The Creation Explanation
|Man in His World|
The Scientific Method
The "scientific method" is an expression with some variable meaning which refers to the processes by which people called scientists systematically increase their knowledge and understanding of the natural world or find the solution to specific problems. Let us discuss the scientific method under three stages.
Stage one ideally begins with learning all one can about a particular subject of interest. A good scientists must be a good observer who collects information carefully. He also studies reports of observations made by other scientists. The terms "raw data" or "brute facts" have sometimes been applied to the primary observations or measurements made in scientific investigation. However, there actually is no such thing as a "brute fact." All data in science is mixed with the theories, opinions, prejudices, assumptions, and interpretations held by scientists. It is sometimes difficult to perceive new or significant information because these other things cloud the mind of the observer.
Stage two ideally involves studying and reflecting on the information which has been collected and attempting to discover some common pattern or elements which suggest a hypothesis. A classic example of this procedure may be found in Kepler's years of trial and error fitting of different hypothetical orbits to the observational data which had been painstakingly collected over a previous span of many years by Tycho Brahe. Kepler finally hit upon the three descriptive laws of planetary motion which are known by his name.
In reality, however, there is no single mode of origination of scientific hypotheses. It may be a single unusual, or surprising, or perhaps very common that sets the scientist thinking. He will try to come up with some idea that can explain the facts that interest him. Or he may have a vague hunch or a flash of intuition, a wild new idea which is really "far out." A suitable scientific hypothesis may come from any source whatsoever. Usually considerable factual knowledge and mature reflection underlie the formation of a scientific hypothesis, but a junior high student or a science fiction writer might stumble on an idea which revolutionizes the understanding of a scientific problem. A good scientist is able to break his thinking free from old assumptions and theories. He is an independent thinker.
In any event the quality of a scientific hypothesis is not determined by its source or mode of formation, which depend upon the mysteries of creative human imagination and cannot be subjected to logical analysis. What criteria, then, determine the quality of a scientific hypothesis? The first criterion is testability or falsifiability.3 A good hypothesis must be capable of being subjected to tests which, depending upon the results, may either falsify the hypothesis or leave it standing. The more potentially falsifiable logical consequences a hypothesis has, the greater is its value as a scientific theory. The fewer the potentially falsifiable consequences, the poorer an idea is likely to be as a scientific hypothesis. If there are no possibly falsifiable consequences, it is not an hypothesis of empirical science.4 It may be an hypothesis of metaphysics, i.e., of philosophy or religion.
The third stage, which is the essence of the scientific method, follows from the falsifiability criterion. The hypothesis must be subjected to the severest possible critical testing to see if it can be falsified, i.e., disproved. First, the logical consequences of the new hypothesis are deduced. From these logical conclusions predictions are made that certain things must or must not occur under certain conditions if the hypothesis is true. Then experiments or tests are carried out to see if the predictions are fulfilled. If the hypothesis passes one or a series of such tests, it stands as corroborated, but not "proved."
A single test, if confirmed, may disprove a hypothesis but it cannot prove it to be correct. A given series of tests may corroborate the hypothesis, but subsequent experiments under different conditions may disprove it. Therefore, there is no absolute knowledge in science. There is only progress--optimistically--toward a more complete and accurate understanding of the natural world. But at any time current scientific opinion may be overthrown by new observations, by better theories.
Indeed, the deeper physicists delve into the structure of matter, the more mysterious reality becomes. The forces that hold the atomic nucleus together, for example, may be described mathematically by the equations of quantum electrodynamics, but their origin and ultimate nature remain unknown to science. Is there, then, any source of absolute knowledge, or "truth," if science cannot attain to it? This is a problem for philosophy and religion, not for science, to resolve.
The scientific method can be strictly applied only to the present observable world. The experimental sciences such as physics, chemistry, and genetics, are based upon direct experimentation in the laboratory. And the experiments can be repeated as often as desired. Astronomy, on the other hand, is an observational science the objects of which are very remote and cannot be controlled under laboratory conditions. Also, some of the observations of astronomy cannot be repeated. In biochemistry the chemical structures and events inside of microscopic cells are studied. Thus the data of biochemistry and molecular biology are often indirect, for the objects being studied are too small to see. However, the experiments are controlled and repeatable in the laboratory. In science if the tests are indirect or the data are limited, we are cautious about accepting any conclusions. More data are usually sought on which to base firmer conclusions.
In the case of such sciences as geology and paleontology, the rocks and fossils are objects which can be examined and tested in the laboratory or out in the field. But the events that produced the rocks, and the lives of the creatures that left the fossils were far in the past. The actual events of earth history were not seen by scientists, nor can they be repeated. Scientists believe that by studying the rocks and the fossils they can tell something about the past events and the creatures when they were living. However, the rock and fossil data may be susceptible to various interpretations which depend upon the presuppositions of the interpreters. Furthermore, since hypotheses about prehistory are not subject to falsification as are the theories of the experimental sciences, there is a much stronger tendency to accumulate ad hoc hypotheses to shore up evolutionary theories whenever new data does not seem to fit them. In a similar manner, creationists sometimes slip easily into the ad hocmode of reasoning in order to protect or support certain concepts of ancient earth history or ;particular interpretations of the Bible.
Another distinction in the sciences is that between empirical science and all of the disciplines which deal with man. These include anthropology, sociology, medicine (in the holistic sense), psychology, psychiatry, and the neurobiology of human consciousness. Empirical science deals with that which is reproducible under known conditions, but man as an object of study is not necessarily reproducible, for he is a rational, emotional, moral, willing being. The reproducibility of his reactions cannot be guaranteed. To treat human beings as merely another kind of object in nature requires an a priori assumption regarding the nature of man. This is the assumption that man is a part of, indeed, a product of his environment, entirely subject to naturalistic laws, just as is an electron moving through a magnetic field. This conception of man is a presupposition flowing from a particular philosophical world view. It is not a conclusion of science nor a requirement for the study of man and his institutions. The contrary conception of man is that he is a responsible personal being with a spiritual nature that is outside the realm of empirical science, because it is immaterial, moral and possessed of free will. This concept of man must also be an option for researchers who are concerned with the study of human nature and institutions. Any suggestion that the correct practice of science requires the assumption of a closed materialistic universe and/or the denial of the spiritual nature of man contradicts the character of the scientific enterprise. Any such suggestion, mandate or requirement in science is excluded by a correct, philosophically neutral definition of science, as we shall see.
3. Popper, Karl R., The Logic of Scientific Discovery (Basic Books, New York, 1959), pp. 40-42, 78-92.
4. Ayala, Francisco, in Evolution, Dobzhansky, Theodosius, et al., Editors (W.H. Freeman, San Francisco, 1977), p. 476.