On Challenging Assumptions

I think all good science employs a basic concept.  That is challenging the assumptions of other theories.  Intelligent Design challenges the assumption that life could arise solely from natural processes.  Creation science challenges the assumptions of the uniformitarian views of the Earth and the Universe.

The case of Gregor Mendel1 is a case in point.

At first Mendel’s work was rejected, and it was not widely accepted until after he died. The common belief at the time was that Darwin‘s theory of pangenes were responsible for inheritance. The modern synthesis uses Mendelian genetics.

So, here is one example of how challenging evolutionary assumptions advances science in a way that is applicable and beneficial to society.  Mendel’s work was not highly regarded at the time.  The scientific consensus was against him.  But what has history shown?

Einstein also challenged consensus and contemporary notions.2

His paper on the particulate nature of light put forward the idea that certain experimental results, notably the photoelectric effect, could be simply understood from the postulate that light interacts with matter as discrete “packets” (quanta) of energy, an idea that had been introduced by Max Planck in 1900 as a purely mathematical manipulation, and which seemed to contradict contemporary wave theories of light (Einstein 1905a). This was the only work of Einstein’s that he himself called “revolutionary.

Louis Pasteur challenged widely accepted notions of abiogenesis.3

Louis demonstrated that the fermentation process is caused by the growth of microorganisms, and that the growth of microorganisms in nutrient broths is not due to spontaneous generation but rather to biogenesis (Omne vivum ex ovo).

So, for me, the moral of the story is that you must always question the basic assumptions in science. Intelligent Design theory and Creation science do that very well in my opinion.

1 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mendel
2 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Einstein
3 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_Pasteur

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17 Responses

  1. So, for me, the moral of the story is that you must always question the basic assumptions in science. Intelligent Design theory and Creation science do that very well in my opinion.

    Great points on this post! I would add that, for me, “the moral of the story is that you must always question the basic assumptions” of other human beings, period. It’s the basic tendency of fundamentalists, politicians, and evidently naturalists, to stubbornly resist any evidence or input that threatens their position or beliefs. This may be alright for the fundys (although it isn’t of God!) and politicals (which is their very nature), but it is a horrible trait for those who claim to be “reason”able and scientific.

  2. But evolutionary science is a later development than creationism or intelligent design, so shouldn’t you also give props to evolution for challenging the assumptions of those theories?

  3. Carl asks,

    But evolutionary science is a later development than creationism or intelligent design, so shouldn’t you also give props to evolution for challenging the assumptions of those theories?

    I know you’re asking this of the Shrink, but I’ll answer anyway. I don’t believe that the Shrink, myself or anyone else is against evolution because it challenges ID and creation. We have issues with evolution because evolution has issues, which seem to be overlooked by those who adhere to it as fact. It isn’t Darwin who is being left out of the political equation in this country, it’s the theories that refute or challenge Darwin that have been ousted from consideration by the scientific status quo.

  4. Firstly, while there are anomalies in evolutionary theory, one needs to understand what there is agreement on in order to understand what there isn’t agreement on. Or would you say that someone who has no basic knowledge of population genetics or paleontology is able to understand the controversy over process structuralism vs. neo-Darwinism?

    Secondly, I want to underscore an implication of my earlier comment. Intelligent design had its day. It was the dominant scientific theory before Darwin. It was replaced by Darwinism because Darwinism is able to successfully explain aspects of the biological world that intelligent design couldn’t explain as well. So if you’ve got a version of intelligent design that can perform better than Darwinism at those things which Darwinism is good at, and explain better those things which are anomalies for Darwinism, then that’s got to be shown. If you want to bet on it, be my guest — but I hope I’ll be forgiven for saying that I’m not holding my breath.

    Thirdly, I want to emphasize that, perhaps unlike the others here, I make no inferential relationship between the questions about which theories we ought to chose (neo-Darwinism, intelligent design, process structuralism, etc.) and the questions about which world-views we ought to chose.

    For example, although I’m both an evolutionist and an atheist, these are really quite separate for me. I can easily imagine becoming a theist (or person of faith in some sense) without ceasing to be an evolutionist, or ceasing to be an evolutionist without ceasing to be an atheist. This is because there are fundamentally different kinds of evidence, or experience, that would be involved.

  5. I suppose by my, as well as other’s, statements that you might think I’m inferring or maybe even proselytizing that creationism or ID is what others should believe here. Just for the record, I’m not! I believe what I believe, as you believe what you believe. I’m not here to save you or any other human being. That doesn’t mean that I don’t care about you, as a person, or wish that we saw things in the same light, but we don’t.

    I also understand that my opinions on these issues are not coming from any expertise in these areas, which is one reason why I stay away from much of the jargon and the more in depth conversation. I also know (A man’s gotta know his limitations) that I have entered into a nuclear war with a cap pistol, when it comes to the intellectual level of most of these conversations.

    Off the subject, and you’ll probably find this a bit ridiculous, but I like reading your comments, and you do make me consider what I believe, which I consider to be a blessing, since, in the end, I always seem to come out stronger in my faith. No offense! I’ve babbled on too long!

  6. Firstly, while there are anomalies in evolutionary theory, one needs to understand what there is agreement on in order to understand what there isn’t agreement on.

    Agreements and disagreements between evolutionists? Or evolutionists and Creationists or Creationists and IDists or evolutionists and IDists?

    Secondly, I want to underscore an implication of my earlier comment. Intelligent design had its day. It was the dominant scientific theory before Darwin. It was replaced by Darwinism because Darwinism is able to successfully explain aspects of the biological world that intelligent design couldn’t explain as well.

    I’d have to disagree here. I think Darwinism made it’s rise because of its appeal to philosophical naturalism AND shifting worldviews.

    Thirdly, I want to emphasize that, perhaps unlike the others here, I make no inferential relationship between the questions about which theories we ought to chose (neo-Darwinism, intelligent design, process structuralism, etc.) and the questions about which world-views we ought to chose.

    There may not be an ought with respect to the choosing, but there is a real-world association. And I infer the relationship as extending in both directions (from the worldview to the theories and from the theories to the worldviews).

    For example, although I’m both an evolutionist and an atheist, these are really quite separate for me. I can easily imagine becoming a theist (or person of faith in some sense) without ceasing to be an evolutionist, or ceasing to be an evolutionist without ceasing to be an atheist. This is because there are fundamentally different kinds of evidence, or experience, that would be involved.

    I think there is some truth here in what you say because we see these kinds of relationships in the world–in the views that people hold. However, I’m not sure it’s always based on fundamentally different kinds of evidence.

    DB wrote:

    I also know (A man’s gotta know his limitations) that I have entered into a nuclear war with a cap pistol, when it comes to the intellectual level of most of these conversations.

    DB, you greatly underestimate yourself, or overestimate some of the rest of us!! 😉

  7. I think Darwinism made it’s rise because of its appeal to philosophical naturalism AND shifting worldviews.

    This view can be rooted in historical evidence.

    For example:

    Not only can the influence of Darwinism be gauged by the outpouring of books and articles in late nineteenth-century Germany, Austria, and Switzerland (henceforth when I refer collectively to the German-speaking lands I will use the term Germany as shorthand) discussing the social and ethical applications of Darwinism, but we also find it frequently in autobiographical testimony. Richard Goldschmidt (1878—1958), one of the leading geneticists of the twentieth century, captures some of the pathos of his encounter with Darwinian literature in his youth. At age 16, he explained, he read Ernst Haeckel’s Natural History of Creation

    ‘…with burning eyes and soul. It seemed that all problems of heaven and earth were solved simply and convincingly; there was an answer to every question which troubled the young mind. Evolution was the key to everything and could replace all the beliefs and creeds which one was discarding. There were no creation, no God, no heaven and hell, only evolution and the wonderful law of recapitulation which demonstrated the fact of evolution to the most stubborn believer in creation. I was so fascinated and shaken up that I had to communicate to others my new knowledge, and this was done in the schoolyard, on school picnics, and among friends. I remember vividly a scene during a school picnic when I stood surrounded by a group of schoolboys to whom I expounded the gospel of Darwinism as Haeckel saw it.’

    Goldschmidt claims that his experience of embracing this Darwinian worldview…was typical for educated young people of his day, and abundant testimony from his contemporaries confirms this. In 1921 the physiologist Max Verworn stated, “One can state without exaggeration that no scientist has exercised a greater influence on the development of our contemporary worldview than Haeckel.”

    Ernst Haeckel, the most famous German Darwinist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, enthusiastically adopted Darwin’s theory of natural selection and applied the struggle for existence to humans in many of his writings. He believed the most important aspect of Darwinism was the animal ancestry of humans, which would “bring forth a complete revolution in the entire worldview of humanity.”
    (From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics and Racism in Germany by Richard Weikart :11)

    And things apparently haven’t changed, as Richard Dawkins put it the Darwinian creation myth made it possible for him to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. Fulfillment? Revolution? A changed weltanschauung? That’s more than a specified scientific theory which can be verified by empirical facts. It’s a little more than: “Say, we can observe natural selection operating on this population of moths with light and dark wings because when more of the light winged moths are killed then there’s more left with dark wings or somethin’! It’s amazin’, I feel my whole worldview changing!” Etc.

    Science is limited, if Darwinian “reasoning” were scientific then Darwinian theory would be specified in the language of mathematics and verified in trajectories of adaptation and so on. Attempting to simply merge/”synthesis” Darwinism with Mendelism and once again borrow scientific credibility through arguments of association didn’t prove anything. Some low level propagandists even merge the whole field of population genetics8 in with Darwinian theory, as if it couldn’t or wouldn’t proceed fine without Darwinian reasoning.

    *Link

  8. That Haeckel played an important role in the promotion of Darwinism in Germany is without doubt. And culture does make a difference. For example, Darwinism was not threatening to natural theology in Germany because Kant had already destroyed natural theology in German philosophy and theology. Whereas in England, natural theology was alive and kicking, and Darwinism was felt as a real threat to it. Likewise, the intellectual background of Hegelianism in Germany inclined German philosophers, such as Haeckel, towards a teleological interpretation of Darwinism, whereas in France, where Hegelianism was much weaker at that time, the anti-teleological implications of Darwinism were more readily appreciated.

    Still, these are questions of how the theory was interpreted by philosophers, theologians, and the general public — and while those questions are very important, answering those questions is different from answering the question, “is this theory the best theory currently available for explaining what we’ve observed?”

    And on that point, it becomes crucial to distinction between terms such as “Darwinism,” “neo-Darwinism,” and “the Modern Synthesis.” The Modern Synthesis has been put on a mathematical basis, as Mynym demanded.

  9. I’d also like to add that I don’t regard the Modern Synthesis as the final word, either. (There are no “final words” in science. Those who want final words, absolutes of any sort, will have to go elsewhere than to science.) The Modern Synthesis does not accommodate paleontology, a fact long bemoaned by Gould and others. Nor does it accommodate embryology. So there’s a clear need for alternatives. One example is developmental systems theory, which I’ve been fascinated by ever since I read The Ontogeny of Information in college. The theories of Brian Goodwin and Stuart Kauffman offer related but slightly different approaches. I do think that something like this is the right way to move forward — though of course whatever new theory is offered won’t be the final word!

  10. Carl wrote:

    Still, these are questions of how the theory was interpreted by philosophers, theologians, and the general public — and while those questions are very important, answering those questions is different from answering the question, “is this theory the best theory currently available for explaining what we’ve observed?”

    How does one determine what is best when one does not believe in absolute truth? If there is no absolute truth, then “best” is a relative term. It only means something to the individual.

  11. How does one determine what is best when one does not believe in absolute truth? If there is no absolute truth, then “best” is a relative term. It only means something to the individual.

    No, it does not mean something “only to the individual” because — here it comes — the centerpiece of my entire approach is this: justification is a social practice. Not absolute, in a sense that transcends all possible social practices, and not individual, in a sense that stands apart from social practices, but embedded in the social practices themselves.

    In our discussion here, we have a back and forth about justification, about absolute, about objectivity, about evidence, and so forth. In your response to me, Country Shrink, you’re doing exactly what you should be doing: keeping track of what I ought to be committed to believing, given what I do believe. And I do the same thing — we all do. That’s just what it is to have a rational discussion. We hold each other responsible for what we say.

    But that’s just it: on my view, there is nothing other than each other to hold us responsible for what we say. And I say that in full consciousness of the fact that the scope of the “we” is enormously elastic. Who is included in the “we” depends on the context, and in some cases, it may be so broad as to mean “all rational beings” — and in other cases, considerably narrower (e.g. “all modern Westerners”).

    Now, it is true that in the absence of absolutes, even the criteria that one appeals to in determining better and worse theories are themselves subject to revision. I accept that — it’s for that reason that I don’t think there’s a solution to the so-called “demarcation problem,” and so I prefer to talk about better and worse theories rather than about “pseudo-science.”

    On the view I propose, epistemic progress — progress in better and better theories — is measured retrospectively, by seeing how contemporary theories are better than past theories. It cannot be measured prospectively, relative to absolute knowledge or truth — not even asymptotically. (And I tend to hold the same view about moral progress, which admittedly is more ambiguous.)

  12. Carl wrote:

    No, it does not mean something “only to the individual” because — here it comes — the centerpiece of my entire approach is this: justification is a social practice. Not absolute, in a sense that transcends all possible social practices, and not individual, in a sense that stands apart from social practices, but embedded in the social practices themselves.

    I’m sorry. I don’t understand this. Social consensus is the barometer for justification? If so, what justification does atheism have in this country?

    On the view I propose, epistemic progress — progress in better and better theories — is measured retrospectively, by seeing how contemporary theories are better than past theories. It cannot be measured prospectively, relative to absolute knowledge or truth — not even asymptotically. (And I tend to hold the same view about moral progress, which admittedly is more ambiguous.)

    I don’t understand how the “better” theories can be determined retrospectively if it is a social process. Do you just go with the group that purports to be experts in a particular area?

  13. You may not be realizing it, Country Shrink, but I see you as making my points for me: by raising challenges to what I say, by making requests for clarification, or by keeping track of what I’m committed to as a result of what I say, you’re helping illustrate my point that justification is a social practice.

    That doesn’t mean that justification rests on, or is identifiable with, consensus. It means only that there’s no way to talk about what one is justified in believing without specifying the discourse community of which one is a part. In this case, my beliefs about what counts as science, or what distinguishes good science from bad science, are justifiable only in the context of continuing discussions among scientists, philosophers, theologians, etc. Someone who lives entirely alone may have true beliefs or false beliefs, but I would not say that her beliefs count as justified — not even the true ones.

    Truth and justification are distinct notions, and point in different directions. Truth is, I would say, an objective concept — it is oriented towards how things are — whereas justification is an intersubjective concept — it is oriented towards what we say to one another, and towards what we allow as counting as a reason.

    The point about atheism is, by my lights, a red herring, since I don’t consider either atheism or theism to be justified. They are world-views, and so they occupy a different place in the scheme of things.

  14. I don’t know Carl. I see your point to some extent, but ultimately, I’m confused as to how this could be a superior philosophy of living or reason. I just don’t get it. Perhaps you see thought, reason, belief, as being only relevant to social discourse. I guess I just don’t really see the point of that. Perhaps I’m dense in this area–I don’t know, but it just doesn’t make sense to me….sorry.

  15. Carl,

    As the Shrink stated, I don’t get this either! I’m just trying to comprehend what you believe and how that belief affects you, those around you, and the rest of us. Is there then, in your view, no possibility for accord or resolution of cultural, intellectual, philosophical, ethical or moral questions that stare us in the face everyday? Is there only cognitive discourse which leads to no resolution or harmony between people? When all is said and done, if it ever is, according to your philosophy, where is the foundation for moving forward and putting resolved issues behind? Isn’t this way of thinking and believing somewhat responsible for the fact that we, as humans, seem incapable of solving our multitude of issues? Where’s the foundation that we ultimately land on? I guess, from what you’ve stated, there is no foundation, right?

    I have been accused of being to closed ended, but what I hear you stating is something that is so open ended that I can see no resolution to anything. I believe that this is what you believe, because you seem to be an honest person, but, again, I just don’t get it.

  16. Carl, I really believe that you think you are seeking “the best” way to live your life and to think. I just don’t understand how you determine this. If all is socially determined, then how can there be a “best?” Do you not think on your own? Is it not clear to you that certain ways of thinking are superior?

  17. The fool has said in his heart there is no “designer”.

    Question: If I found a sony video camera on the beach, would anyone believe me if I said the camera, with its sophisticated lens technology evolved from other lower primitive cameras with apparently no “designer” or manufacturing company to engineer its creation. All of you would say that I am absurd. Yet when we look at the human eye, its technology is billions of years far into the future, the retina, the 4d sensing technology, its subtle measuring of distance ect.., where even our most highest trained engineers in science and technology cannot create such a specimen.

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