Page 104 - MODES of EXPLANATION

Basic HTML Version

In the time since Darwin, things have changed. In virtue of its superior explanatory
scope, predictive power, and simplicity, neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory is a better theory
than creationism. The trouble with creationism is not the content of the view. It is not correct
to say that creationism is not a scientific theory; creationism is a contender for the best
explanation of the appearance of design. The trouble with creationism is that it has lost the
competition. Just as the introduction of better-confirmed theories led us to abandon the
caloric theory of heat and the phlogiston theory of combustion, the introduction of neo-
Darwinian theory has, rightly, led to the scientific community abandoning creationism.
This response to creationism is, however, perhaps a bit quick. It is important to give
one’s intellectual opponents their due. Only the ignorant think that, if
E. coli
evolve,
E. coli
eventually turn into humans. However, if we are after the truth, we should engage with the
most nuanced defense of creationism. Ignorant legislators are not creationism’s foremost
defenders. As Kopplin notes, more thoughtful defenders of creationism like to distinguish
between
historical science
and
observational science
. This is precisely the approach that Ken
Ham took in his February 2014, highly publicized debate with Bill Nye.
The distinction is about the appropriate source of scientific evidence.
Observational
science
is science that relies on direct observation for evidence. For Ham, the primary
criterion that demarcates direct from indirect observation appears to be temporal. One can
only directly observe a phenomenon if it temporally co-occurs with the act of observation.
Historical science
is science that relies on indirect observation. An observation is indirect if a
phenomenon and an observation do not temporally co-occur. Thus, geology is a historical
science. Much of the evidence on which geologists rely is not observed co-occurrent with the
event in question. Mountains may be evidence of tectonic drift; however, our observation of
the mountains occurs hundreds of millions of years after the tectonic event responsible for
their creation. By contrast, aspects of ecology are observational science. One can, for
example, observe the real-time migration of Canadian geese.
Ham holds that only direct observation provides evidence. Observational science
provides justification for beliefs about the natural world. Historical science does not.
Furthermore, evolutionary biology by and large relies on indirect observation. Our reasons
for thinking that evolution causes the appearance of design are largely based on indirect
observation, such as the examination of fossil records or the observation of homologous
structures. If Ham is correct that only observational science provides evidence about the
natural world, he is also correct that we have very little reason to accept evolutionary theory.
It is worth noting that Ham is not the only one who finds historical science suspect.
Henry Gee, an editor of
Nature,
is quoted as saying, “[Historical hypotheses] can never be
tested by experiment, and so they are unscientific … No science can ever be historical” (Gee,
1999). Furthermore, there is some philosophical debate over the epistemological status of
historical science (cf. Franklin et al., 2002; Koslowski, 2006; De Cruz & De Smedt, 2013).
Even Kopplin himself expresses sentiments that are prima facie incompatible with the view
that historical science provides justification for belief. He appears to hold: “If you can’t test it
you can’t repeat the tests [so creationism is not science].” While the demand for
reproducibility of tests meshes well with sciences that are largely driven by experiment, it is
3