Tag Archives: theory

Science, religion and respect for meaning

Religious apologists seem to be obsessed with the relationship between religion and science. Not so much for scientists who generally just want to get on with their job of understanding reality and helping humanity make use of the resulting knowledge.

But in retirement I have had more opportunity to come across the argument’s used by apologists to explain away the differences between scientific and religious knowledge, or to deny scientific knowledge. The overwhelming impression I have is one of bafflegab, mental gymnastics, strawmannery and jelly wrestling. Certainly not honesty.

One thing that gets up my nose is the lack of respect for language, for the meaning of words. Particularly important words like “truth” and “knowledge.” An example is this comment in a review of  apologist John Lennox‘s new book at Christian News (see Can Science, Creationism Coexist? One Christian Author Says Yes):

“In his recently published book, Seven Days that Divide the World, Lennox sets out to prove that Christians can believe in the theories of science and maintain the truth of Scripture.”

These people use the word “truth,” or very often “Truth,” to describe a collection of bronze age myths, parables and mysticism!  As for science – well that’s only “theory” – and you know what meaning they usually give to that word. No, not the scientific understanding of theory as “a set of facts, propositions, or principles analysed in their relation to one another and used, especially in science, to explain phenomena.” No, more the vague popular use of “theory” as “an idea of or belief about something arrived at through speculation or conjecture.”

This always strikes me as the height of arrogance – an arrogance that often leads to problems. One has only to think of Galileo’s treatment because his persecuters thought he was daring to question the “Truth” of scripture.

Not that scientists usually use the word “truth”, and especially not “Truth” to describe scientific knowledge. We are well aware of the provisional, but progressive, nature of scientific knowledge. Always amenable to improvement and change as it is checked against reality.

Scientific knowledge is relative  – not absolute, not “Truth”, but it’s the best we have. If science cannot give us specific knowledge about reality one can be sure no other method can.

That’s the other thing that get’s up my nose. The arrogance of some apologists who will seriously suggest they have higher standards. Because while scientific knowledge is amenable to change and improvement religious knowledge is not. It is the “Truth.”

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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).”


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Evolution – a theory or a fact?

evol is a theoryI don’t think it is either.

It’s not just that there is a misunderstanding about the meaning of theory.

Here’s a handy definition of scientific theory by T. Ryan Gregory: “a theory in science, again following the definition given by the NAS, is “a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses.” Science not only generates facts but seeks to explain them, and the interlocking and well-supported explanations for those facts are known as theories. Theories allow aspects of the natural world not only to be described, but to be understood. Far from being unsubstantiated speculations, theories are the ultimate goal of science.”

However creationist/intelligent design proponents use the “it’s just a theory” argument as if evolution was nothing more than a vague passing idea in someones head. Perhaps they should be told that aerodynamics and aircraft engineering are “just theories” whenever they travel by air – preferably in the first hostess announcement after takeoff!

Some people react to the “just a theory” dismissal of evolution by claiming it to be a “law” or even a “fact.” I think this is inappropriate for describing the whole body of knowledge described by the word evolution.

Evolutionary science

Our knowledge about evolution includes facts (e.g., fossil records, genetics, molecular biology of DNA), theories (e.g, natural selection, sexual selection, genetic drift) and speculation (e.g., much of evolutionary psychology). Just like any other body of scientific knowledge. Consider atomic science. This includes facts (e.g, brownian motion, atomic spectra, nuclear and chemical reactions), theories( e.g, quantum theory, standard atomic model) and speculation (e.g., string theories).

This mixture of facts, theories and speculation is quite normal for any living science. And that is what evolution is.

So I consider evolution to be more that theory. It also includes facts, hypotheses, ideas and speculation.

I prefer to refer to it as “evolutionary science.”

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Intelligent design and scientific method

The intelligent design movement (ID) is not a school of scientific research – more a political, social and religious movement. IDs initiator and main theological guru, Phillip Johnson, admitted this in 1996 when he said: “This isn’t really, and never has been, a debate about science . . . It’s about religion and philosophy.”

However, ID does aspire to change the whole way we do modern science. It has a declared a Wedge Strategy which includes the aim of replacing the modern scientific method with a “theistic science” (see, for example, The Wedge Document). Alvin Platinga (a major ID supporter) also used the terms “unnatural science”, “creation science”, or science “from a Christian perspective” to describe this (see Why Faith and Reason Clash). Phillip Johnson also used the term “Theistic realism.”

Despite this lofty plan, ID proponents reveal little of what they mean by “theistic science” and characteristically will not clearly respond to requests to do so. You have to sift through their documents for evidence and be aware of the context of their statements. Doing this you start to realise that ID people are attacking the heart of modern science, the empirical, evidence-based, methodology which makes it so powerful. They, in reality, wish to return science to the stagnant days of the pre-enlightenment.

This hostility to science is not isolated to the ID movement. As Paul Bloom points out “the battle between evolution and creationism …. is where science takes a stand against superstition” (in What Is Your Dangerous Idea?: Today’s Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable). The hostility is common to those who prefer superstitious, spiritualist and supernatural explanations. It’s worth, therefore, considering the ID attack on science as a specific example of a more widespread problem.

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