Science, religion, and Ockham’s razor

A few days ago I was working in my backyard when I noticed that the outdoor thermometer that I had fixed to a fence had disappeared. The mountings were still there but had been pulled away slightly. I thought that maybe the wind had blown it off and so I looked at the ground underneath but the thermometer was not there. There is a bed of pachysandra nearby and I looked nearby in it but no luck. I was baffled.

I pondered the various options for explaining the missing thermometer. One was that the wind had been strong enough to rip the thermometer from its mounting and blow it farther away into the pachysandra. The other was that it had fallen to the ground below and had then been taken away by squirrels or the neighbor’s cat. The third was that neighborhood children had borrowed it without permission for some experiment. The fourth was that the International Outdoor Thermometer Cartel (IOTC) had raised the price of these thermometers to such a high value that organized crime gangs were stealing them and selling them on the black market. The fifth option was that aliens had taken it away as a souvenir of their clandestine visit to Earth.

Given these options, I decided that #1 was the most likely one and looked in the pachysandra over a larger area, and sure enough. I found it.

The reason for this anecdote is that it illustrates that I used something that we all use all the time (whether we are consciously aware of it or not), and that is Ockham’s razor to make choices among competing theories.

According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, the principle behind Ockham’s razor (also called the law of economy or the law of parsimony) was stated by the scholastic William of Ockham (1285–1347/49), as “Plurality should not be posited without necessity.” The principle is also expressed as “Entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity.” Ockham did not himself use the word ‘razor’, that was added to his name later by others.

The principle gives precedence to simplicity, but there are two ways it can be used. In the first case (which is more closely aligned with Ockham’s intent), it says that you should not postulate more elements for anything other than the minimum required. For example, in the case of my missing thermometer, if I postulated one theory that a cat had taken it and a competing theory was that a cat that had a striped tail and a scar on its forehead had taken it, then in the absence of any extra information, the former theory is to be preferred. The latter theory just adds elements that do not add any necessary information to the explanation. The application of this version of the principle is fairly straightforward. One seeks the smallest subset of elements of a theory that provides an adequate explanation of whatever you are trying to explain.

The more problematic (and common) use of Ockham’s razor is when you try and apply it to a situation where there are two competing theories that share no common elements or there exist at least some necessary elements of one theory that the other does not possess. We commonly interpret Ockham’s razor in those situations as requiring us to choose the simpler of the two theories. But simplicity may well lie in the eye of the beholder and it may not be easy to get agreement.

So, for example, in the case of the thermometer that was found some distance away from its mountings, the simpler explanation (for me at least) was that of the wind. If called upon, I could call upon Bernoulli’s Principle and the laws of motion to support my preference. That explanation is simple enough to satisfy me.

But this may not be true for someone else. For them, a theory that alien vandals landed in my garden, tore the thermometer from its moorings, threw it away in the pachysandra and left in their spaceship, might be the “simpler” explanation in the eyes of someone who is a believer in the existence UFOs and space aliens. After all, it does not involve the use of calculus.

That is exactly the problem in many of the science and religion discussions, and we will see that in the next posting.


In a comment to a previous post, Amanda (a former student who graduated a few years ago and is now doing her PhD in astronomy) sent me a link to an excellent New Yorker article that goes straight to the core intelligent design argument, cutting through all the confusion that often surrounds such discussions. The article is well written and lays out the basic premises of ID as well as clears up some popular confusion about how evolution and natural selection work. I strongly recommend the article and gratefully thank Amanda for bringing it to my attention.

What is going on in Kansas

A couple of months ago, I was called by a staff member at the Kansas Board of Education. He said that I was being invited to testify to speak about the nature of science before a committee of their state Board of Education. Since I feel, like most academics, a sense of responsibility to share my thoughts on the topics that I study, I agreed to go to Kansas, thinking that it would be a real sharing of ideas.

I subsequently heard from members of the Kansas Citizens for Science (KCFS) about what was really going on there, and as a result I withdrew my acceptance. Here is the story of the happenings in Kansas.

On May 6th2005, the Washington Post had an article that gives some background:

In 1999, the Kansas State Board of Education, with a conservative majority…deleted most references to evolution in the science standards. The next election led to a less conservative board, which adopted the current standards describing evolution as a key concept for students to learn before graduating high school.

Last year, conservatives captured a majority again [6-4], and many scientists fear the board will adopt revisions supported by intelligent design advocates.

Those fears were well-founded. Stan Cox, writing for Alternet continues the story. “In 2004, voters once more gave conservative religious members a majority on the state’s Board of Education; as a result, science standards are to be rewritten yet again, in a way that deprecates evolution and permits discussion of intelligent design.”

Cox continues: “In March, a 26-member writing committee assigned by the Board submitted a new draft of science standards that was, well, standard stuff. But eight dissenters on the committee submitted an alternative version that included anti-evolution language. Board members who liked the alternative version decided to schedule hearings for early May in Topeka, to weigh the relative merits of the competing drafts.”

I was told by KCFS that three members of the majority, who had already decided to include ID in the standards, had scheduled these hearings before just the three of them to make it look as if these three members were carefully weighing the competing testimony presented to them and had been convinced that the ID arguments were better. It was these hearings to which I had been invited. KCFS felt that these were essentially show trials before a kangaroo court and passed the following resolution:

KCFS calls on the entire science and science education community of Kansas to refuse to participate in the hearing proceedings. Science has its own validity and has made its position on these matters perfectly clear and unambiguous. ID and other forms of creationism aren’t science. The specific proposals in the minority report have been rejected by the writing committee and by the science community at large. The science community should not put itself in the position of participating in a rigged hearing where non-scientists will appear to sit in judgment and find science lacking. Science should not give the anti-evolution members of the board the veneer of respectability when they take their predictable action. Let the board take responsibility for its actions without dignifying those actions with the appearance of academic rigor.

The scientific community totally supported the stand taken by KCFS and not a single scientist agreed to debate evolution in Kansas, although the board members tried very hard to find even one scientist nationwide who would be willing to come and provide their desperately sought veneer of respectability to the hearings. (The fact that they invited me shows that they were willing to really scrape the bottom of the barrel in their efforts.) This is actually a pretty impressive boycott since scientists are a notoriously difficult group to get to agree on any kind of concerted action.

The advocates of ID did go to the hearings and repeated all the same arguments that the scientist community has rejected many times before. The only pro-evolution person involved was an attorney Pedro Irongeray who cross-examined the pro-ID witnesses.

Is such a boycott a good idea? As I said before, my first instinct is always to engage in dialogue but even I have limits to my willingness to re-hash the same things over and over again, especially with people who are not really interested in what you have to say. As I said in my earlier posting concerning the “demon theory of friction,” there comes a time when one realizes that a discussion has ceased to be fruitful and you need to walk away.

The scientific community has come out overwhelmingly against including ID in science curricula, and made its case over and over again. The “hearings” in Kansas had no educational or scientific purpose. They were purely political theater. Showing up at such venues to say the same thing over and over again is a waste of time. I think a boycott in this case was justified.

As I stated in the earlier posting, when you walk away from this kind of fruitless pseudo-debate, you do allow the other side to charge that you are afraid to debate them, however illogical the charge, and the pro-ID people in Kansas did exactly that. It reminds me of the duel scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail in which King Arthur chops off the arms and legs of the Black Knight, leaving just his torso and attached head on the ground. The Black Knight first offers a compromise: “Oh? All right, we’ll call it a draw.” When Arthur walks away from this offer, the Black Knight starts taunting him saying “Oh. Oh, I see. Running away, eh? You yellow bastards! Come back here and take what’s coming to you. I’ll bite your legs off!”

After I debated the ID advocates in Kansas in 2002, a very earnest woman came up to me. She was clearly disturbed by my (unanswered) challenge to the ID members on the panel to provide the kind of predictions that scientists expect of any theory, and my conclusion that ID did not belong in science. She wanted very badly to have God as part of science so she had carefully written out what she felt was a definition of science that irrefutably included God. Her definition said that everything that had ever occurred and would occur was due to God and so everything in the world was due to God’s action and thus science could not refute it.

There is nothing that one can say in response to this. I just thanked her and let it go.


Unlearning ideas

Worried about children learning dangerous ideas like evolution in science classes and elsewhere? See the advertisement for the Unlearning Annex and learn how to protect them!

Why scientific theories are more than explanations

At its heart, ID advocates adopt as their main strategy that of finding phenomena that are not (at least in their eyes) satisfactorily explained by evolutionary theory and arguing that hence natural selection is a failed theory. They say that adding the postulate of an ‘intelligent designer’ (which is clearly a pseudonym for God) as the cause of these so-called unexplained phenomena means that they are no longer unexplained. This, they claim, makes ID the better ‘explanation.’ Some (perhaps for tactical reasons) do not go so far and instead say that it is at least a competing explanation and thus on a par with evolution.

As I discussed in an earlier posting, science does purport to explain things. But a scientific explanation is more than that. The explanations also carry within themselves the seeds of new predictions, because whenever a scientist claims to explain something using a new theory, the first challenge that is thrown invariably takes the form “Ok, if your theory explains X under these conditions, then it should predict Y under those conditions. Is the prediction confirmed?”

If the prediction Y fails, then the theory is not necessarily rejected forever but the proponent has to work on it some more, explain the failure to predict Y, and come back with an improved theory that makes better predictions.

If the prediction Y is borne out, then the theory is still not automatically accepted but at least it gains a little bit of credibility and may succeed in attracting some people to work on it.

Theories become part of the scientific consensus when their credibility increases by these means until they are seen by the scientific community to be the exclusive framework for future investigations. A scientist who said things like “My new theory explains X but makes no predictions whatsoever” would be ignored or face ridicule. Such theories are of no use for science.

And yet this is precisely the kind of thing that ID proponents are saying. To see why this cannot be taken seriously, here is something abridged from the book Physics for the Inquiring Mind by Eric Rogers (p. 343-345), written way back in 1960. In it Rogers looks at competing claims for why an object set in motion on a surface eventually comes to rest:

The Demon Theory of Friction

How do you know that it is friction that brings a rolling ball to a stop and not demons? Suppose you answer this, while a neighbor, Faustus, argues for demons. The discussion might run thus:

You: I don’t believe in demons.
Faustus: I do.
You: Anyway, I don’t see how demons can make friction.
Faustus: They just stand in front of things and push to stop them from moving.
You: I can’t see any demons even on the roughest table.
Faustus: They are too small, also transparent.
You: But there is more friction on rough surfaces.
Faustus: More demons.
You: Oil helps.
Faustus: Oil drowns demons.
You: If I polish the table, there is less friction and the ball rolls further.
Faustus: You are wiping the demons off; there are fewer to push.
You: A heavier ball experiences more friction.
Faustus: More demons push it; and it crushes their bones more.
You: If I put a rough brick on the table I can push against friction with more and more force, up to a limit, and the block stays still, with friction just balancing my push.
Faustus: Of course, the demons push just hard enough to stop you moving the brick; but there is a limit to their strength beyond which they collapse.
You: But when I push hard enough and get the brick moving there is friction that drags the brick as it moves along.
Faustus: Yes, once they have collapsed the demons are crushed by the brick. It is their crackling bones that oppose the sliding.
You: I cannot feel them.
Faustus: Rub your finger along the table.
You: Friction follows definite laws. For example, experiment shows that a brick sliding along a table is dragged by friction with a force independent of velocity.
Faustus: Of course, the same number of demons to crush however fast you run over them.
You: If I slide a brick among a table again and again, the friction is the same each time. Demons would be crushed on the first trip.
Faustus: Yes, but they multiply incredibly fast.
You: There are other laws of friction: for example, the drag is proportional to the pressure holding the surfaces together.
Faustus: The demons live in the pores of the surface: more pressure makes more of them rush out and be crushed. Demons act in just the right way to push and drag with the forces you find in your experiments.

By this time Faustus’ game is clear. Whatever properties you ascribe to friction he will claim, in some form, for demons. At first his demons appear arbitrary and unreliable; but when you produce regular laws of friction he produces a regular sociology of demons. At that point there is a deadlock, with demons and friction serving as alternative names for sets of properties – and each debater is back to his first remark.

Faustus’s arguments are just like those of the ID advocates, and the reason why they are consistently rejected by the scientific community. Scientists ask for more than just explanations from their theories. They also need mechanisms that make predictions. They know that that is the only way to prevent being drowned in an ocean of ‘explanations’ that are of no practical use whatsoever.

You can’t really argue with people like Faustus who are willing to create ad hoc models that have no predictive power. At some point, in order to save your time (and your sanity) you have to simply walk away and ignore them. At which point, they may jump up and down and shout: “See they cannot refute us. We win! We win!” (See the link to the This Modern World cartoon I mentioned in the previous posting.)

In the next posting we will see what happened during the recent Kansas ‘hearings’ on including ID in their science standards, because it illustrates some of the points made in this recent series of postings.


Cathie sent me a link to an excellent site regarding the Downing Street memo that clearly lays out why this is an important piece of news.

Why ID is not science

In the previous posting, I pointed out that if one looks back at the history of science, all the theories that are considered to be science are both (1) naturalistic and (2) predictive. Thus these two things constitute necessary conditions.

This is an important fact to realize when so-called intelligent design (ID) advocates argue that theirs is a ‘scientific’ theory. If so, the first hurdle ID must surmount is that it meet both those necessary criteria, if it is to be even eligible to be considered to be science. It has to be emphasized that meeting those conditions is not sufficient, for something to be considered science, but the question of sufficiency does not even arise because ID does not meet either of the two necessary conditions.

I issued this challenge to the ID proponents when I debated them in Kansas in 2002. I pointed out that nowhere did they provide any kind of mechanism that enabled them to predict anything that anyone could go out and look for. And they still haven’t. At its essence, ID strategy is to (1) point to a few things that they claim evolutionary theory cannot explain; (2) assert that such phenomena have too low a probability to be explained by any naturalistic theory; and (3) draw the conclusion that those phenomena must have been caused by an ‘unspecified designer’ (with a nudge, nudge, wink, wink to the faithful that this is really God) whose workings are beyond the realm of the natural world explored by science.

Thus they postulate a non-natural cause for those phenomena and cannot predict any thing that any person could go and look for. (This is not surprising. The designer is, for all intents and purposes, a synonym for God and it would be a bit bizarre to our traditional concept of God to think that his/her actions should be as predictable as that of blocks sliding down inclined planes.) When I asked one of the ID stalwarts (Jonathan Wells) during my visit to Hillsdale College for an ID prediction, the best he could come up with was that there would be more unexplained phenomena in the future or words to that effect.

But that is hardly what is meant by a scientific prediction. I can make that same kind of vague prediction about any theory, even a commonly accepted scientific one since no theory ever explains everything. A scientific prediction takes the more concrete form: “The theory Z encompassing this range of phenomena predicts that if conditions X are met, then we should be able to see result Y.”

ID advocates know that their model comes nowhere close to meeting this basic condition of science. So they have adopted the strategy of: (1) challenging the naturalism condition, arguing that it is not a necessary condition for science and that it has been specifically and unfairly adopted to exclude ID from science; and (2) tried to create a new definition of science so that ID can be included. This takes the form of arguing that a scientific theory is one that ‘explains’ phenomena.

There are variations and expansions on these arguments by the various members of the ID camp but I have tried to reduce it to its skeletal elements. These variations that ID proponents adopt are designed to blur the issues but are easy to refute. See this cartoon by Tom Tomorrow (thanks to Daniel for the link) and this cartoon (thanks to Heidi) and this funny post by Canadian Cynic about the possible consequences of using ID-type reasoning in other areas of life.

The rejection by ID advocates of naturalism and predictivity as necessary conditions for science goes against the history of science. Recall for example the struggle between the Platonic and Copernican models of the universe. Remember that both sides of this debate involved religious believers. But when they tried to explain the motions of the planets, both sides used naturalistic theories. To explain the retrograde motion of Mercury and other seemingly aberrant behavior, they invoked epicycles and the like. They struggled hard to find models that would enable them to predict future motion. They did not invoke God by saying things like “God must be moving the planets backwards on occasion.” Or “This seemingly anomalous motion of Mercury is due to God.” Such an explanation would not have been of any use to them because allowing God into the picture would preclude the making of predictions.

In fact, the telling piece of evidence that ended the geocentric model was that the Rudolphine Tables using Kepler’s elliptical orbits and a heliocentric model were far superior to any alternative in predicting planetary motion.

While it may be true that the underlying beliefs that drove people of that time to support the Platonic or Copernican model may have been influenced by their religious outlook, they did not seem to invoke God in a piecemeal way, as an explanation for this or that isolated phenomenon, as is currently done by ID advocates. Instead they were more concerned with posing the question of whether the whole structure of the scientific theory was consistent with their understanding of the working of God. In other words, they were debating whether a geocentric model was compatible with their ideas of God’s role in the world. The detailed motions of specific planets, however problematic, seemed to have been too trivial for them to invoke God as an explanation, although they would probably not have excluded this option as something that God was capable of doing.

It may also well be true that some scientists of that time thought that God might be responsible for such things but such speculations were not part of the scientific debate. For example, Newton himself is supposed to have believed that the stability of the solar system (which was an unexplained problem in his day and remained unsolved for about 200 years) was due to God periodically intervening to restore the initial conditions. But these ideas were never part of the scientific consensus. And we can see why. If scientists had said that the stability was due to God, and closed down that avenue of research, then scientists would never have solved this important problem by naturalistic means and thus advanced the cause of science. This is why scientists, as a community, never accept non-natural explanations for any phenomena, even though individual scientists may entertain such ideas.

So the attempts by ID advocates to redefine science to leave out methodological naturalism and predictivity fly completely in the face of the history of science. But worse than that, such a move would result in undermining the very methods that have made science so successful.

In the next posting, we will see why just looking for ‘good’ explanations of scientific phenomena (the definition of science advocated by the ID people) is not, by itself, a useful exercise for science.


Public money, private profit

The National Weather Service is funded by tax payers. It seems to do nice work and produces (among other things) weather forecasts at its excellent website. Just type in your zip code and you get the forecast for your area.

This service is provided free to all, which seems right since it is funded by all of us. This weather information is of vital importance to pilots, fishermen, farmers, and others.

But never ignore the ability of private companies (with their lackeys in government) to make money off publicly funded activities. Just as private drug manufacturers profit off government funded medical research, now Senator Santorum (R-PA) has introduced legislation forbidding the National Weather Service from giving this information away free. Could it be a coincidence that the commercial, for-profit, AccuWeather company, that gets its data from the National Weather Service, then packages it and sells it for a profit to other people, is located in Pennsylvania? And that its employees are contributors to Senator Santorum’s campaigns?

So if Santorum’s legislation passes, consumers will pay for the same information twice, once in the form of taxes to generate it, and then again when we purchase the information we already paid for.

What is science?

Because of my interest in the history and philosophy of science I am sometimes called upon to answer the question “what is science?” Most people think that the answer should be fairly straightforward. This is because science is such an integral part of our lives that everyone feels that they intuitively know what it is and think that the problem of defining science is purely one of finding the right combination of words that captures their intuitive sense.

But as I said in my previous posting, strictly defining things means having demarcation criteria, which involves developing a set of necessary and sufficient conditions, and this is extremely hard to do even for seemingly simple things like (say) defining what a dog is. So I should not be surprising that it may be harder to do for an abstract idea like science.

But just as a small child is able, based on its experience with pets, to distinguish between a dog and a cat without any need for formal demarcation criteria, so can scientists intuitively sense what is science and what is not science, based on the practice of their profession, without any need for a formal definition. So scientists do not, in the normal course of their work, pay much attention to whether they have a formal definition of science or not. If forced to define science (say for the purpose of writing textbooks) they tend to make up some kind of definition that sort of fits with their experience, but such ad-hoc formulations lack the kind of formal rigor that is strictly required of a philosophically sound demarcation criterion.

The absence of an agreed-upon formal definition of science has not hindered science from progressing rapidly and efficiently. Science marches on, blithely unconcerned about its lack of self-definition. People start worrying about definitions of science mainly in the context of political battles, such as those involving so-called intelligent design (or ID), because advocates of ID have been using this lack of a formal definition to try to define science in such a way that their pet idea be included as science, and thus taught in schools as part of the science curriculum and as an alternative to evolution.

Having a clear-cut demarcation criterion that defines science and is accepted by all would settle this question once and for all. But finding this demarcation criterion for science has proven to be remarkably difficult.

To set about trying to find such criteria, we do what we usually do in all such cases, we look at all the knowledge that is commonly accepted as science by everyone, and see if we can see similarities among these areas. For example, I think everyone would agree that the subjects that come under the headings of astronomy, geology, physics, chemistry, and biology, and which are studied by university departments in reputable universities, all come under the heading of science. So any definition of science that excluded any of these areas would be clearly inadequate, just as any definition of ‘dog’ that excluded a commonly accepted breed would be dismissed as inadequate.

This is the kind of thing we do when trying to define other things, like art (say). Any definition of art that excluded (say) paintings hanging in reputable museums would be considered an inadequate definition.

When we look back at the history of the topics studied by people in those named disciplines and which are commonly accepted as science, two characteristics stand out. The first thing that we realize is that for a theory to be considered scientific it does not have to be true. Newtonian physics is commonly accepted to be scientific, although it is not considered to be universally true anymore. The phlogiston theory of combustion is considered to be scientific though it has long since been overthrown by the oxygen theory. And so on. In fact, since all knowledge is considered to be fallible and liable to change, truth is, in some sense, irrelevant to the question of whether something is scientific or not, because absolute truth cannot be established.

(A caveat: Not all scientists will agree with me on this last point. Some scientists feel that once a theory is shown to be incorrect, it ceases to be part of science, although it remains a part of science history. Some physicists also feel that many of the current theories of (say) sub-atomic particles are unlikely to be ever overthrown and are thus true in some absolute sense. I am not convinced of this. The history of science teaches us that even theories that were considered rock-solid and lasted millennia (such as the geocentric universe) eventually were overthrown.)

But there is a clear pattern that emerges about scientific theories. All the theories that are considered to be science are (1) naturalistic and (2) predictive.

By naturalistic I mean methodological naturalism and not philosophical naturalism. The latter, I argued in an earlier posting where these terms were defined, is irrelevant to science.

By predictive, I mean that all theories that are considered part of science have the quality of having some explicit mechanism or structure that enable the users of these theories to make predictions, of saying what one should see if one did some experiment or looked in some place under certain conditions.

Note that these two conditions are just necessary conditions and by themselves are not sufficient. (See the previous posting for what those conditions mean.) As such they can only classify things into “may be science” (if something meets both conditions) or “not science” (if something does not meet either one of the conditions.) As such, these two conditions together do not make up a satisfactory demarcation criterion. For example, the theory that if a football quarterback throws a lot of interceptions his team is likely to lose, meets both naturalistic and predictive conditions, but it is not considered part of science.

But even though we do not have a rigorous demarcation criterion for science, the existence of just necessary conditions still has interesting implications, which we shall explore in later postings.


Which way is East Antarctica?

An item in a recent issue of the journal Nature stated the there is a thickening of the ice layer in East Antarctica, as contrasted with what is happening in West Antarctica.

What puzzled me is how they could define an East and West Antarctica at all. Surely the entire coastline of Antarctica has to be North Antarctica?

Necessary and sufficient conditions

The problem of finding definitions for things that clearly specify whether an object belongs in that category or not has long been recognized to be a knotty philosophical problem. Ideally what we would need for a good definition is to have both necessary and sufficient conditions, but it is not easy to do so.

A necessary condition is one that must be met if the object is to be considered even eligible for inclusion in the category. If an object meets this condition, then it is possible that it belongs in the category, but not certain. If it does not meet the condition, then we can definitely say that it does not belong. So necessary conditions for something can only classify objects into “maybe belongs” or “definitely does not belong.”

For example, let us try to define a dog. We might say that a necessary condition for some object to be considered as a possible dog is that it be a mammal. So if we know that something is a mammal, it might be a dog or it might be another kind of mammal, say a cat. But if something is not a mammal, then we know for sure it is not a dog.

A sufficient condition, on the other hand, acts differently. If an object meets the sufficient condition, then it definitely belongs. If it does not meet the sufficient condition, then it may or may not belong. So the sufficient condition can be used to classify things into “definitely belongs” or “maybe belongs.”

So for the dog case, if a dog has papers certified by the American Kennel Association, then we can definitely say it is a dog. But if something does not have such papers it may still be a dog (say a mixed breed) or it may not be a dog (it may be a table).

A satisfactory demarcation criterion would have both necessary and sufficient conditions because only then can we say of any given object that it either definitely belongs or it definitely does not belong. Usually these criteria take the form of a set of individually necessary conditions that, taken together, are sufficient. i.e., Each condition by itself is not sufficient but if all are met they become sufficient.

It is not easy to find such conditions, even for such a seemingly simple category as dogs, and that it the problem. So for the dog, we might try define it by saying that it is a mammal, with four legs, barks, etc. But people who are determined to challenge the criteria could find problems (What exactly defines a mammal? What is the difference between an arm and a leg? What constitutes a bark? Etc. We can end up in an infinite regression of definitions.)

This is why philosophers like to say that we make such identifications (“this is a dog, that is a cat”) based on an intuitive grasp of the idea of “similarity classes,” things that share similarities that may not be rigidly definable. So even a little child can arrive at a pretty good idea of what a dog is without formulating a strict definition, by encountering several dogs and being able to distinguish what separates dog-like qualities from non-dog like qualities. It is not completely fool proof. Once in a while we may come across a strange looking animal, some exotic breed that baffles us. But most times it is clear. We almost never mistake a cat for a dog, even though they share many characteristics, such as being small four-legged mammals with tails that are domestic pets.

Anyway, back to science, a satisfactory demarcation would require that we be able to find both necessary and sufficient criteria that can be used to define science, and use those conditions to separate ideas into science and non-science. Do such criteria exist? To answer that question we need to look at the history of science and see what are the common features that are shared by those bodies of knowledge we confidently call science.

This will be discussed in the next posting.


I feel that the American media have not given nearly enough attention to the recently leaked secret and explosive “Downing Street memo” from the British secret service that reveals that Bush intended to invade Iraq all along and lied about it to the American people. Juan Cole says that the memo clearly reveals what has been long strongly suspected.

The Bush administration, and some credulous or loyal members of the press, have long tried to blame U.S. intelligence services for exaggerating the Iraq threat and thus misleading the president into going to war. That position was always weak, and it is now revealed as laughable. President Bush was not misled by shoddy intelligence. Rather, he insisted on getting the intelligence that would support the war on which he had already decided.

Cole’s article, where he lays out the sequence of events, is a must read.

The comparison with Darwin and ID

I am a bit of a veteran of the battles that have been waged by so-called intelligent design (ID) advocates to challenge science in general and the theory of evolution in particular. Although not a biologist, I have always had an interest in both physics and the underlying philosophy of science. In the mid-to-late 1990′s I was in the process of writing my first book Quest for Truth: Scientific Progress and Religious Beliefs (which was published in 2000), and it was towards the end of that period that the ID advocates started getting more vocal, at least in Ohio. I was initially drawn to the discussion because of their claim that ID was a scientific theory, which naturally raises the question of what makes a theory, any theory, scientific. As this was a central topic of my book, I looked into ID ideas, although not in any great depth at that time.

But after the book was written, I started looking more closely into what the ID advocates were saying. Initially, I knew little about ID and so was open to the suggestion that there might be something of interest there, and wrote some articles that suggested that the so-called ‘science wars’ (which was a broader intellectual struggle around the knowledge claims of science that involved, amongst other groups, post-modern critics of scientific knowledge as well as the ID people) were being waged with too much animosity on all sides, and I called for a more amicable dialogue. This resulted in my being approached by ID advocates to speak at some of their functions, although they knew that I was still skeptical of ID claims that it was a scientific theory.

I attended a program organized by the ID people in Kansas in the summer of 2002 and also spoke at Hillsdale College in the fall of 2002. At these events I encountered some of the key ID proponents such as Michael Behe and Jonathan Wells, and listened to their arguments and talked to many of their ID supporters. I also met with Phillip Johnson, an emeritus professor of law at UC Berkeley who has been one of the most vocal ID proponents, when he visited Case at the invitation of a student group.

The discussions were cordial and thoughtful, but the more I got to know about ID, the less merit there seemed to be in the claims that ID belonged in science. Usually, when one looks more closely at something, one realizes that there are inherent complexities and subtleties that make it hard to make unequivocal judgments about it. The Copernican Revolution, that was the substance of a series of recent postings, illustrates this point.

In the case of ID, however, the opposite occurred, at least for me. The more closely I looked at it, the clearer it became to me that it did not belong in science. Scientifically speaking, there was nothing there.

If ID is not scientific, does that it mean it must be a religion? That conclusion does not automatically follow although it is true that in my encounters with ID supporters at these various forums, they seemed to be all Christians, with many of them being young Earth creationists, i.e. people who believe that the age is less than 10,000 years old, advocate a literal interpretation of the Bible, and are convinced that all the events described in it are historically true. Even the more sophisticated ID proponents seemed to be overtly Christian of a particular kind. Maybe there are non-religious ID advocates somewhere out there but I have not encountered them. And the wedge document makes it clear that the goal of ID supporters is to bring back their particular interpretation of Christianity into all aspects of life, and make it the basis of public policy. Attacking evolutionary theory is just the first step in this strategy.

But if ID is not scientific (as I assert) then what is it? Whether there exists a strict demarcation criterion that enables one to look at any given theory and decide whether it falls into a box labeled ‘science’ or another box labeled ‘non-science’ (or another box labeled ‘religion’), has been called the ‘demarcation problem’ by philosophers and historians of science. There seems to be a consensus among this community of scholars that the demarcation problem has not been solved yet, and some (such as Larry Laudan) argue that it may be futile to try and find such criteria. (See Laudan’s article The Demise of the Demarcation Problem published in the book But is it science? edited by Michael Ruse.)

But the fact that a strict demarcation criterion has yet to be found does not mean that we cannot say anything specific at all about whether ID belongs in science. But it does mean that we have to look closely at the role that necessary and sufficient conditions play in making such judgments. This will be the subject of a future posting.

I received yesterday the first print copies of my latest book The Achievement Gap in US Education: Canaries in the Mine. It goes on general sale on May 30th. While I take pride in having written it, for some reason, it feels anti-climactic. I always feel this way after I publish something. Maybe it is because there is such a long period between the completion of the writing and the actual appearance of the book or article, but seeing it is like seeing something from a past life, sort of disconnected. Weird.

Catholic and Protestant reactions to Darwin’s ideas

When reading and writing about the Copernican revolution and the religious opposition to it (see here, here, here, here, here, and here for that story in sequence), what immediately struck me were the similarities that that episode in scientific history had to the more recent religious opposition to Darwin’s ideas.

Edward Larson in his book Summer for the Gods from which he has published an extended excerpt points out that (in America at least) there was little formal opposition to Darwin’s ideas from the time of publication of Origin of Species in 1859 until about 1920 or so. (Opposition in England started much earlier and I will explore that question in a later posting.)

So as in the case of Copernicus, there was no religious opposition to a seminal work of science until about sixty years after its publication, and the initial religious opposition once again came from the Protestant camp. Initially, the fundamentalist Protestant movement was focused only on fighting “modernism” in the form of the so-called “higher criticism” which consists of “the study of the sources and literary methods employed by the biblical authors.” Such critical methods are not favored by the religious fundamentalists, who see the Bible as divinely inspired and infallible and thereby beyond any criticism. It was only later that Darwinism came to be included under the modernism umbrella.

Larson argues that William Jennings Bryan (who later argued against the teaching of evolution in the famous Scopes “monkey” trial in 1925) switched from a somewhat uneasy equivocation towards Darwinist ideas to implacable opposition. This was caused by his reading of two scholarly books that argued that World War I (which we sometimes forget was an incredibly brutal war that took the lives of over nine million soldiers) was caused by misguided Darwinian thinking.

Bryan, who was a devout man of peace, was convinced by the arguments in these books and was outraged by what he saw as the evil consequences of evolution. He then joined forces with other fundamentalists in his campaign to destroy Darwin and all the social evils that he believed flowed from it. Larson says: “Fundamentalists came to view modernism, together with its twin supports of biblical higher criticism and an evolutionary world view, as the source of much that troubled Western culture.” This has an interesting parallel now in that the wedge document of ID advocates says pretty much the same thing, that Darwin’s ideas are the cause of a precipitous decline in morals.

Bryan also said: “Please note that the objection is not to teaching the evolutionary hypothesis as a hypothesis, but to the teaching of it as true or as a proven fact”, a profound misunderstanding of the way scientists view theories that persists even now in the ID literature. Almost identical wording is used by ID advocates now in their efforts to undermine the teaching of evolution.

But, as in the case of the Copernican revolution, the religious opposition to the teaching of evolution was gathering steam just about the time when the scientific case was closing. By the 1920s, the fossil evidence in favor of evolution was accumulating rapidly, and together with other evidence coming from biology, physics, and geology, was causing the scientific community to coalesce around evolutionary theory as the framework for understanding the origin and diversity of all species, including humans.

This time, though, the Catholic Church has not got drawn into the controversy, as as had happened with Copernicus and Galileo. It has kept the evolution issue at arms length, taking a much more nuanced view towards the relationship of science to church teachings. Greg Easterbook writes:

For Catholics, the first important statement on church views of Darwin came with the papal encyclical Humani Generis (“The Origin of Humanity”), published by Pius XII in 1950. In this document, the Pope acknowledged that God might have used evolution as the mechanism of creation, and therefore Darwin’s theories did not necessarily contradict faith. But, Pius XII said evolutionary theory is insidious because it can be used to argue against the existence of God…Humani Generis concluded with the dictum that Catholics could teach and learn Darwin’s ideas about how existing living things change, but that the view that humanity is entirely natural in origin must “not be advanced in schools, in conferences or in writings of any kind, and that they be not taught in any manner whatsoever to the clergy or the faithful.â€?

Papal views of Darwin came closer to biology department views with Pope John Paul II’s 1996 speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. This teaching, called Truth Cannot Contradict Truth, argued that faith should never fear any scientific finding, even one that upsets cherished views. Scientific truths, the Pope said, must be taken as they are because they add to the world’s store of truths.

At the 1996 session the Pope allowed that “new knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis,” noting that the idea of natural selection “has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge.â€? John Paul II all but endorsed natural selection as a description of how animals evolve, but found the theory wanting as an explanation of the soul, rejecting “theories of evolution which, in accordance with the philosophies inspiring them, consider the spirit as emerging from the forces of living matter or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter.â€? The soul, the Pope said, must arise divinely, in ways that science does not see. With this teaching, John Paul II staked out what might be called the modified limited religious endorsement of evolution: that it exists but only explains the biological part of us, not the spiritual mystery. Interestingly, in this teaching the Pope said nothing about Adam, the Garden, or the Genesis account of creation. Since what is significant about papal pronouncements is often what is not said, the Pope’s 1996 reasoning seemed to back the church away from its previous insistence on a sudden, from-nothing creation of humankind.

Thus, unlike the case with Copernicus, the opposition to Darwin’s ideas today can be seen (at least so far) as a mainly evangelical Protestant phenomenon, not even supported by the mainstream Protestant churches. The key argument by ID advocates that at least some biological changes cannot be explained by natural selection is not supported by the Catholic Church. Catholics are allowed to accept every single aspect of evolutionary theory and natural selection as long as they accept that the soul is divinely created.

Will the Catholic Church change its position and eventually be drawn into the conflict on the anti-Darwin side, like it did with Copernicus? It is possible but seems unlikely. The episode of Copernicus and Galileo casts a very long shadow.


I realized today that although all the Case readers of this blog know about the tragic death of Professor Ignacio Ocasio (“Doc Oc”), former students of the university may not be aware of it.

Ignacio died suddenly last Saturday, May 14th of what appears to have been a heart attack. He was only 53 years old. You can read an appreciation of him here. Those of you who wish to say something about him and make suggestions for how to memorialize him can go to the special site created for this purpose. His funeral is taking place in Puerto Rico but there will be a memorial service for him in the fall once students return to campus. The university is also organizing an event in his honor to be held in the Hovorka atrium at 3:00pm on Tuesday, May 24, 2005.

There is little that I can add to the heartfelt words that have been pouring in from some of the thousands of people whom he touched with his kindness and concern for others and just sheer friendliness. It is truly very sad.

Creating the conditions for a just society – 3

According to John Rawls in his A Theory of Justice we have to get together once and for all and make the rules of operation without knowing our particular situation. (See here, here, and here for previous postings on this topic.) And once we make the rules, and then lift the veil of ignorance and find out our particular situation (our gender, age, abilities, skills, talents, health, community, position in society, wealth, income, educational qualifications, level of authority and power, etc.), we are not allowed to renegotiate to get more favorable terms for us. This restriction is important since it ensures that careful deliberation goes into making sure that the rules created are perceived as fair by all.

Let’s work through a specific simple case. People who are generally law-abiding would like to see laws and enforcement mechanisms that ensure their own safety and security and protect their property. If I belong to that category, I might want to advocate stern penalties (fines, imprisonment, harsh prison conditions, torture, even death) for law-breakers. But there is no guarantee that once the veil of ignorance is lifted, that I (for example) will be in the category of law-abiding people. It may turn out that I am actually a crook or have criminal intentions. Normally we would try and exclude crooks from the decision-making process because we have decided that they do not deserve the same rights as law-abiding people. But the veil of ignorance means that we cannot exclude people we disagree with in the rule-making process. I have to consider such possibilities as well when we agree to the rules.

So it is in my interest to make sure that the penalties for law-breaking are not too severe, since there is a chance that I may have to suffer them. Does this mean that crooks will prefer to opt for no penalties at all? No, because even crooks can function effectively only if they are the exception, if there is a general level of law-abiding behavior. After all, the executives who looted Enron and Tyco and caused thousands of people to lose all their savings could only do this because almost everyone else was behaving fairly honestly. This is why crooks can stash their stolen money in off-shore bank accounts and retrieve it later. If the officials in the off-shore banks were also crooks, the stolen money would not be ‘safe.’ Also if the other employees in your own company were not honest, the company would not make the amount of money that makes it worthwhile for you to steal it.

Even petty thieves could not function if everyone around them was also stealing from everyone else with no restriction. And since there is no guarantee that I will be the toughest crook around to fend off the other thieves, allowing for a totally lawless society could result in a terrible situation for me personally if it turns out (once the veil is lifted) that I am not very bright or strong or am clumsy with weapons. After all, there is no guarantee that I will be a skillful crook. An incompetent crook in a lawless society would fare much worse than one in a law-abiding society.

So it is in the interests of even crooks to create rules that encourage and reward honest behavior while ensuring reasonable treatment for law-breakers, just in case they get caught. So the two extremes (law abiding and honest people on the one hand, and crooks on the other) both have an interest in creating rules that balance the interests of both, since no one knows where they personally will end up.

What of the situation that triggered this series of posts, that of gay rights coming into conflict with certain interpretations of religions? Since the rules do not allow you to specify particulars, you cannot say (for example) that the Bible must be the basis for policy decisions. You would have to allow for the possibility for any religious text or that no religious text can form the basis. In other words, if the rules are to allow primacy for religion-based laws, you have to allow for the possibility that once the veil is lifted, you might end up as a Buddhist in a Judaism-based state or a Christian in a Hinduism-based state or you might be a gay person in an Islam-based state. If that should turn out to be the case, would you be content with the result?

Allowing for religious views to be the basis of regulating the private lives of individuals in a society also means allowing for the possibility that we might end up in a society run by groups like the now-defunct Shaker Christian sect, which advocated strict celibacy among its members. Of course, such a society would not likely last very long for obvious reasons (and the Shakers did, in fact, eventually disappear), but would we be willing to allow for this possibility?

Clearly the fact we could end up in any of these situations and have to live with it should cause us to think very carefully about what exactly are the rules of societal regulation that are important to us. I don’t know what specific resolution will be arrived at using the veil of ignorance to address the problem of gay rights and religious opposition to homosexuality. But what I am suggesting is that that is the way we have to address problems such as these if we are to not to just continue to talk through each other, simply asserting our preferences based on our situation and repeating the same arguments.

In some ways, what Rawls is suggesting is that we need to get in the habit of seeing what the world looks like through the eyes of others who may be quite different from us, and ask ourselves whether we would still see the world to as fair from that vantage point. It also requires us to think in terms of universal principles as opposed to principles based on the beliefs and practices of specific groups.

Thinking in this way is hard to do but needs to be done if we are to have any hope of overcoming the differences in policy preferences created by the huge diversity that exists amongst us.

Now clearly those who believe that their vision of God is the right one, and/or their particular religious or secular text is the only source of authority, are going to find it hard to deal with Rawls’ insistence that no identifiable and named groups can be used in formulating the rules. If you believe (for example) that Islam is the one true religion and that the Qu’ran (or Koran) has to be the basis of civil law, I cannot see how you can accept the ‘veil of ignorance’ principle (unless I am missing something). But rejecting this principle also means rejecting the idea of ‘justice as fairness,’ and dooms us to never-ending conflict because people who feel they are being unfairly treated will eventually rise up against their oppressors.


There is an interesting article by Steven Pinker titled Sniffing out the Gay Gene that is well worth reading. I came across it in the excellent blog run by The Center for Genetics Research Ethics and Law.

Creating the conditions for a just society – 2

In the previous posting we saw how people tend to advocate policies based on their own particular background, situation, or preferences, and this necessarily results in perceptions of unfairness over the decisions made.

The key to understanding Rawls’ idea of ‘justice as fairness’ is that people perceive fairness in terms of the process by which results are achieved, not in terms of the actual outcomes of the process. When children play a game and at the end, one child complains that it was not fair, it usually means that the child feels that the rules of operation were either violated or exploited unethically, not that the child should not have lost (unless we are talking about a really spoiled child who feels entitled to always win).

So what Rawls is saying in his A Theory of Justice is that we need to collectively determine the rules by which decisions affecting all of society are arrived at, so that whatever results from that decision making process, everyone will accept that it is fair, although we may not agree with any given decision.

Rawls argues that the essential ingredient to achieving this fairness in process is the ‘veil of ignorance’ under which everyone who is involved in creating the rules (known as the ‘persons in the original position’) operates. What he means by this is:

First of all, no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like. Nor, again, does anyone know his conception of the good, the particulars of his rational plan of life, or even the special features of psychology such as his aversion to risk or liability to optimism or pessimism. More than this, I assume that the parties do not know the particular circumstances of their own society. That is, they do not know its particular economic or political situation, or the level of civilization and culture it has been able to achieve. The persons in the original position have no information as to which generation they belong. (p. 118)

The veil of ignorance only excludes particular knowledge about the state of individuals or societies. It allows for the kind of general information needed to make meaningful decisions.

It is taken for granted, however, that they know the general facts about human society. They understand political affairs and the principles of economic theory; they know the basis of social organization and the laws of human psychology. Indeed, the parties are presumed to know whatever general facts affect the choice of the principles of justice. (p. 119)

The rules which are arrived at cannot involve identifiable persons or groups or create special exemptions for such groups. For example, if one is making rules about religion, one cannot create rules that apply to a named religious group. You cannot say, for example, that a particular rule will be applied only if the majority of the population (once the veil of ignorance is lifted) turns out to be Christian (or Hindu or whatever.) You cannot also make rules dependent on what the particular situation of a named individual turns out to be. So you cannot say, for example, that the rule of free health care being available to all only kicks in if person X turns out to be sickly.

How would this work in practice? I will see in the next posting by applying it to special cases, including that involving the rights of gays.