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From the March AD 2005
Our Lady of the Rosary
Parish Bulletin

    Question:  You said that science always remained theory, rather than arriving at certain truth.  How can this be?  Don’t scientists work with precise mathematical expressions of reality?

    Answer:  Modern science generally attempts to express its findings in precise mathematical models, but, quite unlike mathematics, natural science must search for truth by making observations and generalizing from them.  Mathematics, on the other hand, starts with a predetermined set of rules and applies them in order to determine the truth of some specific claim.  Empirical science is said to be “inductive,” reasoning from the particular to the general;  mathematics (and theology) is said to be “deductive,” reasoning from the general to the particular.  Applied science or engineering follows the principles of mathematical deduction, with the tacit assumption that the theory from which its rules are derived is correct—if the theory is later improved, the mathematical rules must likewise be refined (for example, in order to be more correct at high velocities and with large masses, Einstein’s physics added new mathematical terms to the equations used in Newton’s physics).

    There are a number of difficulties in generalizing from observation.  One can never be sure of having made enough observations to include all of the observable possibilities—it is possible that the billion and first observation will be different from the first billion.  One can never be sure that everything germane to the observations has been observed—we didn’t always know that things like temperature, air pressure, velocity, and proximity to massive objects could affect the outcome of certain observations—might there not be other factors of which we are not yet aware?  There is always a degree of error in any measurement—any time the measurement comes somewhere between the lines on the ruler or between the marks on the gauge, we are guessing—and, of course, we must rely on the accuracy of our instruments.

    The issue of making enough observations may seem trivial—there is, for example, virtual unanimity that water always boils if you heat it enough—but some things are too difficult or too expensive or too rare to observe a large number of times.  Knowing all of the parameters that influence an observation is even more difficult—today we know of observational influences not even imagined a century ago (e.g. the relativistic distortions of time and space, and various quantum effects)—it would be foolish to think that today we “know it all” and there is nothing more to discover.  For centuries the accuracy of our measurements has improved with time—but the prevailing wisdom (at least at the moment) is that at some sub-microscopic level complete and accurate measurement becomes impossible—the rulers and the gauges simply cannot be improved without limit—and our measuring devices may impaired by influences similar to those which influence our observations.

    The progression of man’s theoretical understanding of physical motion from Aristotle, to Galileo, to Kepler, to Newton, to Einstein, and beyond is pretty well known—but even today, many people are not yet able to explain the developments of the 20th century!  To illustrate the nature of science as continually changing theory, it may help to have a look at the development of something simpler than relativity.  The understanding of fire may help.

From “Phlogiston” to “Caloric”

    Aristotle spoke of all earthly things being made up of only four elements:  earth, water, air, and fire.  (If that seems primitive, consider the possibility that for many generations of man no one considered the last two to have real physical substance—air was rather intangible unless it manifested itself as wind—and both wind and the occasional fire created by a lightning strike could easily have been judged supernatural.)  For Aristotle, it was adequate to explain that fire sometimes escaped from combination with things of earth like wood—the ashes were lighter in weight than the original wood and could not be made to burn.  The fire, in turn was capable of turning water into air (what we call vapor).

    The idea of fire as an element trapped inside of more material things persisted well into the seventeenth century.  Even though man had used fire and its effects for many centuries, it was little understood—and not because of any ideological bias.  Herbert Butterfield describes the laborious process by which our modern understanding of fire came to be developed:

  During most of the seventeenth century it was thought to be a sulphurous element—not exactly sulphur as we know it, but an idealized or mystical form of it....  A German chemist. JJ Becher, said in 1669, that it was terra pinguis—an oily kind of earth.... another German, GE Stahl, took over this view, elaborating it down to 1731, renaming the terra pinguis “phlogiston” ... an actual physical substance, solid and fatty, though apparently impossible to secure in isolation.  It was given off by bodies in the process of combustion, or by metals in the process of calcination [oxidation-reduction], and it went out in flame to combine with air, or perhaps deposited at least a part of itself in an unusually pure form as soot.  If you heated the residue of the calcinated metal with along with charcoal, the substance would recover its lost phlogiston and be restored to its original form.... Charcoal therefore, was regarded as containing much phlogiston, while a substance like copper was supposed to contain very little.  This phlogiston theory.... in about the middle of the [18th] century ... established itself as the orthodox one among chemists.

  The phlogiston theory—that something was lost to the body in the process of burning—is a remarkable evidence of the fact that at this time the results of weighing and measuring were not decisive factors in the formation of chemical doctrine.  [But eventually] it became impossible to evade the fact of the augmented weight of bodies after combustion or calcination.

  Someone suggested that phlogiston might have a negative weight, a positive virtue of “levity.... One German chemist, Pott suggested that the departure of the phlogiston increased the density of the substance ... and J. Ellicott in 1780 put forward the view that its presence in a body “weakened the repulsion between the particles and ether, thereby diminishing their mutual gravitation.”  Boyle [one of the great names in chemistry, explained the increase in weight] by the suggestion of fire-particles which insinuated themselves into the minute pores of the burned matter, and which he regarded as having weight and being able to pass through the glass walls of a closed container.

  In 1776 Volta was firing gases with electric sparks , and passed the discovery onto Priestly [the discoverer of oxygen, who] published in 1880 his Doctrine of Phlogiston Established and the Composition of Water Refuted.

    It was only at the end of the 18th century that the modern theory of burning was developed, generally being attributed to the Frenchman Lavoisier—well sort of—for Lavoisier maintained that oxygen contained some sort of principle of heat, which he called “caloric.”  Lavoisier was successful in advancing his theory precisely because he was able to point out the areas in which the phlogiston theory failed to explain what was observed that some scientists:

... said that phlogiston now had to be free fire and now had to be fire combined with an earthly element;  sometimes passed through the pores of vessels and sometimes was unable to do so;  and was used to explain at the same time causticity and non-causticity, transparency and opacity, color and the absence of color. [i]

    One might ask, “Did Lavoisier find the truth of the matter?”  The answer will have to be that “No, he gave the best explanation of the phenomenon available at the time.”  Modern chemistry has refined the theories of the late 19th century considerably.  Today we characterize a large number of reactions as oxidation or reduction—and we are able to predict how much of this will react with how much of that, and how much heat or electric potential it will produce.  Our modern theory is better because it more accurately predicts the outcome of the observations we make.  Is it truth?  Perhaps, but if some failure to predict is noted, or if someone comes along with a more accurate theory, only then will we recognize that today’s theory is not quite true.  If the current theory works for all of our applications it is unlikely that much work will be done to find a more predictive theory, and we will tentatively accept the current theory as true, while reserving the possibility that refinement may be needed later.

    Most of the men named above by Dr. Herbert Butterfield were among the best scientific minds of their time.  As were Aristotle, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and Einstein.  It is significant to note that they all made mistakes—and that it was only through the criticism of earlier theories that these great minds were able to produce more predictive theories.

    Last month we mentioned the claim of Oxford’s Professor Richard Dawkins that that there are things that are “simply true”—the claim, for example, that the shared possession of double helix DNA is clearly a proof that “people, chimps, octopus, and kangaroos have shared ancestors.”[ii]  To the great scientific minds of the 17th and 18th centuries, the phlogiston theory of combustion may have likewise seemed to be “simply true” but they recognized their obligation to support their theory with reproducible experimental observation, and to yield to more predictive theories when they came along.  Evolution of all creatures from a common biological ancestor is an interesting speculation, but it is supported with extremely little observational evidence—there are huge gaps in the fossil record, with nothing like a continuous progression from the first organism to it presumed modern day descendents.  The specimens are ill preserved, and in pieces not always clearly from the same organism.  The measurements are, of necessity, made across many centuries (evolution theorists almost always boast that the world is much older than anyone might have thought), with only the most speculative notion of what intervening parameters might have skewed them.  Evolution theory is more philosophy than science—various speculations as to what might have produced the species we know given the limited evidence we have—it lacks the ability to predict the outcome of experiments and future observations that characterizes a modern science.

    The experimental difficulties have even made it possible for long term fraud to be perpetrated on the scientific community.  It took roughly forty years for Oxford researcher Joseph Weiner to determine that the collection of bones know as “Piltdown man” was fraudulent.[iii]  The “jury is still out” on the “Peking man” at least in part because of United Nations support and the work of modernist Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.[iv]  Unfortunately (or fortunately as the case might be) the fossils all disappeared in 1941, so the experimental evidence is a bit weak![v]  Teilhard’s attempts at theology were under monitum (a warning that they were suspected of heresy) until the time of Vatican II, when his theories that man was evolving into God became quite popular!


[i]   This brief history of “phlogiston” is edited from Herbert Butterfield, PhD, MD,  The Origins of Modern Science (NY: Collier, 1962) pages  207-218

[ii]   Richard Dawkins A Devil’s Chaplain, Page 16-17.



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