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Evolution website & the nature of scientific truth - Manifestos of the Moon

About Evolution website & the nature of scientific truth

Previous Entry Evolution website & the nature of scientific truth Nov. 27th, 2005 @ 01:52 pm Next Entry
Here is an excellent website on evolution and its history The Museum of Paleontology at University of California Berkeley publishes the website. Because it is partially funded by a National Science Foundation grant, a California couple has filed a lawsuit claiming it violates the separation clause in the U. S. Constitution. Their primary objection seems to be that the website presents evolution as "true".

Over the years, I've come to understand that words like "true" and "fact" mean something different to scientists than they do to philosophers or the general public.

To most of us, to say something is true is to say that it is a correct statement in some universal and enduring way: absolutely true. Facts are absolutely true. (Of course, one can assert that something is a fact or is true and be wrong; but if something actually is true then it is and always has been true in some absolute fashion.)

To the scientist, truth and fact are always relative to evidence. To say that something is true is not to say that it is absolutely now and forever true, but only that it is without valid question the best interpretation of the available evidence. On the other hand, in the scientific world more evidence is always forthcoming, which means valid questions are always—always—a future possibility.

Scientific truth is never absolute. When a scientist says something is true she or he takes for granted the proviso: "based on our current best knowledge and understanding". In the world of science, something granted as a "fact" today can not be guaranteed facthood tomorrow—though of course with many "scientific facts" one can project their factuality forward with great confidence.

Furthermore, science doesn't assume that there is an underlying grid of "basic facts" which scientists will gradually discover. Science is agnostic to whether such "absolutely basic" facts exist or not.

If there is an underlying grid of ultimate facts—a blueprint substrate of existence—then eventually the scientific enterprise will bump against it and achieve completion. Science as an endeavor will come to an end. The scientific method, however, is not predicated on that happening: scientists will always strive to dig deeper, and presumably (if there really are ultimate facts) be frustrated in that effort.

If there is an ultimate substrate of basic facts of this sort, then I would say—speaking philosophically—that some sort of Deism/Theism is correct. If there is no such ultimate substrate, then I would say that atheism is correct.

In our lifetime, scientists are not likely to hit such a boundary. Theism/Deism makes the claim that such a boundary must exist, and that science therefore at some point should bump into it. Atheism makes the opposite claim, that the boundary does not exist and therefore science can never bump into it. (Atheists admit, however, that there are practical limits to scientific investigation; theists and deists may admit the same; the boundary we are talking about is not a practical boundary to scientific investigation but a factual boundary.)
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Date:November 27th, 2005 08:07 pm (UTC)
It truly frightens me that so many do not understand the difference between science and myth. I'm religious, in my own way, but I understand the difference between a teaching story with metaphorical purposes and the factual explanation for material phenomena. It's a shame some want to make God so small as to fit the Bible literally, instead of adjusting their beliefs to what we learn about God's mechanisms. :-(
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Date:November 28th, 2005 02:52 am (UTC)
I agree. Though it doesn't frighen me as much as it perplexes me. Okay, in the case of our current President it frightens me. His administration has shown a capacity to create their own myths via incessant propaganda with the U. S. media (until recently) propagated all of it with frightening eagerness. Why? Was the media really that gullible? Was it fear of power? Was it the financial interests of their media conglomerates at work? Was it simply a desire to please the brainwashed masses and give them what they expected? What?

If someone wants to insist that the earth was created in 7 literal days because that's how they read Genesis, well its odd but on the other hand its harmless. Dismissing the Geneva convention, or global warming, or the opinions of experts when you control the most powerful nation in the world--that is not harmless.

It seems to me that religion has a valuable and healthy role to play in society: it has the ability to focus us on what really matters in life and ground us morally, and thereby serve as an antidote to raw power.

But conservative Christianity (at least recently) seems to play an opposite role. My thought is that this has happened because conservative Christianity emphasizes salvation based on faith--in contrast to moderate & liberal Christianity where God will judge us based on how good of a person we are; our behavior being more important to God than the particulars of our belief.

This would explain why so many conservative Christians seem untroubled by Dick Cheney's advocacy of torture: the Vice President has the right faith, he has a personal relationship with Jesus, etc.--the rest doesn't matter.
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Date:November 27th, 2005 08:23 pm (UTC)
No evidence = No fact.

I try and explain this to students periodically, (not to mention other people) but most are too entrenched by misunderstanding words like "fact", "truth", "theory", "hypothesis", "law", etc. Never mind that what we teach as evolution is NOT what Darwin proposed, in fact it's rather radically different if you understand the systems involved.

Darwinian Evolution hasn't been used in years. Currently I subscribe to Quantum Biological Evolution which drastically changes mutation and allele frequencies in populations in what would seem to be chaos theory induced rapid bursts after long lulls, but that's only because the math is that nuts. Add to this the tremendous variety of environmental pressures and options which create minute niches...well you understand all this.
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Date:November 28th, 2005 03:04 am (UTC)
I think the root objection many theists have to evolution has two branches. First evolution as scientists present it seems "random" to them rather than "directed by [divine] intelligence". Second, evolution undermines theism (thereby encourages atheism) because it provides an alternative explanation for much of the design we see in the world. (Only God is supposed to be capable of explaining design--if science provides an alternative explanation for the existence of design or eliminates the existence of design, then the strongest reason for believing in God is seriously undermined.)

Ultimately I think that's why there is so much opposition to evolution. Evolution makes naturalism viable.
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Date:November 28th, 2005 01:16 pm (UTC)
I would agree with you except for: Furthermore, science doesn't assume that there is an underlying grid of "basic facts" which scientists will gradually discover. Science is agnostic to whether such "absolutely basic" facts exist or not.

Since that is, after all, what fundamental physics is about and some people are attempting to figure out right now.
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