Logic: You’re Doing It Wrong

Mark Chu-Carroll, over at one of my favorite blogs, Good Math, Bad Math, writes about the discussion over Expelled::

…what strikes me is that we haven’t paid enough attention to something even more important than whether or not there’s a link between Darwin’s theory of evolution and the nazis.

Suppose that it was true that Darwin’s writings about evolution were the primary thing that motivated the Nazi’s genocide against the Jews, the Romany, and all the other “undesirables” that they killed. Forget, for a moment, that the linkage is a crock. Pretend that it’s the truth.

What difference does it make?

Does the truth become less true because some idiot used it to justify something awful?

I agree wholeheartedly.

Unfortunately, I don’t think the prominent ID creationists really understand reductio ad absurdum (in the non-mathematical sense–though they no doubt don’t understand it in the mathematical sense either, but that’s neither here nor there). They don’t understand the point of assuming an argument is correct to flesh out whether or not its implications are realistic. That’s why they don’t get (or pretend not to get) what scientific theories are all about. Scientific theories are essentially open-ended reductio ad absurdum arguments.

“What would happen if there did exist a particle like the Higgs-boson?”

Well, we’d expect this and this and this to happen. Can we find any contradictions there? Not yet, at least. Until we come across such a contradiction (which may never happen), we’ll consider the Higgs-boson to be a real particle which we just haven’t found any observational evidence for yet.

Mark’s line of reasoning would work equally well for evolution too. Even if it were true that there was no empirical evidence for evolution (or very little), would that make evolutionary theory false? Of course not. The scientific community largely accepted evolution well before anything was really known about genetics, before the mechanism was understood. The power of the theory is both how simplistic it is, and how beautifully and obviously it solves the problem. No such simplicity or beauty or obviousness exists for the Intelligent Design hypothesis. It’s something, as Richard Dawkins and others have said, which is infinitely more complex than the thing trying to be explained. But it’s this basic method of argument that the ID people reject.

This idea of beauty and simplicity in scientific theories is something that Steven Weinberg talks a lot about in his novel, Dreams of a Final Theory. By beauty, of course, scientists don’t mean aesthetic beauty (although they might mean that too). The actual way particles and genes and chemicals move and interact in the universe is actually quite messy and chaotic. So chaotic, in fact, that it’s impossible to precisely calculate how such things will turn out. What’s beautiful about scientific theories is that at some level they couldn’t have been any other way. Slight details of a theory may change. That happens all the time. But the beauty of a scientific theory is in the inability of researchers to decrease the core accuracy with which that theory describes the world. Newtonian mechanics is not a wrong theoretical model of physics in our universe. It’s simply an inaccurate one. Newtonian mechanics captures, at some fundamental level, how the universe behaves. The General Theory of Relativity just does a slightly better job at it. This beauty is one major reason why evolution via natural selection is science, and Intelligent Design is not.


2 responses to this post.

  1. Re: beauty in Mathematics, I’d like to direct you to one of my favourite videos at TED … Murray Gell-Mann discussing beauty and truth in physics at http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/194


  2. I actually posted that same video awhile ago here.

    Some of those TED videos are great. Others… are a little creepy.


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