science/religion discussion

I read the Of Course I Could Be Wrong… blog fairly regularly – it’s written by a rather cynical Anglican priest, and is usually interesting and challenging. Today I read a post on it about science and religion, and for the first time was moved to respond. It turned out to be one very long and one medium response (so far) and is quite an interesting thread, although I think some people aren’t really speaking the same language. If you don’t feel like following the links, here is my comment:

Science is not a construct where anything is ever “accepted as a complete and proved theory”. Any scientist who does this is basically a charlatan. There’s no such thing as a “scientific fundamentalist” – a true scientist will always allow his or her theories to be undermined by further scientific findings.

A couple of examples: a scientist would believe that water boils at 100C. That seems like a fact. Then another scientist points out that a different air pressure would change the boiling point of water, so the theory of water boiling is altered accordingly, results are published and peer reviewed, experiments are repeated to ensure that the results can be replicated, and the theory is taken as a solid working theory with the understanding that new findings, or more accurate measurements, could change the theory. And that’s good, because this is science and we want to find out more about our wonderful universe, and use our scientific theories to drive more exploration.

Similar things were seen with Newton’s theory of gravity. This theory was poked at and tested and supported for many years. But when Einstein suggested his refinements, his ideas were again published, peer reviewed and eventually tested and re-tested and found to be a better understanding of the mechanics of gravity. Even the theory of gravity – you’d think this would be untouchable from a factual standpoint – can be upended due to new scientific findings.

OK, so those are two physics examples. How about evolution? Remember that Darwin wasn’t the only person to be working on theories of inheritance. Lamarck was a famous scientist who altered understanding of evolution by suggesting that organisms pass on characteristics which they have acquired during their lifetimes. This was a widely held scientific belief, to the extent that Soviet scientist and agriculturists followed the theory, attempting to breed hardier crops by subjecting them to cold, with the result that the Soviet Union suffered massive crop failures. The point of this example is that Lamarckism was a widely held understanding of evolution which turned out to be basically false, so the theory of evolution was refined accordingly.

We’ll come back to evolution in a moment, but in passing I want to address what you said about the “can’t be anything outside the universe” statement. I agree, very unscientific, and I’m sure you know that there are theoretical physicists who are examining the many-universes theory – Richard Dawkins mentions this in The God Delusion.

So what about evolution? Why is it picked on more than other scientific theories? It’s because there are creation stories in the Bible. I’m sure if there were electricity stories in the Bible we’d be having the same discussions about that. So: for the science, the theory of evolution is broadly agreed upon by scientists, with subtly different interpretations, because the theory has been tested and tested and refined and re-tested and refined and re-tested and can be used as a tool for understanding the way organisms work, with solid predictive results, although where the predictions turn out to be false the scientific community refines the theory accordingly. So for example the theory of evolution can be used to predict where in rock strata you can find certain types of fossils, or even reconstruct the proteins of a bacterium which was around 3.5 million years ago. But here’s the thing: the theory is always open to refinement and even negation if the challenge is supported by scientific reasoning. In this way we can see that there are new theories which suggest that virus genetic material may actually become part of the genes of another organism, providing leaps in the host organism’s evolution. This is quite a change from the standard understanding of evolution, but because it is a scientific theory, in that it is testable and refutable, it can be accepted by scientists. Saying “I don’t understand” or “it doesn’t add up” just isn’t science, I’m afraid.

One more point/clarification in closing: Dawkins doesn’t say that there is no God, just that if you use scientific reasoning it is highly unlikely that there is a god. This means that he uses a scientific method – testability and probability – to suggest that if we accept broadly evolution/natural selection over time, and we also accept that a creator created the universe (and even disregarding how we could ever test for discovering that creator), we need to come up with a theory for where the creator came from and how it came into being. And so far nobody has been able to explain where that creator came from, or how you would design a test to prove, or at least suggest, the existence of a creator. So you could argue that science in this way has been used to suggest that it is highly unlikely that there is a creator. However if someone could ever suggest a way to test for this beyond “I think that there must be a creator and you scientists are just being close-minded” I’m sure that scientists would be all over it – would there be a more amazing and revolutionary scientific finding? Who wouldn’t want to test that? It’s not science’s job to prove the non-existence of something, science is used to theorize how something works and test that theory.


3 Responses to “science/religion discussion”

  1. Paul says:

    Wow, that’s quite the response – I’m off there now to muddy the waters :)

  2. Francesc says:

    You say : “a true scientist will always allow his or her theories to be undermined by further scientific findings…” So, I say that Darwin’s theory of evolution is at this point.
    I’m one of the scientists who think that natural selection is an inadequate theory to explain the emergence and the evolution of the living beings.
    If you are interested on the foundations of a new theory of evolution and ready to rethink some laws of physics and of biology, I invite you to visit the blog: (and the Spanish web linked to it)
    There you can find excerpts from the book “Cosmos y Gea. Fundamentos de una nueva teoría de la evolucion” (Cosmos and Gaia. Foundations of a new theory of evolution). This book is not yet translated into English, but many people already have found it as an essential issue, far beyond of the sterile controversy between Darwinism and creationism.

  3. Arwen says:

    That’s an amazing response Andrew!

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