My Response to Braveheart’s Commentary of 9-11-08

(Numbers refer to footnotes in Braveheart's commentary)

 

1.  I do not expect you to reply in kind.  To be frank, I am using your statements as talking points for my website.  Your comments are typical of most creationists, and I use them as a catalyst for expressing my thoughts on the subject and presenting the mainstream science side of the story.   My replies are not intended to personally rebuke or to convince the creationists with whom I correspond.  In my experience, most of them are so firmly entrenched in their beliefs that no amount of evidence, no matter how well-substantiated and convincing it may be, will persuade them to change their minds.

I am writing for people who maintain an open mind on the subject.  I am writing for the current fence-sitters who are looking for information to help them decide which side of this controversy they should come down on.  And, I am writing for individuals such as myself, who once questioned the teachings of the biblical literalists, but who found it difficult to find any information to refute them.  Judging from the feedback to my website, I have met with some success in this regard.

 

2.  While I hardily support the right of people to believe whatever they want, that does not include the right of creationists, in their various guises, to peddle their religious dogma in public school science class.  It is this effort by the creationists to infiltrate the science curriculum and undermine science education at which my website is primarily directed.  When you advocate the teaching of creationism in the public school science class, as you have done in your responses to me, it is incumbent on you to demonstrate that it is legitimate science.  That is something you and your fellow creationists have failed to do.

While you do not have the burden of convincing anyone about creation vs. evolution, it does seem that someone who is pushing to have creationism taught in science class has a basic obligation to explain why it qualifies as valid science.

 

3.  True, we do appear to be speaking a different language.  I am speaking English.  It is not clear to me, which language you are using at times.

Why would I try to “prove” a scientific theory is an evidence-based explanation?   A scientific theory is, by definition, an evidence-based explanation.  (Maybe not according to the language you are using, but it is according to English-speaking scientists.)  I provided you with a website ("29+ Evidences for Macroevolution") that clearly demonstrates the theory of evolution (TOE) is an evidence-based scientific theory.  Ignoring that evidence, as you appear to be doing, does not change the fact that it exists.  And ignoring the accepted definition of a scientific theory, does not change such a theory into uncorroborated guesswork.

Where, in anything that I have written to you, did I ever try to prove science is not [based on] "facts", "tested truths", "verified" & "validated" knowledge?”   In a previous response to you, I stated, “Science is based on the systematic analysis of tangible, empirically verifiable evidence (i.e., facts).”   There is no, one best definition of science.  There are many, just as there are many definitions for concepts like religion.  One of the most concise, yet descriptive, definitions is as follows:  “Science is a knowledge generating activity which is based on systematically organized bodies of accumulated knowledge obtained through objective observations, experimentation, and evidence gathering.” The evidence that science examines is composed of facts, tested truths (e.g., objects fall toward the center of the Earth, the sun produces light and heat, water normally freezes at 0 degrees Centigrade, etc.), and verified and validated knowledge.   I have no idea how you have come to the conclusion that I am trying to disprove such a definition.

 

4.  My dictionary, the Concise Oxford American Dictionary, defines science as an activity, i.e., “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.”  The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines it as:  knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through the scientific method.”  Another definition is: “Science is a set of rules for evidence gathering and testing claims against fact and logic, rules which are publicly usable, neutrally applied to all participants, and which can reasonably be said to lead to the truth of that particular area. “  Or more succinctly stated by Richard Feynman, “Science is the best way we have of not fooling ourselves.”

Science is variously defined as a knowledge base, a system of knowledge, a set of rules, and a knowledge generating activity.  It is all of these things.  No matter what definition you choose, I fail to see how my treatment of the subject is at odds with any of them.

 

5.  According various definitions of science, it is an activity, a system, a set of rules, or a process (i.e., procedure, method, course of action, means) designed to provide valid, verified explanations for natural phenomena.  I do not understand the word “science” to be a function.  I understand it to be a system of knowledge enhancement that has a function.  It has the function/utility/role of explaining natural phenomena.  Just because the word “science” is a noun does not mean that it cannot have a function or that it cannot be used to actively test, validate, and verify scientific theories.  Nor does it mean that a method cannot be developed to carry out this function (the scientific method).  In fact, that is exactly what science is all about.  (When one speaks about a hammer, the word “hammer” is a noun.  That does not mean that it cannot have a function and that it is improper to describe it as a means for driving nails.)

You imply that the provisional nature of scientific theories is simply my “view.”   The tentativeness of scientific theories is not something that I concocted.  It is a fundamental tenet of the scientific method, as every educated scientist is fully aware.  It is this lack of absolutist thinking that makes science such an effective, self-correcting system for approaching ever closer to the elusive and abstract “Truth.”  Scientific theories are only as good as the evidence that supports them.   If new evidence indicates that they are wrong, they must be modified to fit the new evidence (if they can) or they must be rejected (if they cannot).  In this way, as new evidence is uncovered, scientific theories become better and better descriptors of reality.  Your problem is not with my personal view of science, your gripe is with one of the most efficacious attributes of the scientific method, i.e., the understanding that all scientific theories are provisional.

 

6.  Believe it or not, but your dictionary is not the sole authority on the definition of the word “science.”  As shown above it has a variety of definitions, one of which denotes it as the “activity” of studying the natural world.  Yes, science can also be defined as a “body of tested, verified, & validated evidence.”  It can also be defined as “a set of rules” for conducting that testing, verifying, and validating process.  The products of that “activity” following that “set of rules” (the scientific method) are tested, verified, and validated scientific theories – not merely unsubstantiated ideas.

 

7.  It was once thought to be a fact/truth that the Earth was the center of the universe.  Then scientists like Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo showed that was not true.   It was once thought to be a fact/truth that time progressed at the same rate for everyone in all circumstances.  Then Einstein showed that was not true.  It was once thought to be a fact/truth that the same particle could not be in two different places at the same time.  But then quantum mechanics showed that was not true.  It was once thought to be a fact/truth that the vacuum of space was empty.  But then quantum mechanics showed that it is seething with virtual particles.  Science has been remarkably successful in weeding out concepts and beliefs that were once thought to be irrefutable facts/truths.  As new and more rigorous methods of testing, verifying, and validating are developed, yesterday’s facts/truths are often shown to be not nearly as factual/truthful as once thought. 

In contrast to religion, no facts/truths are sacred and immune to possible disconfirmation as far as science is concerned.  I realize that religionists such as yourself, who are accustomed of thinking in terms “eternal” truths, find this approach difficult to accept.   However, it is disingenuous of you to criticize the scientific method for erring on the side of tentativeness, while at the same time you are benefitting from the myriad fruits of its labors.  If it is a mistake for science to operate under the assumption that its theories are always subject to re-evaluation in the light of new evidence, then please explain why it has become the most effective system ever devised by man for promoting invention and discovery.   And name even one technological breakthrough that has resulted from the direct application of so-called “creation science” where certain “truths” are considered to be sacrosanct.

 

8.  The body of science is not “a theory.”  The body of science is composed of numerous theories.  Theories are explanations for natural phenomena that are developed using the scientific method – and, yes, they are all subject to modification or rejection in consideration of new or refined evidence.

 

9.  My dictionary defines ignorant as: “lacking in knowledge, information, or awareness about something in particular.”  I am admittedly ignorant about a great many subjects.  And you, BH, fit that definition perfectly as pertains to your lack of understanding of the particular subject at hand.  In “My Response to Part 1 of Braveheart’s commentary of 9/2/08,” I gave you a precise definition of scientific theories which established that they are based on the evaluation of hard evidence and are much more than mere speculation.  Since you seem to enjoy ignoring information that does not agree with your preconceived notions, I’ll give you two more definitions of a scientific theory to ignore from two of the most prestigious scientific organizations in the world.  First, from the American Association for the Advancement of Science:

In detective novels, a "theory" is little more than an educated guess, often based on a few circumstantial facts. In science, the word "theory" means much more. A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, based on a body of facts that have been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment. Such fact-supported theories are not "guesses" but reliable accounts of the real world. The theory of biological evolution is more than "just a theory." It is as factual an explanation of the universe as the atomic theory of matter or the germ theory of disease. Our understanding of gravity is still a work in progress. But the phenomenon of gravity, like evolution, is an accepted fact.

And, from the National Academies of Science:

Science is a particular way of knowing about the world. In science, explanations [theories] are limited to those based on observations and experiments that can be substantiated by other scientists. Explanations that cannot be based on empirical evidence are not a part of science.

In the quest for understanding, science involves a great deal of careful observation that eventually produces an elaborate written description of the natural world. Scientists communicate their findings and conclusions to other scientists through publications, talks at conferences, hallway conversations, and many other means. Other scientists then test those ideas and build on preexisting work. In this way, the accuracy and sophistication of descriptions of the natural world tend to increase with time, as subsequent generations of scientists correct and extend the work done by their predecessors.

Now you can continue to whip out your dictionary and pretend to be better qualified to define a scientific theory than honest-to-goodness, practicing scientists and prominent scientific organizations.  However, if you do, you will only be making it even more glaringly obvious that, on this particular subject, you are profoundly ignorant.   It is my understanding that you have no formal education in any field of science.  If that is so, I urge you to contemplate the following aphorism: “The wise man is not he who feigns knowledge, the wise man is he who acknowledges his ignorance.”

 

10.  In keeping with your rudimentary knowledge of the subject at hand, you are conflating hypotheses (proposed explanations based on limited knowledge) with confirmed theories.  After hypotheses are tested, verified, validated, and demonstrated they become accepted scientific theories which are incorporated into the body of science.  You continue to make the erroneous claim that scientific theories that have been tested, verified, etc. are no longer classified as scientific theories.  You are wrong, as a visit to any reputable scientific website would soon reveal.  Are you seriously arguing that scientific theories such as the theory of gravitation, heliocentric theory, the germ theory of disease, atomic theory, etc. are not part of the body of science?

 

11.  No, the problem here is that you are in way over your head on this subject.  Yes, I see a scientific theory as an evidence based explanation, as does the entire scientific community.  No, a scientific theory is not merely speculation, your continued misrepresentation of the subject notwithstanding.  Yes, scientific theories are being constantly tested and/or revised/replaced.  No, the system of testing does not try to “prove” a theory.  It tries to discover the best theory that most accurately explains the available evidence (facts).  Scientific theories are not presented as irrefutable proofs.  They are presented as refutable explanations.

 

12.  Quite frankly, the scientific community doesn’t give a hoot about your uninformed opinions.   Science has been much too successful to pay heed to those who flaunt their ignorance of scientific issues.  Again, if the procedures employed by “educational science world” are so ineffectual in your opinion, why has the scientific method become the most productive system for promoting invention and discovery ever devised by man?  What do you have to offer as an alternative?

Thank the Invisible Pink Unicorn that your practice of lumping validated scientific theories in with unsubstantiated opinions is not endorsed by the scientific community.  If it were, it is likely we would still be living in the pre-scientific Dark Ages where divine revelation was on an equal footing with validated evidence.   If you needed open-heart surgery, would you give equal weight to the recommendations of a heart surgeon and the incantations of a witch doctor?  If you equate practices based on scientific biological theories with simple ideas, apparently you would.

 

13.  I presume you agree that the theory of gravity belongs to the body of science.  This theory is based on the evidence (fact) that objects with mass tend to attract one another.  Newton’s laws of universal gravitation were once thought to be the ultimate explanation for this phenomenon.  Then, along came Einstein with his general theory of relativity to show that Newton’s laws were only approximations and that they were inaccurate at speeds approaching that of light.  Contrary to your example, the early “body of knowledge” related to gravity has been modified (and rejected at light speeds).  Of course, changing scientific explanations (theories) about gravity will not cause objects to suddenly fall up.  New scientific theories do not change the established facts, new facts and more rigorous analysis of established facts change the existing scientific theories.

 

14.  Here you are rehashing the easily-refuted argument from design.  Basically, this argument boils down to the claim that complex entities require even more complex entities to explain their existence, i.e., to create them.   This, then, would require that God, who purportedly created our complex universe, must be more complex than the universe He created, and that He must also have been created by a more complex God than Himself.  This, of course, leads to an infinite regression in which an infinite series of Gods are required maintain the chain of created Gods – each one being more complex than the preceding one.   If you are going to argue that God is unique in that He is an uncaused cause, then it is just as reasonable for me to argue for the same exclusivity for the physical universe as a whole.  In accordance with this line of reasoning, if God does not require a creator, then neither does the universe.

The universe is evolving on a continuous basis – it is expanding at an accelerating rate, new stars and planets are forming, black holes are coming into existence, galaxies are colliding and producing new galaxies, supernova are producing the basic chemical elements, etc.  In my opinion, the hypothesis that the universe came about by purely natural means (perhaps through the formation of virtual particles in the vacuum of space) and continues to evolve is, in the light of current knowledge, considerably more likely than the idea that a magic man in the sky poofed it all into existence and now thinks it’s a good idea to remain incognito.  To each his own.

 

15.  That’s some life insurance policy you signed up for!!  You are eligible to collect (promised!!) benefits only after you die!!  By that time it will be too late for you to realize that you have been sold a bill of goods!!  Talk about the ultimate insurance scam!!  By the way, you sound like you’d be a good sucker customer to buy a bridge I have for sale!!

And what pro-life family values are you referring to?  The ones I delineated in “My Response to Part 2 of Braveheart’s commentary of 9/2/08?”  In my opinion, encouraging/causing such things as total genocide, murder of innocent children, and dissention among family members does not promote pro-life family values.

I wouldn’t be too smug in my choice of religious beliefs, if I were you.  According to the "Religious Tolerance" website, there are 19 major world religions which are subdivided into a total of 270 large religious groups and many smaller ones.  Furthermore, there are some 34,000 separate Christian groups, many of which disagree among themselves over significant doctrinal issues.  What if you have chosen the wrong God to worship, or what if you have chosen to worship Him in the wrong way?  There could be hell to pay you know.  Remember, you and I are both atheists.  I just believe in one less God than you do.

 

16.  Actually, the first thing you should do is put your dictionary aside and learn how actual scientists define the words that they use.   You write as if the definitions and tenets I have given and discussed are my own inventions.  They are not.  They are the definitions and rules that are accepted by the entire scientific community worldwide.  I appreciate that you do not have the time, desire, need, or passion to discuss scientific matters in detail.  Nonetheless, there is something even more basic that prevents you from carrying on a meaningful discussion about science – a serious case of science illiteracy.  No amount of zeal can make up for that crippling deficiency.

 

17.  While you are to be commended for your efforts to validate your beliefs, let me make it clear that your responses have not presented me with any “meaningful challenges.”  I have heard it all before.   Like most other creationists, you are arguing from a position of ignorance as far as the scientific principles and the scientific evidence for evolution are concerned.   All of your science-related anti-evolution arguments are easily refuted, and I recommend the website "Index to Creationist Claims" for concise summaries of those refutations. 

Since creationism is a religious ideology, not a scientific concept, discussion of this topic inevitably drifts toward Bible teachings and philosophical issues about the meaning of life, immortality, etc.  You, like other creationists with whom I have corresponded, adopt the condescending attitude that I have not seriously contemplated such matters.  Let me assure you that I have.  I wonder if you can appreciate why I might find it amusing and somewhat disconcerting when someone insinuates that, after nearly six decades of life, I am oblivious to common Christian talking points and/or have failed to conscientiously evaluate them.

Rather than establishing my worldview on revelatory and emotional underpinnings as creationists do, I have chosen to build it on a foundation of verifiable evidence and critical thinking.  So far, it has successfully weathered any storms of criticism that creationists have been able to throw at it.  My guess is that worldviews constructed on this basis will still be standing long after the edifice of creationism has collapsed on the shifting sands of ignorance and superstition.   For the sake of continued scientific progress, I certainly hope that is the case.

 

18.  Amen to that.   And thanks for providing me with more fodder for discussion on my website.