Web Exclusives: TigersRoar

Letter Box


A letter from a reader about: Philosophical inquiry vs. scientific pedagogy

April 20, 2006

Thomas Gillman '49 falls prey to a familiar ideological temptation to propagate misinformation regarding a technical term of art in the world of science by using the word “theory” in its vernacular sense. This may serve a political purpose, but it does not serve the purpose of understanding truth.

A scientific theory is not something that can be “ratified” once and for all by any scientific community. The “laws of physics” or any other field of science are not open to proof, though they are certainly open to disproof. We know for an absolute fact that Newton 's theory is wrong from a metaphysical standpoint: Empirical evidence disproves it. But quantum theory and relativity are still merely our best guesses as to how physical

laws actually work – they are working hypotheses with a tremendous record of empirical support.

This lack of “proof” does not undermine the deep and profound acceptance of these paradigms as “truth” when it comes to physics. There is a principle in physics (and science in general) called the “correspondence principle”: Any new scientific theory must get everything right that the old theory got right, while improving on the things the old theory got wrong, in order to be a candidate to replace the old paradigm (if not, it would immediately be disproved by empirical evidence). So, for example, at macroscopic orders of magnitude where Planck's constant is effectively infinitesimal, the mathematics of quantum physics must (and does) reduce to approximations of Newton's laws (which continue to work very well in macroscopic contexts). Similarly, when addressing low-velocity contexts where the speed of light is effectively infinite, the equations of special relativity reduce to approximations of Newtonian equations as well.

In short, even though we have proved that Newton's laws break down in certain circumstances, for those circumstances where Newton's laws worked in the past (and thus can be expected to continue to work in the future, assuming that the laws of physics do not change over time), the new theories must match Newtonian mathematics and predict the same behavior of physical objects in motion. Those aspects of Newtonian theory are not expected to be rejected with any advances in physics.

Scientific theories are far more than simple armchair philosophy: They are tested day-in and day-out by a whole host of empirical explorers trying to determine what is true. We know where these paradigms work, and where they do not. So, while declining to accept the reigning paradigm as a “necessary” truth, there remains every reason to accept it as the best working hypothesis available, and to require that any competing theory

adhere to empirical evidence at least as well.

We know how natural selection works – we test it constantly, and it stands up to those tests repeatedly. Any theory of biology that ignores such repeatedly tested evidence cannot be true – if it contradicts that evidence, it is absolutely, positively false. So, the theory of natural selection is no less “accepted” by the scientific community than quantum and relativistic physics (and even string theory must adhere to Newton 's

laws and to the aspects of quantum and relativistic theories that we know work – if string theory ever develops far enough to become empirically testable, it will be put to exactly that test). Any competing biological theory that suggests that natural selection does not operate as a real biological mechanism operating in the real world must immediately fall prey to disproof from the mountains of evidence refuting such claims. It is just as preposterous as suggesting that Newton 's laws are not extremely good approximations for physical motion in low-velocity, macroscopic contexts.

Whatever debates there may be regarding natural selection are not fundamental, in that they do not deny the reality of natural selection processes as observed in the world. They may suggest variations of certain minor details, in the way that quantum and relativistic physics suggest variations on Newtonian equations, but there is a core of ongoing

observation of natural selection that disproves any attempt to suggest that natural selection is not present in the biological world. Any competing theory must incorporate what we know from empirical evidence, or else it will immediately be disproved by the evidence.

And while small changes in details may entail profound changes in metaphysical interpretation (quantum and relativistic theories of physics are certainly sharply metaphysically distinct from Newtonian theory), that should not lead us to doubt the mechanisms that are consistently supported by repeated empirical testing.

When people use vernacular interpretations of the word “theory” to attack scientific theories generally, they contribute nothing to genuine understanding and merely confuse people who may not be equipped with the intellectual ammunition to properly interpret such rhetoric. Internecine squabbles within the scientific community do not constitute evidence of doubt of scientific methodology itself, which is all that attacks on “theories” amount to.

These attacks are not rational inquiries within the scientific paradigm; they are philosophical debates on par with religious disagreements. One cannot question a particular scientific theory on the basis of it being a “theory” without questioning the practice of science whole hog on philosophical grounds.

So, if “intelligent design” is to be taught anywhere in a formal educational setting, it must be constrained to philosophical inquiry, on par with other philosophical and religious views. There is utterly no place for it within the world of scientific pedagogy itself, unless someone can come up with an empirically testable version of it that will not be immediately struck down by empirical evidence.

So far, proponents of this aberrant philosophy have come nowhere near any such empirical demonstrations, and have not undercut the fundamental dynamics of natural selection that have been observed in the real world. Any attempt to place such ideas on par with empirically tested science is obfuscating at best and willfully anti-intellectual at worst. Such claims are about politics, not about truth.


Los Angeles , Calif.

Respond to this letter
Send a letter to PAW

Go back to our online Letter Box Table of Contents


Current Issue    Online Archives    Printed Issue Archives
Advertising Info    Reader Services    Search    Contact PAW    Your Class Secretary