Predicting Behavior

James McGrath offered some links this morning. Much of the usual – science, religion, creation, evolution. But one has made me come back again and again to a thought it stirred. Not that the post itself was all that important or memorable. But  it, as many do, makes a lot of the importance science places on the ability of a theory to predict behavior.

And I have no problem with that at all.

But the thought that I keep returning to is that we ought to be skeptical about trusting “predictability” too far. All too often predictability proves nothing. Especially when what we are doing is going from measurable specifics, data, and trying to come up with rules and principles. Simply put: there is often more than one way to justify the data.

For instance… Newton’s laws are taught in just about every physics classroom I know. They very accurately predict behavior of objects in our experience. Yes, there are corner cases in which Newton simply fails. But we simply don’t encounter them (usually). That is why we continue to teach them. For all practical purposes they predict behavior well.

Unfortunately, Newton is just wrong. Never mind that his system seems to work well (actually, it doesn’t, except in our limited frame of reference). It is still wrong. It gives us a false understanding of reality. But one that we are comfortable with. So far as we can tell now, there is no “force” of gravity acting over distance. There is no invisible force operating over space. That view of things is no longer acceptable. And the physical theories that have largely replaced it, namely relativity and quantum mechanics, are not consistent with one another. And depending on who you ask, string theory is either going to solve everything or is about to be proved worthless as a tool. In essence, we already know something is wrong, even with the great level of predictability and useful applications of these realms. Something is wrong.

I guess what I’m getting at is we ought be skeptical of going from data to grand assumptions about reality. Data yields models. Those models are not the real thing. Often they are not even close to it, though they work well. It should all make us approach science (and philosophy, and theology…) with a level of humility. Our arrogant certainty may just look like foolishness to those who follow us.

About George

I'm interested in theology, languages, translation and various sorts of fermentation.
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