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The Story of Evolution, Spring 2005
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The Story of Science


L.T.

The story of science is a story of the way humans view the world. Its history comes from the ideas of uniformitarian thinkers, but the story that these ideas create is a catastrophic one. Every time a new idea is added to the mix that makes up scientific thought, that collection of ideas is irrevocably altered. This collection of ideas, the lens through which humans are able to understand and interact with the world, takes on a new focus with every idea that is added, but in the end it remains only a story humans have created in their minds, with no way of being proved true or false.

Although scientific theories can proceed logically, building on one another in a uniformitarian style, during its most influential times science mainly changes according to a catastrophic pattern. In catastrophism, the flow of events is altered dramatically by the actions of an outside, unknowable force. According to Thomas Kuhn, this is what occurs when a new idea is introduced to the scientific community. When these new ideas are proposed and absorbed into the community, periods of "revolution" occur, and scientific thought is restructured with regard to the new theories (Bird 2004.) The significant point about altering a manner of thinking is that knowledge can never be unlearned. Once an idea is introduced to the scientific community, especially if it is one of these revolutionary ideas, its influence will always exist, whether the scientists agree with it or not. In terms of catastrophism, it is the scientists themselves who are the outside agents in this process, introducing these altering ideas to their community. There is no way to predict where science will turn next until the idea occurs to a scientist, who then offers it to the community for consideration.

The story scientists create may ultimately be catastrophic, but the method of thinking that leads to their catastrophic ideas is almost always uniformitarian. This style of thinking refers to a rejection of outside agents and a belief that the past can explain all the mysteries of the present. One reason that this method of thinking came about is that, in order to consider theories of evolution, scientists had to reject any theories that referred to natural theology (Mayr 148.) By rejecting the notion that the world was created by an omnipotent God as an explanation of natural events, scientists were forced to assume that the world itself held the explanations for everything in existence. Working on the principle that all things in nature can eventually be understood, scientists create theories based on what they view as logical trains of thought. However, no two individuals have exactly the same perception of what is logical. Various influences on individuals, as well as each scientist's unique patterns of thought, mean that different theories can come from the single method of uniformitarian thinking. It is when these different ideas are put together that catastrophism occurs.

Science is a human explanation of the world, putting it into terms that humans can comprehend telling a series of stories about the world. However, even while we use these stories to interact with the world, we cannot know that the stories are true. Because humans need to have stories in order to deal with the world, it is impossible to transcend the stories and view the world without them. Therefore, the stories can never be held against a standard to determine their accuracy.

The way humans view the world through science is similar to the way they view the world through their senses. Individual humans cannot remove themselves from their own five senses to experience what other humans feel, so there is no way to test the accuracy of an individuals senses, except against other individuals. Individuals with synaesthesia, a disorder in which people can feel with one sense that which is normally experienced with another (U. K. Synaesthesia Association), are compared to a standard of other humans to determine their condition. Without using the senses, there is no way to determine whether the majority's perception is any more accurate than that of individuals with synaesthesia.

Because humans have no other option, they create stories to explain the world. Some of these describe a uniformitarian world, while others depict the world as catastrophic. The uniformitarian stories emphasize the laws according to which all matter behaves. The stories state that even seemingly random occurrences can be explained by laws if examined minutely enough. This story fits well with scientific thinking, since scientific thought depends on the assumption that the world operates based on laws that can be understood by humans. However, when the story is told from a different point of view, the world appears catastrophic. The fact that natural laws exist at all can be regarded as an example of catastrophe, if viewed in a certain light. Eventually, when considering the mechanics of natural laws, the question of why events happen the way they do is answered by the fact that this is the way that they happen. Questions of an outside agent aside, there are aspects of the world as it presently is that cannot be fully explained by studying the way that it was.

Since the world has both uniformitarian and catastrophic characteristics, depending on the story that is told about it, the question arises as to whether the world is in fact either of the two. Because the world can be described as both catastrophic and uniformitarian, perhaps it is neither. Both theories are simply perspectives with which humans view the world. It is unlikely that any part of nature fits perfectly into this human-created pattern. If these terms can be applied to the natural world at all, it is likely that the world exists in a state somewhere between catastrophism and uniformitarianism, for which humans have no words.

Stories are the way that humans view the world so that they can interact with it, and science is the greatest of all these stories. It is a collection of ideas from different perspectives, and the addition of each new idea changes the story a little bit. Because it is a story, science exists ultimately in human minds, unable to be proven correct because it can never transcend human inability to perceive the world without stories.

References

Bird, Alexander. "Thomas Kuhn." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ed. Edward N. Zalta. Fall 2004. The Metaphysics Research Lab: Stanford University. February 10, 2005. http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2004/entries/thomas-kuhn/#2.

Mayr, Ernst. What Evolution Is. New York: Basic Books, 2001.

U. K. Synaesthesia Association. Athene Witherby. February 10, 2005. http://www.uksynaesthesia.com/.


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