A Monkey’s Cousin? A Critique of Common Descent (Part 2)

by / Tuesday, 13 August 2013 / Published in Evolution vs. Creation

In Part 1, we discussed how the theory of common descent and Genealogical Continuity (GC) originated well before the advent of science as we know it. Admittedly, the fact that GC predates science does not by itself establish that GC is metaphysical and a-scientific. However, the following considerations prove just that.

Popperian Falsifiability

First of all, what distinguishes metaphysical claims from scientific ones? This is a complicated question, but the most widely accepted answer came from the 20th century philosopher Karl Popper. Popper argued that scientific claims are “falsifiable,” whereas non-scientific claims are not. For a claim or theory to be falsifiable, there has to be some empirical criterion by which it is possible to disprove the claim/theory.

One oft-cited example is Astrology. A horoscope might foretell a day of “exciting new opportunities and untapped energy,” etc. This is sufficiently vague and can, thus, apply to any number of different situations a Capricorn or Virgo might experience in a given day. By the end of the day, there is just no way to definitively conclude that the horoscope was right or wrong in its prediction of new opportunities and untapped energy. Therefore, the prediction is unfalsifiable.

Another example of unfalsifiability is Freudian psychoanalysis. Similar to a horoscope, Freudian psychoanalysis is not falsifiable because it is not possible to give empirical criterion that could ever conflict or refute specific psychoanalytic claims. In other words, the psychoanalyst can accommodate any evidence or testimonial from a patient into his final analysis. The defining feature of non-scientific claims or theories, like Freudian psychoanalysis, is their malleability in this regard. They can be brought into accord with any set of empirical observations or conditions. That is exactly why they are not falsifiable.

Science, on the other hand, …

Scientific theories, on the other hand, can be refuted on empirical grounds. Experimental physics, for instance, gives bright-line empirical criteria by which to challenge its claims. For example, prior to the completion of the Large Hadron particle accelerator (LHC), physicists laid out what data could conclusively disprove their specific hypotheses. When the LHC finally went live in 2008, several prominent theories about the nature of energy and matter were immediately discredited.

As a simpler example, if someone were to claim that the moon is made of cheese, this would be a fantastical claim, but it would, nonetheless, be falsifiable. We could, in principle, fly to the moon, take a sample off the surface, and conduct tests to empirically determine the chemical composition of the lunar material and, thereby, definitively conclude that the moon is not made of cheese.

Other common examples of unfalsifiable pseudosciences are alchemy, acupuncture, physiognomy, etc. There are no clear empirical criteria that could, in principle, refute the claims in question. Thus, we consider such claims unfalsifiable and, therefore, not scientific. Furthermore, if a claim is not scientific, i.e., not based in empirical facts about the physical world, then it is metaphysical.

So, is Genealogical Continuity falsifiable?

We will consider this question further in Part 3. ♦


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