I Believe in Science

Copyright © 2007, Glenn Story

Last night on the news I saw a story where there’s now a museum in the Midwest somewhere that has exhibits about creationism as an alternatives scientific theory to the theory of evolution. This story drove me crazy. The problem with creationism can be summed up in the sound bite from a scientist interviewed for the story. “People can believe whatever they want. Just don’t call it ‘science.'”

So I’m here to tell you what I believe: I believe in science. I don’t mean science is my religion. But I do mean that I consider science to be a valid source of truth and understanding about the world we live in.

What is science? The word “science” derives from a Greet root meaning “knowledge”. But science does not claim to cover all forms of knowledge: it does not cover spiritual knowledge, mathematical knowledge, etc. Rather, science is a methodology for acquiring and refining our knowledge of the physical universe. It is based on observation, reasoning about that observation, further observation to validate the reasoning, and finally a methodology to ensure both correct observation and correct reasoning. By “correct” I don’t mean “orthodox” I mean to the degree possible the removal observational mistakes, and likewise the avoidance failures of logical consistency in our reasoning.

So why isn’t creationism science? Let’s start with observation. What is the observational basis of asserting creationism as a valid theory? I assert there is none.

The creationists may argue that their theory is just as plausible a theory as evolution. It has frequently occurred in the history of science that there have been competing theories. When I was a boy scientists debated over whether the universe had been created (the “big bang” theory) or whether it had always existed (the “steady state” theory). Now that argument has been resolved (by further observation): there is significant evidence to support the big bang theory and no real evidence to support the steady-state theory. That is how you resolve conflicting theories in science: Additional experiments or observations are made to try to prove or disprove each of the competing theories. What experimental or observational evidence would creationists propose? So far, to my knowledge they have put forth none.

Creationists also argue that “Evolution is just a theory–it isn’t proven either.” This is a mistake in understanding the meaning of the word “theory”. In everyday English, “theory” may be used to mean “an unproven idea.” In science, however, an unproven idea is called a “conjecture”. In science, “theory” means an idea for which there is supporting evidence and for which there is no substantial refuting evidence. There is plenty of evidence supporting evolution.

Creationists often say, “I believe in divine creation because it’s in the Bible.” Ok, fine, you can believe whatever you want. But believing in a book is not science. In fact epistemologically, a book cannot be a source of truth. It can, at best, be a conveyor of truth.

Indeed, epistemology is the real key to this debate. The scientists and the religionists have a different view of the source of truth and knowledge. It is therefore foolish for religionists to try to use science to bolster their faith. It is likewise foolish for scientists to try to use science to “disprove” religion. If scientists and religionists would debate the epistemological bases of their beliefs at least they would come to a real understanding of why they disagree.

This is where some scientists go astray. Some scientists and followers of science think that religion is based on “blind faith” whereas science is based on “facts”, “truth” and “reality.” I say to this latter group: Prove it! Of course I know they cannot.

In 1931 Kurt Goedel put forth his Incompleteness Theorem which basically states that there is no non-trivial system in which every proposition can be proven using logic applied within that system. For example, in geometry we have both theorems (which are proven) and postulates (which cannot be proven and are taken as true.) (Most of these postulates in geometry are obvious, such as a line segement is determined by two points. However, one of those postulates, that parallel lines neither converge nor diverge when extended to infnity, is harder to swallow and has led to alternative geometries.) Goedel’s theorem only applies to mathematical and logical systems, but I assert that science is, in part, a logical system, and as such falls within the Incompleteness Theorem.

For science, too, is based on a series of “postulates” if you will, that cannot be proven within the system of science. Some of these may seem obvious; others are more open to question (like the parallel lines postulate in geometry):

  1. Nature is based on a series of laws, i.e. rules of consistent behavior.
  2. These laws are uniform throughout space and time.
  3. Humans have the intellectual capacity to understand these laws.
  4. Human intellect has a connection to the physical universe, via our senses.
  5. Our senses give us accurate information about an existence exterior to ourselves.

#2 is a linchpin of scientific estimates of the age of the universe or the age of the planet earth (both of which are disputed by most creationists).

#4 and #5 are the biggest problem. Most westerners would read postulate #4, and say “sure, of course.” But many Asians, for example, have other views. Study the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism for one example. Or for an entertaining counter-example from our own culture, watch the movie, The Matrix. You cannot even begin to prove scientifically that assertion #4 is true, or to the contrary, that we are living in the Matrix or in the Maya of Hinduism.

And even if #4 is true #5 presents problems. Suppose #4 is correct but #5 is wrong. Actually, I would assert that to some extent it is wrong. Are your senses aware of the billions of neutrinos coursing through your body this momemt? You think that table near you is solid? Actually it’s mostly empty space. You think you can touch it? Actually you only come close to it at which point electrical repulsion keeps your hand from coming any closer. Yet these are ideas from science, not eastern mysticism.

If #5 is not true, why do I include it? I believe it is partially true and to the extent it is not, that science has devised ways to correct for the inaccuracies, just as my eyeglasses correct my faulty vision.

And so I return to my original statement: I believe in science. But I know and acknowledge that that “belief” is only that: I believe (by faith) that the five postulates above are true. And given that they are true, that science is the best, most accurate methodology for acquiring knowledge of the physical world that humankind, in some 5000 years of civilization, has devised. That’s what I believe; as the scientist said, you can believe whatever you want.

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