Sunday, December 23, 2007

One More Analogy

For the past several posts, I've been interacting with the absurdities of a NY Times science article from last week. It was basically about scientists--artificially constraining themselves to a naturalist view of the universe--attempting to speculate on the origin of the laws of nature and the order in the universe (order without which the scientific endeavor would be impossible).

I acknowledged that scientists working on very specific tasks can function quite well without reference to metaphysics (and without an understanding of philosophy of science or history of science). So, another way of explaining the absurdities found in the article in question is by distinguishing between those scientific questions that address the workings of things in the universe and those that address the origins of things in the universe. The great successes of modern science have been all about explaining how things work, and applying these explanations toward improvements in technology and medicine. Despite those successes, however, when scientists then proceed to speculate wildly and pontificate about the metaphysical grounding of the universe and of life (origins questions), they have entered the realm of philosophy (and theology) and are no longer deserving of whatever credibility we extend them when they are testing a new drug. Perhaps another analogy will make this clear...

I have a wonderful mechanic (I hope each of my readers does, too), one who can work on every vehicle imaginable and every system thereof. But, for the sake of analogy, let's picture an auto mechanic who spends his entire life maintaining and fixing a single automobile. He keeps it running smoothly, tinkering, lubricating, repairing when necessary. You see, he has come to understand the functioning of every single component of that car.

(In this analogy, the car is the universe and the mechanic is the scientist. But, of course, each scientist is really only expert at a very specific discipline, much as if there were several mechanics who understood only the functioning of the electrical system of the car, another group assigned to the carburation system, and another to the transmission. So really, the mechanic of my analogy represents the collection of all scientists. That is, if what my mechanic is about to claim is itself absurd, then the claims to which it points--those made by individual scientists whose understanding is at best that of the mechanic whose bailiwick is the function of the spark plugs--will be seen as all the more absurd.)

After years of keeping this vehicle running in tip-top shape, my mechanic has garnered the accolades and respect of all of his fellow-citizens, to the point that he has become the recognized expert about all things vehicular. Now, instead of confining himself to replacing gaskets and frayed wires (and rightly explaining their uses), he begins to explain to us how the car came into being. Only as he does this, he asserts that to appeal to a designer or manufacturer is both unmechanical and false. He insists that the origin of the car must be explainable without reference to things other than the material components of the car itself. Moreover, this dogmatic view also entails the correlary that the functions of the car are not purposeful or intended--rather, they just happen to occur as the natural result of eons of interactions between electrical energy, gasoline, oil, pistons, gears, and such. The automobile is (in his view) indeed a marvelous machine, but we need seek no further entities outside it to explain where it came from.

We might, of course, continue to take our own car to such a mechanic when we need a new fuel pump installed. But we would all recognize that when it comes to the question of where the car came from, this guy is not only outside his area of expertise but downright loopy! And that's tightly analogous to the situation of modern scientists who--while disclaiming the need for understanding any philosophy of science--make absurd claims about the materialistic origins of such things as the laws of nature and the order in the universe.

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