The Scientific Method, and Evolution
Sean D. Pitman M.D.
© August 2003
The Theory of Evolution is believed by many to be "true" - especially by most of today’s scientists. Many others, even among evolutionists, believe in the "truth" of God or in an original designer. Still others believe in the “truth” of original creation where the basic ideas of evolution are completely excluded. But how, exactly, do different people come to their own personal understanding of what is true and was is not?
is truth? How
do we know what we know?
Do we have an inherent knowledge of truth?
If so, then we need not learn.
If we do find ourselves learning, changing, and growing in our
understanding of the world around us, does this not mean that we are subject to
that world and to what our senses and reason tell us about it?
If we are subjects of our senses, then we cannot know beyond them and
what information they give to us.
In other words, we cannot know the external world directly (like we know
our own internal thoughts and feelings).
We cannot know if we are but in a dream or a computer animation.
However, if we wish to survive in this environment, whatever it may be,
we must be able to interpret what our senses are telling us about our
has to be some method that helps us decide if our interpretations are correct,
incorrect, or need some sort of revision.
The "scientific method" has proven to be one of the most
helpful ways of sorting out truth from error.
The scientific method is very simple - a basic "crap detector" if you will. We have all used it since infancy. It is simply a description of the process of learning that involves observation, hypothesis, testing, and revising.1 When we learn something new about our environment, we first observe or sense something through our senses. We then propose a hypothesis in our mind that explains this observation. A hypothesis makes certain assumptions or predictions about the future. If these predictions hold true, the hypothesis is strengthened in its usefulness as a predictive tool, but it can never be absolutely confirmed since we remain subjective creatures (subject to our senses and to indirect interpretations of what they are telling us).
strength of the scientific method is found not so much in its ability to detect
truth, but in its ability to detect error.
It has the ability to rule out those hypothesis and theories that are
For instance, someone might observe a man scratching his nose and then
rolling a pair of dice - which end up on double six’s.
One might then hypothesize that this man’s nose scratching caused him to roll
double six’s. The
prediction could then be made that this will always hold true in the future.
If the man roles double six's again after scratching his nose, the
hypothesis is strengthened, but not absolutely confirmed. This could have
been a coincidence after all.
However, if this prediction holds one hundred times in a row, one
might become more confident, but never absolutely certain.
All one can do is point to the past predictive usefulness of this
if this man happens to roll a two and a five after scratching his nose, the
initial hypothesis has clearly failed and either needs to be revised or even
replaced by a different hypothesis.
The scientific method is an extremely powerful learning tool in that it detects error and so narrows the possibilities where truth may be found. If truth exists in any field of thought or learning, the scientific method can be used as a guide to help one approach this truth. Certainly then, the scientific method is a very versatile method. It can be used for anything as mundane as hog calling to physics and mathematics.
Anyone can be a scientist and any area of thought can be approached in a scientific manner. However, this does not mean that all people are scientific in their thinking - even in such "hard" sciences as physics or mathematics. Humans have a tendency to believe a lot of things based on feelings - or a desire or love for a particular idea. The problem here is that the truth about external reality or truth is not dependent upon personal desire. The moon will not just disappear even if I really really want the moon to disappear - or the sky to be green instead of blue. Truth will be true regardless of one's feelings concerning it.
So, if one honestly desires to know truth, a conscientious effort must be made to limit one's emotions during the search. All possibilities must be considered with none being ruled out simply on the basis of personal likes or dislikes. All of our ideas must be open to challenge and question. This becomes easier when we realize that human understanding can never achieve full perfection. When we come to this point, we are forced to conclude that our individual search for truth is never ending. We can approach truth, but we will never fully realize truth. Even established theories must be subject to re-evaluation and adjustment as new information comes to light - even if they be long cherished religious ideas that have brought great comfort.
This concept is important when one starts to consider the heated topic of our own origins and the origin of all other living things. Certainly an understanding of origins is important as far as how one approaches the future and is often important in establishing personal motivations. However, with so many differing opinions presenting themselves, how can one sort out the "truth" for one's self? Does the scientific method support one position over the others? Or, it is true that some things can only be believed based on a "faith" that goes beyond science?
Currently there are two main opposing camps of thought concerning the origin and diversity of life. On the one hand there is the purely naturalistic Theory of Evolution. On the other hand there is the Intelligent Design Theory. There are many variations within both camps as well as many theories that contain elements from both, but very few theories concerning the origin and diversity of living things exist outside of these two main camps. The purists in each camp accuse those in the other camp of straying from true science and even of being outright "religious" in their respective positions.
It is commonly stated that religion should be left to theologians while science should be left to scientists. This argument assumes that some important truths are beyond scientific investigation and are thus matters of "faith." What many do not seem to realize is that all human knowledge is a matter of faith. All human theories are statements of faith - even when it comes to the "purer" sciences of physics and mathematics. Human theories may be backed up by a greater or lesser degree of evidence, but, like all human attempts to search out truth, no one and no theory has ever achieved absolute perfection in any aspect of human knowledge concerning the external world. Obviously then, without access to absolute knowledge, a degree of faith remains when one holds a particular position to be true - be it a "religious" or a "scientific" position.
A theory is therefore a faith and a faith is therefore a theory. Of course, one who holds a particular faith or theory to be "true" may or may not choose to apply the scientific method to that position. If the scientific method is not or cannot be applied to investigate or test a particular position, then it is impossible to detect any possible error in such a position. Without the ability to detect error, a particular position cannot be said to be "better" or "worse" than any other position. All such faiths and/or theories become equal.
if a person or group presents one particular faith or theory as better than any
other faith or theory, they have to be able to back this position up with
testable reasons that make better predictions concerning an observation (i.e.,
with the use of the scientific method).
But what if a faith or theory concerns a historical event? Is it possible to test a historical event? The study of origins and diversity is a historical study. All origins happened in the past. Certainly we cannot go back and directly observe these origins. For example, I believe that the man Abraham Lincoln was the president of the United States during the Civil War. I did not live during this time. I never met Mr. Lincoln. I cannot go back and directly test the "truthfulness" of my belief concerning either Mr. Lincoln or the Civil War. Is my belief in the actual life and activities of Mr. Lincoln simply a case of "blind" faith? Not if historical studies can be done with the use of the scientific method.
archeological discoveries, etc. can be tested for agreement and predictive value
as they relate to each other.
The amount, degree, and quality of agreement or disagreement between
various sources pertaining to a particular historical event can be directly
example, lets say that I am reading from a historical document that is
discussing a particular Civil War battle.
The ink and paper can be tested to see if they match other documents
thought to be from the same time period.
The handwriting can be tested by analysis to see if it matches other
documents supposedly written by the same person.
Also, if these documents state exactly where a battle was fought and
describe in detail what type of weapons and ammunition where used, one could go
and find a location that seems to match the description found in this document,
and then dig and find similar weapons and ammunition. Certainly then, the
degree of agreement between such sources of information is statistically
scientific method can be applied here.
The study of history can therefore be a science.
Similarly, the theory of evolution concerns the topic of origins. All origins happened in the past. So, the theory of evolution is in a large degree a science that proposes to explain a part of history. But, is this explanation of history "true"? It certainly could be. If the truth of the matter is that evolution did happen and is real, then there should be evidence of its activity. This evidence could be discovered and interpreted in much the same way that one might come to believe any other historical event to be "true".
Many claim that the correlatory evidence is everywhere and that it overwhelming supports the predictions of evolutionary theory. Evolution is not only true, it is "obviously true" - as obvious as the nose on your face. In fact, it is not only historically obvious, but its activity can be detected today . . . in real time! And, it will continue to be a real force in nature into the future. Because of this, the theory of evolution is presented as not just a historical science, but a present and future science as well. It can be tested and studied in the laboratory in real time. Many new functions, such as antibiotic resistance, changes in the color of moths, variations in finch beaks, and the enormous number of wild and domestic breeds of dogs, cats, birds, cattle, plants and animals of every kind speak to the creative power of what evolutionary processes can do.
Certainly, the theory of evolution did seem to explain a great deal of what we see happening in the natural world. In fact, observations like these are what made various people start to ponder various evolutionary ideas well before Darwin came on the scene. But is it all really as clear as many have come to believe? Surprisingly, even among well-educated scientists, experts in their own fields, questions concerning the fundamental truths of the theory of evolution are bubbling to the surface. Obviously, the theory of evolution remains as a very popular explanation of origins, especially among most scientists. However, I am not alone in thinking that the theory of evolution is severely limited in what it can explain - to the point of being completely untenable given what we now know about genetics, geology, the fossil record, and various dating mechanisms.
1. Morano, David. Experimental Science Projects:An Intermediate Level Guide, Mankato State University. May, 1995.
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