Re: Evolution's Imperative (was Def'n of Science)

Jonathan Clarke (
Tue, 16 Mar 1999 07:43:36 +1100

Vernon Jenkins wrote:

> Greetings Jonathan:
> No, it was never my intention to play matador to your 'male bovine', and
> to raise blood pressures thereby! But I believe we should all feel
> comfortable speaking our minds with courtesy on this list.


> Let me address the points you raise in order of presentation:
> > a) Newton's theory was falsified quite early (I believe that the aberrations
> > in Mercury's orbit was recognised in the 19th century, but would be glad for
> > someone to correct me on this with more specific info). Despite this
> > Newton's theory was still accepted, taught, and used - why? Because of its
> > explanatory power. It was only superseded when Einstein was able to provide
> > a theory with greater explanatory power.
> I wouldn't dispute any of this. If a scientific theory has great
> explanatory power, yet is seen to be falsified in certain situations,
> then clearly it is reasonable to retain it until the necessary
> refinements are in place.

We agree then. Many would make this point about evolutionary theory. To use
Loren's excellent taxonomy, specific evolutionary research occurs at the E3 level
- specific investigations which are potentially falsifiable. Through this research
some become E4, theories which have been falsified. The overarching theory, E2 is
much more difficult to falsify by it's very nature. This is the character of
historical research. Napoleon (fortunately for the civilised world) lost the
battle of Waterloo. Within this overarching historical theory are many
sub-theories as to why he lost - Wellington was the better general, Blucher
arrived in the nick of time, the Grenadier Guards were too good, Napoleon's piles
were giving him a hard time, etc. Falsification of any of of these does not
effect the overarching framework.

> > b) How is my geological scenario not falsifiable? I gave two examples. A
> > simple case of a rock being a limestone, and a more complex example
> > involving the lacustrine origin of the XYZ formation. The first was easily
> > falsifiable with dripping acid on the rock, the second by compiling
> > collecting a mass of data inconsistent with lacustrine origin.
> I think we can both agree that geology is not an exact science. In your
> original posting you hypothesised XYZ as 'a lacustrine shale (based on
> synthesising a wide range of evidence)'. Many years have passed since I
> studied geology. Can you therefore specify the kind of evidence you have
> in mind. Is each strand truly objective? Had the shark remains been
> discovered first, could an equally-strong case have been made for a
> marine environment?

I disagree that geology is not an exact science. There are many areas in
geological research which give very exact results. Palaeocurrent analysis for
example. Stratigraphy is another. I am not saying the palaeocurrent studies or
stratigraphic analysis is always unambiguous, but that properly done the results
can be as precise, falsifiable, and repeatable as anything in the physical
sciences which some would hold up as paragons of scientific method.

With respect to the XYZ Formation, I made this unit up. But, for the sake of
argument, in this hypothetical example, had shark fossils been discovered early
on, this would certainly have biased interpretation of the depositional
environment. In cases like this sooner or later, workers would compile enough
data to show that the unit was not marine. Often new insights into depositional
processes or palaeoecology are the result. An example are the cool water
carbonates I mentioned.

> > c) You say my "...geological scenario is not [falsifiable], for it - like
> > evolution itself - involves conjectures about distant historical events".
> > What has the distant past got to do with it? The near past is just as
> > inaccessible as the distant past. Are you saying that we can't saying
> > anything about the near past? The past is no more inaccessible to science
> > than deep space (which is also in the past), or the subatomic world. All
> > are studied indirectly. In many cases geological "conjectures" are far
> > more easily verified than astronomical or subatomic ones.
> Yes, I agree that my words regarding the past were not well-chosen here.

Great, again we agree! No irreducible differences then.

> > More generally you still do not acknowledge the following:
> >
> > i) falsification, while useful for sifting the simple end of scientific
> > ideas, is of decreasing value in testing increasingly complex ideas. That is
> > why explanatory power is of increasing importance the more complex and
> > general the theory is.
> >
> > ii) Despite the difficulty of testing evolutionary theory as a whole there
> > are a whole range of observations which would falsify it. These have been
> > discussed before by others - things like mammals in Cambrian strata for
> > example, or a human skeleton within a Tyrannosaurus. In detail specific
> > evolutionary scenarios (providing properly framed) can also be tested by the
> > Popperian method.
> >
> > iii) The danger of relying too heavily on Popper. He was a great
> > philosopher, but not the last word on the philosophy of science either.
> > Part of his greatness lay in his ability to admit mistakes, as he did with
> > Darwinian evolution.
> I have expressed a view on most of these issues in my recent reply to
> Kevin. However, regarding Popper, I go along with the many scientists
> who believe his 'falsifiability' criterion to be both reasonable and
> useful. It is clear to me that he was subsequently 'leaned upon' to
> modify his views re evolution. In the real world, such things do happen,
> as you will, no doubt, know.

I have said several times that falsifiability is reasonable and useful. I use it
all time in my scientific work. It is just not the be all and end all in the
philosophy of science that you appear to make out.

What evidence you have that Popper was "leaned on"? Until you can demonstrate that
this change of opinion was made under duress I continue to think it is more a mark
of the man's character that he was prepared to admit he was wrong when it was
pointed out to him.

> > In the end I suspect it is a sign of desperation to try and disprove a
> > theory because of philosophical argument. Our energies would be better
> > spent by exploring the theological implications of an evolving creation.
> Jonathan, our energies are best spent in securing our eternal future
> with Him rather than distorting the Scriptures to meet the demands of
> evolution - 'science falsely so-called' (1Tm.6:20).

It is always important to understand the context of any passage in scripture.
The Pauline epistles contain many warnings against "knowledge", translated by some
Bibles as "science" for 1 Tim 5:20. The commentaries I have read all agree that
this "knowledge" is that of the various mystery cults, commonly called gnosticism,
which were so prevalent in the 1st century. Paul contrasted the secretness of the
gnostics with the openness of the gospel, and the laborious initiations what the
faithful had to go through to achieve the enlightenment in the mystery cults with
the free grace of God, given, not earned. There no evidence that Paul was
referring to what we would call the Greek "science" in this passage, which would
include the writings of Aristotle, Plato, the Ionian school etc. With the
exception of the work of Pythagoras and his disciples, all of this science was
generally what we open literature and not associated with this mystery cults. As
such it was not of general interest to the gnostics. To use this passage as an
attack on modern science is quite unwarranted. It is not talking about science at
all, neither that of the 1st century nor that of the 20th.

God Bless