Saturday, 9 January 2016

Does a Scientist Really Know Science?

(Cross-posted from my facebook)

The term "scientist", in modern times at least, refers to a practitioner of science- someone who generates data in accordance with the scientific method (defined in a standard, ecumenical way). Scientists may also make inferences based on this data. This involves, among other things, noting correlations among sets of data, making generalizations based on a limited dataset, choosing a hypothesis among many based on simplicity and other criteria, and so on. All of this amount to "practising" science, the same way you "practise" woodworking. Science is, at the end of the day, a craft; and scientists are craftsmen. Craftsmanship is measured in terms of one's knowledge of what constitutes good craftsmanship and best embodying it.

All of this goes on within, and assuming, the system of science. In "doing" science, scientists have to assume laws of mathematics, logic, induction, inference to the best explanation where "goodness" of explanation is decided on the basis of explanatory power, scope, simplicity, ontological economy, predictability etc, perhaps methodological naturalism, and so on. The crystal palace of scientific knowledge can only be constructed when one uses these rules and tools obediently.

But can an average scientist be expected to deliver verdict on the system *as a whole*? For example, if someone were to ask- how do you know that obedience to the laws of induction would generate knowledge that corresponds to reality as it is? A scientist who works on a specific part of the crystal palace, but hasn't seen (much less examined) the entire thing from a bird's eye point of view, cannot be expected to have expertise on the topic. In fact, that's a question about whether science works at all. A less esoteric (from the perspective of the empiricist) question would be- what laws and assumptions do science have to make in order to work? I think many scientists wouldn't be able to give a rough-and-ready answer to this either.

What makes things more complicated is, due to the explosive advancement of scientific knowledge in especially the past few centuries, individual scientific disciplines have become more and more self-contained, each with its own set of rules and tools and methods. Like a Russian Matryoshka doll, individual scientific disciplines, in terms of their scope, can be said to nestle snugly within broader disciplines. Each smaller doll requires the efficacy of the one it snuggles into in order to work. Microbiology, for example, works on the assumptions of biochemistry, and has higher-order assumptions and methods of its own. Biochemistry in turn assumes laws of chemistry; chemistry, those of physics. The inhabitants of these smaller chambers cannot be expected to have knowledge on the bigger rooms in the palace (just as those who inhabit the bigger rooms don't know what goes on in the smaller ones). So in many cases, the scientist cannot even explain, or be expected to have expert opinion about, the more fundamental *scientific* principles on which his own discipline works, simply because they inhabit a higher scientific plane he may not be entirely privy to.

Answering these broader questions is the duty not of the scientist, but of the philosopher. A philosopher doesn't work with science, he thinks about science. He examines the data produced by the craftsmen, analyzes them, and makes broad method-related conclusions about them. This gives him the privilege of not being enclosed within the palace, much less being cooped up in individual rooms. From this vantage point, he can see the bigger picture, and make conclusions about the entire system without having to assume any of its rules. So in response to the earlier question about whether scientific knowledge corresponds to reality, the philosopher would wade through the muddy waters of scientific realism vs. antirealism, examine arguments both for and against, and be in a position to give a verdict. In response to whether induction is a good guide to knowledge, he would pore over the literature on the problem of induction, develop models on which induction can be said to work, and give his expert opinion.

Even for questions which are about particular disciplines of science, as opposed to being about science itself, there are philosophers specializing on specific rooms. While a philosopher of microbiology, for example, wouldn't be completely outside the palace, he would be standing at the door of the microbiology room. This would present him with a unique vantage point to observe the room's structure, as well as details, from inside and out.

In the crystal palace of scientific knowledge, scientists build, philosophers work maintenance. If you want to know how to build, how to generate scientific knowledge, talk to scientists. If, however, you want to know whether that knowledge corresponds to reality, or the dimensions, scope and limitations of that knowledge, talk to philosophers.

6 comments:

  1. Salam alaykum,

    Since you are a formal science major, I need to ask one basic question: Isn't the whole premise of science finding exclusively naturalistic explanations for things and phenomena?

    If so, it would seem that ideas such as "Intelligent Design" are impossible for a 'real scientist' to consider by definition, whatever the evidence might be - this is why it would always be dismissed as 'superstition', just as we Muslims dismiss Hirsi Ali's negative comments Islam's concern with the Qiyaamah or Manji's negative comments about the place of the Prophet (SAW) in Islam as 'totally irrelevant'.

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    1. Wa 'alaikumussalam,

      "Since you are a formal science major, I need to ask one basic question..."

      Bad start :) The question you ask here is not about scientific facts (how to build), but about the structure, goal and methodology of the overall scientific enterprise (maintenance). As such, me being a "formal science major" doesn't endow me with any expertise whatsoever to answer this question. A formal arts major would be just as (in)capable of answering this question as a formal science major. The person who would be fit to answer this question is a formal philosophy major. That's the whole point of the article.

      That doesn't mean I haven't studied this issue, or don't have opinions on the topic. Just that my science education per se doesn't make me suited to answer it.

      "Isn't the whole premise of science finding exclusively naturalistic explanations for things and phenomena?"

      That's a point of contention among philosophers of science. Unsurprisingly, philosophers who are more ID-friendly will be inclined to say that science doesn't require one to be confined to purely naturalistic causes. You may find a good defense of this position in Stephen Meyer's "Signature in the Cell", specifically in the chapter "Sauce for the Goose". Meyer argues that this commitment to naturalistic explanations (methodological naturalism is the relevant jargon) is ad hoc, and the usual justifications given for it make science so restrictive that this definition of science fails to include even the well-established scientific theories (e.g. common descent).

      The best discussion on the topic I believe is found in Bradley Monton's "Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design". Monton is a Princeton philosopher of physics. After refuting all the common arguments given for the restriction of science to purely naturalistic explanations, he comments that this whole discussion is nothing but an exercise in semantics and therefore needs to be chucked out of the window. According to him, the interesting question is not "is Intelligent Design science?", rather, it is "is Intelligent Design true?" This brings us to your last comment:

      "this is why it would always be dismissed as 'superstition', just as we Muslims dismiss Hirsi Ali's negative comments Islam's concern with the Qiyaamah or Manji's negative comments about the place of the Prophet (SAW) in Islam as 'totally irrelevant'."

      You seem to be setting up a false dichotomy here: either something is scientific, or it is superstitious. I agree some naturalism-minded scientists would indeed eye supernatural explanations that way, but that's precisely why we shouldn't expect scientists to answer philosophical questions to begin with. Whether something is a "good" (or viable) explanation (i.e. not a superstition) depends on some criteria, like explanatory power (how well the data is explained), explanatory scope (how much of the data is explained), simplicity (how many entities are invoked in the explanation), testability (how bold the predictions of the explanation are), and so on. Now we can apply these criteria for any hypothesis, natural or supernatural. If even a supernatural explanation scores high, then it's a good, acceptable explanation. Alternatively, if even a natural explanation scores low, it may as well be considered "superstitious" depending on context.

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    2. Salam Alaykum,

      Just some clarifications on the above : I mentioned 'formal science major' and thought that perhaps you may be better placed to answer, given this consideration:

      Let me just take the biology field, I have heard practicing Muslims who are in the field of biology and know the Usool of Islam say that they have seen evolution in action right in front of their eyes in the lab, implying that it is against the very principles of Islam to reject evolution (since the Usool of Islam do say that direct observation is a tenet of indubitable knowledge). Is this your experience, or is it something else?

      About Intelligent Design, I wanted to ask, shouldn't we Muslims be more precise in exactly what our objections to evolution are? What I mean is that our indubitable belief is with respect to Adam (AS) being the first human being without biological ancestors, and of all humans beings being descended from him. This is important since there are proponents of ID who still adhere to 'common descent', so I wonder how far our ideologies would match when everything is considered (though yes, they would match in affirming that origination of existents requires Knowledge rather than a 'Dont-know, Don't care' process).

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    3. Wa 'alaikumussalam, sorry for the late reply- exam season.

      " I have heard practicing Muslims who are in the field of biology and know the Usool of Islam say that they have seen evolution in action right in front of their eyes in the lab, implying that it is against the very principles of Islam to reject evolution (since the Usool of Islam do say that direct observation is a tenet of indubitable knowledge). Is this your experience, or is it something else?"

      That's absolutely true. Some forms of evolution can indeed be seen directly. In fact, I'm pretty sure you have seen some instances of evolution in your life as well. Mosquitoes getting resistant to bug sprays, antibiotic resistance acquisition by bacteria, sheep getting woolier and horses getting faster over generations due to planned breeding- all of these are examples of evolution. Evolution itself is an extremely innocuous term- all it means is "descent with modification". We all know that organisms change to some extent over time. And Islam, of course, has absolutely no problem acknowledging this- that would be tantamount to denying that horses do get faster after planned breeding for generations, something that would strike the Arabs as explicit falsehood. This sort of micro-evolution, or change that happens within species, is just a fact of reality and no one denies its reality.

      As Muslims, we don't have problem accepting all of evolution. Some of it is commonsensical, some of it is a little more fuzzy but still doesn't contradict scripture, while some of it is both insensible and contradicted by Islam. This is why before talking about evolution from a Muslim pov, we must know Islam's exact stance towards it. I suggest you watch Yasir Qadhi's lectures on the topic on YouTube.

      I'm not sure how to understand your comments on ID. You don't need to accept ID (as it is commonly understood) as a belief or an ideology- all you need is the data they generate. The core claim of ID is that signs of design are to be found in biological systems in the world. And we can benefit from the research of ID theorists who try to argue for this conclusion.

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    4. Salam Alaykum,

      A small comment: Would you agree that the common Muslim's unfamiliarity with the data produced by the 'Community of Biologists' or that of 'Astronomers', etc., is a major problem if we wish to get into a serious discussion about Islamic Ontological concepts? [The issue being that all this data is being produced and published by people well outside the Islamic paradigm, so most Muslims can only see it after it has been 'processed' by others.]

      For me, it seems we are in dire need of something like a conglomeration of Islamic scholars supported by graduates of biology, astronomy, etc., who are on the same page with respect to important issues of Islamic apologetics (To be honest, I don't think we Muslims are short of natural scientists, social scientists, etc., it is just that these have totally drank up the worldview of the 'modern intelligentsia' and don't consider traditional Islamic causes to be of any interest to them - yes, there are sites like AnswersinGenesis, but our own Usool and 'lines of defense' are not necessarily those of Sola Scriptura Christians, so we need our own concerted efforts I believe).

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    5. Wa 'alaikumussalam wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh,

      I'm sitting for my MS finals, so you have to forgive me (beyond reason) for my delayed responses.

      I agree with everything you said- and really, it's what we've been unofficially doing. The reason I'm specializing in cellular+molecular biology is to be better adept at addressing issues like evolution and biological design. Friend of mine focuses on cosmology, while a couple others focus on history and Qur'anic literature. So a modest version of what you're suggesting is already in the works. What remains to be seen is whether the bunch of us would be able to be dedicated to the deen and continue working with the appropriate amount of zeal. InshaAllah I hope that happens.

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