Monday, July 21, 2008

Radical Theory Change in Science

Alister McGrath brings up an interesting observation in Chapter three of his Dawkins' God--Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life. In that chapter he has a section entitled "The Problem of Radical Theory Change in Science." Here is a quotation:


When I was learning physics at school, I gradually became aware of an awkward contradiction within what I was being taught. On the one hand, I was being assured that the theories of modern physics were completely reliable, the most secure form of knowledge that humanity could ever hope to possess. Yet every now and then, we would venture into a strange, twilight region in which it would be explained to us, in hushed, conspiratorial tones, that "physicists once used to believe this, but don't now." . . . At first, I thought that these old-fashioned views dated back to the sixteenth century. But the awful truth soon became clear. The acceptance of these new ideas dated from about forty years earlier. "Once" turned out to mean "quite recently."--Alister McGrath, Dawkins' God, p.102, paperback, Blackwell Publishing.

Yep. I've noticed that sort of thing myself. No, I'm no scientist, but I am a television nerd--which means I watch all the nerd channels. You know what they are--the History Channel, the Discovery Channel, NatGeo, Discovery Science, History International, etc. I watch shows dealing with astronomy, cosmology, dinosaurs, you name it. One cannot watch many of these programs without coming across statements like the one McGrath notes above. Scientific theories are always changing, always being revised, many being completely discarded and replaced. They are always getting it wrong.

Now is that a bad thing? Of course, not. Scientific discovery is a road paved with wrong ideas, but as we learn and discover further, we grow. Isn't that wonderful?

There's something else I've noted in the scientific community from watching those nifty little nerd channels. Scientists are always arguing with each other. They seldom all agree on their theories and some are even ridiculed for their ideas by their colleagues. Sometimes even, the ones who are ridiculed turn out to be right. Sometimes a scientist comes along who challenges the prevailing opinions, is ridiculed, but in the end, through his diligent experimentation and research, it turns out that he was right and he changes the face of science for a few decades (until the next guy comes along doing the same thing).

All of this is easily evident to the untutored layman like me. Yet at the same time it is astounding how arrogant the scientific community is. Imagine, for instance, a guy like Richard Dawkins. An intelligent man by all accounts, well-learned, articulate, funny, thorough, logical, Dawkins is also arrogant--arrogant to the point of expecting people to radically change their worldview because of a scientific theory. Of course, as McGrath points out, even if one were to accept the theory of evolution as genuine it does not then necessarily follow that one's theism or Christianity be discarded.

Nevertheless, here is Dawkins--who cannot prove his theory. He may be able to point to a mound of scientific evidence, yet the necessary proof is as of yet unproduced. But Dawkins ridicules those who do not accept the theory as fact, even though scientific theories have a way of being found wanting and, after being replaced by new and better ones, being cast upon the forgotten heaps of antiquated errors that litter the landscape of scientific history.

Please, guys. Keep studying, keep learning, keep discovering. I shall watch with an interested eye. But, at the same time, how about adding in a dash of humility to that theoretical cauldron? The stew you are offering will go down much better if you do.

A little more from McGrath:

Historians and philosophers of science have produced long lists of scientific theories, each of which was believed by one generation to be the best possible representation of reality, yet which were abandoned by later generations, in the light of new discoveries and increasingly precise measurements of what was already known. Some theories have proved remarkably stable; many have been radically modified, and others abandoned altogether.--Alister McGrath, Dawkins' God, p.104, paperback, Blackwell Publishing.

And:

Scientific theorizing is thus provisional. In other words, it offers what is believed to be the best account of the experimental observations currently available. Radical theory change takes place either when it is believed that there is a better explanation of what is currently known, or when new information comes to light which forces us to see what is presently known in a new light. Unless we know the future, it is impossible to take an absolute position on the question of whether any given theory is "right." What can be said--and, indeed, must be said--is that this is believed to be the best explanation currently available. History simply makes fools of those who argue that every aspect of the current theoretical situation is true for all time. The problem is that we don't know which of today's theories will be discarded as interesting failures by future generations.

If theories are thus subject to erosion, what of worldviews that are based upon them? . . .
Alister McGrath, Dawkins' God, p.104,5, paperback, Blackwell Publishing.

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