Monday, August 25, 2014

Does science explain anything?

Of course it does, is the quick defensive answer!

But, the distinguished philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein made the provocative statement:
At the basis of the whole modern view of the world lies the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena.
What is this about?
 [Edward Feser has a helpful commentary on this and on friday at UQ John Lennox discussed this].

Examples of the laws of nature are Newton's laws of the motion and the laws of thermodynamics. What are these laws? They are codifications or statements, often in mathematical form, [sometimes approximate] of the regular behaviour that have been observed in numerous scientific experiments. Reproducible exceptions to this behaviour are never observed. One never sees water run uphill or a body accelerate in the absence of an external force or an scrambled egg spontaneously unscramble.

On one level, Newton's laws of motion and law of gravity can be said to "explain" why planets move in elliptical orbits. But, what is the explanation of Newton's law of gravity? Why is it like it is? Well, we could say it is a particular limit of Einstein's general theory of relativity. But, how do we "explain" Einstein's theory. .... We are not sure... string theory is struggling, but that is another story.... The point is that science does not and cannot provide ultimate explanations. 

We can deal with the "why?" question in two ways.
One way is to rule it out of order.
Before Darwin, even educated people who had abandoned “Why” questions for rocks, streams and eclipses still implicitly accepted the legitimacy of the “Why” question where living creatures were concerned. Now only the scientifically illiterate do. But“only” conceals the unpalatable truth that we are still talking about an absolute majority.
        Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden 

Alternatively, we can follow the distinguished biochemist, Erwin Chargaff  and acknowledge
"Science is wonderfully equipped to answer the question 'How?' but it gets terribly confused when you ask the question 'Why?'."
Then, we might consider looking outside science for ultimate explanations.

The possibility of miracles is another issue where Wittgenstein's statement is relevant. Miracles do "violate" the laws of nature. But, that does not mean miracles are impossible. By definition, a miracle is something extra-ordinary, i.e. something different from regular behaviour. But, if God determined the laws of nature [i.e. the way things normally happen], He certainly has the power and freedom to make things happen differently at certain times.

No comments:

Post a Comment