Monday, February 28, 2011

Skinner's pigeons

Britain's Royal Society, established in 1660, was the first formal scientific association. It's early membership included such luminaries as Robert Hooke, Christopher Wren, Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton. They took as their motto Nullius in verba, which can be translated roughly as "Take no one's word for it."

And thus ended, in that gathering at least, a millennium-and-a-half of a European intellectual tradition based on quoting authorities as proofs of arguments. It always helped, of course, to have Aristotle on your side. Or Augustine. Or Aquinas. Or best yet, the divinely inspired scriptures. No matter which side of an argument you were on, you lined up your authorities like soldiers on a battlefield.

Citation of authority. A way of knowing that advanced human knowledge not one whit. Always looking backwards. Never ahead.

And along comes "Nullius in verba."

A new way of knowing. The only arbiter of truth is the interrogation of nature. The experiment. Data that does not come tagged with some illuminary's name. Data that can be reproduced by believers and skeptics alike.

And what happened when the new way of knowing was applied to miracles? They vanished. It turns out that there is not a shred of non-anecdotal, reproducible evidence for the miraculous, no supposed manifestations of divine intervention that cannot be explained within the natural order. I believe it might have been Francis Bacon who said that it is a common human attribute to mistake coincidence for causality.

And there, I quoted an authority, and a smart one at that. But the fact that Bacon (or whoever) said it carries no weight unless what he said matches our experimentally controlled observations of human behavior.