No more theories: Evolution is a fact

I just read a depressing article on by Robert Roy Britt, discussing the limitations and flaws inherent in most public surveys about “belief” in evolution. I have to use quotation marks there, because “belief” is absolutely irrelevant. The proper term should be acceptance, as in “Do you accept the evidence of biological evolution, or are you sufficiently ignorant and narcissistic to reject an entire branch of science even though you don’t have an advanced degree in the topic?”

Britt’s article laments the imprecise ways that public surveys about evolution acceptance are worded, and goes on to suggest different approaches that pollsters could take to improve the quality and reliability of their results. All of which is fine, but it misses the point. Here is the point: we should stop using the word theory.

The first comment in response to Britt’s article was from someone who pointed out correctly that evolution isn’t a theory, it is a fact. That comment managed to squeak by only a half hour before the inevitable voice of ignorance weighed in, in the form of a comment that evolution isn’t yet a fact, it’s still a theory. That commenter did not mean theory in the “capital T” sense that I and every other scientist uses the word, to indicate a physical model of how something works that has been tested and verified laboriously over years, and which is now accepted generally as an explanation for how something works. The commenter used theory in the sense that non-scientists use it: a hastily concocted, half-baked idea that someone dreamed up on the spur of the moment and didn’t bother checking. Just to make sure they had all their stereotypical bases covered, the commenter then compared evolution and theism as equivalent theories that are beyond the scope of mere mortals to understand. We’ve all seen such comments, worded differently but always positing smugly that because scientists can’t prove anything, they – and by extension, no one – can know anything with certainty. To such people I offer an invitation to jump off a fifty-story building, because the vague and untrustworthy fool’s pursuit of science cannot know with absolute certainty that, upon impact fifty stories below, their bodies would necessarily be shattered into lifeless, pulpy bits. I mean, death by falling is only a theory.

Enough of this idiocy. We need to ban the word theory from science, once and for all. Laymen can be told over and over that what scientists and non-scientists mean by the word are two different things, but obviously such efforts are a waste of time and breath. As long as we refer to the Theory of Evolution, most people out there will hear Unverified Hunch of Evolution. Perhaps it’s time for scientists to, as they say, grow a pair and start using Fact of Evolution, or if that’s too harshly honest, perhaps Principle of Evolution. But we really do need to come up with something, quickly, because theory isn’t doing us any favors.

Biological evolution is a fact. It happened, happens, and will continue to happen for as long as life forms exist. Evolution is the subtle, magnificent, and absolutely unshepherded process through which all life on Earth developed, including the human species. If you (specifically you, as you read this) reject that idea, I suggest respectfully that you grow up and get over yourself.

Using a word that normal people regard as hopelessly ambivalent and shaky only hampers efforts to improve the public understanding of science. Scientists like to remind people that we use the term Theory of Gravity to describe the monumentally well-documented and self-evident fact of gravitation, but doesn’t Law of Gravity have equivalent cache in popular culture? Why is it acceptable to use terms such as Newton’s Laws of Motion or Inflationary Model when discussing astronomy, but when biology rears its head we have to retreat to the simpering and spineless Theory of Evolution? Do we want ignorant louts to push us back to the 12th century?

It’s time to toss theory into the historical dustbin, alongside phlogiston, luminiferous aether, dropsy, and other antiquities. The term weakens our point, and gives purchase to the agents of stupidity. The war of ideas fought by education and science against creationist Luddism is to the death, and in the end there can be only one winner. We’d best not forget that.


~ by Planetologist on February 3, 2009.

17 Responses to “No more theories: Evolution is a fact”

  1. “I actually do completely ignore the churches and mosques and temples in my neighborhood… they’re simply not my business. I just wish they’d all extend the same consideration to everyone else.”

    Hear hear.. That’s the bottom line.. And really the only important conclusion… You’re really right, they should extend that courtesy to you. And me.. Because I get bothered by religious nutters who tell me my particular flavor is wrong just as much as you get bothered by them. I’m pissed off by government officials who consider themselves justified to make decisions for me on their religious opinions as opposed to scientific choices for the good of the community. As if reality does not apply to them…

    ( Abstinence works… But only if you intended it to be some kind of fertility rite…. :/ You know how kids work…. Do NOT put your hand in the cookie jar 🙂 )

    However, it would seem to me that unfalsifiability means: Unfalsifiable NOW… Assuming that we might be able to falsify a statement in the future should not affect our opinion about the statement now! Arcturus might go supernova. Our space abilities might get a strong setback. A cloud of dust might appear between us and Arcturus. We may never get the chance to prove the absence or presence of planets there. If you assume the truth of things we might falsify later on then you’re only asking for trouble.

    God might actually be be scientifically proven a few years from now, even before planets around arcturus are found. Should I consider the “God does not exist” statement falsifiable because this may or may not be the case?

    This is why I say: unless people prove to me that God does not exist. For example (Not strict, but good enough for me) by proving that my experiences of God (which is the only evidence I have) are misinterpreted. Not by merely showing alternative interpretations. But by giving compelling reasons that show the alternatives are true, or at least more true.

    People usually divide into “True or not true” but in my opinion there is “True, not true and unknown.” Planets around arcturus. Existence of Gods. All are unknown.

    Unknown is good. Most of our world is unknown. We forge ahead by converting the unknown into true or false statements. But we must not get ahead of ourselves and call the unknown false without evidence to support that.

    On the one hand God seems unlikely. On the other hand. Billions personally testify to the existence of God (Their flavour). Lets just leave it in the unknown and ask anyone who wants us to consider God existent or non existent to prove it first…

    It’s really the safest bet, within the scientific structure based on solid philosophy, and the demand for evidence is always squarely on the shoulders of those who wish to influence us. In other words. Those who would be vocal or political about this. Leaving ordinary joe theist or jonny atheist to happily bubble along in life without being bothered.

    I get the feeling we’re drawing conclusions and ending the discussion. It was good to meet you. Perhaps we will meet again. 🙂

    • Well, I riffed on the Arcturus example because it’s not some faraway idea…. to date, astronomers have discovered over 300 planets orbiting other stars. The technology is just now taking off, and paying off, in a big way. More discoveries are coming in every day. The important point is that it really does matter whether something is discoverable in principle or not. If it is, we’ll get to it eventually. Gods – or powerful aliens with equivalent tactics – would be discoverable if they were real.

      Billions do claim encounters with gods, or at least with internal voices. That seems to be part of the human condition, and that’s fine. The only times I’ve ever functionally talked with myself have been in dreams, where I might be talking to someone in the dream who says things that surprise me, but both “they” and I are the same brain writing the dialogue. No biggie. If such things can happen in a dissociative dream state, they could probably happen when I’m awake, but the origins would be the same. No magic is required, or aliens, or extradimensional superminds. Occam’s Razor, and all that.

      Anyway, good to meet you too, and thanks for the civilized conversation. 😀

  2. Planetologist, do you think we can simplify the discussion to the question of the burden of proof? You strongly push the burden of proof into my arms. However, I don’t believe this is appropriate.

    Bertrand Russell was an atheist. And he used the Teapot example as an rationale why he did not have to accept theist opinions.. I believe he was right. However, on the modern web the teapot has slowly morphed into something Russel did not intend and would not support…

    Russell: (Quoted from the wikipedia, hell I might aswell right?)
    If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.

    Basically.. There is no need to believe or take serious any unfalsifiable claim. In other words. If it’s not falsifiable. It’s not a serious claim. Even if it’s a religious claim.

    So when I come up to you and state that “God exists”… Then your teapot response is “That claim is not falsifiable, it makes no sense for me to assume its truth unless you prove it to me.” And that response would be correct. This is an unfalsifiable positive claim. And it should indeed be rejected.

    But what about unfalsifiable negative claims? I come up to you again and I say: “There are absolutely no planets orbiting Arcturus.” The star is simply surrounded by vacuum. That’s a negative claim.. It’s equally unfalsifiable… It could very well be true. We know not all stars have planets. It could also be false because we know many stars DO have planets. Should you because I claim that this star does not have planets accept this?

    Offcourse not. I’m making a claim I cannot support and you’re right to call me on it.

    In the exact same way however you and many atheists expect me to prove God to them because they make a negative unfalsifiable claim! Instead *I* invoked Russels teapot. And asked you to prove it to me.

    So, we can’t prove God exists. We can’t prove he does not exist.. That leaves us in the ideal position where we’re just going to have to accept each others positions. Meaning I as a theist have to give you the freedom to be exactly what you want to be. And you as an atheist give me the same freedom.

    Like I said, I am a political atheist. The reason is that right now the balance is wrong, theists are dictating what atheists should think way too often. But the other way round also happens. If 50% of a country is atheist. And 10k is spent on churches then 10k should be spent on atheist groups.

    I won’t recover from faith 🙂 We’re having a highly philosophical discussion here. And thank you for that. Not everyone is capable of this and it is my pleasure to receive your time. But the bottom line is that for me, like for every other theist the belief is not based on rational deductions leading us to the conclusion that there is a God. I think just like you that there is no such rationale.

    There are two reasons to believe in God.. First of all because the belief in God gives us benefits. For example social acceptance. Comfort from the fear of death. Or an idea of understanding the universe. The second reason is direct experience of something that is interpreted to be a divine experience. You could call it a close encounter with God.

    I have found no other reasons to believe in God. I personally reject the first reason I mentioned here and only consider the second one valid. I was raised a christian. But rejected the religion, especially the church, in puberty. Then I spent a few years as an atheist and these experiences kept coming and going. And that just pushed me to believe in this God thing. Not as a christian. But as a human being exploring the thing on my own terms…

    It’s interesting you put so many assumptions on how the Jungian collective unconscious works because honestly nobody has a clue. My opinion is that it is traces of human experience somehow embedded into the human mind. Kids who understand the mother principle easier than others will have fewer problems accepting their mothers and have their mothers accept them, thus ensuring survival. And that is if CU exists at all. It doesn’t seem extremely unlikely when taken like that. But it has not been proven as far as I know. If it does exist, I doubt it implies direct brain to brain communication.

    You’re exploring a lot of this by dividing the thing into parts and quickly catagorizing them. Materialistic analysis driven to perfection! I told you you could not define God.. But I did not mean to say that I can! I can’t define God either! I can define and describe the experiences that I ascribe to it. But I have no other real facts about him. Bible and mythology give us hints and suggestions but none of them are scientifically factual… This much is obvious. It’s not a thing or a person in the materialistic sense of the words. It’s more of a source.

    Science is not in it’s end game yet. Our understanding of evolution is changing every day. I actually read an article suggesting that Lamarckian evolution is not so silly as believed up untill now. It was shown that rat babies are actually influenced by the early life experiences of their mothers…. Offcourse with any research it remains to be seen how much of that sticks. I just use the example to indicate that we don’t know everything. There might be a plausible scientific explanation for the God experience to be discovered next year that you and I can both agree on.

    We’re not going to get to a point where creationism is proven right. We’re also not going to get to a point where the Christian definition of this hypocritical monster of a God is proven to be true. And we’re not going to get to the point where it turns out I have a tumor. But we might get to a point where we both can say. “Ok I seriously had not thought of that one yet…”

    There’s some issues with religions that are valid. But the attempt to defuse the whole thing by showing people that God does not exist is not going to work. If it were possible it would have been done ages ago. Likely by theists of another flavour. However, maybe atheists and theists can join hands and show people that some of these religious dogmas that are really damaging are pure nonsense from a scientific a humanistic and a spiritual point of view.

    I’m sure you have no actual problem with people going to church. Or even with their beliefs in sky fairies or pink unicorns. It’s the bad things that result from religious idiocy and prejudice that we have problems with. You and me both.

    Thanks again. I appreciate your time. It’s long responses indeed. 🙂

    • A good response, and thanks again. In my experience most theists can’t objectify their beliefs, even to a tiny extent, and so every discussion of theism becomes personal. I don’t have ‘beliefs’, as such… or at least I work hard to try not to have any… my opinions on scientific matters are conditional on evidence, and when new evidence forces a change in perspective I’m forced to go along. That’s actually part of the fun of science… removing one’s subjective ego from the discussion entirely, and focusing only on what’s objectively there.

      Anyway, I understand your point about negative evidence, but I think you don’t have it quite right. Your example about planets around Arcturus is a good example of how it’s possible to disprove a negative with positive evidence. To date astronomers have discovered over 300 extrasolar planets, residing in over 280 star systems. One could assert Arcturus has no planets, and if that’s true it would be hard to demonstrate without a thorough search… but a thorough search with modern instruments could tell you if there are planets there. The first discovery of an Arcturan planet would disprove the assertion of zero planets there. Now, let’s say the reverse occurs: a thorough search finds no evidence of planets (within detection limits) around Arcturus… no orbital perturbations, no transits, no infrared halos… all evidence that we would see unequivocally if it were there. What we would have in that case is positive evidence – again, within the limits of instrumental resolution – of no planets. Someone would be justified in saying Arcturus is probably planet-free.

      The question of gods is similar. Objectively, there either are gods or there aren’t, in the sense of gods as titanic, thinking entities with enormous power and with a specific controlling interest in human behavior. Such creatures exist, or they don’t exist. If they exist and influence the world, they’re detectable, or at least their actions are. I actively reject the premise that something can be a part of the universe and yet be totally undetectable and undescribable, even in principle. Not even dark matter enjoys such perfect cloaking. This isn’t philosophical materialism, it’s objective empiricism… “matter” is only one part of the universe, and a small part, at that. Most of the cosmos is not baryonic matter, but it’s still detectable by its effects on other things. Theists sometimes like to complain that scientists are too “materialistic”, but that’s a stillborn complaint. Physics is physics. I agree that some physics is currently beyond our capacity to deal with mathematically or experimentally, but that only means we still have stuff to figure out about the things we observe… but they’re still things we observe.

      Please don’t think I’m lobbying to ban religion. I’m against basing public policy on lies, but that’s different from opposing freedom of thought. If some people want to believe in imaginary friends, and talk to those mental constructs as if they’re separate entities, and if that gets them through the day then fine by me. No sarcasm. Freedom of thought is part of being human, and true creativity comes from thinking in weird ways. Similarly, if people want to gather in big social clubs and pretend to talk to a golden calf or whatever, that’s also fine by me. I’d think it was silly, but that’s also my right. If religious groups could do their thing without getting in the way of everyone else, or trying to force everyone else to obey their weird laws, or murdering people, I’d just ignore them and go about living my life. I actually do completely ignore the churches and mosques and temples in my neighborhood… they’re simply not my business. I just wish they’d all extend the same consideration to everyone else.

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  4. Sorry for the slow response guys.

    If you say “There are probably no unicorns.” I would indeed ask “How do you know?” That would not mean I believe in unicorns. I’m also not actively not believing in them. I have no opinion that’s all. The point is that you’re making a statement… And I’m asking you indeed to prove it. Thats the only scientific response to any such claim. If you don’t know it for certain you don’t know it at all. That’s my opinion. And I apply it to myself. There is a chance that I am deluding myself. However, all things considered. It’s not my working hypothesis.

    If I say God exists. Your proper response is: “Prove it” If you say “God does not exist” my proper response is: “Prove it”

    Actually the perceived demand to prove a negative is not as blatant as you seem to think. I have a lot of positive claims about God. If you disprove those, then I will have to reevaluate my understanding about this God thing. Or even conclude that I was deluding myself. This does not mean there is no God… It just means the contact I think I have does not exist. But that’s effectively enough to change my behavior and beliefs. Because I would be forced to conclude I have no reasons to believe in the existence of God, not even personal subjective reasons.

    The difficulty here is not that it’s a negative. The difficulty is that it’s subjective. I don’t suppose for a second that my subjective experience has any convincing power for you guys. And it should not. But it sure convinces me… As any psychologist can tell you: the subjective experience is our primary motivator. I am no different.

    You’re a teensy bit unfair towards theists on the whole Planetologist. 🙂 In my opinion most theists are like me. It’s only a bunch of hardliners who would impose their will on others. According to the “I’m not having fun, so I want to make sure that you’re not having fun either.” method..

    If you want to kick those guys out. I’m with you. Lets just leave the rest of the theist who don’t actually tell atheists what to do or to believe to go happily bubbling along in their beliefs..

    I’m actually in a Christian forum where the majority seems to believe in evolution as opposed to creationism. I was personally pleasantly surprised by this. It’s Europe though.

    You claim to be able to make a rough estimate about the possibility of God. I claim you can’t… The reason is that I think you cannot even define God… And the definition you pick is definitely a big influence on the ultimate possibility score you assign to God.

    Man with a beard on a cloud who is all loving and yet allows all suffering to continue….. 0%…. I agree… That guy does not exist. However, if the Christian stereotype does not exist. Then that means that a stereo type does not exist. Perhaps Christians don’t understand God. But it does not imply anything about any other God anyone ever worshipped Or even those that never were worshipped. That probability solution is just a straw puppet fallacy.

    If I define God as: “That thing that causes the religious experience” Then suddenly God is proven to exist without a doubt. After all the religious experience exists. It’s as real as any other emotion. Therefore the thing that causes it must also exist. (The problem there is that God might turn out to be a hyperactive temporal lobe typical for our species) Then again. The temporal lobe might be like the eye. Not the cause of the experience, but the sense organ for it. Who knows. Unless we define God a lot of things surrounding him become uncertain. And defining God is the one thing everyone agrees on that it cannot be done.

    I know what you’re thinking, that thing that causes experience is rather subjective…. But: Look up various mental diseases.. We really only know they exist because various people exhibit the symptoms.

    Note that I’m still staying in the middle. I’m making no claims just suggesting alternatives.

    I seriously want you to be whoever you feel you want to be. Your status as a theist or atheist is completely irrelevant to me. In “biblical” terms: You’re free to marry my daughter if she wants it, unless you’re gay in which case you get to marry my son…

    Also. If you note that evolution as we understand it today implies that diversity is key to successful long term survival of a species. It’s not JUST survival of the fittest anymore. 🙂

    Scientifically speaking. The polarity between Theists and Atheists to me therefore seems a symptom of a healthy species. Theistically speaking… If God wants it different, I’m sure he has the means to change it without my help.. In short, and very sacrilegious to my colleagues “God has no opinions”. Morally speaking its probably better to be atheist.. They are on average of higher moral fiber if you consider the crime statistics inside and outside the various bible belts.

    Your basic objections which you share with most atheists. That a theist does not have the right to declare to other people how to live and what to believe on the basis of a God that is not provable. I fully agree with this. If God tells a theist that something is so and so. He should impart us with the wisdom to figure it out and prove it in scientific terms as well. I’m politically an atheist. “God told me to do it” is never a valid argument.

    I’m passionate about God.. I love Him. And some very strong experiences caused this. I was an atheist at one point. The extacy he has provided in some of the close encounters is profound. The responses to my questions about life are humorous, insightful and compassionate. This is purely subjective. It is no evidence and has no bearing on your life. I feel I and every theist like me should be allowed to have this experience without someone coming along claiming it does not exist. And excusing himself from the responsibility to prove his claims. It might seem weird to you that I consider this God stuff a living reality. But it is very real to me.

    I’m hoping to remind atheists and theists that it’s not about making everyone believe what you believe. The theists are the ones to make that mistake. It’s about freedom from belief and freedom of belief. The more crazy things people believe the better. It balances out in the end. 🙂

    We’re all humans.

    • Absentereo, thanks for the thoughtful and cogent response. I may not agree with your methods or conclusions, but I appreciate an argument that avoids ad hominem as much as possible. Also, you say what a lot of theists won’t ever admit… that theism might be incorrect. That, as one might say, is the first step in recovery… 🙂

      I actually don’t think I’m being unfair to theists, in that I don’t claim that all theists are raving maniacs. When I discuss theism as a model I’m addressing a very specific claim that religious people tend to make: that there are one or more gods who administer the fabric of reality. Even a mild theist has to possess that basic belief to be considered a theist at all. Theism is a positive claim, and to be taken as fact – as objective fact – evidence must be provided. Those who claim to be absolutely certain of the presence and intent of their god or gods are making a falsifiable claim, and that claim is either true or untrue. There is no middle ground, in that case. Either the claim is correct as it is stated, or it is not.

      As an atheist, I am not convinced that the positive theistic case has been made, and I don’t have to prove the negative. I understand that theists may want to be able to demand negative proof, or else by default their claims are presumed to be factual, but that is simply false. Like it or not, the burden of proof is on the theist. No turning the tables, saying “If I have to prove God, you have to disprove God”. No, it simply doesn’t work that way. No matter what side you’re on, a positive extraordinary claim requires positive, extraordinary evidence. Substitute “God” for “really powerful alien Brainiac mastermind” and you can begin, hopefully, to see where I’m coming from.

      Teapots and unicorns aside, let’s say I claim that the Jungian collective unconscious actually exists, as some kind of intangible information stockpile that can be accessed telepathically by all humans, with mental signals moving back and forth regularly between it and each of our brains, daily. I might “feel” the information transfers occurring when I experience deja vu, let’s say. I might be really impressed with the persistence of mythic archetypes among cultures. Whatever, let’s say I have my reasons. Now, either the collective unconscious exists as a discrete object, encoded somehow into something somewhere, or it doesn’t. Signals are exchanged with it, or they’re not. If it exists, the burden is on me – as the claimant – to provide some kind of explanation that fits my subjective experience and doesn’t fit any simpler explanation (such as a momentary dissociative or imaginative state of consciousness).

      If it’s not just me, but millions of people who claim the C.U. exists, with a cadre of professional apologists backing that claim, someone really would need to come up with a model to explain all that business. Into what medium is the C.U. encoded, if it’s out there? What is being transferred that we perceive as a signal feed? Exactly how do our brains receive those signals? Where is the there, there, justifying continued belief in the C.U? Can you imagine the frustration of those who might, in such a situation, ask for evidence of the C.U., only to be told by believers that unless someone can prove there’s no invisible information bank built out of who-knows-what that carries who-knows-what kind of data back and forth to the brain via sublimely invisible and unapproachable processes, belief is just as justified as non-belief? Sorry, no.

      You say that I can’t define “God”, and then you offer a straw man definition to make atheism look silly. But it’s usually the theist who can’t – or won’t – define their god, and who dances away from the argument when pressed. Well, I think I can provide a very good working definition of a god, and I’m not shy about doing so. To me the most important aspect of an argument is to firmly and unambiguously define one’s terms, otherwise there can’t really be an argument because the arguers are talking in different languages. When people talk about “God” they’re clearly not talking about a synonym for love. They’re talking about a conscious, organized intellect that possesses intent. They’re talking about a thinking mind that can make decisions and process information, and who can perceive and influence our universe. Leave off for now the question of exactly how powerful “God” is, or what it wants, or how it goes about its daily business. Those are questions of quantity, and I’m establishing a definition based on qualities that are necessary, if not sufficient, to constitute a god that one can communicate with and from whom one can receive information in return.

      What would a god be made of? What would be its information-processing methodology? How is its structure maintained? Did it really precede the universe, and if so, how? How would it communicate with you? Why does it tangibly manifest only to believers, and never to non-believers with recording instruments? Why do its signals so closely resemble hallucinatory experiences? What is its diameter? If it can be everywhere at once, it must have the capacity for superluminal signal transfer: how does it do that? Can other objects move faster than light? What are the physics involved? These aren’t trivial questions, they’re basic questions regarding something that theists claim is really out there. Either gods exist, or they don’t. If they do, their existence is a tangible, profound fact of the universe that is just as real and rock-solid as the gravitational constant or the rest mass of an electron. Gods, if they exist, are describable in detail. They must operate in some way, using means at their disposal that may be complicated and awesome, but are nonetheless addressable as quantifiable phenomena within the realm of measurement and observation. They would have to leave tracks, in other words, and they would have to possess structure. Maybe they’re billion-year-old aliens composed of highly modified topologies in hyperspace, sucking energy out of vacuum expansion as if it were a gigantic waterfall with them as weird, cosmic hydroelectric generators. Wouldn’t that explanation – though outlandish as all get-out – be more likely than creatures that somehow transcend everything?

      When the atomic nucleus was discovered, its discoverers didn’t claim that testing their claims was heresy, or that their claims couldn’t be tested because the nucleus was far too majestic and rarefied to allow itself to be measured by mere mortals. Black holes are literally invisible, but they disturb things in their wake. Everything that exists and influences the world can in return be influenced back in repeatable ways, no matter how puny we are in comparison to it. This is not a comfortable position for theists to take, but nevertheless there it is. Theists claim their gods are real, but resist examining them too closely… but if one loves and is fascinated with something, shouldn’t one want to learn more about it? Shouldn’t one want definitive evidence that the object of all one’s emotional attachment is actually there? Again, it either is or it isn’t. If it is, that’s really important. If it isn’t, that’s also really important. Unlike most theists, I’m simply willing to face that question head-on, deconstruct it into its working parts, and not just give up and assume an answer that makes me feel better.

  5. ““There is ‘probably’ no god” (Show me the probability calculations please) Then that’s a kind of irrational superstition.”

    If I say, “there probably are no unicorns” will you make the same demand for probability calculations then write me off as superstitious?

    ‘Probably’ is just a hat tip to the fact that it is impossible to prove a negative.

    I note that your criteria for leaving your faith is someone proving a negative. Nice way to pay lip service to remaining open minded while not actually being so.

  6. Actually. A fact and a theory are totally different beasties. A fact is something that is true. A theory is a system of knowledge that applies in a situation and is capable to predict phenomena in that situation.

    Calling the theory of evolution a fact ignores the obvious point already made that theories themselves are in evolution. I can guarantee you that our understanding of evolution will change. Calling the current understanding factual is therefore a fallacy. In fact while you were busy arguing creationists the details of our understanding of this ‘fact’ probably changed a few times already. 😉 You as a rational minded person no doubt agree with me.

    I agree that species go through a series of changes over time and respond to their environment by changing their physical structure in a process that must have gone on for millions of years. Everyone with half a mind can deduce this from the facts.

    I disagree that belief has nothing to do with theories. Scientific theories are supported or rejected by a scientific process. So effectively scientific theories can be believed or rejected.

    In the end the only value of any scientific theory is its ability to predict. If you use a scientific theory to make a statement that it does not predict. For example “There is no God” or even “There is ‘probably’ no god” (Show me the probability calculations please) Then that’s a kind of irrational superstition.

    Now as a theist I must say that I am tremendously worried about the idiocy of my fellow theists. You read that right. I do not think we’re supposed to make demands on reality. Or even to flatly deny it. As soon as the existence of God is soundly disproven I will go so far as to reject my beliefs. The idea that theists are completely irrational is not accurate in most of the cases. We just have different insights.

    Untill that time I’d rather look for creative answers that leaves space open for people on both sides of the debate. There’s so much mud slinging that religious people who never were a problem before suddenly feel personally attacked.

    The whole “Atheist busses” now followed by “Christian busses” or “Russion Orthodox busses” is an example of how ridiculous the whole thing is. We’ve basically come to the point where we’re putting random and completely unprovable statements on busses.”

    Thats not the worst of it. We’re actually getting upset over these “non statements”…

    • Thanks for your comments and your honesty. It’s very rare, at least in my experience, for a theist to even be able to consider the option that anything could change their minds. And yes, obviously most day-to-day theists just go about their lives untroubled by these kinds of arguments. As long as their beliefs don’t impinge on my freedoms, and as long as they don’t use their beliefs to justify lunatic public policy, we’re cool. It would be nice if the theists would extend me the same courtesy. The trouble is that they don’t, mainly because they’re used to getting their way without challenge.

      On to the original point, though. I agree with you to an extent; where you comment that our understanding of the universe advances, which forces us to re-evaluate things we thought we knew already. That’s true, as far as it goes…. but please don’t extend that to the theist fallacy that nothing is knowable. You probably don’t intend to imply that – if I read you right – but many theists argue just that way, and use exactly that approach. But that approach is wrong, because there are lots of facts that we know quite precisely. Theories are constructed to accommodate those facts.

      Gravity is a good example. Newton’s laws of motion work very well. They are facts. But it turns out that under relativistic conditions – which Newton had no clue about – we have to modify our formulation of gravitational effects to take account of deeper facts (relativity). The one does not make the other wrong. Newton’s laws are a good working model under all but relativistic conditions, at which point they need to be slightly modified. A hardcore theist who believed in Intelligent Falling might bound onto the stage at this point, and declare that relativity theorists call gravity into question, which means there’s a controversy over gravity, which means gravity doesn’t exist, or is perhaps only some vague pastiche of flimsy and poorly thought-out platitudes. Well, no.

      Evolution is a fact. The common ancestry of all life on Earth is a fact. It is a fact that a branching bush of speciation events links us with every other life form who ever lived. It is also a fact that the simplest forms of life are made of materials that are commonly formed through well-understood natural processes. It is a fact that RNA can self-replicate, mutate, and evolve in vitro. It is a fact that fatty acids can self-organize to form micelles that work as primitive cell membranes. It is a fact that the chemical conditions where organic polymerization can occur and where ambient chemical energy is available to kick-start life exist together in geologic environments such as low-temperature seafloor hydrothermal vents. It is a fact that the earliest life forms on Earth bear genetic traces of having developed in exactly the same types of geologic environments. All those facts have associated uncertainties, but those uncertainties are small relative to the data. It is a fact that a meter-stick is a meter long, plus or minus a bit of uncertainty… but that uncertainty doesn’t make the meter-stick a mile long, nor does it imply there is no meter-stick.

      Theory takes facts and puzzles them out into a self-consistent and plausible model, but theories don’t determine whether facts are facts. We test hypotheses and the ones that fit all the facts are accepted as working theories. Later we might have to amend the theories, but the facts don’t get thrown away. For an ID model to be accepted, or a flat-out creationist model for that matter, it would need to accept the facts and get them to fit inside a self-consistent model that doesn’t violate other parts of reality. By that test the theistic models all fail. Every one, every time.

      It’s frustrating to talk sometimes with theists, who listen politely to all that, and who then blithely say “Well, we don’t really know anything, do we?” as if that’s some kind of ultimate trump card. Yes, actually we do know lots of things, and quite well, thanks very much. It isn’t necessary to know all things in order to know some things. In my opinion, using words like “theory” that are consistently misunderstood by the public, and which are used cynically by theists to further an agenda of lies, ties one hand behind our backs and makes a strong evidentiary argument appear weaker than it really is.

      One more thing about the probability of there being no gods. Respectfully, theists get this one wrong nearly all the time. I can’t tell you exactly what the odds are, down to the fifth decimal place, but I can make a rough, working assessment of everything in science that falls within my professional expertise. There is no suggestive evidence that gods are real. There is no reliable set of observations that even imply such a model. Worse, if the model of a cosmic controlling intelligence were true – I mean, actually true as part of the real world, objectively – such an entity would necessarily leave traces of its actions. I simply reject out of hand the theist’s special pleading argument that a god exists but is obsessed with hiding itself at all times, while making exceptions for Bronze Age tribesmen and an apparent legion of modern humans who’ve had “personal revelatory experiences”. Either a god exists and reveals itself to humans or it doesn’t. No hedging; it’s either one or the other. If “It” does reveal itself, it takes actions that have real effects, and “It” can be discovered by machines as well as by goat-herders.

      There is no physical evidence for a god or gods, but if such creatures existed there should be ample evidence for their meddling in human affairs. Further, the evidence theists bring forth – when forced to put up or shut up – is nearly all mutually self-contradictory, and can in every case be more easily explained by well-understood aspects of our brain physiology. Without exception, when pressed for evidence of a god theists resort to personal anecdotes of unreproducible phenomena that are obviously – painfully obviously – hallucinations. To believe, we’re told, one must first believe. Sorry, but no.

      I don’t have to calculate the odds against gods. All I have to do is estimate those odds to be below 50%, and then I can say that probably no gods exist. In truth I’d put the odds much lower than that, but 50% is the breakpoint of “probably” versus “probably not”. Theists get so worked up about calculating odds that they fail to see this one, simple thing.

      If they – you – want to continue in belief, have fun and be my guest. It’s your life, and your thoughts are your own. But if theists want to try and justify their beliefs to others, they need something stronger than special pleading and the dead weight of tradition. The god model is a physical model for how the universe really works. If gods were discovered it would be more stunning and life-changing than any discovery of extraterrestrial life ever could be. It would change everything about how we look at the universe, and it would open up vast new territories of basic research into experimental theology. Most theists seem not to understand that. If theists think they’re right, and aren’t simply standing pat out of fear or refusal to honestly examine themselves and their indoctrination, they ought to be clambering to make their case with the most sophisticated methods of science and technology available to our species. Instead what do they offer? Arguments from authority, arguments from personal incredulity, special pleading, violence, suppression, murder, torture, and reality denial. Those are the tools of a failed delusion, not an undeniable cosmic truth.

  7. BTW, just in case I wasn’t clear, my post was not aimed at you. It was aimed at people who misunderstand what Theory means. Something you clearly do not.

    Sarcasm is an area affect spell, and sometimes hits unintended targets.

  8. I agree that there’s a problem, but I’m not sure that ditching the word “theory” is the best way to solve it. No matter how you look at it, evolution IS a theory, in the big “T,” scientific sense. If you abandon the word, you also abandon that meaning – specifically problematic is the abandonment of the connotation that a “theory” is still a work in progress. While the phenomenon of evolution is fact, the explanation we have as to it’s mechanism is still up in the air. We have it nailed down pretty darn well, but there are still aspects of it that we don’t quite understand yet, or that we have wrong in very small ways. The word “theory,” in theory (har har), delivers that meaning in a way that other words do not. “Law of Evolution” certainly is better, but I’m not sure that evolutionary theory meets the strict definition of “scientific law.” Could the basic bits of the theory be distilled into a statement that does meet it? It may not be scientifically useful to formulate the principle in such a way, but it gives you a snappy thing to refer to by the name of “The Law of Evolution,” while retaining evolutionary theory as distinct with all the useful and proper connotations of the word “theory.”

    Sorry to nitpick, but I like to be specific when it comes to definitions and philosophical categories.

    • No apology needed. It’s not nitpicking, it’s necessary to work things like this out for the sake of clarity. I appreciate that “Law of Evolution” probably doesn’t work, because as you and Ty suggest the strict scientific use of “Law” should refer to a specific formulation that can be expressed mathematically. In the sense that evolution is defined strictly as any change in allele frequency through time, there is an implicit probability function involved, but the parameters are so open as to render mathematical abstraction very difficult, if not impossible. I would tend to favor expressions like “Principle of Evolution” or “Evolutionary Model”, which would emphasize the procedural nature of evolution as an innate, ongoing process that necessarily arises in populations of varying replicators.

      I tend to favor Dawkins’ definition, which posits that any system capable of undergoing evolution is by definition alive. From that frame of reference evolution is not simply an attribute of life, life is what we call things that evolve. I think if we taught the science that way, instead of tacking evolution onto existing curricula like some sort of appendix, we’d succeed in both teaching better science and permanently slamming the door on even the shadow of a hint of creationist thinking.

  9. But phlogiston is an awesome word!

    I often wonder how people miss the fact that gravity, field interactions, plate tectonics, and germ medicine also all carry the scientific label of ‘Theory’.

    If you want to discount anything with that label as unproven, then you should probably make sure to wear Velcro shoes so as not to fall off the world, not own electrical devices that use those unpredictable and theoretical fields and forces, tell people you live in Pangaea, and avoid antibiotics.

    At least then you’d be consistent.

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