23 August 2008

What is a Theory? Pt 2: Science is not Truth

A while back I posted What is a Theory?, where I tried to describe the meaning of the term theory and some philosophy of science. I am going to continue that thought, so you may want to review it. The approach then was somewhat of a defense of science. I concluded:

So when something is granted the title of Theory, we must know that it has been rigorously tested and has been found to be a very accurate description of reality. The charge that evolution is "just a theory" is the same as charging it as "just science."

Now I'm going to approach this from the other side: to say something may not be true because it is "just science" is actually a good argument.

The reason bodies of ideas in science never graduate from "theory" to "canon" is because nothing is ever proven. There are three categories for ideas: true, false, and maybe true. Science can only determine what is false. Theories that hold are maybe true. Absolutely undeniably true is never reached. In science, all we can know to be true is what is false. Think about that.

The attempt of science to understand the universe is like applying a process of elimination to a multiple choice problem (note the Stephen Hawking quote from last time). We can determine which options are false and thereby conclude the option that must be true. The difference in science is that there are more options than a, b, c and d. Although we'll get closer and closer, we can't use elimination to determine truth.

Terms such as "law" in scientific theory are unfortunate, like law of gravity. It seems to imply that the concept has attained the status of true. The only reason we think nature must abide by a "law" is because we have never observed it to do any differently (ever seen something disobey gravity?). Just because we haven't seen it does not mean it is impossible.

Einstein's prediction that light from distant stars bends around the sun was a great success of the theory of relativity. But it does not prove the theory. The whole thing is still maybe true. When this was taught to me in class, the professor said something like, "Those who are skeptical about relativity just need to look at the observations. Regardless of your beliefs, the facts force you to 'read em and weep'." That has some truth, but is debatable. Note well evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould: "Facts do not 'speak for themselves'; they are read in the light of theory." The only weeping to be done over these facts is that Newton's theory is not completely right. Ok, we've proven something false--same old story.

Anyway, all scientists understand that our theories are constantly being refined and that the current ideas are not dogma. It is unfortunate then that most in the scientific community treat their precious theories as dogma. Who wants to spend a lifetime of effort developing ideas only to find out that you are wrong? The scientific community will boast about its ability to self correct. However, when we get to the bottom of the matter, this is not about scientific ideas but about people. Attack evolution and you are actually attacking the people whose daily work is to study and develop the theory. And they will be offended not because of their dedication to truth but because of their pride. "I don't care if I'm wrong, just don't tell me I'm wasting my time," the prideful heart says. We are all this way.

Yes, science is just another human endeavor, tainted by the same things that humans are tainted with. If we are to find truth, it must come without sin. Evolution may not be true because it is only science, and science cannot tell us what is true. What, or who, can?

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