Saturday, December 30, 2006

Four Causes

In the January 2007 issue of First Things, David B. Hart reviews a book about religion by Daniel Dennett.
Hart criticizes Dennett's approach to understanding religion.
As part of his criticism, Hart writes:

The marvelous strength and fecundity of modern science is the result of the ascetical rigor which with it limits the scope of its inquiries. In the terms of Aristotle's fourfold scheme of causality, science as we understand it now concerns itself solely with efficient and material causes while leaving the questions of formal and final causes unaddressed. Its aim is the scrupulous reconstruction of how things and events are generated or unfold, not speculation on why things become what they are or on the purpose of their existence.

For more about these causes, see
Aristotle's fourfold scheme of causality at Wikipedia.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Is it science?

Bauer argues that a necessary part of "science" is "a body of agreed-upon and to-be-relied-upon knowledge."
Therefore, according to Bauer, the social sciences are not "science" because they do not have "a coherent body of acknowledged fact."

He compares the curricula of programs in the natural sciences to the curricula of programs in the social sciences. In particular, the natural sciences have well-defined sequences of courses that build on each other; the social sciences do not.

This point struck me because of our discussions about teaching design and the qualifying examinations of Ph.D. students who wish to study design.
Those of us teaching and studying design do not have a well-established body of knowledge that we require students to learn.
This does not eliminate the possibility of creating such a thing, for I have seen lists of essential texts for design, but it is true that we do not have one yet at our university.
Defining the content and scope of this body of knowledge would require a great deal of work to achieve some consensus, and that is just in one department.
Doing this across all of the different groups of design educators may be a lifetime's work. (But how valuable it would be!)

So maybe design is not (yet) a science. Perhaps it would be easier to make a science out of some subset of design (like decision-based design).

The unknown unknown

The following passages from Page 74 of Bauer's book describe the concept of "unknown unknown":

"To make sense of the tension between innovation and conservatism in science, more helpful than the banal distinction between what is known and what is not known is the discrimination of three categories: the known, the known unknown, and the unknown unknown."

"The unknown unknown comprises what we do not even suspect. Indeed, if it were not for history, we would not even believe that the unknown unknown exists."

Bauer mentions this as part of discussing innovation in science. Many discoveries are resisted because they do not fit into the prevailing paradigm; they go beyond the known unknown. Scientists are more comfortable uncovering the details the known unknown.

Bauer claims that this conservatism is not bad, for it is part of the filter that removes mistakes and unjustifiable conclusions and things that are wrong.

Friday, December 01, 2006

What is Meant by Evolution?

In Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method, Henry H. Bauer asks the following questions about evolution:

When evolution is said to be a fact, not a theory, what is actually meant? That now-living things have descended from ancestors, with modification, over time? Or that the modifications came by chance, not by design? Or, in addition, that all living things ultimately had the same ancestor? Or, still further, that the "first living thing" had as its ancestor a nonliving thing? Context indicates that when evolution is asserted to be a fact, not a theory, the view actually being pushed includes that of common origin, ultimate inorganic ancestry, and modification through nonpurposive mechanisms: a set of beliefs that goes far beyond the mountain of fact that is actually there, which consists largely of fossils that demonstrate some sort of change over time.

The above paragraph is a direct quote from his book. I would add only that this illustrates how a particular philosophical position can lead scientists to make unsupported conclusions.