Do you share my sense that it is perhaps a value less respected within the existing scientific community than it ought to be, in the interests of science itself? Might we, along these lines, bring our goals still more into alignment, as both scientists and science educators?
BB to PG, 7 March 2006 (see beginning)
I think I am getting to the point where I can rewrite my essay, taking into account all the feedback I have been getting. I just have a couple comments on your last post. You said:
An obvious point is that I adhere to the "Story Telling" principles in my own professional life as a scientist and I'm not unique in this regard, so "Story Telling" may not be the consensus in the scientific community but it is at least a small part of the present. And my guess is that it is a growing part, since scientists are increasingly working with the kind of material (evolution, brains, societies, cultures) where the presumption of an objective perspective on a fixed (or only slowly changing) subject of study lacking its own intentionality is demonstrably less appropriate than it was when science primarily explored physical and chemical (including geological) phenomena.
I still wonder how anything you or others have published in scientific journals lately would violate Methodological Naturalism or Uniformitarianism. As I said before, the examples you have given so far of things that might seem to represent exceptions to the rule appear to me to be higher-order sorts of processes that would not pass for "natural laws." What I am looking for is an explanation, published in professional scientific literature, of some neurobiological (or any other kind of) phenomenon that appeals to an exception to the law of gravity, or that openly defies quantum physics, etc. Even if we could find such an example, my guess would be that the explanation would be that there is something wrong either with our concept of the laws that appear to have been violated, or with our concept of the phenomenon that appears to violate them. With higher-order processes, one cannot always reduce them to "natural laws," but we assume that we could do so if we were smart enough, sneaky enough, had powerful enough computers, could see how the whole system works together, etc. In other words, the adoption of such assumptions as a guide to scientific practice does not mandate a rigid reductionism in that practice.
As well, I don't see how these sorts of guiding assumptions would preclude the study of things "where the presumption of an objective perspective on a fixed (or only slowly changing) subject of study lacking its own intentionality is demonstrably less appropriate" than in other areas. What is it about the assumptions of Naturalism and Uniformitarianism that would preclude a changing subject of study? Rather, they simply narrow the allowable field of explanations for such change. What is it about them that would preclude the study of something that exhibits intentionality? Nothing that I can see. Rather, they stipulate that there must be some sort of physical basis for that intentionality, even if that basis is not yet apparent.
It seems to me that one of your primary concerns is to promote creativity in scientific practice, and perhaps that is why your approach does not quite gel with a "demarcationist" approach to the nature of science, like mine. On the other hand, you said:
Along these lines, one of the results of our conversation so far has been to convince me that there are issues about the "demarcation" problem that make it more significant than I had earlier thought.
Here is another angle on "demarcation" that has convinced me that it might be a prerequisite to true scientific creativity.
One of my graduate students, Kirsten Thompson (artist and educational psychologist extraordinaire,) has been telling me about a book she has been reading by Patricia Stokes, called Creativity from Constraints: The Psychology of Breakthrough.
The publisher (Springer) describes the point of the book as follows:
From Picasso to Stravinsky, Kundera to Chanel, to Frank Lloyd Wright, it is not boundary-less creative freedom that inspires new ideas, but self-imposed, well-considered constraints. Monet forced himself to repeatedly paint the way light broke on, between, and around his subjects, contrasting color instead of light and dark, and softening edges in the process. His constraints catapulted the art world from representational to impressionist art.
These great artists certainly did not "play by the rules" all the time, but they did recognize what the rules were. Then they got bored with the rules and made their own! But they didn't change the rules haphazardly, using one set one week and another the next. Rather, they carefully altered the existing rules - perhaps even in very minor ways - just to see what would happen. Then they stuck to the new rules and pushed them as far as they could.
Could the "demarcation problem" be significant because it helps people see 1) that there is a box, and 2) where the boundaries of the box are, so that 3) they can begin to truly "think outside the box"?
PG to BB, 26 March 2006 (see beginning)
Yep, I do have a commitment (among others) "to promote creativity in scientific practice". And, along these lines, I like very much your suggestion that demarcation may have its greatest significance as a way to promote creativity (here's the box, see the edges?, if you can change one of them you might get to something unusually new and useful). Its one of several heuristics I listed for what I have recently called "non-normal" inquiry (generalizing from Kuhn's distinction between "normal" and other kinds of science).
In this light, let's look at a particular box and edge ...
"With higher-order processes, one cannot always reduce them to "natural laws," but we assume that we could do so if we were smart enough, sneaky enough, had powerful enough computers, could see how the whole system works together, etc. In other words, the adoption of such assumptions as a guide to scientific practice does not mandate a rigid reductionism in that practice."
Could it be that there are a set of lower-order "natural laws" that would, in principle, account for everything else? Yes, of course. Its an "assumption" that's been around for a long time (at least since Plato's effort to account for everything with "ideal forms"), has been unquestionably generative of new observations and understandings, and continues to be rephrased and refreshed (see, for example, Digital Determinism: Why It Is Worth Taking Wolfram Seriously
So far so good. But I'm having a little trouble with "the adoption of such assumptions as a guide ... does not mandate a rigid reductionism" and how it follows from "assume if we were smart enough ...". The assumptions may not "mandate" anything but they certainly do discourage scientists (and others) from pursuing lines of inquiry that do not include such assumptions (or perhaps even challenge them). Whether intended or not, too great an emphasis on "the adoption of such assumptions" encourages a belief (among both scientists and others) that "rigid reductionism" is in some way synonomous with science.
My point is not only that it might in principle be perfectly good scientific practice to wonder if there are phenomena that are NOT reducible to a set of "lower order natural laws" as we currently understand them, but that in practice that activity has in fact played important roles in scientific understanding. Relativistic physics, for example, successfully established that previously understood "lower order natural laws" (Newton's clockwork universe, with invariant concepts of space and time) would NOT account for everything, and quantum physics, with its introduction of a fundamental indeterminacy, raises the quite significant possibility that NO set of "lower order natural laws" will suffice to account for at least some humanly observed phenomena (as opposed to the deterministically calculable but unobservable "wave function").
It can even be perfectly good scientific practice to wonder if there exist phenomena that are not reducible to any set of "lower order natural laws" at all. Perhaps at least some phenomena are genuinely not "derivable" from any fixed set of starting points? with the issue not being "if we were smart enough, sneaky enough, had powerful enough computers, could see how the whole system works together, etc" but rather something else? The logician Kurt Gödel clearly established that there are significant fundamental limitations to the kinds of understandings that can be reached by presuming that everything is derivable from a fixed set of starting points, and the mathematician Gregory Chaitin, more recently, has established that even certain numbers are not in fact "reducible".
I, like you, am inclined to suspect that "intentionality" has "some sort of physical basis" but it does not follow from that that either intentionality or phenomena in which intentionality has been a significant contributing factor reduce to a fixed set of "lower order natural laws". If one acknowledges the possibility that there is some degree of genuine indeterminacy in physical systems, then many existing phenomena may not in fact be derivable in their entirety from any fixed set of starting points. They may instead reflect as well elements of chance (cf Variability in Brain Function and Behavior) as well as of "top down" influences (cf From the Head to the Heart) by existing intentional systems, including the human brain (cf Emerging Emergence).
It occurs to me that our continued wrestling (productively from my end, and I hope from yours as well) with the significance of "naturalism" and "uniformitarianism" may have a "render unto Caeser that which is Caeser's" character about it. We both, it seems to me, have an intuition that things we do not (yet) understand play a role in observed phenomena, and that among those things are things having an "intentional" character. One way to deal with that intuition is treat such things as "supernatural" and hence, by the principles of naturalism and uniformitarianism, as belonging properly to some realm of exploration outside "science". An alternate perspective (my own) is to presume that those things that are not understood (at any given time) are not IN PRINCIPLE unapproachable by scientific inquiry. If the practices of science (at any given time) make them appear so, then there is a need to appropriately alter the practices of science.
Maybe "natural laws" are a useful "story" but one that one needs to take, like all other stories, with a grain of salt? So as to allow for the possibility that (as in the past) what was "supernatural" can become "natural"? As scientists (and everyone else) acquire still greater abilities to "think outside the box"?
To be continued ...
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