Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Carroll on Doing Science

Sean Carroll
Very interesting. Physicist Sean Carroll visits Uncommon Descent to explain the scientific method and why it leads to the conclusion that the universe does not need gods. I particularly appreciate this prefatory bit, where Carroll smartly distinguishes the practice of science from other types of intellectual, philosophical, and emotional pursuit:
I will be taking one thing for granted: that what we’re interested in doing here is science. There are many kinds of consideration that may lead people to theism or atheism that have nothing whatsoever to do with science; likewise, one may believe that there are ways of understanding the natural world that go beyond the methods of science. I have nothing to say about that right now; that’s a higher-level discussion. I’m just going to presume that we all agree that we’re trying to be the best scientists we can possibly be, and ask what that means.
On the laws of science, Carroll says:
Vincent asks “How can rules exist in the absence of a mind?” That is simply not a question that science is concerned with. Science wants to know how we can boil the behavior of nature down to the simplest possible rules. You might want more than that; but then you’re not doing science. He also asks why we should believe that the rules should continue to hold tomorrow, simply because they have held in the past. Again, that’s what science does. Imagining that the same basic laws will continue to hold provides a simpler fit to the data we have than imagining (for no good reason) that they will change. If you are personally unsatisfied with that attitude, that’s fine; but your dissatisfaction is not a scientific matter.
Then look at this point on openness:
This is probably the most important point I have to make, and follows directly on the issue of “laws” just addressed. There is a way of trying to understand the world that might roughly be called “scholastic,” which sits down and tries to reason about how the world should be. The great success of science over the last five hundred years has been made possible by throwing out that kind of thinking in favor of a different model. Namely: we think of every possible way the world could be, and then we go out and look at the world to see which is the simplest description that fits the data. Science insists that we be open to all possibilities, and let the data decide which is true.

Suppose that you are convinced that laws of nature could not exist without a guiding intelligence that formulated them and sustains them. That’s fine for you, but it’s a deeply unscientific attitude. The scientific attitude is: “We observe that there are regularities in nature. We might imagine that they are formulated and sustained by a guiding intelligence, or that they simply exist on their own. Let’s go collect data to determine which idea is a more parsimonious fit to reality.”
And let me offer one final quote from Carroll, this time on clarity:
The problem is simple: God isn’t expressed in the form of equations. There is no clear and unambiguous map from God to a particular set of laws of physics, or a particular configuration of the universe. If there were, we would be using that map to make predictions. What does God have to say about supersymmetry, or the mass of the Higgs boson, or the amplitude of gravitational-wave perturbations of the cosmic microwave background? If we claim that God “explains” the known laws of physics, the same method of explanation should work for the unknown laws. It’s not going to happen.
All in all, Carroll does a nice job of modeling clear thinking, clear writing, and intellectual honesty.

However, I am surprised that that Carroll's post has not generated more discussion at UD than it has: only about 23 responses in 24 hours. Over at Sean's site, commenter Tyro assesses the general quality of those responses:
Most of the responses totally ignore everything Sean wrote and just try to pipe up with logical arguments, weird semantic arguments, or conspiracy theories. Very few seemed to think that anything in Sean’s piece actually applied to them. One of the weirdest responses was from DonaldM who says that, when talking about simplicity, Sean was really talking about the simplest naturalistic explanation even though DM actually quotes Sean when he explicitly considers God.

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