How Science Progresses

How Science Progresses February 29, 2016

In his forthcoming Wondrous Truths, JD Trout offers an alternative account of the rise of modern science. It’s not the result of Christian views of the cosmos, nor of the dogged application of scientific method. It is the product of superior theory. And Western science has superior theory largely because of good luck: “science in selected areas of Europe rose above all other regions of the globe because it hit upon successive theories that were approximately true through an awkward assortment of accident and luck, geography, and personal idiosyncrasy.”

Trout begins his analysis with a discussion of wonder. Wonder inspires investigation. It “arises from our inherent cognitive limitations driving a wedge between those talents and secrets. We would never feel wonder if we immediately understood every puzzle, problem, and proposition we faced.” But wonder can lead us astray too. We are used to “information compression techniques”; we can’t do without them, because the world is far too complex for us to grasp completely. But these techniques often lead us to become satisfied too quickly with our explanations. We feel good about getting a sense of the cause of the phenomena that cause wonder, but Trout rightly notes that “false explanations have felt about as right as true ones.”

How can beings like us, who wonder and explore and yet are often mistaken, how can we construct the unprecedented edifice of modern scientific theory? How can we calibrate our feelings of intellectual satisfaction so we arrive at true explanations? Trout thinks the answer is “disarmingly simple but maddeningly evasive: that feeling becomes more reliable the more you are surrounded by good theories.” He takes what he calls an “ontic” view of explanation, arguing that good explanations are good explanations even if no one believes them or understands them. There is an objectivity to good explanation that links them to the very objects we wonder at.

What science needs to move ahead is not a theory of everything, or comprehensive explanation or understanding. What science needs is “good enough” explanation, explanation that is accurate enough to set the context for more good explanations: “an approximately true theory, one that accurately explains the causes of our objects of explanation. When you luck into a true theory, your science can be off and running.” Newton, for instance, “allowed enough of the hidden structure of matter to be tested and revealed to sustain a research program that unified nearly every corner of physics and chemistry for the next 200 years.” That’s an awfully good run, and a productive one, no matter that we’ve now moved past Newton.

An accumulation of good explanations increases fluency. Science is hard to explain because the objects it explains are often inaccessible to casual observation: “it is a sense of psychological fluency that makes something seem open to casual inspection. It is the kind of fluency you feel when you are asked to compute 7 + 4 = 11 but not when you are asked to perform the same computation in base two, the fluency a right-hander feels when asked to play catch but not when asked to switch to lefty, or the fluency you feel when you’re asked whether it is true that birds of a feather flock together but not when you are asked whether birds of a feather flock conjointly.” An accurate theory makes “psychological fluency” a “potent tool for discovery.” You can be psychologically fluent about bad explanations, and that will lead to fruitless investigation.

All of us, scientists included, operate with a “makes-sense epistemology,” according to which “the goal of thinking is not to reach the most accurate conclusion; it is to find the first conclusion that hangs together well and that fits with one’s important prior beliefs.” We are not generally good reasoners, and we rely a great deal on prior beliefs. “We accept an explanation by experiencing and evaluating feelings like pleasure, accessibility, and confidence.” In short, “easier is better liked.” Whether or not our intellectual laziness (or parsimony) advances knowledge depends a great deal on what our prior beliefs are. If they are inaccurate, we’re unlikely to assimilate unfamiliar but accurate theory. The more accurate our set of beliefs becomes, the easier it becomes to take in other accurate explanations. Good theory builds on good theory.

Trout dismisses the notion that theological convictions played a role in the rise of science. Some Christian countries did not experience scientific revolution, while others did. This dismissal doesn’t fit Trout’s own account. There’s no reason “theory” needs to be limited to so-called scientific theory. After all, it’s possible that some Christian “theories” of reality are more accurate than others; and, if so, then those explanations opened arguably people to better explanations of the natural world. Is it possible that some branches of the church understood the world better than others, and so facilitated psychological fluency that enabled scientific advance? One suspects it’s possible.

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