The Rule of Science

A portion of Douglas J. Futuyma’s textbook Evolution is available on the web – the chapter that describes natural selection and adaptation.  The NCSE describes Futuyma as the “Distinguished Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.”  In other words, he is a highly respected, mainstream evolutionary biologist.  His textbook (the linked chapter is from the second edition) is a widely used, mainstream text on evolution which was reviewed by dozens and dozens of other scientists.  While it may seem trivial to point this out, we will soon see it is a very important consideration.

I want you to consider a key excerpt from the text, entitled Design and mechanism:

The complexity and evident function of organisms’ adaptations cannot conceivably arise from the random action of physical forces. For hundreds of years, it seemed that adaptive design could be explained only by an intelligent designer; in fact, this “argument from design” was considered one of the strongest proofs of the existence of God. For example, the Reverend William Paley wrote in Natural Theology (1802) that, just as the intricacy of a watch implies an intelligent, purposeful watchmaker, so every aspect of living nature, such as the human eye, displays “every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which exists in the watch,” and must, likewise, have had a Designer.

Supernatural processes cannot be the subject of science, so when Darwin offered a purely natural, materialistic alternative to the argument from design, he not only shook the foundations of theology and philosophy, but brought every aspect of the study of life into the realm of science. His alternative to intelligent design was design by the completely mindless process of natural selection, according to which organisms possessing variations that enhance survival or reproduction replace those less suitably endowed, which therefore survive or reproduce in lesser degree. This process cannot have a goal, any more than erosion has the goal of forming canyons, for the future cannot cause material events in the present. Thus the concepts of goals or purposes have no place in biology (or in any other of the natural sciences), except in studies of human behavior. – (p. 282; emphasis not added).

Let’s pull out the key point to make it crystal clear:

This process cannot have a goal, any more than erosion has the goal of forming canyons, for the future cannot cause material events in the present. Thus the concepts of goals or purposes have no place in biology (or in any other of the natural sciences), except in studies of human behavior.

Clearer yet:

  • the concepts of goals or purposes have no place in biology

  • evolution cannot have a goal

  • the future cannot cause material events in the present

These are ground rules, folks. The rules of science.

Science, and biology, cannot incorporate any concept that assigns a goal or purpose to evolution; that thinks the future helps us understand the past.  To incorporate such concepts, by definition, renders your inquiry non-science as it violates the very rules of science.

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50 responses to “The Rule of Science

  1. Hi Mike,

    I think those have been the ground rules since the latter part of the 19th century. I don’t believe those were the rules before then. Nor do I think they must remain the rules. And if I understand Bradley Monton, most philosophers of science would agree with me.

    However, it seems important to you that nobody call what you’re doing here “science,” so I won’t argue with you about it.

    Henceforth, let no one call what Mike Gene does here “science,” upon pain of being mocked and excluded by the majority of the scientific community, who are infallible regarding all things sciency!

  2. Hi Bilbo,

    Yes, the rule has long been part of science (I’ll add some more in the next essay). But I think you misread me here, as this is not about getting people to stop referring to my views/approach as science, as I cannot control what others think.

    I’m focused on the logic here. So let’s see where this all goes.

  3. “His alternative to intelligent design was design by the completely mindless process of natural selection…”

    Mike, as you have pointed out in other places far more eloquently than I am now, his argument cuts both ways. If “science” proper cannot rigorously explore questions of teleology, then it is also incapable of declaring with any certainty that the evolutionary process is “mindless” or without purpose.

    In other words, Futuyma’s demarcation argument should exclude the entire question of teleology v non-teleology. Unfortunately, it is improperly used to arbitrarily exclude only one possible conclusion (i.e., design).

  4. Exactly, Wellington. By excluding teleological explanations, the modern scientific community excludes the right to call what they do a search for truth.

  5. And I wouldn’t call the latter part of the 19th century a long time ago.

  6. All I’ll add here is that I’m pleased to see this subject being talked about. This (and Wellington/Bilbo’s comments) have been central to my interest in ID. Indeed, if Wellington’s common sense standard were observed rather than repeatedly violated, I think the ID subject would be an non-issue.

    And yet, and yet…

  7. “These are ground rules, folks. The rules of science.”
    Should I expect some formal notification from some scientific governing body about these new rules?

    Because I sure didn’t get the email. No one told me about these “rules.”

    Who makes up these rules, anyway?!

    I didn’t agree to these rules!

    I don’t know how you guys can appear to discuss them seriously–They are patently absurd.

    No one told me about these rules when I became a scientist. I would have done something else. One of the reasons why I became a scientist was because someone would pay me to do what I was going to do anyway—Break the damn rules!

    I’ve observed in these discussions that when a scientist has a good scientific argument to make, he makes it. When he doesn’t, he makes up “rules,” etc.

    It’s pathetic. We oughta be ashamed of ourselves, as scientists.

    Rules!

    (Sorry, I gotta go wash my mouth out with soap.)

  8. Hi Rock,

    That’s because your a maverick at heart!

    But think of it this way. Christian De Duve gives a presenation about the origin of life to a large group of scientists. He begins by saying, “I have tried to conform to the overriding rule that life be treated as a natural process, its origin, evolution, and manifestations, up to and including the human species, as governed by the same laws of nonliving processes. I exclude teleology, which assumes goal-directed causes in biological processes.”

    Do you really think there would be many (any?) scientists in the audience who would have a problem with this?

  9. Who makes up these rules, anyway?!

    Nobody specifically. It’s just what works. Anybody with a good idea is able to test it. If a scientist can’t repeat your work, though, he will not be impressed.

  10. Sorry, Rock!

    I should have said “if another scientist can’t repeat your work…”

  11. “Do you really think there would be many (any?) scientists in the audience who would have a problem with this?”

    Members of the the audience might object that they paid to hear a presentation about the OOL and not a performance of the Theatre of the Absurd: A man purposefully trying “conform to the overriding rule” of purposelessness.

    I wouldn’t pay to see it. I already pay for cable TV.

    I wonder if Mike Gene is being a bit facetious. C’mon, admit it.

    “It’s just what works.”–Alan Fox

    Nonsense. Explain to me how a non-teleological science “works.”

  12. Explain to me how a non-teleological science “works.”

    It’s the only game in town. Teleology adds nothing useful to scientific endeavour.

  13. Was that an explanation, AF?

    Explain to me how the “only game in town” works.

    I wouldn’t pay to watch how you’re gonna do it, but another free head-scratching performance art piece like De Duve’s might be midly entertaining.

    I think Heinrich Heine answerd the question, “Who is a Jew? by saying that Jews are like everyone else. “Only more so.” LOL Scientists are like everyone else too. Only more so. Scientists can be silly too. Like everyone else. Only more so. LOL

    I realize I have a real commesurability problem. I sincerely don’t know how seriously to take rules against teleology and such.

  14. Hi Rock,

    Members of the the audience might object that they paid to hear a presentation about the OOL and not a performance of the Theatre of the Absurd: A man purposefully trying “conform to the overriding rule” of purposelessness.

    But we don’t have to imagine him saying that. Why imagine when we can observe? He wrote that in the beginning of his book, Vital Dust . There were no objections. Better yet, as my blog entry documents above, there’s the rule being taught to budding biologists in a biology textbook. I observe no objections from the scientific community.

  15. Alan: Teleology adds nothing useful to scientific endeavour.

    LOL.

  16. Pingback: Why the Rule? «

  17. “I observe no objections from the scientific community.”

    Some things are just so stupid they don’t dignify a response.

    But how would banishing from biology concepts like “purpose” and “goal” work?

    Cardiologists to De Duve: I always thought the purpose of the heart was to pump blood. Now I can see how wrong I was.

    Neurologist to De Duve: Our working theory of the brain has been that it evolved as an engine of adaptation, directing the organism to act purposefully to achieve a specific goal, which is its own general ewell-being or fitness. Now I can see how wrong we were about that.

    Developmental biologist to De Duve: I had just fallen into the bad habit of thinking of biological systems developing to certain ends or goals. Now I can see how wrong I was about that.

    This isn’t even one of those silly rules “more observed in the exceptions.”

  18. “But we don’t have to imagine him saying that…”

    Well, imagine a different speaker and a different audience, all scientists. Let’s say, chemical engineerds. (nO typ0)

    Speaker: The first rule of chemical engineering is that there is no room for concepts like “purpose” or “goal” in chemical engineering.

    Audience: [Looking a bit bewildered.] Huh?

    You’re wrong, Mike Gene. Scientists don’t accept the rule except in the same way they mindlessly repeat lip-diddling nonsene from textbooks and teachers.

    This is the view of science that you have posed yourself against? Or But we don’t have to imagine him saying that.osed against yourself?

    This is really why you say that what you are doing is not “science,” because of some scientists’ absurd rules for science?

    Ya got have a better argument than that?

    I know you do.

  19. Rock:

    Explain to me how the “only game in town” works.

    The scientific method is a very practical and pragmatic method. There appears to be no equally useful alternative. If a teleological approach were more successful, it would become the norm.

  20. I don’t mean to be provocative in saying this but the word “teleology” conveys no meaning for me, so (closed-minded as I am) it is hard to picture what a teleological approach to science would involve. How would it help? It is not a problem for Ken Miller to be a scientist and a catholic nor Wesley Elsberry to be a Lutheran and a scientist.

  21. Hi Alan,

    I don’t mean to be provocative in saying this but the word “teleology” conveys no meaning for me

    Very good. So when you pronounce to the world, “Teleology adds nothing useful to scientific endeavour,” you are just offering your own perception which is rooted in not being able to see any meaning to the word ‘teleology.’

    Anyway, over at BioLogos, you wrote, “Just might as well point out that, for me, “undetectable reality” would be an oxymoron, since I define reality as that which is or can be amenable to scientific study via detection, observation, measurement.”

    As Gregory noted, it would appear that you are advocating scientism, as your definition of reality is essentially the same as this one:

    Epistemological scientism lays claim to an exclusive approach to knowledge. Human inquiry is reduced to matters of material reality. We can know only those things that are ascertained by experimentation through application of the scientific method.

    So, are you a proponent of scientism?

  22. And as for “undetectable reality,” before scientists had microscopes to detect bacteria, did bacteria exist? Or did they become part of reality with the microscope?

  23. We can know only those things that are ascertained by experimentation through application of the scientific method.

    I assert we can only be cognisant of things that we can perceive via our sensory systems. Scientific instruments augment this ability. I am sceptical of anyone who claims an awareness beyond their sensory abilities. I do not view science as a panacea for the world’s problems. Does that make me “scientist” in my views? You tell me.

  24. And as for “undetectable reality,” before scientists had microscopes to detect bacteria, did bacteria exist? Or did they become part of reality with the microscope?

    I think we may have been over this. Bacteria exist in their own right. The real domain must, I assert, contain real things of which we are currently unaware. The scientific method will never be able to address the domain of imagination.

  25. Hi Alan,

    I assert we can only be cognisant of things that we can perceive via our sensory systems. Scientific instruments augment this ability.

    So how did you become cognizant of this assertion?

    You are correct about scientific instruments simply augmenting this form of epistemology. Because in essence, you define reality as that which you can see and touch. Given that we cannot see and touch design, you’ve defined reality to exclude design.

    I do not view science as a panacea for the world’s problems. Does that make me “scientist” in my views? You tell me.

    I’d classify you as a proponent of scientism.

    Bacteria exist in their own right. The real domain must, I assert, contain real things of which we are currently unaware.

    So undetectable reality is not an oxymoron.

  26. Thanks for the explanation, Alan Fox.

    It is everything I’ve come to expect from asking straightforward questions in the context of these discussion. Nothing. No answer.

    Obviously, De Duve’s rules can’t be taken literally, because literally they are nonsense.

    De Duve’s no dummy. He’s a scientist! Scientists don’t make such pronouncements except after careful deliberation over the relevant facts, a weighing and summing of the evidence, etc. Right? That’s, at least part, of how science is done.

    There certainly must be a more positive, nuanced, scientific warrant for such rules. I’m sure he covered that in the book Mike Gene quotes, which I have read, btw, but I don’t recall anything about it.

    Since the rules, as stated (in the quote), can’t be taken literally, because literally they are nonsense, how are we to understand these “rules”? Since they can’t be taken literally allow me to make the rules more explicit, more carefully worded, and see if anyone agrees with me that the “new and improved” version can be taken quite literally as “rules for science”:

    • (Rule 1) the concepts of God’s goals or purposes have no place in biology
    • (Rule 2) evolution cannot have a goal or purpose determined by God.
    • (Rule 3) God is not the cause of anything within the domain of science.

    Golly, I just sucked all the fun out of it. For me at least. Because now the rules start to make sense…

  27. Because in essence, you define reality as that which you can see and touch.

    It is indeed the only reality that I am aware of, though this awareness can be vicarious. I happen to think that whatever any individual can become aware of is the only reality available to them. Of course I can’t prove it (hard to prove a negative) and as I am only stating the blindingly obvious I don’t feel the need to. Try to understand, I am ruling nothing out about what might or might not exist that may be discovered in the future or indeed what may exist that cannot impinge on our current or future reality, I am only making a claim about our current awareness and perceived reality.

    I’d classify you as a proponent of scientism.

    This is also not intended as a pejorative statement, just a simple question. You are of course welcome to attach any label you wish to any individual. Does this help, at all? I might just quibble on the word proponent. I am still very much in an undecided phase of forming a worldview, probably less sure about anything as time goes on; I do not press my ideas anywhere unless asked about them. (Or in your case, being told what they are.)

    Now, if you and/or Rock wish to explain how I can perceive things which are undetectable (however indirectly) I should be interested to hear it.

    So undetectable reality is not an oxymoron.,/blockquote>Yes, for me. Apparently, not for you. Again, explain how it is possible to perceive unreality. This is not a demand; I am genuinely curious and think this is the crux of our mutual incomprehension.

  28. Reposting to correct messed up tags:

    So undetectable reality is not an oxymoron.

    Yes, for me. Apparently, not for you. Again, explain how it is possible to perceive unreality. This is not a demand; I am genuinely curious and think this is the crux of our mutual incomprehension.

  29. Because now the rules start to make sense…

    OK, just to be serious for a moment, how do the rules prevent anyone from doing anything they damn well please with regard to forming, [promulgating and testing ideas? In a fundamentalist islamic state under sharia law there is some considerable risk in thinking outside the cultural box. But in USA today? It is not convincing.

  30. Alan Fox-

    Teleology adds nothing useful to scientific endeavour.

    Sure it does.

    Purpose and goals mean something Alan.

    Archaeologists and forensic scientists use it all the time, with real results.

  31. Alan,

    Again, explain how it is possible to perceive unreality.

    Perception is a state of mind. Thus, to perceive unreality one only need embrace a false belief. That happens all the time, even in science.

    Perhaps you meant how it is possible to observe something that does not exist. Well, yes, science observes that which exists. But this does not mean that if something exists, science can observe it. The bacteria example is just one of scores of mundane examples that could be cited to illustrate this.

    Try to understand, I am ruling nothing out about what might or might not exist that may be discovered in the future or indeed what may exist that cannot impinge on our current or future reality, I am only making a claim about our current awareness and perceived reality.

    History shows us that any generation’s “current awareness and perceived reality” was not only erroneous, but often influenced by many factors other than observation. Why would you think our generation is any different?

  32. Hi Rock,

    Some things are just so stupid they don’t dignify a response.

    Okay, the scientific community has not expressed any objection to DeDuve’s or Futuyma’s description of science. There are two possible explanations.

    1. There is no objection because DeDuve and Futuyma accurately convey the scientific approach.

    2. There is no objection because the scientific community is too disgusted with the description to even respond.

    From what I can see, explanation 1 is vastly superior. It is not only more parsimonious, but, as I have shown, it is not difficult to find other leading scientists who echo the same rule.

    But how would banishing from biology concepts like “purpose” and “goal” work?

    By turning those concepts into metaphors and by insisting any purpose or goal, if perceived, is only apparent. You can even invent a new lexicon -telenomic teleomatic, etc.

    BTW, here is the next paragraph from Futuyma’s textbook:

    Adaptive biological processes appear to have goals: weaver ants act as if they have the goal of constructing a nest; an orchid’s flower develops toward a suitable shape and stops developing when that shape is attained. We may loosely describe such features by TELEOLOGICAL statements, which express goals (e.g., “She studied in order to pass the exam”). But no conscious anticipation of the future resides in the cell divisions that shape a flower or, as far as we can tell, in the behavior of weaver ants. Rather, the apparent goal-directedness is caused by the operation of a program—coded or prearranged information, residing in DNA sequences—that controls a process (Mayr 1988). Aprogram likewise resides in a computer chip, but whereas that program has been shaped by an intelligent designer, the information in DNA has been shaped by a historical process of natural selection. Modern biology views the development, physiology, and behavior of organisms as the results of purely mechanical processes, resulting from interactions between programmed instructions and environmental conditions or triggers.

  33. 1. There is no objection because DeDuve and Futuyma accurately convey the scientific approach.

    2. There is no objection because the scientific community is too disgusted with the description to even respond

    3- Most agree because it suits their personal bias and the others are too scared to speak up

    Now what would be a good discussion is does Futuyma ever support his position or does he just make a declaration from alleged authority?

    Just saying something with conviction- real or imagined- doesn’t make it so.

    Even Dawkins understands that biology would be very different from a teleological perspective.

  34. Perception is a state of mind. Thus, to perceive unreality one only need embrace a false belief. That happens all the time, even in science.

    That perception can be faulty is so obvious, I hardly thought it necessary to mention. People are capable of self-deception and can suffer from paranoid delusions. This does not detract from my point that we can only perceive what our senses are capable of perceiving. Avoidance of false perceptions is simply dealt with using repeatability. If someone tells me “there are fairies at the bottom of my garden”, I certainly wouldn’t take his word for it!

    Me:

    Perhaps you meant how it is possible to observe something that does not exist.

    Mike:

    Well, yes, science observes that which exists. But this does not mean that if something exists, science can observe it. The bacteria example is just one of scores of mundane examples that could be cited to illustrate this.

    Well I agree the point you make is trivial. I am beginning to wonder if you are being deliberately obtuse.

    History shows us that any generation’s “current awareness and perceived reality” was not only erroneous, but often influenced by many factors other than observation. Why would you think our generation is any different?

    You are wrong in assuming what I think. I am convinced that prehistoric Homo sapiens would be indistinguishable from modern man (if it were possible to obtain a specimen at birth and insert them in a modern environment). If you want to discuss the fallibility of human perception, fine, but that is not my point. The simple point is that the ultimate limit of perception is reality. If you disagree, this indicates that it is possible to observe things that do not exist I really would like an example.

  35. If you disagree, this indicates that it is possible to observe things that do not exist I really would like an example.

    Oops

    S/B

    If you disagree and think that it is possible etc.

  36. Alan Fox:

    This does not detract from my point that we can only perceive what our senses are capable of perceiving.

    And we can perceive design with all of our senses.

    What else do you want?

    Of course I can’t force you to perceive it but I can ask you to support your claim that the perceived design is illusory.

    You do understand that ID bashing is not positive evidence for your position?

  37. Joe

    My claim is we can only perceive what our senses are capable of perceiving.

    What are you disputing?

    Aside to Mike: If you don’t want me responding to Joe, just make it clear.

  38. There is a third possibility, at least, Mike Gene, and I stated it: Biologists, in particular, completely ignore the rules.

    The “rules” are irrelvant.

    Surely you are familiar with Christ’s heuristic. When the teachers speak ex cathedra do as they say. But do not do as they do, because they preach what they don’t practice.

  39. Basic rule of psychology and sociology.

  40. Hey Alan,

    No, I do think it is possible to observe things that do not exist. But just because something exists does not mean we should be able to observe it. This is an important distinction that is missing in your definition of reality. We can agree that if science detects it, it is real. We part company with your belief that if it is real, science can detect it. Just because all crows are black does not mean all black things are crows.

  41. Hi Rock,

    The rules are not irrelevant. They explain the existence of the “metaphors.”

  42. Michael:

    This is an important distinction that is missing in your definition of reality.

    Not by design! To clarify:

    Current reality (as perceived today with all the accumulated knowledge of mankind) is everything that is known. The boundaries of this domain are easily defined though what is contained is rapidly changing and, I would suggest, expanding.

    Ultimate or potential reality is everything that exists that is capable of being perceived by current or future humankind from Earth. The boundary of this domain is the past and future light cone (I doubt it makes much practical difference if I say of the Earth or of our galaxy). I would suggest the limit of exploration into past events is the Big Bang and the limit into the future will be the Sun’s metamorphosis into a red giant, unless some earlier catastrophe intervenes.

    Then there is a domain that encloses both current and ultimate reality which I would like to call the imaginary domain. (complex numbers, argand diagrams and the Mandlebrot set seem to fit)

    Let me know what you don’t understand so far.

  43. So bacteria were prior to their discovery in the ultimate reality domain and were engulfed by the expanding boundary of the current reality domain.
    (All things that are real exist but not all things that are real are within the domain of current reality, yes I get the black crow concept.)

    What about extraterrestrial lifeforms. They are certainly not in the domain of current reality. Are they in the domain of ultimate reality? We don’t know that either but we have ideas that guide our search. The domain of ultimate reality is, I assert, contained in (cannot be bigger than) the same envelope as the knowable universe and thus has the same physical properties (or laws, if you prefer). This limits the possibility of what a discoverable alien could consist of.

    Other universes with other physical constants, life beyond the boundaries of the knowable universe, what happened before the Big bang would all seem inaccessible to us now and ever.

    So where do we disagree on categories? Have I missed something?

  44. So the imaginary domain contains everything that in unknown and unknowable.

  45. is unknown

  46. I misspoke.

    The imaginary domain contains everything that is not in the ultimate reality domain.

    Just to clarify:

    Mike:

    No, I do think it is possible to observe things that do not exist.

    is a typo with a missing “not”, yes?

  47. Alan,

    I don’t have a dispute.

    I am just saying that we can perceive design with all of our senses.

  48. I am just saying that we can perceive design with all of our senses.

    Fine. We might disagree on who did the designing.

  49. Alan Fox:

    We might disagree on who did the designing.

    I don’t have a position on who.

    You seem to think natural selection can design but there isn’t any evidence to support the claim that NS can design something from scratch.

  50. The rules are not irrelevant. They explain the existence of the “metaphors.”
    Which metaphor, Mike Gene? There are so many. “God”? LOL

    Rules that no one obeys aren’t even metaphorically “rules.”

    But I’ll leave you to argue “metaphors” with Alan Fox. (That oughta be a productive argument.)

    I just wanted to stop by and mess up your tidy little corner of the Web, me Oscar to you Felix. But you’re just too damned neat, Mike Gene! (Ill bet you’re kids think so too.)

    I won’t be one of those distant relatives who shows up on your door, camps out on the divan, and never leaves.

    (But while you’re up snag me a beer and the remote wouldya, cuz?)

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