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September 2nd, 2009

Thanks for your great answers! Before I comment (in a later post) let me summarize here what I have gleaned from your comments -- think of this as a first draft of a commentary that I want to send to the European Jesuits in Science group for us to discuss in our meeting in Portugal next week. There are a couple of points here that in fact I actually disagree strongly with -- but in a way that I think will advance the discussion.

So, please comment if there is a better way of phrasing what I have pulled out of your comments...




What Should Every Jesuit Know About Science?Collapse )

Science for Philosophers?

A thing to recall is that I am interested in reaching clergypeople who already have a certain training in philosophy. This poses interesting challenges. For instance... 

In my previous post I have a paragraph, gleaned from the comments, that reads "Science is inquiry based on observation, measurement, and -- most importantly -- informed skepticism. It means being prepared to admit you're wrong in the face of solid evidence to the contrary. It is supposed to be open-ended, and to perpetually test its assumptions. Nothing is a given. Nothing is axiomatic, nothing is dogma, everything can be re-examined in the light of new evidence. Everything is provisional, can be rewritten by new evidence, from what you see (be it through a telescope or just watching the people around you)."

(First, a silly correction that I've already made in my master copy (but not in the previous post): "being prepared to admit you're wrong in the face of solid evidence to the contrary" I think is supposed to mean "being prepared to admit you're wrong when faced with solid evidence to the contrary" -- in other words, the "evidence to the contrary" is evidence that your original idea was wrong, not that (as might be implied) one should admit one is wrong even when the evidence is to the contrary, i.e. that you are actually right!)

The real issue I have with this paragraph, and other comments similar to is, is a fundamental philosophy-of-science issue, and one that does not have a simple answer. How "meta" is this "meta"? Is "nothing is given" itself an example of something that can be challenged? Is "everything is provisional" itself provisional?

This is not mere playing games with words; it reaches to the absolute core of what science is. For example, most people would accept that quantum physics is real science, but certainly it violates a lot of what 19th century physicists would have asserted were axioms of science. But it works. Is "it works" the only factor that makes it science?

The Ptolemaic view of the universe, if pushed to the extreme of having an infinite number of epicycles, could describe the motions of planets just as accurately as the Keplerian view; but there is a fundamental difference in the way you think of the planets between the views. Am I somehow a prejudiced Keplerian, and a bad scientist, by preferring to think that Kepler was right, and Ptolemy was fundamentally wrong?

A lot of scientists (I found this in the GT list a lot, where I posed the same question) have no idea of how science actually works; worse, they have a false idea of how it works. No logician or mathematician would accept inductive logic ("it always works, so it must be true") as valid, yet science relies on it all the time. And likewise, sometimes great advances in science occur when someone is able to see a different between what's really going on in nature, versus what is a systematic error in the observation. (Vide, the famous joke about the physicist's "proof" that all odd numbers are prime: "three is prime, five is prime, seven is prime, nine is experimental error, eleven...") But, of course, it's because this logic is faulty that we say "everything is provisional."

This is the sort of thing that makes it especially challenging to explain what science is, to people who have a graduate-level understanding of philosophy!

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