15
Feb
07

Science vs. Truth

Scott Aaronson over on Shtetl-Optimized just put forth a damn good article:

The point that sticks out to me is that science isn’t concerned about Truth, it’s concerned about results. In Scott’s words:

Regular readers of this blog will aver that I do have beliefs, and plenty of them. In particular, I don’t merely believe evolution is good science; I also believe it’s true. But as Richard Dawkins has pointed out, the reason evolution is good science is not that it’s true, but rather that it does nontrivial explanatory work.

Scientific investigation doesn’t produce “the truth”, and mistaking theories for claims about How Things Really Are can get you into a world of epistemic shit. What scientific investigation produces are theories — equations and conjectures that try to explain the past and predict the future, each just a little bit better than the last.

For example, Newtonian mechanics did an outstanding job of explaining the past and predicting the future for most reasonable problems. A few centuries later, Einstein wonders what happens at extremely high speeds — and General Relativity replaces Newtonian mechanics. Reality didn’t change. Our idea of what reality is didn’t change. The only thing that changed was the set of tools we use to reason about reality. The “Newtonian mechanics” tool worked pretty well for most problems, and still does. In principle, we could replace it entirely with the “General Relativity” tool, but for the most part GR is harder to deal with, so we use NM for most problems and GR for the things it can solve that NM cannot.

Then there’s quantum mechanics, which essentially deals well with very small scales that NM and GR can’t touch. QM and GR are, so far as we can tell, incompatible. Does this reveal a horrifying paradox in the nature of reality? No, it just means we haven’t found a single tool that we can use to answer every question we know how to ask. I don’t have a combination screwdriver, blowtorch, and table saw, either.

I think this is what really scares the creationist crowd: not that natural selection is a threat to their beliefs about the origins of life, but that natural selection doesn’t care about their beliefs. Natural selection isn’t at heart about truth or belief — like all theories, it’s about explanation and prediction. The sort of people who do wonderful things with theories like natural selection aren’t interested in truth: they’re interested in utility. And even if the creationists are right, their “theory” isn’t going to help epidemiologists check the progress of antibiotic-resistant bacteria (for example).


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