Scientific laws and theories

People often get confused about what a scientific theory is – and there is a perception that a theory is not as fundamental as a scientific law. Here’s an interesting comparison of scientific theory and law presented by Charles Seife in a footnote of his book Decoding the Universe: How the New Science of Information Is Explaining Everything in the Cosmos, from Our Brains to Black Holes:

“When physicists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries found a fundamental rule that the universe seemed to obey they dubbed it a law. Many of these laws are profound and important, such as the laws of motion, the law of universal gravitation, and the laws of thermodynamics. Some laws are less deep – such as Hooke’s law (which talks about how springs behave) or Snell’s law( which describes how light bends when it moves from one medium to another). Modern physicists tend not to use the word law. as it implies an infallibility that isn’t truly there when you examine the laws closely. That’s why quantum mechanics and general relativity tend to be referred to as theories rather than laws, though the two terms can be used (more or less) interchangeably. (Theories tend to refer to a framework, while a law is usually a single equation).”

Permalink

Similar articles

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to Ma.gnoliaAdd to TechnoratiAdd to FurlAdd to Newsvine

44 responses to “Scientific laws and theories

  1. Thanks for this Ken. I didn’t realise the historical legacy behind the word ‘law’ but that makes good sense.

    (BTW, did you listen to the recent Books and Ideas podcast with Jennifer Michael Hecht? I found it quite refreshing.)

    Like

  2. Good one sir. I agree. I like the notion that ‘natural laws’ are kind of more ‘tendencies of nature’.
    For me this just undercuts being overly dogmatic/certain about nature…
    …and should humble both the intelligent design crowd (which says, “We know that this specific thing had do have been done by God…”), and the -i know no better term- ‘naturalist’ crowd (which says “We know that god has nothing – NOTHING! – to do with nature…). There’s plenty of mystery at both telescopic and microscopic levels.

    Like

  3. I’ve never seen a cdesignproponentist make the claim that something HAD to have been done by God (their tactic is generally reliant on casting doubt on existing observations) nor have I heard even the most dogmatic naturalist claim that God has nothing to do with nature (they would, quite correctly IMO, say that there simply is no evidence).

    Yes, I agree that there is plenty of mystery in the universe but I believe that the best way of turning the mysteries of our universe into knowledge of our universe (i.e. ‘laws’ or ‘theories’) is by methodological naturalism. And I would challenge anyone to demonstrate a better way.

    Like

  4. Damian – yes I heard the interview with Hecht. I agree refreshing but I found later in the interview she did tend to overstate some of her positions. I have watched a couple of her lectures – they we excellent – and wish I could get hold of her book Doubt.

    Dale I have never understood Law in a dogmatic way – and really don’t know any scientist who does. After all, many of these “laws” are clearly idealised and we always have to deal with the real world with its deviations. Mind you, the thermodynamic laws are treated pretty respectfully. There have just been so many whako claims to violate these that most scientists just wouldn’t bother considering claims in that area now.

    By the way – I also don’t know of any scientist saying “We know that god has nothing – NOTHING! – to do with nature.” If there are any they are very much dogmatic exceptions because science just doesn’t work like that. The real reason that gods don’t get a look in theoretically these days is that no-one advances a structured hypothesis which can be investigated. Even in religious circles I doubt that there is any structured god hypothesis (I certainly haven’t heard any I could understand). There may be all sorts of personal reasons for a god concept and I am sure no two members of the same congregation actually would agree on a detailed hypothesis.

    “God did it” is never an answer and of course can’t be tested. It’s rejected because it is a “science stopper.”

    Like

  5. Damian,

    nor have I heard even the most dogmatic naturalist claim that God has nothing to do with nature (they would, quite correctly IMO, say that there simply is no evidence).

    I suppose it depends on what kind of evidence we’re talking about – and that’s honestly not trying to play with words.

    I believe that the best way of turning the mysteries of our universe into knowledge of our universe (i.e. ‘laws’ or ‘theories’) is by methodological naturalism.

    …and likewise, I suppose it depends on what kind of knowledge of our universe we’re seeking. For example, if we’re seeking knowledge about the biological process of foetal development, methodological naturalism is the tool for the job. However, if we’re seeking knowledge about the decision regarding when/if it is ethical to take action to stop/terminate this same biological process, then methodological naturalism is not the tool for the job.

    Ken,

    I also don’t know of any scientist saying “We know that god has nothing – NOTHING! – to do with nature.”

    Indeed, no scientist speaking AS a scientist can say that. But I didn’t say that scientists say that – I said ‘naturalists’ say that. So, a scientist who also happened to be a naturalist could say that, but would be saying it as a naturalist, and not as a scientist.

    “God did it” is never an answer and of course can’t be tested. It’s rejected because it is a “science stopper.”

    Not so. Certainly not for “un-stopped” scientists who happen to also agree that ‘God did it’, but are passionate about discovering how – as we discussed here

    Like

  6. Dale – the only “naturalists” I have ever known was a club that had a property on the slopes of Mt Pirongia. They were nudists, of course, and had no uniform policy on scientific method, god or similar subjects.

    “Not so”! But how could “god did it” ever be a scientific answer. there is no structured hypothesis, no testability, no development of theory, nothing. Except a decision not to pursue the study any further. A “science stopper.”

    I am not rejecting the concept of a god hypothesis to explain a phenomena – providing it fulfils the requirements of scientific investigation or speculation. In my experience the “god did it” ideas advanced by creationists, etc., never qualify. They never go on to hypothesising how.

    Like

  7. I thought you might react that way to the term (‘naturalist’). But it still remains that there is a discernable group of people who say “God has nothing – NOTHING! – at all to do with nature”. And it remains fair to call them ‘naturalists’ (if you know of a better term, let me know).

    But how could “god did it” ever be a scientific answer.

    Who ever said “God did it” was a scientific answer?
    Put it this way: “God did it” can only be a ‘science stopper’ if scientific answers are the only kind of answer that exists.
    And again, we’ve discussed this before, haven’t we? 🙂

    Like

  8. Yes we have discussed this before. It’s a subject which seems to go around in circles.

    The fact remains that naturalism is very often used as a derogatory term for science by Christian apologists. It was the main target of the Wedge document, for instance. It is a term used by some to describe me.

    I personally don’t find it a useful term or concept (while acknowledging that some who defend science use it politically).

    But I don’t actually find a discernible group of people saying this. Maybe quite a few will say “I don’t believe in a god” or “we don’t need a god to explain nature” or similar. Then again most atheists wouldn’t express it the way you describe as they don’t declare that they “know” there isn’t a god – just that the don’t believe there is.

    I imagine the only time a dogmatic statement like that you describe would be presented would be in response to a theist statement of sure knowledge that a god is involved. Otherwise it just seems superfluous.

    Like

  9. …naturalism is very often used as a derogatory term for science by Christian apologists. It was the main target of the Wedge document, for instance. It is a term used by some to describe me.

    Well, I’ve tried (always) to use it in the philosophical sense – that a ‘natualist’ is one who does not believe in anything other than ‘nature’. It doesn’t have to be taken in a derogatory sense – even if it’s used in a context where one disagrees with those whom they are describing.

    Then again most atheists wouldn’t express it the way you describe as they don’t declare that they “know” there isn’t a god – just that the don’t believe there is.

    This is why I think most (honest) atheists could more accurately be described as ‘agnostics’ – but all these terms have to be defined, of course – and when defining agnosticism, you’ll pretty quickly get to the topic of ‘knowledge’ (gnosis). Of which there are several kinds – which (again!) we’ve (tried?) to discuss before.

    ((and no, I’m not just wanting to get traffic back to my blog – they are truly relevant discussions we’ve been involved in before! 🙂 Though traffic is always good! 🙂 ))

    Like

  10. “I’m not just wanting to get traffic back to my blog” – Aren’t you trying to get a ranking in the NZ Christian Blog Rankings (see Half April HalfDone Stats: MandM 6th Most Read Blog in New Zealand)??

    Like

  11. haha! 🙂 Nah, I’m just a punter in the blogosphere – sure it’d be cool to have more traffic (who wouldn’t want it?), but I’m fine with what I get 🙂

    Like

  12. Don’t blame you – it sounds like it’s “dog eat dog” at the top of those rankings!!

    Like

  13. Dale,

    In both of your responses to Damian, you have “created” a “space” for your religion arbitrarily, likewise you also see that in both you dismiss science’s ability to provide answers for what you want religion to answer, seemingly out-of-hand. No offence, but it makes it difficult to feel that you are looking at the ability of these two to provide answers in an even-handed way.

    Also: care to tell us how you are supposed to “discover” “how” without evidence? (This is what your earlier comments to Damian seem to imply.) The reason “G-d did it” is rejected by science is it an empty statement: it has nothing to support it.

    I would add that the discussion you refer to would seem to be about an unrelated topic, i.e. not if scientists who have religious beliefs investigate their religious beliefs using science (as you cite it for here), but about how religion in (lay) people interferes with scientific understanding. In that article you have “granted” to the scientists that you list that they investigate a religious basis for events, when in practice they assume a religious basis for some events, just like other religious people do. To have both the science and religion in the heads, they must compartmentalise, as Ken wrote. (There are a very few exceptions, like Behe, who do in fact try “investigate”, but I’ve yet to see any of them come up with anything that can withstand scrutiny, which is telling. Furthermore, their approach to “investigating” is one of trying to refute the position science holds, not one of providing an alternative founded on some religious argument.)

    By taking examples from people who hold anti-vaccine beliefs, “natural remedy” beliefs, etc. can be useful to see the issue more clearly. Holding beliefs as a given (as is the nature of beliefs) invariably gets in the way of understanding things from a scientific perspective. You might recognise this as the same point that Dawkins was making that you quoted in your article. You—incorrectly I believe—tried to claim in a comment that he was talking about science replacing religious beliefs, but he clearly says it is about replacing ignorance, and I agree. By replacing religion with, say, anti-vaccine notions you should be able to see that ignorance was the target, not religion per se.

    However, if we’re seeking knowledge about the decision regarding when/if it is ethical to take action to stop/terminate this same biological process, then methodological naturalism is not the tool for the job.

    I disagree: you are implying “cannot”, when evidence-based approaches certainly can certainly contribute to (be a tool for making) these decisions. The direction I was taking on this (but didn’t have time to explore) in the earlier thread here works that way.

    By the way:

    It is the inappropriate use of the sun (laying out in it all day, with little clothing or SPF-laden lotion 🙂 , etc.) that causes skin cancer.

    isn’t an accurate scientific description. I believe a fairer remark is that lying in the sun all day, etc., increases the probability that the sun will cause skin cancer, and with severe burns the correlation of sun exposure and skin cancer becomes obvious. There is a correlation of severe skin burns in teen years with skin cancer later in life, but like most correlations, I would think that doesn’t say that only severe burns cause skin cancer. I would expect it to say that severe burns are statistically associated with skin cancer (i.e. the numbers are such that the correlation can be observed with confidence), and that it cannot say that lesser exposure never causes skin cancer. (There is a lot more detail, but this should be enough to make the point that this should really be expressed differently.)

    I am nitpicking, but there is a deeper reason for me to: you present this as a”fact”, i.e. “the truth”, rather than “what the evidence is able to say”. I realise that in conversation people often simplify and that this is also true of science journalists. That said, your “use” of science isn’t strictly in the scientific manner and with that in mind it makes me wary of you giving sermons about what science “says”, etc.

    Like

  14. Heraclides,
    Two genuine and honest (frank?) reasons why I cannot engage with you here:

    1) Not only have I yet to have patient and fruitful interaction with you, I’ve also yet to see you patiently and fruitfully interact with anyone that you disagree with. (that was the honest and frank part)

    2) Not only was I probably too busy at the moment (assingments, meetings, sermons, husbandry, fatherhood) to get involved in a blog conversation (this is 1 of 3 at the moment), I’m certainly too busy at the moment to engage with someone I’ve never seen be a part of patient/fruitful interaction. (that was the genuine part)

    Like

  15. ((and no offense, but the length and level of clarity of that comment didn’t encourage me to engage, either – but I’m willing for others to tell me otherwise?))

    Like

  16. Dale, the nature of your reply was totally unexpected. I wasn’t attacking you at all, just writing my thoughts. I am being analytical, and I haven’t added lots of empty “flowery language”, but I very little free time. I suspect you’ve read it assuming an attacking impatient tone. That’s not what I was doing.

    Like

  17. For me this just undercuts being overly dogmatic/certain about nature…
    …and should humble both the intelligent design crowd (which says, “We know that this specific thing had do have been done by God…”), and the -i know no better term- ‘naturalist’ crowd (which says “We know that god has nothing – NOTHING! – to do with nature…). There’s plenty of mystery at both telescopic and microscopic levels.

    So what? Are you saying scientists should invoke magic to explain gaps in our understanding?

    God is just another word for bullshit. No real scientist would ever invoke god to solve a scientific problem.

    Like

  18. YAAAYY, Bobxxxx, for the contructive comment points! 🙂

    Like

  19. I’ve taken the time to go back and read through the comments and this is my interpretation of what caused this derailment:

    Dale, Ken created a fairly straight-forward post about the terminology behind ‘law’ and ‘theory’. You comment made an exaggerated caricature of both ID and naturalism which you then used to create some ‘wiggle room’ for your sense of mystery.

    It was the manipulation of an ordinary topic and the subsequent insertion of your beliefs which you know most people here believe are unfounded which caused people to respond.

    As to Heraclides’ response, I really struggle to see the lack of engagement you saw in it. Perhaps you were reading it in an angry-voice (always a danger with the written word).

    Again, this is only my perception of the flow of the conversation in this topic and we’re all subject to seeing things our own way.

    Like

  20. Yes, that’s also how I saw it.
    I guess we can all react emotionally (and I suspect specific individuals can rub each other up the wrong way with their argument styles – probably what’s happening here).

    Mind you – according to Stuart “I’ve never seen a Christian apologist (or lay-person) react in an angry fashion when their ideas were challenged – the most I’ve seen is politely restrained frustration.” and “But atheistic reactions do seem to run a amok sometimes, and the question is – why is that?”

    Apparently only scientists and atheists get angry – when theists do “its worth a gentle chastisement.”

    Meanwhile – in the real world ….

    Like

  21. ((first time using the ‘reply’ function – which appears to place this comment with the one ‘replying to’, rather than by-default at the bottom – looks like a cool feature))

    For what it’s worth, here’s my version 🙂

    Ken wrote an interesting and (I thought) accurate post, to which I thought my response was at least relevant (not a ‘manipulation of an ordinary topic’ and an ‘insertion’ of my beliefs).

    What ensued was a decently constructive discussion with Ken and Damian (two bloggers I ‘have time for’, in that I find discussion with them worth the time/effort), clarifying what I had said (and what I had NOT said! 🙂 ). Then came Heraclides comment, which I may have admittedly over-reacted to, but a) the length of his comment and b) his history of interaction (with me and others) on this blog both caused me to be less than inclined to bother. I was quite happy to continue with Ken/Damian, though, as Ken and I were even able to be quite amiable with one another (i.e. the 3 comments before Heraclides’).

    And as for Stuart’s words, I’d venture to say that there are no doubt both atheists and Christians who both react angrily at times, as well as reacting with ‘politely restrained frustration’. And it was the latter I was certainly aiming for in my response to Heraclides.

    Back to work for me 🙂

    Like

  22. Returning to the discussion:

    Having just listened to a podcast by Beretta on ID I am more and more convinced that terms like “naturalism” & “supernatural” are less than useful. They lead to misunderstandings and are used far too loosely by both sides.
    “Naturalism” is used politically by scientists defending science. It’s used in a “friendly” way but nevertheless is actually patronising. It’s saying something along the lines: “OK you have it your way – there is a natural world and a supernatural world. Now we will agree that science looks at the natural world and you religionists can have the supernatural world to yourselves. Now go away and play your supernatural games – just leave us alone.” (Knowing all along that there is nothing productive in the “supernatural” world – if there were that scientist would claim it also).

    Then people like Beretta use these words in a “philosophical” way. But they use it disingenuously because they are opposing people who have used it only in a political (if opportunist) way. And they just don’t define the meaning. Consequently they can knock down straw men when they talk about the “physical” world etc.

    I believe philosophical categories have got to be defined in the most abstract of ways – to use them with popular meanings inappropriately is not honest. And it leads to theologians with a training in philosophy (but a theological philosophy rather than a scientific one) lecturing scientists about how science should be done. And coming to completely wrong conclusions about the nature of scientific knowledge. (But, in the process, give concepts like ID a free ride).

    Another reason for precision with words is that when they are used inappropriately they prevent the user from understanding the ideas of the person they are debating with. I feel words like “naturalism”, “supernatural” applied to my philosophical approach and understanding of scientific methods really are just trying to force me inappropriately into a subjective mould. If people are going to use these words they should agree on precise understanding of their meaning beforehand. Otherwise they just talk past each other.

    Similarly, one should be very careful about telling a discussion partner that they are something different to what they claim (agnostic rather than atheist). Again this should require a prior understanding and agreement on what these words mean. However, we have certainly discussed that before.

    Like

  23. “OK you have it your way – there is a natural world and a supernatural world. Now we will agree that science looks at the natural world and you religionists can have the supernatural world to yourselves. Now go away and play your supernatural games – just leave us alone.” (Knowing all along that there is nothing productive in the “supernatural” world – if there were that scientist would claim it also).

    yes, we’ve discussed this before. But (regarding what scientists can rightly say about what science can and cannot investigate, etc.) I can’t resist saying that it seems circular to say that the science can be used to determine what can/cannot be determined by science; or that science can be used to determine that scientific determinations are the only kind of determinations (not that you’ve said the latter – but possibly implied the former?).

    Like

  24. “I can’t resist saying that it seems circular to say that the science can be used to determine what can/cannot be determined by science; or that science can be used to determine that scientific determinations are the only kind of determinations (not that you’ve said the latter – but possibly implied the former?).”

    Interesting?? I didn’t say (or imply either). Far from it. But why should this have been your response? Suggests to me that you either can’t see what I am saying/implying – or you are attempting to fit it into a preconceived (on your part) agenda or idea.

    Or perhaps you are taking my cynical characterisation of the paternalism in the political defence of science as something that I am personally saying?

    Like

  25. It probably wasn’t helped by it being written a number of comments earlier than the one it appeared after (Dale’s post I replied to was the last at the time and I didn’t think to use the nested reply to cover for subsequent posts).

    Quite a bit of my post was in response to the article and comments Dale linked to: that thread has comments closed, so I made remarks here instead, which seemed the appropriate thing to do.

    Like

  26. My previous post was in reply to Damian, if that’s not clear.

    Like

  27. I have to admit that I’m not coping too well with this non-lineal method of commenting. 😦

    Like

  28. (I’m also not enjoying the non-linear commenting thing – might just be because it’s new, but oh well…)

    Ken, your comment about science being ‘patronising’ to ‘religionists’ implies that scientists have some objective way of knowing how ‘productive’ or not the supernatural world is. My response was to indicate that science isn’t the tool for making determinations about how productive (or any quality for that matter) a supernatural world would be.

    Now, a (philosophical) statement like that might happen to be made by a scientist, but (as I’ve said elsewhere somewhere under this post) if a scientist makes the statement he/she will be making it not as a scientist, but rather he/she will be making the statement as a philosopher (which they may or may not be).

    Like

  29. I think there are a couple of other features seem elsewhere that help “threaded” or “nested” comments work well.

    In full forum approach, the “tree” of posts is usually shown as just the subject lines, which is very compact and lets you quickly skip over things and see the overview of what’s happening. You need subject fields for that to work, though, and display options.

    Another things that some forums do is keep track of the time you last visited, so that they can “mark” posts as “new since you last visited”.

    What is here isn’t too bad, but it seems to be limited to a couple of “levels”, which may simply reflect that it shows the full posts all the time. (If you made too many level available while showing the full posts, comments several levels “down” would appear very skinny! If you get my meaning.)

    Like

  30. It appears that the ability to reply to specific comments, and hence the non-linear from of the discussion) is confusing people. I certainly find it confusing. I don’t think it would be helped by increasing the number of replies possible (currently set at three) as it would only increase the confusion.
    Perhaps I should just remove the reply facility which would impose a rigid linear structure and commenters can easily link to specific contributions. (This is what happens now if one doesn’t click on “reply.”)

    Like

  31. I’m in favour of the old, linear way. But that could well be because I’m not familiar with the threaded method.

    What I tend to do when visiting a blog is, from the homepage, see if there are any new comments and, if so, click on the first comment that I’ve not yet read and expect to continue reading down the page any other comments that may have followed. I find that with the threaded method that next comment in the discussion may be halfway back up the page and I have to return to the list of comments in order to click on it to locate it.

    It could be that I’m missing a trick and welcome any threaded-blog-navigation tips! (But if none are forthcoming I vote linear)

    Like

  32. Modern physicists tend not to use the word law. as it implies an infallibility that isn’t truly there when you examine the laws closely.

    I find myself disagreeing with Charles Seife in his comparison. My impressions from the small quote offered is that he is a historian and not a professional philosopher of science – whose profession it is to think deeply about science.

    This is why I find myself disagreeing with him. . .

    I’ve always thought of ‘scientific law’ as a hypothesis that is valid on a universal scale. That is not to say a law cannot be superseded by a higher law. Think of the law of gravity as ‘whatever goes up must come down,’ being superseded by the laws of aerodynamics when a plane flies.

    I’ve always thought of a ‘scientific theory’ as a hypothesis with a high degree of probability. Thus the grand evolutionary story is neither a law or a theory, because it is not repeatable, not testable, and not open to observation. Rather it is a Model; a way to interpret the evidence. An analogy would be like the beginning of the CSI shows where the team show up and start speculating on what happened – they make models and test them.

    Like

  33. I’ve always thought of ’scientific law’ as a hypothesis that is valid on a universal scale.,/i>

    I’ve always thought of a ’scientific theory’ as a hypothesis with a high degree of probability.

    Wha..?
    Where are you getting these definitions from?
    A quick google search reveals ony one site that uses these very curious,/b> definitions…
    http://iooe.org/articles/Science.html

    Is this where you get your science information from? Please tell us it ain’t so.

    Thus the grand evolutionary story is neither a law or a theory, because it is not repeatable, not testable, and not open to observation.

    Who says so?
    If the Theory of Evolution is not really a scientific theory then…surely science departments on univeristy campuses around the world would have pointed it out by now?
    Yet the biology department doesn’t get sniggered at by the other science departments.

    If biologists can’t perform tests or make predictions or perform observations with the Theory of Evolution then…what do they do all day in their labs or in the field?
    Think about it.
    Scientific theories are tools that help scientists do their job. If a theory is not useful then it is discarded.
    If a better theory comes along that is more useful then that theory will become dominant.
    The theory of evolution has been top dog now for 150 years. That’s not because of tradition.
    It’s because it’s functionally better than all other challengers.

    Here’s some links that might clear up your confusion…
    http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/evolution-fact.html
    http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/comdesc/

    Like

  34. Oops, sorry about all the bold type. 😦

    Like

  35. I just had a second look at the “The Institute of Origins Education” site where I suspect Stuart has been getting his science education from.

    I found this…

    The easiest way to shoot down the naturalistic evolution of the universe is to bring up the Second LAW of Thermodynamics.

    Isn’t it wonderful? Imagine somebody saying that in public in front of educated people.
    🙂

    Like

  36. A careful reading of my comment above will reveal it is not anti-evolutionistic as Cedric Katesby supposes.

    BTW, never been to that web-site – never even heard of it.

    Like

  37. I’ve skim-read that web-page now and I do have an affinity for those definitions of Law, Theory, and Model.

    Like

  38. I’m sorry but I just had to point out that this level of superciliousness:

    My impression … is he is a historian and not a professional philosopher of science – whose profession it is to think deeply about science.

    This is why I find myself disagreeing with him. . .

    Followed by this level of ignorance

    I’ve always thought of a ’scientific theory’ as a hypothesis with a high degree of probability.

    is pretty staggering. FWIW in science (and the philosophy there of) a theory is more like your idea of a model – a framework that explains a large set of observations and makes predictions that can then be tested. Theories are big, they explain large sets of data, laws are small (they describe one class of observation).

    Like

  39. David W,

    Our nomenclature is different but the idea seems the same as you describe it. Philosophers like to make things precise as possible, thus the difference I suppose.

    We part here;

    Theories are big, they explain large sets of data,

    . . . attempt to explain . . .

    Like

  40. A careful reading of my comment above will reveal it is not anti-evolutionistic as Cedric Katesby supposes.

    I did carefully read your comment.

    You said…Thus the grand evolutionary story is neither a law or a theory, because it is not repeatable, not testable, and not open to observation.

    Absolute nonsense.
    The theory of Evolution is not just a “story”.
    It is a theory.
    It is a scientific theory.
    It’s repeatedly testable, open to observations and makes useful predictions.
    If it wasn’t then people would have noticed by now.
    😉

    I’ve always thought of ’scientific law’ as a hypothesis that is valid on a universal scale.

    I’ve always thought of a ’scientific theory’ as a hypothesis with a high degree of probability.

    So if you didn’t get your defintions from that dreadfully bad site, then where?

    If you wanted to find out what a scientific theory was or what a scientific law was then why not ask scientists?

    For example…

    http://wilstar.com/theories.htm

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_theory

    Like

  41. Re @ Stuart – April 17, 2009 at 8:11 pm

    I find your statement terribly dogmatic and arrogant:

    “I find myself disagreeing with Charles Seife in his comparison. My impressions from the small quote offered is that he is a historian and not a professional philosopher of science – whose profession it is to think deeply about science.

    This is why I find myself disagreeing with him. . . “

    It should be placed alongside another statement of yours:

    “Notable Christian scientists today, such as William Dembski, Philip Johnson, Hugh Ross, and Russell Humphreys are all apologists making waves in the scientific community.”

    Anyone with any contact with the “scientific community” knows that is false. I don’t know who Humphrys is but Johnson – a retired law professor, Dembski a theologian with a degree in mathematics (but a self declared “Isaac Newton of Information Theory”) and Ross who did work as an astronomer over 30 years ago but is now a full time Christian apologist. (He often distorts or gets his scientific statements wrong as I showed for the cosmological constant in Fiddling with “fine-tuning”). With “authorities” like this no wonder your appreciation of science is so distorted.

    So I suggest you should show a bit more humility in pontificating on the ability of scientists and scientific authors.

    Now, as for this:

    “I’ve always thought of ’scientific law’ as a hypothesis that is valid on a universal scale. That is not to say a law cannot be superseded by a higher law.”

    I find that incredible. How can anyone ever say that a scientific law is valid on a universal scale – that it could never be rewritten or superseded because of newer data (nothing to do with a “higher law.”). Science just doesn’t work that way (although theology of course does but it doesn’t have any hope of describing reality because of this).

    Stuart – do you really believe that the thermodynamic law of conservation of energy was never invalidated??? That it has not been rewritten because of advances in science???? Just because it was called a law.

    I also disagree with this: “Philosophers like to make things precise as possible.” My experience has always been that philosophy must work in a completely opposite way – it must deal with categories in their most general, most abstract sense. This is what makes philosophy so valuable. When this is not done we get distortions and opportunist use of philosophy. We have seen some people here, for example, use philosophical categories like “matter” in a mechanical, common-sense, limited way – just to try and divert a discussion.

    Like

  42. Stuart,

    With all respect, if you are discussing a particular field using term that belong to that particular field, you use the definitions/meanings of the terms as given by the people in that field. If you want a term that carries another meaning, either invent your own term (calling it something else) or, more obviously, use existing terms that carry the meaning you want to express.

    The equivalent would be that we all just go off and redefine words in the dictionary that have well-accepted meaning to meanings, to new meaning of our choice that no-one else has, and insist that others read our “redefined” meanings every time we use the word!

    Like

  43. Further to my previous comment.

    I have now checked out Russell Humphreys. He is a Young Earth creationist. While he graduated as a physicist in 1972 (Dissertation: cosmic rays and ultrahigh energy nucleon-nucleon interactions) and has worked for a couple of companies he has since about 1995 been working for the Institute for Creation Research and Creation Ministries International.

    His professional associations are listed as:
    * Creation Science Fellowship of New Mexico, President
    * Adjunct professor of the Institute for Creation Research
    * Board member of the Creation Research Society.

    So Stuart, I guess this is what you mean by a “professional philosopher of science.” You obviously limit your understanding of scientific issues to what has been through the filter of young earth creationist organisations. Hardly reliable sources.

    A huge issue of confirmation bias “authority.”

    Like

  44. You obviously limit your understanding of scientific issues to what has been through the filter of young earth creationist organisations. Hardly reliable sources.

    Garbage in, garbage out.
    The mind is a terrible thing to waste.

    Like

Leave a Reply: please be polite to other commenters & no ad hominems.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s