Between Science and Pseudo-Science: A Critique of Common Descent (Part 3)

by / Tuesday, 17 September 2013 / Published in Evolution vs. Creation

In Part 2, we discussed falsifiability as a primary characteristic distinguishing science from metaphysics. The question, now, is whether we should understand Genealogical Continuity (GC), i.e., common descent, as falsifiable and, hence, scientific.

The best way to see how GC is not falsifiable and, hence, is metaphysical is to consider what empirical state of affairs could possibly falsify it. Recall that GC is the claim that all organisms are the product of biological reproduction of one form or another, except, of course, the very first proto-organisms, which, presumably, originated through some chemical process. What we will see is that this claim is in principle unfalsifiable.

Past Miracles

Contrary to GC, Creationism holds that some organisms, such as the first human being, appeared on Earth miraculously without physical precedent and outside the context of any natural process. Creationists may very well concede that, due to the miraculous nature of such an event, Creationism is not falsifiable and, hence, is ultimately metaphysical. But what about GC? What empirical circumstances could possibly falsify the claim that organisms in the past originated exclusively from natural processes?

Put another way, how can one ever empirically establish that a past event was or was not miraculous? As it turns out, miracles are, in principle, never an admissible hypothesis as far as science is concerned. This is especially true when the event or phenomenon in question occurred in the past. No matter how spectacular or seemingly inexplicable the historical record, there is always an assumed physical cause at work, and it is the job of scientists to use their research methods to determine what that may have been.

In other words, nothing in the fossil record or any other geological, archaeological, or historical record could ever provide evidence that a miracle occurred, since all such evidence necessarily would be interpreted naturalistically. Absent any plausible physical explanation, scientists may, at best, conclude that their investigation is inconclusive, but no standard of scientific investigation would ever certify the occurrence of the miraculous.

The “Multiverse”: Physics or Metaphysics?

A good example illustrating the principled refusal of scientists to acknowledge the possibility of the miraculous — i.e., anything occurring without physical precedence — comes in the field of cosmology. Current cosmology holds that the universe began with the Big Bang. Initially, the Big Bang was understood by physicists as being the first cause, literally the beginning of time itself. On its face, this would contravene Naturalism, since Naturalism maintains that all events are caused by some prior physical circumstance, or, at least, are dictated by physical laws within a physical context. If the Big Bang is the event from which the universe as a whole begins, then, presumably, it is the origin of all physical laws and all physical context. As such, logically, it cannot be caused or mediated by any physical antecedent or law, as Naturalism requires. In this way, the Big Bang technically contradicts Naturalism.

Despite the empirical evidence or lack of empirical evidence to the contrary, many physicists nowadays have proposed that the Big Bang was not the “first cause,” and, in fact, resulted from some prior circumstance. For example, some theoretical physicists now claim that our universe is merely one universe among many (infinite?) other universes, i.e., one universe within the larger “multiverse.”

Though physicists may not admit it or even be conscious of it, such multiverse theories are motivated by a strong impulse to uphold Naturalism. By theorizing that the Big Bang did have a physical antecedent and happened according to physicals laws — namely, the laws of the multiverse — physicists avoid the conflict between Naturalism and the Big Bang. The existence of a multiverse (presumably infinite in size and age) would allow Naturalism to prevail.

Another example of this impulse to preserve Naturalism by appealing to a multiverse comes from the notion of “fine-tuning.” Modern theoretical physicists are increasingly coming to the conclusion that many of the physical constants of the universe, such as the speed of light, the Planck constant, the gravitational constant, etc., are extremely improbable in light of the laws of physics. The laws of physics cannot account for why the constants are what they are. This makes it seem extremely bizarre that we live in a universe with all these physical constants set perfectly to allow for the existence of life and, specifically, human life. It is as if everything has been “fine-tuned” for us. Of course, this thought smacks of “Intelligent Design” and Creationism, so it is quickly dismissed or ignored as a possibility. Instead, the multiverse theory is trotted out as an explanation, viz., the universe only seems fine-tuned because it is one universe in an infinite collection of universes, most of which do not contain intelligent life. Naturalism is thus preserved.

What Lies Beyond Everything

But, what independent scientific or empirical reason would there be to positing such a multiverse in the first place? Certainly, there is no empirical evidence implicating the existence of anything beyond the visible universe. And there is no theoretical need for the idea. At the cutting-edge of physics, different versions of M-Theory, for example, require that the universe have more than three spatial dimensions; this is a mathematical requirement for the theory to work. But there is nothing analogous when it comes to the notion of the multiverse, i.e., it does not stem from a similar theoretical requirement.

If there are no scientific reasons to support the idea of the multiverse, what other reasons could there be? My contention is that physicists and cosmologists are attracted to the idea of a multiverse primarily on philosophical and metaphysical grounds. In other words, the sole (though, perhaps, implicit) reason scientists propose the fantastical notion of a multiverse is to reconcile the Big Bang and “fine-tuning” with the dictates of Naturalism. In other words, there is an implicit metaphysical interest being served.

What all this means is that scientists have a prior commitment to Naturalism and, by extension, GC, a commitment that precedes empirical evidence. It is through this metaphysical lens that they then interpret empirical observation.

What connection does this have to GC and Evolution? We will further explore this question in Part 4. ♦

One Response to “Between Science and Pseudo-Science: A Critique of Common Descent (Part 3)”

  1. Asim Raza says : Reply


    I would like to understand how the first and second statements are related. I do not see the link:

    What empirical circumstances could possibly falsify the claim that organisms in the past originated exclusively from natural processes?

    Put another way, how can one ever empirically establish that a past event was or was not miraculous?

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