Monday, September 19, 2011

Toiling amongst the weeds in the garden of science

Much has been written on the implications of the doctrine of creation for the philosophy and practice of science.
Genesis says (repeatedly) that God said the creation is good. Furthermore, there is a divine mandate to humanity to care for an develop the creation. Some would take this mandate to include the ordering of scientific knowledge.

A key idea is that science is possible because
* the creation is ordered
* the human creature has the ability to understand this order

But what are the implications of the fall of humanity for the philosophy and practice of science? After the fall, Adam is told (Genesis 3)

cursed is the ground because of you;
    in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
18thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
   and you shall eat the plants of the field.
19By the sweat of your face
   you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,

One might even wonder if science is possible. But, experience shows it is.
From experience, I believe that there are at least two important implications of the fall for the practice of science.

First, due to our sin nature we are prone to self delusion. Our own egos and self interest can lead to a tendency to believe what we want to believe [particularly that our own "pet" theories are correct and that experimental data conforms to them] rather than exercising the healthy skepticism needed.

[Aside: this should not be taken as an endorsement of the views of non-scientists and "skeptics" who seem to think that certain fields of mainstream science are flawed. I would rather characterise their views as "denialism".]

It is not widely enough appreciated that doing meaningful science is hard work.
This goes far beyond the fact that experimental apparatus breaks down, sometimes gives
erroneous results, software may contain bugs, mathematical equations are hard to solve,
and mathematical theories are hard to understand. Most such problems can usually be overcome with the appropriate skill, due diligence and adequate resources [just like cars can be repaired and infections stopped with medicines]. The bigger issue is that actually producing significant scientific knowledge is incredibly difficult (and rare).

It is relatively easy [for intelligent and well trained people] to through the motions of  scientific activities [e.g. doing experiments or solving equations on the computer and publishing the results]. But, actually getting results and developing concepts that are valid and important involves a totally different challenge. I refer to two posts on my work-related blog.

The importance of being stupid discusses how intinsically hard it is do important research.
i.e., lead to a real understanding of complex phenomena.
Alternatives to struggling to do significant research discusses how scientists can avoid the real challenges and resort to focussing on publishing papers which involve picking "low lying fruit" and/or activities of  self promotion.

Peter Harrison takes a complementary perspective in The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science where he argues that theological debates about the corruption of man's reason by sin helped promote the development of empirical methods to counter this fallibility.

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