While surfing radio channels awhile back, I happened upon a host of a Catholic show who was addressing evolution and Catholicism. My science background and apologetic interests made me listen closer. Her view was interesting, however, I was disappointed in a common line she used.
She, like Catholicism in general, does not take a hard stand on the evolution issue (which is another topic). She, however, made an argument that I think sets people up for failure. She said the following, or a variation of it: “evolution is just a theory, so it is not a fact”. You may think it is surprising that I would be concerned with this line, considering what I write and talk about. I’m one of those Darwinian skeptics you know. If you will, however, let me point out three concerns that come to mind with this line.
Never say “evolution is just a theory”
First, the “it’s just a theory” line, while it’s true in one sense, is not true how she presented it. And she is not alone, it’s a popular “rebuttal” from evolution skeptics. However, it’s better to use real arguments instead of false rhetorical language.
The word “theory” doesn’t mean the same thing in science as it does in general society. Most people think it means something like a conjecture, speculation or assumption. Not so in the scientific world, the word ”theory” means something like a robust and well evidenced explanation for something. The scientific word “hypothesis” would be a closer fit to the pop definition of the word “theory”.
Never say “evolution is not a fact”
And then, after saying “evolution is just a theory”, the well meaning person goes on with finality to say “thus it’s not a fact”. Now the connotation of this line: “it’s not proven to be true, so there, take that” may be ear candy in a group of evolution skeptics, it’s sounds, however, quite silly in the science world. Yes, while this phrase is somewhat true, it’s also misleading how it’s framed.
This “not a fact” line has another connotation too, something to the idea of evolution has not been prove to be true. However, in actuality, according to Hume’s Problem of Induction, nothing in science can be proven to be true since science is based upon induction. Laws, theories and hypotheses can be falsified, but not proven true. Theories can be robust or strong, but proof is outside the capabilities of science.
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This may be a little surprising and unsettling for some, but that is the nature of induction. We know the conclusions from the inductive enterprise are true because of our past experiences shown from induction to be true. If that sounds confusing, you see the problem. Induction explains things from past experiences. Thus, induction is circular, and the strange conclusion we come to is that scientific explanations are ultimately dependent upon blind faith. Conclusions of science are always tentative and could change with just one small piece of new information.
Also, evolution is not alone in that it can’t be a “proven fact”, all scientific conclusions or explanations are tentative. To single out evolution makes the argumentation more pompous than it really is and thus becomes empty rhetoric. It’s like “duh, every scientific theory can’t be proven to be true, so now what?”
The term evolution is equivocal
Lastly, I’m concerned about how the term “evolution” is used equivocally. Evolution has various meanings in both general culture and in the scientific world.
Some meanings aren’t disputed, such as the standard definition of biological evolution, “change in allele frequency in a population over time”. And we must not forget the yawn simulating definition, “change over time”.
However, these must not be confused with definitions that ignite fireworks all over this side of the north pole, such as in Darwinism (or neo-darwinism, the modern synthesis or Darwinian evolution). All of which can be defined something to the effect of “all of life came from a universal common ancestor via genetic mutations, filtered by natural selection.” And to add insult to injury, this does not count cosmic evolution (evolution of the universe) stellar evolution (evolution of stars), organic evolution (origin of life or abiogenesis) and so many other variations that involve much controversy.
All in all, a line like this should not be used, at least I don’t use it. It is misleading and equivocal. It is not accurate and I would argue is quite unconvincing. If I would use it, I know an astute person could really take me to task for it. Thus I don’t use it. Plus it “illustrates to secularists”, to their enjoyment, how unreasonable and wrong headed theists are, which is pure bunk.
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6 thoughts on “Three Reasons To Never Say “Evolution Is Just A Theory, But Not A Fact””
How would you approach the evolution debate than?
James, while the line is easy to say (and I would say catchy and fun too), it’s not good argumentation because it’s sending the wrong connotation. In a past post I wrote (http://iapologia.com/dont-ever-say-you-dont-believe-in-evolution/), I suggested this phrase “I don’t hold to Darwinian evolution”. Maybe you could say something to the effect of “neo-Darwinism does not comport with our experience of the rise of information and design” or “the neo-Darwinian synthesis is not true”. Better yet, when one claims evolution is true, ask what that person means by the word “evolution”. Agree that it’s true if they define it as “change in allele frequencies over time” or “change over time”. Disagree, however, if they define to something like “universal common descent via genetic mutation filtered by natural selection”.
I think the way to approach the evolution debate is to cut to the heart of what they are claiming.
The evolutionary tale starts with the Big Bang which in itself is not scientifically unrealistic – to put it mildly. However, in order for the Big Bang to have happened, there would have had to have been matter, and additionally, space to have accomadated the resulting explosion.
Where did that matter come from? Where did the space to house the explosion come from? How was it created?
These are the questions the Big Bang hypothesis cannot explain. I mean, the best explanation that Stephen Hawking could come up with was that nothing pulled really hard on nothing, and boom, there was something. I’m serious.
This is where the evolutionist argument is at it’s weakest. You can argue forever about whether mutations are beneficial or not, but that misses the point. Without a beginning, the middle doesn’t matter.
I think the way to approach the origins debate is to cut to the chase and attack the idea right at it’s core.
The theory doesn’t even account for how matter was created, and the best explanation I’ve seen for how that happened was an excerpt from a Stephen Hawking book that basically states that nothing’s gravitational pull pulled really hard on nothing and all of a sudden, there was something that blew up into a vacuum that somehow already existed. That explosion instantly set up the laws of thermodynamics, and then everything slowed down to a snails pace for the next 13.5 billion years.
Its plain flat out ridiculous, and this is where evolution should be attacked – it’s weakest link. A person can argue forever about whether mutations are beneficial or not (even with the immense evidence indicating they are not, but that argument is completely irrelevant when one considers the absurdity of the Big Bang. Without Alpha, there can be no Omega, or anything in between.
I have always know Christian people received scripted talking points, but I have never actually seen them generated. This is interesting.
Thanks Charles for your thoughts. If you want to think of them as scripted talking points, that is your freedom. However, I think this post is clear that the aim is clarity in conversation. If more people would have this desire, I do think conversation would be better. First we need to stop repeating empty rhetoric, and second respond with truth and inquiry.