Saturday, July 26, 2014

Progressive and Degenerative research programs

By bringing to light the paradigmatic nature of all scientific research, [Thomas S] Kuhn raised the specter of epistemological relativism in the sciences. His insights led to a seemingly insoluble dilemma: Given the theory-laden nature of all science and the persistence of anomalies in most if not all scientific paradigms, how can we make value judgments between incommensurable but internally consistent research programs? And how can we clearly distinguish between science and pseudoscience, or between science and religion? Does it all in the end come down to a matter of faith—what one chooses to believe in—as many creationists claim?

It was in response to the Kuhnian dilemma of judging between incommensurable paradigms and establishing lines of demarcation to tell genuine science from pseudoscience that [Imre] Lakatos proposed the distinction between what he called progressive and degenerating research programs. His approach, which in certain ways synthesizes even as it critiques both Kuhn's and Popper's positions, was first published as a long chapter in Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge in 1970. [Ronald E. Osborn, Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2014), 62-3]

In chapter 4 of his book, Osborn attempts to deal somewhat with the nature and philosophy of science. I note with approval his interaction with Thomas Kuhn's groundbreaking theory of scientific paradigms, and not only does he cite Kuhn, but he actually deals fairly with Kuhn's theory both of scientific paradigms and incommensurability. He rightly sees Kuhn's philosophy of science as antirealist and postmodern, and notes the problems Kuhn's theory might have in relativizing all "science," or rather both science and pseudoscience (an error Paul Feyerabend fell into). He notes that that is not Kuhn's original intent, and indeed it isn't. Kuhn after all believed in evolution and did not particularly liked the way his work have been used by creationists. All in all, I must say I'm rather pleased with Osborn's portrayal of both Kuhn's theory and the problems it might cause to his position against creationism. Definitely much much better than how he has portrayed creationists.

To deal with this problem, Osborn bring up Imre Lakatos's theory regarding progressive and degenerating research programs. Progressive research programs led to steady increase in new knowledge and new predictions that can be corroborated, while degenerating research programs led to ad hoc solutions to save the main theory. Now, although Osborn states that it was introduced in the book Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, his references are to essays written later published in later works. I am sure those would make interesting reading when I have the time. Now, Lakatos' distinction sounds like a good demarcation, but I am less sure about how it would actually work in practice. In the meantime, I would accept the distinction for the sake of argument.

The gist of Osborn's argument is that creationism is a degenerating research program, coming up with many ad hoc solutions to preserve their main theory, which doesn't really change much. In my interactions with the author so far, that has been one of his main points he has been pressing as well.

As we have seen, there is a difference between "operational science" and "historical science." And in the sense that creationism has a main theory that is largely held to regardless of the evidences (not in spite of them), it seems to fit Osborn's accusations of it being a degenerating research program. Now that is not really true, for scientific hypotheses that support creationism do make predictions, like the theory of Cosmological General Relativity by John Harnett. Regardless, I will concede for the sake of argument that by and large creationism fits Osborn's accusations. But what does that actually prove? That the past is not repeatable for experimentation? The fact of the matter is that creationism, as with evolution, deals with history, and history being non-repeatable does not really result in new predictions, since after all we do not (or should not) believe in cyclical time.

What I would like to focus on here is that Osborn neglects to place evolution under the same spotlight. As I have used as an example many times, the debate between gradualism and punctuated equilibrium shows that evolution is ultimately unfalsifiable. Darwin predicted many transitional fossils. When that didn't materialize, the theory of punctuated equilibrium was conceived. When two organisms have similar phenotypes despite their perceived phylogenetic distance, we call that "convergent evolution." When two organisms have very different phenotypes despite their perceived evolutionary closeness, we call that "divergent evolution." In what way are the use of these terms (and the concepts behind those terms) not ad hoc? What exactly can falsify evolution? Fossils in wrong places? Nope. Human fossils in pre-Cambrian rocks? Even Creationism does not predict that. What evidence can be brought to support evolution while at the same time rejecting Creationism? We have, in a sense, a null hypothesis and an alternate hypothesis, so what evidences can the evolutionist come up with that will do both (i.e. prove evolution, and reject Creationism)? I honestly do not see any.

So even if for the sake of argument I accept Lakatos' distinction, evolution comes off badly. Judging from the ad hoc theories and concepts in evolutionary theory, it should be labeled under "degenerating research program." Even if I were to concede Osborn's accusations against creationism, Osborn needs to apply his critique to evolution and reject it as well.

As I have said, history is not merely about science. In fact, going by the weight Scripture puts on eye-witness testimonies, testimonies trump "science" in the retelling of history. "Historical science" therefore must in some sense be "degenerative," since history in the final analysis cannot be proven just by science.

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