How Arguing About the Nature of Inquiry in the Historical Sciences has Brought me Back to the Faith
You will recall my strong and often repeated affirmation of the quote attributed to Max Planck: ‘Experiments are the only means of knowledge at our disposal. Everything else is poetry, imagnination.’
For some time I have been having a discussion with Marco and Andy Cooper about what qualifies as science in the historical sciences- in disciplines like biology, geology, astronomy, where you cannot do an experiment, how exactly do we obtain knowledge? Knowledge, that is, of the how, as opposed to the what; for it is very easy to catalogue stars or beetles. [‘All science is either physics or stamp collecting’ (Ernest Rutherford)]
We are agreed that basically what we do is rely on experiments that have been done for us. We postulate a model for how something occurs that suggests that we should never observe a particular phenomena in nature, and if we do observe that particular phenomena, that model is falsified, in the same way as a model that suggests we will not obtain a particular result in an experiment will be falsified if we do the experiment and obtain that result. We are agreed on the additional proviso that the model does not contradict any of the physical laws we have determined with the experiments we can do in the here and now; and where I differ from Marco is on an insistence that this lack of contradiction be made explicit in terms of a mechanism: a story that is not entirely implausible that explains exactly how this observation distant in space or time can be explained using the physics and chemistry we have nutted out here on Earth.
A distinction that we have come up with is between primary and secondary utility. If our model predicts that we should observe something that we have not yet observed, and we look for it, and find it, then it is scientifically useful. It has primary utility. Everything else our model is good for is its secondary utility. If it provides us with a good job, or helps maintain the stability of the Overlord’s rule, or makes us feel comfortable and happy, or is a great plot element in action adventure films, it has some secondary utility. The realisation that Marco has had for a long time and has dawned on me more slowly is that a great deal of what we teach as science in the historical sciences is taught for its secondary utility rather than it primary utility.
The models of anthropogenic global warming make terrible predictions; but there is a lot of money in it, and it dovetails beautifully with the statist agendas of all kinds of powerful lobbies, so it trundles along unstoppably. The models of abiogenesis we have are laughable and have predicted nothing, but the alternative of special creation is anathema, so we defend to the death our ‘science of the gaps’ against the ‘God of the gaps’. In the tiny and specialised hothouse of cometary science where Marco and Andrew live and breathe and have their being, the ‘contact binary’ model for the formation of bilobed comets, incredibly implausible to begin with, becomes less plausible with every example that is observed; but it allows the valuable fiction that comets are unchanged relics of the cloud from which the Solar System formed to continue, so its flaws are excused or ignored.
This realisation of the narrow limits of primary utility threw me back on my resolution a few years ago to only believe what I could not disbelieve. Quoting myself:
“What do I mean by ‘believe’ or ‘disbelieve’? I favour the definition provided by the 19th century American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce: ‘A belief is a habit, i.e., a readiness or disposition to respond in certain kind of ways on certain kinds of occasions.’
With this definition, it should become evident that there are some things that cannot be disbelieved. We cannot disbelieve F = GMm/r2, in that we cannot habitually behave as if it were not true: each time we behave as if it were not true, we are likely to injure ourselves, and if we attempt to make it a habit we are sure to break before the universe does.
In the same time as we cannot disbelieve F = GMm/r2, we cannot disbelieve that life is better than death. Believing this, which means acting upon it, we cease to exist.
I think the idea that death is better than life is one of a small number of beliefs that, believed in a Peircean way, will destroy any functioning society, and so collectively cannot be believed. The antithesis of these beliefs is what C. S. Lewis called the “Tao”: the nugget of ethics common to every ethical system we know about.”
Outside the narrow limits of primary utility there is a vast sea of habits that are necessary for individuals and societies to stick to the ‘Tao’. These habits cannot be justified by experiment; they have predictive value only over a scale of millennia in terms of the fitness of the societies that practice them. I had argued before that Max Planck’s quote leaves us free to choose our own poetry: the facts of science do not force us to pick the pessimism of Housman over the joy of Manley Hopkins. I have been feeling useless, adrift in idea space, for some time, and I looked up from the realisation of the narrow limits of primary utility brought about by this discussion to realise that my intellectual quarrels with the Catholic Faith had somehow evaporated while I was not trying to be Catholic anymore. I recalled the quote ‘truth cannot contradict truth’ and remembered again that the Church teaches nowhere anything in contradiction to the certain knowledge of the experimental sciences, And I realised that I did not really have a free choice of poetry: I had a duty to chose the poetry that could best serve the overwhelming secondary utility of protecting and advancing the ‘Tao’. Against the abyss of relativism, against the apocalyptic rage convulsing Dar-al-Islam, I see only one thing standing firm in the world. So I am resolved, by the grace of God, to display consistently a readiness or disposition to respond in Catholic ways on as many occasions as possible.