Saturday, November 22, 2008

Evolution and me: a personal story (part 4)

Part 4: Science = absolute truth?

Before I move on to the evidence that convinced me of evolution, I want to ponder the following question: if an idea has scientific support, which I will argue evolution does, can it then be considered as being absolutely true? Is there a direct link between scientific 'proof' and absolute certainty? I think that some might think that if an idea is scientifically 'proven', then that idea is beyond any doubt. But there is another view: that absolute certainty, or absolute truth, is unattainable – even by science – simply because, as human beings, we are not omniscient.

As Carl Sagan wrote in The Demon-Haunted World (page 29, 30):

Science is far from a perfect instrument of knowledge. It's just the best we have . . . Humans may crave absolute certainty; they may aspire to it; they may pretend, as partisans of certain religions do, to have attained it. But the history of science – by far the most successful claim to knowledge accessible to humans – teaches that the most we can hope for is successive improvements in our understanding, learning from our mistakes, an asymptotic approach to the Universe, but with the proviso that absolute certainty will always elude us.

In other words, our ideas of the universe change as we gain more knowledge and as a result scientific theories or ideas that were once thought to be fairly airtight also change. So in science there is no such thing as absolute or ultimate proof because every idea is open to re-evaluation.

Scientific facts, then, do not refer to ideas for which we have absolute proof, but to those ideas for which we have a great deal of confirmation. As Stephen Jay Gould once wrote, a scientific fact is an idea that has been "confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional consent". This isn't a weakness of science, but its greatest strength: that it is open to change.

In light of this idea that scientific 'truth', or scientific 'fact', is not the same as absolute truth, my goal is not to convince you that biological evolution is True, in a sense of being absolutely true for all persons, paradigms, or ways of thinkingor even true for yourself. Rather, I will be arguing, in posts to follow, that evolution is scientifically valid, and that it is a scientific fact as per Gould's definition.

So if you are a scientist working in a scientific field and you adhere to the rules of science in your daily work, or even if you don't work in science but hold onto the view that science is an important tool, then I will argue that you should at least concede – when it comes to scientific fields such as Biology, Anthropology, Palaeontology, and Medicine – that we should teach, study and apply the idea of biological evolution as if it is true.

Creationists often argue that evolution is not scientific. This post on the Josh McDowell blog is one example. This is the claim that I will attempt to argue against in the following posts.

But in order to determine if evolution is scientific, we have to first explore the question: what is science, and how does it differ from other ways of gaining knowledge?

Next post: Two initial observations
Return to the table of contents for Evolution and Me

11 comments:

CyberKitten said...

Well said.

Anonymous said...

Kevin,

As always, you are to be commended for approaching well-debated topics from a fresh perspective. While I do not believe in Darwinian evolution, it is nothing but enlightening to discuss it in this thought-provoking forum.

It's intersting that you quoted from Sagan's "Demon Haunted World," because in my opinion, that work unintentionally provides an excellent set of tools for casting an incredible degree of doubt on evolutionary ideas. Sagan suggests using "baloney detectors" in our investigative procedures of scientific evidences, including accounting for selective use of evidence, appeals to authority, ad hominem and straw man arguments, question-begging, and lack of testability. Phillip Johnson's work "Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds" may help cast some light on what weaknesses Sagan didn't recognize in his own position.

-phil

Mark Lefers said...

Phil,
Creationists are doing so much harm to their faith. They think by attacking science they can win people to Christ. Come on. Evolution has so much better evidence than Christianity does or ever will have.

Kevin Parry said...

Hi Phil

Sagan's baloney detection kit is very useful when evaluating ideas, and I'm sure there are evolutionists who are guilty of ad hominem attacks, straw men arguments, etc. I've seen some evolutionists behave rather badly on various on-line debates.

But I hope to steer clear of these pitfalls in the following posts. In fact, my aim in the following posts is not to start a fight, or to evaluate creationism - although I will touch on creationist ideas now and again. Rather, I will simply set out some of the things that convinced me that biological evolution is fact (in Gould's sense of the term, that is).

And I will stress this later on in a post: I’m not a philosopher, or scientist, so the following posts are open to correction from whomever might read them. If there are any creationists, evolutionists, or academics, and I’m way off track in what I write, hopefully they will let me know in the comments section, at least for the benefit of other readers.

I'm sure, Phil, that you know a lot more about creationism than I do, and you know more about the criticisms that creationists level against evolution, so I am open to your corrections, inputs and ideas as well.

Hope to spur healthy debate in the next few weeks.

Thanks for the comment.

Kevin

Connie Gibbs said...

I truly appreciate your desire to argue that evolution is scientifically valid. Having spent many Christian years, in the past, fearing evolutionist, I'm extremely interested in what you'll be writing. Your desired approach is very wise because your words don't reveal one who loves contradiction--as has been the case with many folks I've experienced on both sides of the subject. Because I lack a scientific background I feel at a great loss when dealing with this subject, but because of your manner I have every hope of understanding what you'll be presenting. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Kevin,

Thanks for the excellent response and clarifications; I look forward to your further posts.

Mark, I believe you are making an unnecessary distinction between creationism and "science." True, there are some misguided people of faith who spurn scientific data and cling to "blind faith" but this should not be considered typical of the biblical creationsist position. The term science simply refers to an effort to uncover understanding in various fields of study. If something is true, then accurate and unbiased scientific methods should attest to its veracity. My belief is that the biblical creation account is scientifically valid. Others on this thread believe that scientific study favors Darwinism. These two antithetical possibilities (along with any others) should be examined and debated using scientific (and, I would argue, philosophical and theological) insight. Creationism then, if properly understood, does not seek to "attack science" as you suggest, but to utilize science. Perhaps we will all learn more through our subsequent discussion and input.

-phil

Anonymous said...

Kevin,

Thanks for the excellent response and clarifications; I look forward to your further posts.

Mark, I believe you are making an unnecessary distinction between creationism and "science." True, there are some misguided people of faith who spurn scientific data and cling to "blind faith" but this should not be considered typical of the biblical creationsist position. The term science simply refers to an effort to uncover understanding in various fields of study. If something is true, then accurate and unbiased scientific methods should attest to its veracity. My belief is that the biblical creation account is scientifically valid. Others on this thread believe that scientific study favors Darwinism. These two antithetical possibilities (along with any others) should be examined and debated using scientific (and, I would argue, philosophical and theological) insight. Creationism then, if properly understood, does not seek to "attack science" as you suggest, but to utilize science. Perhaps we will all learn more through our subsequent discussion and input.

-phil

CyberKitten said...

phil said: These two antithetical possibilities (along with any others) should be examined and debated using scientific (and, I would argue, philosophical and theological) insight.

Agree with the scientific & philosophical insights.... can't agree on the theological though!

Anonymous said...

Cyberkitten,

It's understandable that, as an atheist, you would not include theology as a mechanism by which you determine truth; that is a matter of which worldview you interpret evidences from. I think this worldview distinction is critical in our discussions.

Also, it bears mentioning that when we're talking about "science," that term technically includes the fields of philosophy, psychology, theology, etc. However, in our usual nomenclature, we tend to limit the term to include only the "hard" sciences such as biology, physics, geology, etc. I suppose we could have a whole other string of debates over what actually constitutes "science" and which sciences should take priority, if any.

By the way, sorry for posting my previous comment twice. I wasn't trying to be obnoxious; just hit the publish button twice by mistake.

phil

CyberKitten said...

phil said: I think this worldview distinction is critical in our discussions.

Indeed it is.

phil said: Also, it bears mentioning that when we're talking about "science," that term technically includes the fields of philosophy, psychology, theology, etc.

Actually all of those fields come under the heading of Philosophy rather than Science. Science is after all Natural Philosophy! It's only fairly recently that most modern subjects (not counting Theology) have broken away from Philosophy to make their own realms of knowing.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps this is going overboard on semantics, but here's what Merriam-Webster's Dictionary has to say:

Main Entry: sci·ence
Pronunciation: \ˈsī-ən(t)s\
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Latin scientia, from scient-, sciens having knowledge, from present participle of scire to know; perhaps akin to Sanskrit chyati he cuts off, Latin scindere to split — more at shed
Date: 14th century
1: the state of knowing : knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding
2 a: a department of systematized knowledge as an object of study (the science of theology) b: something (as a sport or technique) that may be studied or learned like systematized knowledge (have it down to a science)
3 a: knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method b: such knowledge or such a system of knowledge concerned with the physical world and its phenomena : natural science
4: a system or method reconciling practical ends with scientific laws (cooking is both a science and an art)