I was having a conversation with a friend of mine, and the topic of inexplicable phenomena came up, as it often does in discussions of skeptical subject matter.
Now, before you think that I’m going to get on my high horse and play the stereotype of the clinical dogmatic Rationalist, going on about how there is no such thing as the unexplained, let me make something clear: Currently unexplained and utterly unexplainable are entirely different things. It is a logical fallacy to confuse the two.
I have taken great pains over the past three and a half years (logical fallacy: the argument from authority) to learn the basics of scientific thinking, the rudiments of the philosophy of science, its methods, its purpose, the role of imagination in science, how it works when its error-correcting machinery is smoothly running, and, most of all, its fallible human side and what happens when it goes wrong.
Read the next passage carefully:
Under no circumstances do I, nor does any reputable scientist that I know of claim in any way that science has it all figured out, that what we know now is all that exists, or that all has been absolutely explained, or will be.
There. I said it.
Science is at a point in our history where it has taken halting first steps to an understanding of the universe, and we are just finding out things unimagined twenty years ago, much less four hundred years. There is much still we will not know for a long, long time.
Science is just starting to give us a picture of the Cosmos that we can make sense of, though much factually supported science offends mere human sensibilities with bizarrely counterintuitive notions that thumb their collective noses at ‘common sense.’ The Universe, and the science by which we learn to understand it does not have to conform to our likes and dislikes to be true.
Back on topic.
Science is not just limited to the normal and the natural in the sense many believers in paranormal claims suppose…it is not blindsided by any particular phenomenon as long as it is both knowable and observable, and therefore can be tested in some meaningful fashion.
To paraphrase psychologist Susan Blackmore, science is simply a generalized way of asking questions and finding answers and not meaningfully restricted by a hypothesis merely because it is labeled ‘supernatural,’ or ‘paranormal.’
Science is not limited to a single restrictive, mechanistic ‘method,’ indeed, it has a multitude of different methods used for the study of an equally diverse multitude of things.
Are there things we absolutely can’t explain, that are truly inexplicable? Let me make it clear again that science hinges around asking questions, and once you prematurely hit upon some easy, magic explanation, stop asking questions and finding answers, even and especially if you dislike them, then you have stopped doing science. Science can do nothing with untestable ideas, and even tested but wrong ideas can be of use if they are interesting and lead to new and unexpected findings.
It just so happens though, that many supernatural claims are framed in such a way that they cannot possibly be refuted nor meaningfully verified: they are untestable in any conceivable way and therefore not even worthy of the honor of being called ‘wrong.’
I’ve heard philosopher Massimo Pigliucci discuss two sorts of unexplainable phenomena: the sort that has no rational, testable explanation, and that which does but due to human limits in reasoning and understanding, we cannot reach any explanation until we surpass those limitations, perhaps in the distant future if at all.
This is sort of like a dog understanding differential equations in calculus — as far as we can know, an understanding of the explanation is not possible in the foreseeable future.
Now there are many things about the universe that remain unexplained, most of them in fact, but in science you have to resist the temptation to just throw up your hands and give up looking for an explanation for an observed phenomenon, just because you haven’t yet found what it is. If you try hard enough it may be just around the corner.
To give up and call it supernatural or inexplicable is to renounce the spirit of science, a point which some paranormal believers miss.
Science loves a mystery as well as and even more than the mystical, but conversely tries to find answers to those mysteries, something which in my experience, mystics are loathe to do.
It seems to me as though they must perpetuate mysteries, preserving them for mystery’s sake alone, instead of asking the tough questions of a gentle inquiry of nature and in so failing to do miss the whole aim of science, and an understanding of what they argue against.
Are there unexplained things? Most certainly. Are there inexplicable things? Maybe, but we’ll never know until we try to find out and ultimately fail in the trying. Fnord.
(Last Update: 2010/06/04, Image Updated)