Evolution, Creationism and a Theory of Theory

As long as we're on the subject of science and theology, here's a quick little lesson in semantics that you might find useful.

People who oppose the teaching of evolution in schools have a favorite phrase they like to put on bumper stickers and the like: "Why do you think they call it a theory?"

The implication is that evolution is far from being a fact. "Theory" means that it's more in the nature of speculation, a guess yet to be proven, like the theory that aliens killed Kennedy or fluoride in the water is part of a Communist conspiracy.

First, a little digression, so you know where I'm coming from.

I believe in evolution, because the hard evidence supporting it is overwhelming.

On the other hand, the concept of "intelligent design" appeals to me in some ways, although I happen to hold the view that there are ways that intelligent design can be reconciled with evolution. (Not too many people feel that way. I may even be the only one.) But the hard evidence for intelligent design is essentially non-existent, although that might change as more work is done.

I tell you all of this so you don't think I'm some kind of anti-religious hard-ass who absolutely refuses to listen to any alternatives to evolution. I'll even go a step further and tell you that there are aspects of Darwinian evolution that trouble me, like the fact that there seem to be some tautologies in the argument. (The fittest species always survive. But how do you know they were the fittest? Simple: Because they survived. Umm…)

I hope you now think that I've got an open mind here, because what I want to tell you has nothing to do with the relative merits of evolution, intelligent design or creationism. All I want to do is straighten out this business of what a "theory" is.

In science, the word "theory" has nothing whatsoever to do with the word "theory" when used in connection with who kidnapped the Lindbergh baby or a "theory" about how that scratch got on your new Buick. It's a completely different word.

A scientific theory is the entire structure that is brought into play when considering some aspect of the universe. It consists of basic, underlying themes and principles supported by evidence based on experiment and observation.

Not all theories have the same power in terms of wide acceptability. The Theory of Relativity is no longer questioned by anybody but is accepted as fact, whereas Superstring Theory is still being widely debated and doesn't have anywhere even approaching the consensus of relativity.

But even when it comes to a controversial theory such as superstrings, the word "theory" does not mean a wild-ass guess. It merely refers to the whole ball of wax surrounding the topic.

Even simple arithmetic, which contains the most obvious and self-evident bits of knowledge about our world, exists within a "theoretical" umbrella. The word "theory" is used even though mathematics is one of very few (maybe the only) fields of intellectual endeavor in which things that have been "proven" are considered to be absolutely true, for all time, and no longer subject to debate. Even then, those things are called "theories" (or "theorems").

For example, you know for a fact that a+ b = b + a. It's a fact. But it's also a theory, part of the theory of arithmetic.

So when you see a bumper sticker that says "Why do you think they call it a theory?" what you're looking at is a cheap trick, a semantic con game, that only exposes the weakness of the arguments against evolution.

At least that's my theory.

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