A Fish With No Eye?: The use of labels and language in science.

What am I?

What am I?

A short while ago I did a Skeptics in the Pub (SITP) talk about how as part of a university debating team I was forced to argue that creationism is a science. Don’t judge me, there was a trophy involved. The judges said so.  My SITP talk haphazardly covers if creationism is a science (it isn’t) and if it isn’t (it isn’t) could you go about arguing that it was to the bafflement and delight of the judges of a debate and an increasingly intolerant audience? (I did.) The talk was short and jolly and seemed to go OK.  If you don’t know, SITP is about getting people together in pubs to have a relaxed and enjoyable evening while listening to talks given in a friendly manner on a wide range of topics of sceptical interest. They’re good. You should go. As I understand is usual following the talk there was a short break and then we got to the question and answer section of the evening.

Goodness me.

I think it’s correct to say that the discussion was dominated by a philosophy human with some objections to the scientific nature of evolutionary theory. I say philosophy human because I don’t want to provide a name. I don’t think it would be right as I’m not attacking this individual, just describing the events leading up to the question that made me think. Being made to think is a good thing. I think. Also philosophy human is a good name. Although are all humans philosophy humans? Ah, see it’s working already.

I handled the questions as best I could, which I don’t think was all that well really given that I didn’t really understand what was being asked. Sadly when I asked for an explanation all I got was repetition which as you can imagine didn’t really help. Constantly repeating your point when asked for an explanation doesn’t really help you see. But never mind. I’ve been giving what I think the question was about some thought and thought it was worth vomiting some of this process into a blog post. Well obviously I did. You’re reading it. Sorry.

The main objection to the theory of evolution being scientific was that it can’t begin to explain anything as it doesn’t have any models. If you’re trying to explain the evolution of a fish eye, you first have to identify what a fish eye is. Fish eyes don’t have black lines around them.  It’s very difficult to get properly waterproof mascara that would look good on a fish for a start. If you say something is a fish eye, how do you know you are right? You don’t. There is no and can be no model for it, you can’t even identify what it is you are trying to explain, therefore the theory you are using to try to explain it is not scientific. This is all paraphrased by necessity.

By paraphrased I do not mean that the sentences are attached to parachutes. In this case they might as well be. I am not a qualified philosopher other than by the amount necessary to occasionally consider my own belly button. Thus any attempt I make to understand philosophy is going to be simple and feel to me like plummeting towards an unforgiving ground made of Hume without the ability to deploy a safety aid made of..um..Wittgenstein. Is the challenge to the scientific validity of evolution even philosophy? That’s for the philosophers to decide.

The “problem” posed by philosophy human seems to me to be a problem of the limitations of language. As humans we have to communicate using a language which is essentially a collection of labels originally useful for pointing out where good fruit is or where a beast is attacking from probably.  I can understand what you are saying if the labels you are using match the ones I use agreed upon by an  ironically unspoken consensus. The labels are not the thing itself but if you are an English speaker and I tell you about a badger, there’s a good chance you know what I mean.  In the very least can find out using said agreed upon labels.

So with the fish eye, we can look at the collection of parts within a collection of parts and label them as a fish eye within a fish. Objects which are sufficiently similar can also be named fish eyes and we can set about exploring how it is they developed over evolutionary time. We could just as easily label the fish eye as a “teacup banana” but as long as we all know what these labels refer to then we can study it as an object shaped by evolutionary pressures in a scientific manner.

When I say this about evolution I guess we can do this at the level of the gene, parts of the organism, the organism itself or the species the organism belongs to.  Using this language and the definitions it allows means we can access these incredible facts identified and the incredible explanations based on incredible evidence. And it is all incredible. Some of it you won’t believe your teacup bananas.

Evolution can lead to problems with labelling and the language behind it. Our labels for organisms, species etc can only exist because of the snapshot of time we exist in. If we had every badger that ever lived and every single intermediate organism going from each of those badgers back to the first thing that can legitimately be called alive then the idea of a species with a name becomes a bit difficult. Also we’ll have a serious pile of badger faeces to dispose of.  The parents of the badgers are similar enough to their children to be classed as the same species. The parent badgers  have the same deal with their badger parents and so on and so forth. However if we go back far enough then what we’ve got starts to look so different that we can’t label it as a badger. However at no point was a parent different enough from their children to be classified as a different species. So where do we draw the species line? Well in this scenario we can’t and to an extent the species label becomes meaningless.  My apologies to the taxonomists. Please don’t come at me with your swords and various lengths of knives. This said at this time we still have to use the labels we have so that everyone knows what evidence we are talking about.

It doesn’t make the theories less scientific that the language we have to use is at times imprecise although we of course should try to make our definitions as precise as possible. It doesn’t make the theory less scientific if we have to apply a label to something within that theory. Nobody would understand me if I invented my own definitions and words to apply to things based on my individual understanding of them without translation. Then if I did translate them what would have been the point in making up my own language in the first place? Quite.

I’m not saying it isn’t interesting to talk about the philosophy of what represents an example of something and how we can identify it. However we have to have definitions based on the limitations of our own language so we can usefully explain events using what we can currently classify with empirical evidence.  Is this empirical evidence some platonic ideal in a platonic universe? I don’t platonically know. We have to live in the world as we understand it empirically. I can question how I understand if what I’ve got is a fish eye or a pint of beer all I want. I’m still am not going to drink the fish eye. There are those that might argue it is not the purpose of philosophy to be useful in this real world example. Indeed.

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