Evolution quotes: Theories are not the whole of science

I opened Structure of Scientific Theories asserting that the “most central or important” problem in philosophy of science is “the nature and structure of theories . . . . For theories are the vehicle of scientific knowledge and one way or another become involved in most aspects of the scientific enterprise” … . Don’t believe it for a moment! Today much of science is atheoretical, as it was then. For example, theory development is incidental to most of today’s chemistry. The business of most experimental and observational science is modeling data increasingly so as science has become computationally intensive. Today, models are the main vehicle of scientific knowledge. [Fred Suppe, “Understanding Scientific Theories: An Assessment of Developments, 1969-1998”. Philosophy of Science, Vol. 67, Supplement. Proceedings of the 1998 Biennial Meetings of the Philosophy of Science Association. Part II: Symposia Papers (Sep., 2000), pp. S102-S115, page S109]

32 thoughts on “Evolution quotes: Theories are not the whole of science

    1. Not as understood in the literature. A theory (or rather a Theory, to be consistent with my prior usage for distinguishing scientific from folk and innate theories) is possibly a family of models, but also including rules of interpretation and representation of things (mapping variables in models to classes of phenomena, for example). So a Theory includes models, but a model is not a Theory en soi.

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        1. It’s more complicated than that. Models are of various kinds – some are mathematical, some are verbal, some are pictorial. Theories often (but not always) include models, but a model is not a theory in its own right: it requires rules of interpretation, along with some other kit like information types, a domain of phenomena, and so on.

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          1. My view is that any interpretation of observation is a speculation, hypothesis, or theory. And the speculation, hypothesis, or theory is scientific if it is limited to materialistic cause and effect. At least for now, this is my philosophical speculation of scientific speculation, hypothesis, and theory.

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            1. My view, which I have developed in detail here under the discussion of the theory dependence of observation, is that this is not always the case. And I am right and you are wrong so there.

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  1. Viewed from the outside, the most important problem in the philosophy of science is defining what we mean by “science.” This doesn’t seem to be a problem for most philosophers. They seem to be content with a definition that goes something like this: “science is what geologists, physicists, biologists, and chemists do in their day jobs.”

    Is that correct?

    Incidentally, there are 65 scientists (PI’s) in my department. I’d estimate that there are only five who spend any length of time “modeling data” or using computers in any way other than to do simple calculations and word processing. Is it true that most philosophers of science are mostly thinking about physics? That’s certainly true at my university.

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    1. On the first: the question of what demarcates science is the core problem of modern philosophy of science, yes. The consensus is that there seems to be nor such core definition, but instead a host of shared problems, methods, ideas and institutions. My own view is that science is a historical development out of ordinary knowledge gathering mechanisms, in which a community structure enables us to find and refine knowledge. Consequently there is nothing that by itself includes or excludes some method or approach from being science, as it depends upon what the structure of the institutions are and how well they are functioning at a moment in time. Consider the flaws of peer review, for example…

      So while a simple Popperian demarcation is now untenable, we can roughly exclude some things as science and still have a number of borderline cases, each of which teaches us (philosophers) something about the nature of science at a time (for example, the way in which tectonics was accepted, or how we moved from a simplistic view of genes to the molecular view, and so forth). The trouble is that each of these is a singular event, and how much we can generalise to the rest of science is hard to determine.

      On the second, it is true that the physical sciences have tended to predominate thinking about science and theories. This is what I am presently trying to get clear in my head. I think that Suppe (who is one of my inspirations in this field) is not quite right – modelling data is not a core activity for a lot of science, although it depends on what that means. I think he thinks models are predictive; I think that analyses of data in the special sciences is the core of what is done. That is, something like a regression curve or a phylogeny is not a model in the sense he intends. Now of course he may think that modelling data is what you end up doing once you have analysed it, and that you wouldn’t rest satisfied with a straightforward analysis, since it would be a very weak form of knowledge you had achieved.

      The standard view of science is indeed based on physics. I am interested in how science proceeds in the special sciences, and especially the earth sciences (which includes biology). It seems to me that Theory has a rather different aspect, as does modelling, in those sciences. Ironically, we started modern science with the recognition that the nature of the heavens was the same as the nature of things on earth; now we might have to consider that while natures on earth are the same as those in the rest of the universe, how they play out on earth is unique to earth, and the sciences that apply here have their own character and process.

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        1. A special science is one that is not universal – one that is historical or local. It is contrasted to a general science, which obtains always and all places (like physics or chemistry).

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          1. Hmm, chemistry is always and in all places? If that is the case, then what was the role of chemistry in the first Planck time of the observed universe?

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            1. Do you think that it ceases being chemistry when it is a quantum soup under pressure? At what point does it cease being chemistry and start just being physics?

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              1. I don’t know if there are categorical boundaries between physics, chemistry, biophysics, biochemistry, and biology. Do you know if these categorical boundaries exist? If yes, can you define them?

                Also, I suppose that the laws of nature that enable biological life have existed since the first Planck time.

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      1. John Wilkins said,

        The standard view of science is indeed based on physics. I am interested in how science proceeds in the special sciences, and especially the earth sciences (which includes biology). It seems to me that Theory has a rather different aspect, as does modelling, in those sciences. Ironically, we started modern science with the recognition that the nature of the heavens was the same as the nature of things on earth; now we might have to consider that while natures on earth are the same as those in the rest of the universe, how they play out on earth is unique to earth, and the sciences that apply here have their own character and process.

        I think that’s basically correct but I don’t think the “uniqueness” is limited to geology and biology. We live in a unique one-off galaxy and a unique solar system in a unique position within the galaxy. The kinds of chemical reactions that can occur on Earth are very different than the ones that can occur on Jupiter or Pluto.

        The important distinction, I think, is that neither geology or biology can discover “universal truths” that will apply throughout the universe.(1) This makes them different from physics and chemistry.

        1. Dawkins disagrees because he believes that natural selection is just such a “universal truth.”

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          1. I’m trying to give you enough confidence to jump into the Sober debate on the compatibility of science and theistic evolution. 🙂

            It’s an attack on the philosophy of science.

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  2. I just cannot comprehend what purpose scientists could have to “fake” the proofs of evolution, as so many religious people claim. The fact that around 47% of Americans believe in the “young earth” theory seriously surprises me. Science PROVES the earth is ancient. How can people believe that it’s a conspiracy? No Bible quotes, please; I deal in the realm of reality and science :]

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  3. The last post demonstrated that rather nicely I think. Or did for me.
    Last part was a killer observation I thought, by an old school Marxist and not retro, which is all the more impressive.

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  4. It seems to me that what science is depends on the purposes of the investigation. Thus a huge amount of biology depends upon the creation and maintenance of a enormous herd of laboratory animals that have been bred to be especially useful for experimental purposes. The guy who sells your lab Purina Lab Chow for these specialized beasts is presumably not a scientist, but is he a part of science? It’s not just that “models” may be something different than “theories.” Once you allow that it is reasonable to think of the sciences as a body of practices that incorporate a host of craft technology or as a social institution existing in time and space, things get complicated. Working scientists, at least in my experience, are even more likely than philosophers to define science idealistically as a system of ideas or maybe sentences, but the reality seems a lot more tangible and complex to me.

    As a historical object, science is rather like World War II, a being whose nature is pretty hard to specify though nobody really doubts that there was such a thing, which is why the statement “World War II completely changed the lives of all my uncles” is true.

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  5. “what science is depends on the purposes of the investigation. ”

    In terms of identity its easy then, as you are dealing with a small ape type brain and the usual suspects. Bigger identities are a top down job. You only need to create and maintain them if you are meeting face to face with others.

    So for larger cultural elephants, you are looking for the folks who have the motive, need, and ability to range at greater distance and meet with others not of the tribe, craft, etc.

    That’s got to be elites or those higher up the food chain. When they start to meet face to face regularly they will decide they are an elephant rather than a collection of different coloured mice.

    The definition of an elephant is simply a mouse constructed by it’s administrative classes.

    It’s how I think tribal groups moved at first to become larger, ethnicities at least.

    If I wanted to ask where science came from and how it started to form I would start here. As it is not a particularly complex idea and simple to run with.

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  6. For philosophy’s breakfast I like, “A chicken is what an egg uses to make more eggs.’ (robbed from the writing of Henry Gee)
    For science’s starter we must surely begin with matter/force – then, not what can particles do, but what they cannot do. Clearly they cannot do everything, otherwise there would be nothing but particle soup, no discretely identifiable anything. – What is it that restricts their activities so there may be relative stabilities for a while?
    Science’s Theories may seem to list what can be done – but surely they tell what cannot be done. – They identify gaps. – In Heaven anything is possible. – On Earth or Jupiter and in the rest of the universe there are limitations.
    Philosophy from Democritus to Darwin has concerned the nature of change. – I feel it has payed less attention to stability. Stabilities are things with gaps between them – like species perhaps. Current evolution theory would fill the gaps – denying limitations of what is possible, applying in the rest of the universe. – I think it’s time science concentrated on the what causes the gaps – not on what might fill them.
    Plumbing is my science – OK trade. Soldering a joint relies on capiliary action. Theory might seem to say that it can be done – but what theory really does is lay down limitations as to when it cannot be done – width of tube – viscosity of fluid etc.
    The problem with computers is a divine belief that anything is possible – just write the programme. Worse is the belief that a computer model proves a theory – when all it does is prove that the cumputer can do what has been programmed into it.

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    1. It was Samuel Butler who said “A chicken is an egg’s way of making another egg” if I recall. I’m sure Henry would have given the source.

      I agree that a theory excludes more than it includes. In effect a theory is a coordinate in a multidimensional space, or rather a set of coordinates making a surface on which actual events can occur.

      The point about computers is right: a computer simply instantiates a function. That function is neither true nor false, just computable. Whether or not it obtains in the real world is a matter of experiment, observation and theory…

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      1. Thanks for reminding me of Butler and The Way of all Flesh – a delightful book. Does that quote come from there? I don’t think Henry gives the source in the draft of his latest work – you might visit the end of the pier if you haven’t lately.
        What interests me is the boundary which might be delineated by co-ordinates – like the line made by a child in a join the dots picture. A rather big computer might map the space/time co-ordinates of all my particles at a moment and so find their boundary – I would call it my skin. At any moment, a species seems to have such a boundary . I believe I have identified that boundary if you might be interested.
        From there, it’s a simple step to apply that same boundary to anything we identify – an ape, a book, a planet, an atom, a science and a theory with or without a capital t . Once something has a boundary there is a gap between it and all else – then the interesting bit is what happens in the gaps and the ways in which gaps can be crossed.

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  7. The Way of all Flesh

    I tried to find the source last night but all I hit were dam cite site’s, giving no context. The home of chickens here was a kailyard. A small kitchen garden and essential functional feature of ancient Scottish abodes.

    Made me laugh

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  8. I only knew of The Way of All Flesh – thanks to your link, I find a whole a library – and this snippet.

    “My notes always grow longer if I shorten them. I mean the process of compression makes them more pregnant and they breed new notes”

    Which here seems nicely to fit the bill – of web sites and theories.

    p.s. Hope the leg’s mending .

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