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 thinking – or 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
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