Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Poythress and the philosophy of science (Part 2)

The appreciation of multidimensional reality can also account for cases where later science has overturned earlier scientific theories. Copernicus's sun-centered solar system displaced Ptolemy's earth-centered system. But both systems recognized a general patten of cyclical motion in the planets. .... The system [Ptolemy's -DHC] was not wrong to notice the correlations; but it was oversimple, and to that extent wrong, in postulating a direct correlation between mathematics of epicycles and position in three dimensions. ... [Vern S. Poythress, Redeeming Science: A God-centered Approach (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 205]

The acknowledge of multiple perspectives enable us to make some sense of the diversity of "levels" with which we may analyze the perception of a red apple. We may affirm the value both of ordinary human experience and of special modes of analysis that science introduces. ... (Ibid., 213)

Thomas Kuhn's philosophy of science came about through his study of the history of science. Thus, in Kuhn's most famous book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn made some observations regarding the history of how science had worked in past eras, and from his historical observations, he postulated the idea of scientific revolutions or paradigm shifts.

Vern Poythress has decided to deal with the history of science in some fashion also. Using a multi-perspectival method, Poythress claims that the differences between the various eras did not come about because of differences in paradigms but merely because they looked at the scientific questions they were answering from different perspectives. He then claimed that, in the difference between the Ptolemaic and Copernican cosmologies, the differences came about because both parties have different perspectives.

In response, we first note that paradigms do include the perspectives of men. But paradigms go beyond that to include the societal and ideological backdrop of the times, so paradigms is a larger category than mere perspectives.

Secondly, and more importantly, whereas for Poythress, the various perspectives are legitimate, that is not historically how the differences between the various scientific models are seen. Those holding to the Copernican model like Kepler and Galileo did not think their model was merely a different "perspective" just as legitimate as the Ptolemaic model. Rather, they thought that the Ptolemaic model was in error. Likewise, with regards to the phlogiston theory, those rejecting phlogiston actually think that those holding to the phlogiston theory were in error, not that they merely "had" an alternative perspective. To claim that they are merely different "perspectives" cheapen the revolutionary shifts that mark the development of science. It is also rather disingenuous, I might add, to re-interpret the views and motives of especially dead people according to one's preconceived notions of how science develops.

Multiperspectivalism will not save Poythress' interpretation of the history of science, and will not save his critical realism either. The question remains how one can actually know what is true, not whether one can have an actual relation with the real world. Yes, if we "see the redness of an apple," we do see "exactly what God's word specifies that we should see" (Ibid., 204). But how do I know that I actually see the redness of an apple? This is the question Poythress has not even begin to address, and his realism will result in his overestimation of what science actually states, to the detriment of this supposed Christian project of "redeeming" science.

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