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……

 

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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.

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In the Beginning…

As this is my first post on this page, and indeed my first attempt at a blog of any kind, I feel I should start by introducing myself.  This post will serve as a brief overview of who I am, what I am about, and what my intentions are with this page.

About Me

My name is Justin, I am 28 years old, and as I have stated, I am new to the blogging world.  I identify as being various things, but for the purposes of this page, 3 of my positions will be most relevant.

1.  Politically speaking, I am a liberal.  I do not blindly accept any position that comes from the political left, nor do I agree with every position that liberals take.  Overall, however, I tend to be far closer to the liberal side of debate on many important social and economic issues.

2.  I am an atheist.  Shouldn’t be a complete shock here, as the label appears in the title of this page, but it is an accurate label nonetheless.  This means that I do not have any belief in the existence of a god or gods.  Depending on how “god” is defined, my response to it’s existence can vary.  I could be agnostic to it’s existence, or gnostic, for example.  My reasoning will also vary completely as the god concept I am addressing changes.  Overall, however, I use the label “atheist” because I have yet to encounter a definition of god, or a concept of the supernatural, that I find to be convincing.  Thus, I lack belief, and the label “atheist” fits.

3.  Perhaps the position I hold, that generates the most controversy, is the position of being an anti-theist.  This, of course, does not mean that I hate all theists.  Indeed, there are many people in my life, for whom I have a tremendous amount of respect, who are very religious people.  This also does not mean that I believe that every problem or evil that exists in the world is somehow the fault of religion.  Rather, I am an anti-theist because I truly believe that the net impact of religion, on the world as a whole, is a negative one.  The good that is often credited to religion, in my view, could exist entirely independent of these institutions.  While much of the harm that religion causes would not survive without devout followers.  I am convinced that mankind will be far better served to cast aside the traditions, superstitions, and dogmas of the world’s religions.  Of all of my stances, this is the one that inspires the most resistance, and it is quite possibly the position I will spend much of my time discussing.

This Page

As for this page, it is my intention to use this blog as an outlet for many of my thoughts on the above listed positions.  By that I mean that I plan to discuss current events, politics, religion, ethics, morality, philosophy, and many other subjects, from a secular standpoint.  I hope to elaborate on my above listed positions, and challenge many commonly held ideas and beliefs.

I reserve the right to occasionally stray from the stated objective of the page, if a particular story or event is extremely interesting, yet not quite in the scope of what I normally address.  Overall, however, I intend to keep most of my content relevant to the title of the page, and my above listed stances.

Freedom From Religion FoundationThis is going to be a venue of expression, rather than confrontation.  My experience discussing these issues has been mainly in debate format, up to this point, and I still enjoy participating regularly in discussions of that nature.  I am still currently an administrator of a public Facebook debate page, and I encourage anyone reading this to swing by the page and challenge me, or any of the fellow members, on a variety of topics.  On this page, however, I will be more focused on generating content.  This may change in the future, depending on how this project “evolves”, but at the onset I would prefer to direct any debate to the proper forum.  The debate page where I am an admin is http://www.facebook.com/atheistsVSreligion

Anyway, that’s a little bit about me, this page, and what my intentions are going forward.  Hopefully, there will be some who find these subjects as interesting as I do, and will enjoy reading as much as I enjoy writing.

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