Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Arguments I - Theory

This is going to be a chain of posts all titled 'Arguments'. Here I want to examine some of the arguments made against evolution and some of the ones for Intelligent Design. I just want to clear any misconceptions on my position for future posts.

Let's start with my favorite one: the word Theory. I like this one because it is word trick that might not be apparent when you first hear it. The way it's normally used is an attack on evolution and it's also used in a different context as a support for Intelligent Design.

First, we should all easily recognize that words have multiple meanings. I'm not talking different words, but the same exact words when you look them up in the dictionary have many possible meanings. Normally you can derive which definition is being used by the context the words are used within. To make this point I offer a simple word "Lot". According to Merriam-Webster's online dictionary its definitions include:

1. an object used as a counter in determining a question by chance
2. a: the use of lots as a means of deciding something b: the resulting choice
3. a: something that comes to one upon whom a lot has fallen : share b: one's way of life or worldly fate : fortune
4. a: a portion of land b: a measured parcel of land having fixed boundaries and designated on a plot or survey c: a motion-picture studio and its adjoining property d: an establishment for the storage or sale of motor vehicles
5. a: a number of units of an article, a single article, or a parcel of articles offered as one item (as in an auction sale) b: all the members of a present group, kind, or quantity
6. a: a number of associated persons b: kind, sort
7. a considerable quantity or extent ( a lot of money)

OK, my point here should suffice. Of course when someone uses the word, the context of use normally determines which definition applies.

Now take the word Theory, and again here is M-W's definiton:

1. the analysis of a set of facts in their relation to one another
2. abstract thought : speculation
3. the general or abstract principles of a body of fact (a science, or an art theory)
4. a: a belief, policy, or procedure proposed or followed as the basis of action (theory that all children want to learn) b: an ideal or hypothetical set of facts, principles, or circumstances —often used in the phrase in theory (in theory, we have always advocated freedom for all)
5. a plausible or scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena (theory of light)
6. a: a hypothesis assumed for the sake of argument or investigation b: an unproved assumption : conjecture c: a body of theorems presenting a concise systematic view of a subject (theory of equations)

Here we see six possible definitions of the word theory. In science the definition used is definition 5 "a plausible or scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena". This is what a scientific theory is. Notice the words I emphasized: Plausible, Acceptable, Explain. These are key words to understand what is meant by a scientific theory. Basically is works like this. A phenomena occurs, like an apple falling from a tree. Phenomena is just another word for occurrence, in this context. Something happened, usually something repeatable, i.e.: lots of things fall and they always fall in the same direction - down. Now science puts forth explanations and the tests and validates them to come up with explanations that are plausible, acceptable, and actual explain the occurrence. I hate to break the news to anyone reading this, but all science is theory, by this definition. They put forth the best possible theory, or set of theories and many of them are constantly under review, testing, experimentation, and may change over time. Newton's theories of gravity still apply in most cases, but Einstein's theories have replaced many parts of them. Science changes over time as new things are learned . . . it is, pardon my use of the word, an evolving process.

So when someone who attacks evolution refers to it derisively as "just" a theory they are in fact lying to you. By using the word theory they are technically correct, but they try and make it sound as if science really doesn't know or understand it because it's "only a theory". Can you see the lie? All science is theory! Light is a theory, as is the Atom, Gravity, and yes Evolution. By definition that should mean that it is a plausible, acceptable explanation of the phenomena observed for centuries. Darwin wrote in On Origin of the Species over 150 years ago and it is still a central tenet of the theory of evolution because is meets the definition. They are trying to get you to use an alternate definition, like definition 2 and get you to think of Evolution as some abstract idea.

What I find interesting is that many of the same people who attack evolution refer to Intelligent Design as a scientific theory. But don't be fooled, what they have used on you is a cheap lawyer's trick. They change definitions on you, they went to definition 6 "a: a hypothesis assumed for the sake of argument or investigation b: an unproved assumption : conjecture c: a body of theorems presenting a concise systematic view of a subject (theory of equations)" By that definition it is a theory, but it does not meet definition 5. It is not plausible -- unless you believe in a specific and narrow Christian view of the world -- to the rest of the world including three Pope, it's not plausible. It is not acceptable -- not by the scientific community, nor by anyone who understands scientific principles and methodology. It also explains nothing! In fact it stops any explaining. How can you get past "God did it!" with any form of further explanation. Intelligent design is an idea with no scientific evidence behind it!

So when an anti-evolutionist claims that Evolution is "just" a theory, they are right -- but remember what a scientific theory is. There is no "just" about it. When someone claims Intelligent Design is a theory, they are also right, just by a different definition of the word. Comparing the two is truly like comparing apples to oranges. They are two ideas separated by a large divide of evidence, experimentation, and support.

OK, enough on Theory, next up is the word Belief and how it is also used in support of Intelligent Design and as an attack on Evolution.

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