Sunday, September 04, 2005

The Scientific Method and the Inductive Principle

So, I've been more tempted of late to write about a bunch of other things, but I promised myself I'd say what I meant about the scientific method.

I think we've taken it too much for granted that there are these two 'spheres of knowledge', that Science tells us everything that happens in the physical world and that Philosophy or Theology are strictly concerned with nonphysical questions like meaning. Many people even think that "Science has proved that miracles don't happen" or something of the sort.

I think a modern problem is that the scientific method has produced so many good results that we've taken its efficacy for granted. We've ceased to really care about the philosophical assumptions that the scientific method rests on, the assumptions that determine the scope of the problems it can tackle and the results it can claim.

The most important assumption of the scientific method, as I see it, is the Principle of Induction (scientific, not mathematical)- that is, the assumption that the phenomenon you are studying is infinitely repeatable if the right conditions are in place, and that whatever happens the first N times (where N is a number assumed to be sufficiently large for the purposes of the experiment) is in fact what would happen in any trial under those same conditions.

It sounds rather innocuous, and in most circumstances it is. But what must be noted is that this is a significant assumption, and not one proven in advance. This assumption, in fact, asserts that there are no miracles, no unrepeatable violations of physical law.

Or rather, that's one of two main ways of understanding the Principle of Induction. The other is to say that it simply excludes such events from the scope of scientific study. There's nothing wrong with such an acknowledgment; it's rather like a linguist faced with a string of English characters produced by a malfunctioning computer, who then admits (the linguist, not the computer) it's not a problem for linguistics and hands it to the nearest programmer.

Either way, the notion that "science has proven that miracles don't happen" is mistaken. You can't demonstrate the fact you assumed, that's called circular argument. And you can't, in the other understanding, use the scientific method to answer a question you've defined to be outside the scope of the scientific method.

So we see that some questions of physical fact (e.g. whether Christ resurrected, whether Padre Pio bilocated) are philosophical/theological questions rather than scientific ones. Many would argue that neither could have happened, because they believe in philosophical principles that forbid such violations of physical law; but from a Catholic viewpoint (with the distinction that belief in Christ's resurrection is necessary, and that belief in the miracles of the saints is not necessary) there is nothing amiss with a God who will suspend the laws of the universe He created when it is for His glory and the good of souls.

So what should be taught to everyone, regarding the philosophy of science? Hmm. I'm not sure. I just think there's something too magical about the way it's referred to in high school classes, as if 'Science' were an infallible oracle rather than a collection of methods which picks out repeated patterns in the natural world. You know?

P.S. Am I less coherent in my musings than I was last year? Perhaps
my mind is going...


P.P.S. Is there a band called The Scientific Method? There should be.

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