I read a provocative idea recently (it may have been in Steve Fuller’s writing, but it may not). It is that science is good at understanding things at the very smallest scales (molecular and below), and at the very largest scales (like the behaviour of galaxies and Universes) – but everywhere in between, where most of our interests lie, it is only approximately true.
Let me unpack that a little. At school we did experiments to demonstrate Boyle’s Law, which involved holding a gas at constant temperature, compressing it and measuring the volume. That’s pure Newtonian physics, but even soit was unheard of to produce a graph on which every datum was on the ideal curve. The reasons for that of course were many – a classful of bodies warming up the gas during the experiment, inaccurate instruments and especially, incompetent students. In other words, the real world. My science teacher used to quip that we produced a good straight line by only recording two data points and joining them up – and I suggested in return that one measurement plus the origin would be even better.
No doubt refining the experimental conditions would produce results far more consistent with Boyle’s Law – but only by removing progressively more of the real world to leave, as closely as possible, just a pure gas and some abstract pressure. Looked at that way the Lazy Student’s recording only two data points is actually refined science. More seriously, you have only to step out of your door to see Boyle’s law in action – but only by the eye of faith. As you walk along the road, gusts of wind catch your face from varying directions as the air interracts with all the objects in the real world. And you hear the buffeting of the breeze which, you know, implies compression and rarefaction of the air. That in turn means that Boyle’s law is being enacted all around – and yet you have absolutely know way of knowing if it’s still true given all the confounding factors.
So what science studies is more a world of Platonic ideals than the real world (understood as daily reality). Indeed, you’ll remember terms like “ideal gas” or “perfect black body” to which things that actually exist can only ever approximate. I’m a little skeptical of claims of systematists like Denis Noble that, given complex enough interactions, systems like life that are for more than the sum of the chemical reactions involved will naturally emerge. But what the mechanisms he describes from physiology undoubtedly do prove is that interacting systems become too complicated to be explained in their entirety by scientific laws. There is still no analytic way of solving the three-body problem in Newtonian gravitational physics after 300 years – how much more elusive the interaction of the whole gamut of scientific laws between a whole Universe of objects?
I’m currently reading Alvin Plantinga’s excellent book Where the Conflict Really Lies in which he effectively dismantles the claims of naturalism to rightful possession of science. He points out that the assumption that naturalistic science is a complete, or even coherent, explanation of reality, is based on the deterministic assumptions of Pierre-Simon Laplace, who postulated that an omniscient being (universally called “Laplace’s Demon”) which knew perfectly the velocity and position of every particle in the Universe at time t, would be able to predict the entire state of the Universe at any subsequent time. As Plantinga demonstrates, this is mere metaphysical assertion rather than science. And that’s for the simple reason that the only person who could tell you with authority that it is true would be Laplace’s Demon itself, and that doesn’t actually exist.
On the contrary, the only omniscient being is God, and if you accept the Bible as his take on the matter, he claims to act on nature in all kinds of miraculous or providential ways. You could argue that naturalists prefer the word of an imaginary demon to that of an actual God.