Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Hooray for proper citations!

Some months ago I wrote a short précis about Gordon Clark's The Philosophy of Science and Belief in God. I brought attention to Clark's claim that scientific reasoning is formally fallacious, whereupon a sometime interlocutor here spit that idea back in my face. To cite Clark:

A simple argument of verification proceeds as follows: The given hypothesis implies certain definite results; the experiment actually gives those results; therefore, the hypothesis is verified and can be called a law. Obviously, this argument is the fallacy of asserting the consequent; and since all verification must commit this fallacy, it follows that no law or hypothesis can ever be logically demonstrated.

Upon reading this, my interlocutor scoffed,

That is, flat out, the funniest statement on scientific verification I have ever read. An entire half century of debate from Popper to Lakotos simply ignored. Hypotheses do not imply certain definite results, hypotheses are statements about what we expect reality to be like, based on a prior model….

This is not the post (or the hour) to deal with the role of hypotheses in science. Let it suffice to say that it seemed to me odd that this critic would criticize Clark's claim, from a Christian perspective, when in fact Bertrand Russell, from a devoutly agnostic perspective, made exactly that claim:

All inductive arguments in the last resort reduce themselves to the following form: If this is true, that is true: now that is true, therefore this is true. This argument is, of course, formally fallacious. Suppose I were to say: "If bread is a stone and stones are nourishing, then this bread will nourish me; now this bread does nourish me; therefore it is a stone and stones are nourishing." If I were to advance such an argument, I should certainly be thought foolish, yet it would not be fundamentally different from the argument upon which all scientific laws are based.

In any case, I was bothered about the provenance of this quotation, since Clark did not note it and the only places I could find it were in Christian sources, thus subjecting it to the odium of "Christian academic urban legend". Gladly, tonight I found a proper reference to Russell's words (in bold, along with the surrounding text):

"Limitations of Scientific Method", The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell. Ed. Robert Egner and Lester Denonn. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961. 620-627, pg. 622.

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