[H/T The Oxford Inklings]
Monthly Archives: November 2009
Dinesh D’Souza on “Gaps” as the mother lode of scientific discovery
Dinesh D’Souza has put out the first in a three part series on Life after Death. His argument appears to be built on a somewhat Lewisian appeal to the human sense of morality. Should be an interesting series.
I was intrigued especially in this first part by his treatment of the anticipated skeptics’ objection that he is only appealing to the “God of the Gaps”. His take on Gaps is one I’ve never considered before. Some excerpts:
Before we launch into our discussion, I need to anticipate and answer an objection that will already be surfacing for a certain type of reader. Skeptics will at this point be reacting scornfully to my claim that there are certain features of human nature that seem to defy scientific explanation. The phrase that will be dancing on their lips is “the God of the gaps.” What they mean is that I am appealing to God and the supernatural to account for things that science has not yet explained. As Carl Sagan wrote in The Varieties of Scientific Experience, “As science advances, there seems to be less and less for God to do.” For the skeptic, the appeal to gaps is a completely illegitimate mode of argument; just because science doesn’t have the answer now, that doesn’t mean it will not have the answer tomorrow, or at any rate someday. In this view, the God of the gaps is the last desperate move of the theist, who searches for the little apertures in the scientific understanding of the world and then hands over those areas to his preferred deity.
. . . while the skeptic typically fancies himself a champion of science, his whole line of argument is no less unscientific than that of the creationist. For the skeptic a gap is a kind of nuisance, a small lacuna in scientific knowledge that is conceded to exist as a kind of misfortune, and is expected soon to be cleared up. True scientists, by contrast, love and cherish gaps. They seek out gaps and work laboriously within these crevices because they hope that, far from being a small missing piece of the puzzle, the gap is actually an indication that the whole underlying framework is wrong, that there is a deeper framework waiting to be uncovered, and that the gap is the opening that might lead to this revolutionary new understanding.
Gaps are the mother lode of scientific discovery. Most of the great scientific advances of the past began with gaps and ended with new presuppositions that put our whole comprehension of the world in a new light. The presuppositional argument, in other words, is not some funny way of postulating unseen entities to account for seen ones, but rather is precisely the way that science operates and that scientists make their greatest discoveries. Copernicus, for example, set out to address the gaps in Ptolemy’s cosmological theory. As historian Thomas Kuhn shows, these gaps were well recognized, but most scientists did not consider their existence to be a crisis. After all, experience seemed heavily on the side of Ptolemy: The earth seems to be stationary, and the sun looks as if it moves. Kuhn remarks that many scientists sought to fill in the gaps by “patching and stretching,” i.e., by adding more Ptolemaic epicycles.
Copernicus, however, saw the gaps as an opportunity to offer a startling new hypothesis. He suggested that instead of taking it for granted that the earth is at the center of the universe and the sun goes around the earth, let’s suppose instead that the sun is at the center, and the earth and the other planets all go around the sun. When Copernicus proposed this, he had no direct evidence that it was the case, and he recognized that his theory violated both intuition and experience. Even so, he said, the presupposition of heliocentrism gives a better explanation of the astronomical data and therefore should be accepted as correct. Here is a classic presuppositional argument that closes a gap and in the process gives us a completely new perspective on our place in the universe.
Similarly, Einstein confronted gaps in the attempt of classical physics to reconcile the laws of motion with the laws of electromagnetism. Again, there were many who didn’t consider the gap to be very serious. Surely classical Newtonian science would soon figure things out, and the gap would be closed. It took Einstein’s genius to see that this gap was no small problem; rather, it indicated a constitutional defect with Newtonian physics as a whole. And without conducting a single experiment or empirical test, Einstein offered a presuppositional solution. He said that we have assumed for centuries that space and time are absolute, and this has produced some seemingly insoluble problems. So what if we change the assumption? What if we say that space and time are relative to the observer? Now we can explain observed facts about electromagnetism and the speed of light that could not previously be accounted for.
Einstein was able to test his theory by applying it to the orbital motion of the planet Mercury. Mercury was known to deviate very slightly from the path predicted by Newton’s laws. Another gap! And once again there was a prevailing complacent attitude that some conventional scientific explanation would soon close the gap and settle the anomaly. But in fact the gap was a clue that the entire Newtonian paradigm was inadequate. Einstein recognized his theory as superior to Newton’s when he saw that it explained the orbital motion of Mercury in a way that Newton couldn’t.
An interesting and new (to me, at least) way of looking at gaps. A good read, and recommended.