It’s JUST a Theory…

As I am not a scientist by any means, I will generally leave the specifics of scientific discussion to people who are far more qualified.  I must, however, briefly address an idea I encounter often.  How many people reading this have ever been in a discussion about evolution, or the big bang, and heard a person dismissively say “it’s just a theory”.  This is often said with a certain level of smugness, as if theories aren’t to be taken seriously.  How many people reading this have actually, themselves, said something to this effect?  Since this comes up so often in debates with people who are skeptical of science, I figured I would address this point.  It is, after all, a misunderstanding of science that is so basic, even a layman can see the problem.

I Guess it’s a Theory…

The confusion, I suspect, arises from the colloquial use of the term theory.  When a person claims to have a “theory” about something, it is often actually a guess.  It is conjecture, and it could be wildly incorrect.  A random individual, offering up their “theory” about a given thing, is under no obligation to have thought about their idea for more than a single moment.  This, it seems to me, is why the word theory is not taken seriously by some.

So how, if at all, is it different when science uses the word theory?  Simply put, the meaning of the term theory is VERY different from that used above, when it is used in the context of scientific explanations.  The use of the term theory, that is described in the above paragraph, is far more like the word “hypothesis”.  When a scientist gathers enough observations, and sets out to explain a particular phenomena, they begin by forming a hypothesis that they believe explains what is being observed.  This hypothesis is a guess, even if it is often an educated guess.

And so it Begins

With a hypothesis in mind, the process is now only just beginning.  What follows is a very rigorous series of tests and experiments, designed to examine the hypothesis for accuracy.  These tests are designed to verify the hypothesis, and ensure that it accounts for all available data.  If, at any time, the results of an experiment call the hypothesis into question, the hypothesis is either tweaked, or outright discarded.  However, if the hypothesis appears to be confirmed by every test, the results will be forwarded to the next step in the process – peer review.

We have now made observations, formed a hypothesis, and tested this idea over and over again to great success.  One would think we have a pretty solid explanation for the original phenomena, but the real fun is only about to begin.  We must now subject our hypothesis, and our experimental results, to the process of peer review.  This basically means that well-trained experts, in our given field of study, are going to take our idea and do everything in their power to dismantle it.  The hypothesis will be screened with a fine tooth comb, and our experiments will be placed under a microscope.  Every known method of “falsifying” our hypothesis will be attempted.  If, at any time during this process, our hypothesis is exposed to be in error, it is dismissed and we go back to scratch.  If however, the idea survives the firing squad, the hypothesis will be published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

Does Your Theory Pass the Test?

Why is all of this important?  What does this have to do with the word theory?  A scientific Theory has passed every ONE of the above measures, and more.  It has been examined, scrutinized, and taken to task, only to emerge even more confirmed each time.  The title “theory” is EARNED in science.  It is the HIGHEST title that a scientific explanation can achieve.  A scientific theory is based on evidence, and observation.  It’s explanations reliably account for all the information we have, its predictions are confirmed each time they are put to the test.

It is often thought that a scientific explanation is only called a theory when it isn’t “proven”.  Again, this is simply false.  As stated, once an explanation earns the title theory, that’s it.  There is no higher title for it to achieve, and it will never become anything else.  Some seem to operate under the misconception that a theory is a less proven idea, and a scientific law is a fact.  Once more evidence is gathered, a theory will become a law.  This is also not the case.  Scientific laws are simply different from theories altogether.  A theory will always be a theory, and a law will always be a law.  They are not different levels of certainty.  BOTH are considered to be theoretical and BOTH are considered to be “facts”.

It may come as a surprise to some that many ideas, commonly accepted as facts, are ACTUALLY scientific theories.  Gravity, motion, the behavior of atoms, the earth rotating on an axis, the planets orbiting the sun, etc.  All of these “facts” are, in actuality, theories.  Does this make THEM any less true?  No.  It seems to only become an issue when evolution, a theory that is equally supported (if not more so) by evidence, is discussed.

The Million Dollar Question

The only question remaining is that, if theories are established facts, then why do we call them theories?  Why not call them facts?  The answer to this goes to the very core of the scientific process.  Science almost never deals in absolutes.  Any explanation we have can only POSSIBLY be the best explanation available, given what we know.  Science is a discipline of skepticism and intellectual honesty.  It recognizes that our knowledge and understandings can and WILL always improve.  It recognizes that we can only hope to offer explanations that account for all CURRENT data and information.  New data could always be discovered that will force us to revisit our explanations and either refine them, or even discard them.  This is not a failing of science, but rather it’s GREATEST strength.  The discipline of science is ever mindful of our own limitations, and endlessly seeking the next great discovery.

Which of Your Theories Could Use Refinement?

When the topic is evolution, or even the big bang, it is so often said these are just “theories”.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Yes, they are theories, but there is nothing “just” about them.  They stand as the best explanations we have, or COULD have, given the evidence available to us.  Their predictions have been observed, their teachings have been confirmed, their evidence has been examined.  Every attempt at falsification has proven to be in vain.  We know these things to be true with the same degree of certainty that we can know any scientific understanding to be true.  That is to say, it is definitely the case, provided new evidence does not come along to completely refine our understandings.

To make a long story short, it isn’t JUST a theory……




Common Misconceptions

A chart showing the relationship between weak/...

Image via Wikipedia

It seems as though I cannot go more than a week without encountering the same misconceptions about what Atheism is, and what it is not.  At times, the confusion is intentional.  That is to say that the position of atheism is deliberately strawmanned into a stance that is easier to defeat in debate.  Such an obviously dishonest tactic is unlikely to go anywhere anytime soon, so this is not the confusion that I wish to address.  Rather, there still exists a genuine misunderstanding out there, even amongst many “non believers” as to what the label atheism really means.  A few of the more common misconceptions I encounter:

1.  Atheism is the positive belief that NO god or gods exist.  An atheist is certain that no such things exist.

This is not what atheism necessarily means.  What is described above is “strong atheism”, or even “gnostic atheism”.  While there are people who would fit under this label, it is NOT true of the majority of people who identify as atheists.  Theism is the positive belief in the existence of a god or gods.  A-theism is to simply lack this belief.  One COULD lack belief because they assert certainty in the inexistence of gods, or they could simply lack belief as a result of being unconvinced of theistic claims.  If you lack positive believe in a god or gods, you are an atheist.

2.  Agnosticism

This is quickly becoming one of my least favorite words.  I cannot even count the amount of times I have encountered someone who will, while rather proud of themselves, declare “Atheism and Theism are both blind faiths, I am agnostic because there is no way to be sure”.  This is one of the MOST commonly misunderstood areas of religious debate.

The suggestion that being agnostic is somehow some “middle ground” between theism and atheism is, on every level, FALSE.  If we trace the meaning of these words from their roots, we can see a very obvious flaw in this line of thinking.  Gnosticism deals with KNOWLEDGE.  An agnostic holds the position that absolute knowledge is not known, or cannot be known, about a given proposition.  It says NOTHING about whether or not the proposition is believed.  Theism and atheism are stances on belief, while agnosticism is an entirely separate category, compatible with either theism OR atheism.  For example:

Gnostic Theist:      “I believe there is a god, and I KNOW it to be true beyond ALL doubt”
Agnostic Theist:    “I don’t know for SURE if god exists, but I certainly BELIEVE he does”
Agnostic Atheist:  “I don’t know if any god or gods exist, but I see no good reason to believe”
Gnostic Atheist:    “No such things as gods exist, I am certain of this”

A question that may come to mind here is “why disbelieve if you admit you do not know?”  If we cannot know for sure one way or another, isn’t the only honest thing to say “I don’t know”?  Well, yes and no.  Anytime a question is asked, and the answer is unknown, “I don’t know” is a fine answer.  However, this does NOT apply when positive claims are made, and expected to be believed or considered.  Whenever a claim is made, especially a claim that is of some significant consequence, the burden of proof falls upon the claimant to back up their assertion.  When responding to claims, skepticism is important.  We do not need to have knowledge one way or another to be skeptical of any claim, until it can be properly supported by evidence or reason.  A perfect example of this is the judicial system here in America.

A court case begins, and a defendant is brought up on charges of murder.  You are sitting in the jury.  The claim being put to you is that “defendant A is guilty of the crime murder”.  At the onset, you have no evidence either way, and you can’t possibly be anything but agnostic regarding the claim.  Are you then sitting on the fence?  If asked to vote immediately, should you respond “I don’t know”?  Of course not.  The burden of proof has not been met to establish this defendant’s guilt.  Until such a time when this burden IS met, “not guilty” is the only responsible vote a person could offer.  This does not mean that your mind is closed to hearing the evidence, or that you are not willing to change your mind should the evidence prove persuasive, it simply means that the DEFAULT position with regard to this claim is disbelief.

Now the trial has unfolded, witnesses have been called, exhibits have been shown, and closing arguments have been made.  You, and your fellow jurors are called into quarters to cast your votes.  The sentiment in the group is not unanimous, and there are people voting different ways.  3 people vote “guilty”, and 9 people vote “not guilty”.  With regard to the claim “defendant A is guilty of murder”, we basically now have 3 “theists” and 9 “atheists”.  The 3 people voting guilty are CERTAIN.  They are convinced beyond a reasonable doubt, and could not be more confident in their decision.  3 others are CERTAIN of the defendant’s innocence, and are firm that it simply isn’t possible that the defendant committed this crime.

The above example certainly includes 3 gnostic “theists”, and 3 gnostic “atheists”, but what about the other 6 people?  They aren’t convinced, beyond a reasonable doubt, either way.  Are they then ONLY agnostic?  NO!  While they may not be sure one way or another, they are unconvinced that the burden of proof was met for them to believe the claim.  Yes, they are agnostic, but they are also Atheists with respect to the claim before them.

This same principle applies to religious claims.  The burden of proof lies with the person making the claim.  While responding, you may not know if their concept of god exists or not, but you do not HAVE to know for certain to reject belief in their claim.  Again, when a claim proposed, the default position is disbelief.  An open mind will allow a person to entertain the claim, and enable the person to evaluate any supporting evidence.  But belief is something that should be EARNED.  Only when a claim is sufficiently supported by evidence, reason, or sound argument, is belief justified.  This includes claims where absolute knowledge is unavailable.  Simply stopping at “I don’t know” is a complete non-answer when it comes to what a person does or does not believe.  So the next time you are in a religious discussion, and you encounter someone who says “I’m agnostic,” the question should then become….an agnostic WHAT?


Belief for the Sake of Belief?

English: Sam Harris

Image via Wikipedia

I was in a debate recently, and was responding to an argument I come across quite often.  It took place on a public debate page, and began with a post to this affect:

I saw a post on here saying being religious is to be ignorant. Being religious isn’t being ignorant. Its a choice people make. To believe in what they want even if others do not agree with it. If something is fantasy, and want to devote their life to it, let them. For, to that person, it is truth for them.

Now this certainly isn’t a particularly original defense of religious belief.  Noted author, Sam Harris, has addressed these very arguments on many occasions.  Still, it is a plea that is so ill-conceived that I could not resist delivering a response.  This was my rebuttal to two of the points made in the above passage.

1.  “Being religious isn’t being ignorant. Its a choice people make.”

How a person acts upon their religious beliefs could possibly be viewed as a choice, but their BELIEFS are not. We cannot simply “choose” what we believe. True belief is the product of being persuaded or convinced of a proposition. If I do not believe that Elvis is still alive, I could CHOOSE to pretend as though I do, but I could not actually believe it inside without being convinced of the claim by evidence or argument.

2.  “If something is fantasy, and they want to devote their life to it, let them.   For to that person it is truth for them.”

The taboo around challenging religious beliefs is something that, itself, needs to be challenged. Sam Harris quite rightly addresses this in many of his books. Name one OTHER discipline, subject, or realm where this sort of behavior or attitude is acceptable. If someone wishes to be a holocaust denier, should we simply respect that belief? If someone decides the moon is made out of cheese, are they applauded for their faith? If someone decides that water is not made of hydrogen and oxygen, but instead is made from mind-controlling chemicals, is their viewpoint given ANY credence?

The answer is, of course, no. Sure, a person has a legal RIGHT to believe these ridiculous things, but they are not free from consequence if they express them publicly. Any claim, opinion, or viewpoint is challenged, questioned, and evaluated against the evidence, rather than being automatically respected. Only informed opinions garner respect, only educated guesses warrant consideration, and only evidentially supported claims are given any merit.

English: Sam Harris speaking in 2010

Suddenly, the moment someone mentions god, all of the above rules go flying out the window? If someone holds a trivial belief, that is obviously ridiculous, it is challenged. But if someone adopts an equally unsupported idea regarding matters of grave importance, suddenly questioning their idea is taboo? This is nonsense. Religions shape the way people live their lives. They often impact the way societies function. Education, science, morality, and social acceptance are constantly impacted and influenced by these beliefs.

They are demonstrably more impacting than almost any other position. This is all the MORE reason to hold them to the very same standard to which we evaluate every other claim or concept. If you have a claim, support it with evidence, or prepare to have it disregarded. If you make an assertion, provide reasoning, or it will be dismissed. This goes ESPECIALLY for claims and beliefs that aim to impact the way people live their lives. Religion is certainly no exception.  There is no particular reason to have belief, simply for the sake of having belief.