On The Nature Of Scientific Theories

I was reading the delightful blog Ask A Mathematician / Ask A Physicist (in particular, this post), when I encountered this noteworthy comment (and this one) from one of that blog’s readers.

The post is about why the earth orbits the sun, and the essence of the two comments is that science is unable to explain some key things about the universe, and so God exists. The final few sentences of the second comment are:

Common sense and reason tell us to accept all these happening are the result of Divine Intervention. The One God! Yours and mine.

The entire smoke screen that goes by the name Intelligent Design (formerly known as Creationism) can be summarized in just the same way:

There are problems with the theory of evolution. Therefore God exists.

That’s right, Intelligent Design (ID) is just an argument for the existence of God. A fallacious one, since the matter can’t be proven one way or the other, and therefore holds little interest for me. But once one recognizes this, the debate about whether ID ought to be taught in school science classes as an alternative to evolution is instantly settled: No. We don’t teach Hinduism or Buddhism in science class, nor do we teach ID, and for the same reason. Teaching religion has its place, but it doesn’t belong in science class.

The way of science is to use observation, experimentation, and reason to understand the world. If observation and reason lead us to modify our cherished beliefs, then we do so. This is opposed to the fundamentalist religious stance, which is to select only the evidence that supports cherished beliefs obtained from authorities and to reject all other evidence that opposes our rigidly held beliefs, no matter how inconsistent with reality they might be.

A little scientific literacy would be of tremendous benefit for immunizing lay people against the specious arguments of ID proponents. There are problems with all scientific theories. All scientific theories leave some phenomena unexplained. There is no way around this; scientific theories are somewhat like works of art: Imperfect representations of some aspect of reality. But just look at how far our understanding of the world has developed thanks to our glorious imperfect scientific theories!

There are problems with Newtonian mechanics. This doesn’t stop us from building bridges, buildings, roads, and sending satellites into orbit, using Newtonian mechanics as a faithful guide. An imperfect theory that has definite problems is nevertheless extremely useful.

Using Newtonian mechanics as a foundation, we have constructed more advanced theories, such as special relativity and quantum mechanics. The new theories are not plagued by the problems of the old theory, but they have new problems of their own. This is unavoidable, as science is a human creation.

Using the new theories of special relativity and quantum mechanics (and also making use of theories of electromagnetism), our understanding of reality has grown tremendously, to the extent that we now know how to make MRI machines, MP3 players, everything to do with lasers, and many other wonders of our technological age.

Using the imperfect, problematic theory of evolution, we have tremendously developed our understanding of the biological world, including our understanding of disease and its propagation and alleviation.

And so it’s troubling that at this stage of our evolution as a species, we still have leaders conning people into believing that because a scientific theory has problems, we should reject it and believe instead in some holy book or other. It bothers me that people are still making such arguments, and it bothers me that so many people are ill-informed enough to accept such arguments.

There are people out there who are proudly, militantly, anti-science, and yet they take their ill children to a hospital to be treated by a doctor rather than to a place of religious worship to be treated by a religious leader. Does this make sense? If they are going to slam science and scientists as ungodly, unholy, condemned to hell, then does it make sense for them to drive cars, watch big-screen TVs, listen to iPods? Where do they think our modern way of life came from — a close reading of a holy book?

What’s the remedy? A little less vitriol and a little more nuance and empathy, I reckon. And a little more education.

*   *   *

OK, now that the rant is over, here is a related question: Is it possible to be religious and still be scientific? Does one have to give up one’s religion to be scientific, and to enjoy the fruits of modern technology without being contradictory or hypocritical?

Absolutely it’s possible to be both religious and scientific, as many religious scientists do, but it depends on just what one’s religious beliefs are. And I recognize that we are all fearful humans, and so we need certain stories to comfort us and help us live with our terror. But if we believe too much just because someone tells us it’s so, we will have a hard time operating scientifically. If you believe that the world was created 6000 years ago in six days, because people you love and trust have been telling you so since you were a small child, then you will have a hard time approaching the world scientifically.

Many people, including scientists, are religious and find a way to operate religiously and scientifically in a consistent way. For example, one can understand the teachings of one’s holy book (including creation myths) metaphorically. One can imagine that when God created the universe, she just tossed all the ingredients into a sort of playground, set the basic ground rules, and is now happily observing the results. There are an unlimited number of possible belief systems that encompass religion and science consistently; if that be your pleasure, then you’ll find a way to do so in your own special way.

There are many atheists out there who are caring, compassionate, wonderful human beings. And there are some deeply religious people who are horrible human beings. Rather than emphasize the false dichotomy of religion vs science, why can’t we just all work towards being good human beings and learn to understand the world scientifically as well?

Religion is at its best when it helps us to make a connection with others, with the world, with something larger than ourselves. Religion is at its worst when it tells us to “Believe this,” and “Don’t believe this,” because “I told you so.”

Religion at its best is consistent with science; religion at its worst is opposed to science.

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About Santo D'Agostino

I have taught mathematics and physics since the mid 1980s. I have also been a textbook writer/editor since then. Currently I am working independently on a number of writing and education projects while teaching physics at my local university. I love math and physics, and love teaching and writing about them. My blog also discusses education, science, environment, etc. https://qedinsight.wordpress.com Further resources, and online tutoring, can be found at my other site http://www.qedinfinity.com
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8 Responses to On The Nature Of Scientific Theories

  1. vinpas says:

    Good afternoon, Dr. D’Agostino!

    Ironically enough, my work colleagues and I just had an hour and a half conversation on just this today during (and after) lunch. Buzz words such as “tolerance”, “acceptance”, and “understanding” were thrown around during our talk, as well as what you mentioned about not having to be a radical or extremist, or even believe in God at all (atheist), but to live life as a good and moral (but really, what is “morality”?) human being.

    This was a great post, brief and to the point. It’s a topic that can be debated and fought over for a lifetime (or many thousands of lifetimes at that). Two thumbs up.

    On a lighter note: hope all is well and that you enjoyed your summer. I have been making sure to keep up with your posts even though I may not comment all the time. I enjoyed your recursion problem. I remember your ability to do mental calculations during physics lectures…I hope you aren’t losing it! 🙂

    All the best,

    Vince.

    • Hi Vince,

      Nice to hear from you! Summer has been good, no complaints.

      Glad you liked the post, I anticipate more frequent posts now after a bit of a summer break when I was busy doing other things.

      I hope I’m not losing it, too! Keep an eye on me, I guess!

      How was your summer? Are you ready for the new school year?

      All the best,
      Santo

  2. Mathew M says:

    Hello Professor,

    I hope you are doing well excellent post i must add.To point out that this is more common than otherwise thought.I had a similar experience on my trip down to the states during the summer,while I was waiting to catch a connecting flight at Pittsburgh.A book title displayed behind the windows of the book store caught my attention,it was titled “How to defend yourself against alien abduction”.This lead me to ponder as to what must have transpired in the arrival of the book at the store , someone had to write the book, a publisher must have purchased the book from the author and the publishing company this would lead me to conclude there must be a significant readership involved.I suspect false issues like Intelligent design is symptomatic of a much broader malady that exists in the society today which is an onslaught of pseudo scientific thinking and thanks to the internet such ideas now have a platform and can spread like wildfire.Another example is when I boarded the airplane I noticed the numbering of the seats had omitted the number 13 I observed this again with my connecting flight and later still i observed this with elevators which had the 13th floor missing it was 11,12 and 14 .I asked my fellow passengers about this odd practice of avoiding the number 13 in the U.S and they told me that people thought 13 is an unlucky number.I guess superstitious thinking is very alive and well. The same is true of astrology actually astrology is alive and well even today , there are millions of people who think the stars are arranged with them at the center.I believe the reason why such beliefs are common now more widely perhaps even more than 500 years ago is because our educational system has failed the students in teaching critical thinking and to value evidence.This leaves the students scientifically illiterate and prone to the influences of biases of all sorts. I’m not sure if you’re aware that I.D is an enterprise that is financially baked by a well funded group of people who claim to be scientists known as the discovery institute.Its enough to make a cat laugh !!

    • Hi Mathew,

      Nice to hear from you! I would like to report that I have never been abducted by aliens, from which you can conclude that I must have read the book you mention very carefully (13 times, in fact), and acted upon its advice!

      But, jokes aside, I agree with your comment, and it’s hard to know whether to laugh or to cry. Undoubtedly the best course is to waste no time laughing or crying, but to carry on with the task of educating each other.

      And yes, I’ve read a fair bit about the Discovery Institute and their attempts to get their religious views into school science classes. Their beliefs used to be known as “creationism” but then morphed into intelligent design after they had lost a few legal battles with various school boards. One must remain vigilant lest society descend into some hellish version of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

      I hope your summer was good, and I hope you’ll have a great school year!

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  4. Ali Baaqail says:

    Dear Professor Santo D’Agostino,

    I read your post of August 31, 2011, where you made comments on the final few sentences of my post:

    Common sense and reason tell us ……………. Yours and mine.

    As I said I never deny efforts and hard work of people of knowledge. Behind every event or happening there are two elements – causation + force of intention – which accelerate those events or happenings. City of New York had several bridges. Why they built those bridges because people do not want to swim, every day, when they are going to work. Here you will find the river is the CAUSATION and the erection of the bridge is the FORCE OF INTENTION.

    Our solar system was formed before several billions years and life emerged on earth, may be, less than a billion year ago. When life appeared on earth there were, already, innumerable sources of livelihood to survive the life. In deep space, just several hundred miles above the earth, you can not survive more than ninety seconds if you are not wearing space suit. Here, again, you will find the CAUSATION and the FORCE OF INTENTION.

    Both, above, events need an intelligent designer, planner and programmer. Theory of evolution is lacking all.

    Man is free to believe whatever he likes but should not cross the boundaries of reason and common sense. Blind belief of German Nation in Adolf Hitler’s dream of glory caused the death of more than fifty million lives. When raining you take umbrella with you but apes and monkeys, in jungle, never thought to use umbrella because they lacked the intelligence.

    May be my examples are, in your opinion, are childish but it is a fact and reality.

    I do not want to waste your precious time and thank you.

    • Dear Ali Baaqail,

      You say, “Common sense and reason tell us to accept all these happening are the result of Divine Intervention.” and also “Both, above, events need an intelligent designer, planner and programmer.”

      There is no valid rational argument that an intelligent designer exists, and there is also no valid rational argument that an intelligent designer does not exist. It is not a matter of common sense either. Some people spend an enormous amount of time and energy trying to prove the matter one way or the other, when no proof is possible. Every argument rests on assumptions that are themselves open to doubt. So we don’t know if your statements above are true; we don’t know if events happen because of divine intervention, and we don’t know if an intelligent designer is needed. Nobody knows.

      It is a matter of faith, not a “fact and reality” as you say. Whether God exists, and what God is like, is a matter of faith, and cannot be proven or disproven by rational argumentation.

      So rather than waste time on such arguments, let us learn about science and use it for its intended purposes (to help us towards a deeper understanding of the world), and let us use religion for its intended purposes (connection with our community, deeper understanding of ourselves and other people, deeper understanding of our purpose on earth, connection with a higher purpose/higher power, etc.).

      I agree with you when you say, “Man is free to believe whatever he likes but should not cross the boundaries of reason and common sense.” But let’s not pretend that our beliefs are “fact and reality.” Our beliefs are just our beliefs, nothing more. Beliefs about intelligent designers are not fact, and not common sense; they are just beliefs. I have my beliefs, and you have your beliefs; but let us live together in peace.

      All the best wishes,
      Santo

  5. Ali Baaqail says:

    Dear Professor Santo,

    Good Afternoon – Sir,

    Your reply of October 12, 2011 was very reasonable and wise. And I was not expecting, from you, less than this. Thank you. I am quoting couple of verses from our Holy Book Qur’an. Not for the sake of argument, only for the sake of knowledge.

    “God himself is Witness that there is no God save Him. And the angels and the men of knowledge (too are witness). If they stand firm on justice (to tell the truth), there is no God save Him, the Almighty, the Wise. (chapter: 3 verse: 18)”

    Before I describe the second verse I would like to show you the circumstantial incident where Prophet Moses commanded by his Lord (God) to go to Pharaoh to seek the freedom of Children of Israel. Upon arriving Pharaoh’s court – he asks to Moses:

    “(Pharaoh) said: Who then is the Lord of you twain (Moses and his brother Aaron), O Moses.? He (Moses) said: Our Lord (God) is He who gave unto everything its nature (Phenomenon), then guided it aright. (chapter: 20 verses: 49-50) ”

    Then the big question is: Who ordered or proposed to the life supporting elements, long before emerging, any kind of life on the earth, to take shape with the right phenomena which will give the right support to the life of all the creatures to survive?

    Who gave the heat to the sun? Who ordered to the earth to spin and orbit around the sun? Who commanded the earth to hold two third of water of its capacity? Who gave the wetness to the water? Who gave the power to the earth to grow our food? Who gave the sight to the eyes to see? Who gave the ability to the ear to hear? Who gave the pleasant fragrance or odor to the flowers and roses? Who gave the sense to smell? Who commanded a drop of fluid, when laid in the womb of a woman, to grow and become a soul with flesh, bones and blood? Who gave ability to the cattle to give us sweet and clean milk to drink, which comes from their bellies? Who ordered the bee to take her provision from different trees of fruits and provide you with a sweet fluid, which also cure, many of us, from decease? Who gave the feelings and emotions to cry and to laugh to love and to hate? Who gave the Conscience – to utter a word of justice on wrong and unjust and appreciation on right and just deeds? The God, the Best of creators, gave all the phenomena to these elements.

    Thanks again, I took a lot of your time, from now and on you will never hear from me.

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