It’s Just a Theory… or is It?
What exactly is a theory and when does one become a fact?
What makes a theory depends a lot on who you are talking to at the time. If you are with your friends, a theory can be little more than a thought which explains something, “I have a theory that your subconscious is sabotaging your efforts to find a job,” or a suspicion, “I have a theory that that hot chick next door likes me.”
If on the other hand, you are writing a scientific article for a peer-reviewed magazine you better have a lot more than suspicions to back it up with. In this case, your theory must be supported by clear, plausible, scientific reasoning and there must be a way for it to be tested. The importance of that last criterion cannot be overstated. A solid scientific theory must be able to be tested. The implicit condition is that it must be able to fail that test. In short, it must be falsifiable.
This falsifiability requirement is a little more important than you might at first realise. What it essentially means is that there must be evidence in support of your claim that could have disproved your claim. Without this ‘neutral evidence,’ a theory can explain everything and yet mean nothing. A classic non-falsifiable argument might go something like this:
“I created the universe ten seconds ago.”
“No, you didn’t. I have memories that reach back more than ten seconds.”
“I created those as well.”
“But you’re a part of the universe. As such you couldn’t have created it.”
“I created myself (the self you see) in it…”
The claim is obviously ridiculous and yet it is impossible to refute. It can be tailored to explain everything and yet has absolutely no value whatsoever. Also note that the claim lacks any strong evidence in its favour. This is typical of all non-falsifiable arguments. Non-falsifiability by its very nature cannot be proven wrong but it also cannot be proven right. The characteristic that safeguards it from attack also muzzles it, rendering it totally empty as an explanation.
So, a theory is a systematic, logical, falsifiable explanation of something. Now, when does a theory become a fact? Well, I don’t think it ever does. If any process or event was ever obvious enough to be a fact then we wouldn’t need a theory for it in the first place. The bottom line is that any theory, no matter how much evidence exists in favour of it, can eventually turn out to be wrong… however, it must be noted that some theories come closer to being facts than others. Perhaps the best example of this is in the evolution-creation debate.
Creationists (or intelligent design proponents as they prefer to be called these days) tend to make a big deal over the “theory” of evolution being no more than a theory. They maintain that their own “theory” is just as plausible and should be taught in schools alongside evolution. Let’s investigate this claim.
The claim that evolution is “just a theory” is a classic misunderstanding of the word theory. Evolution is a theory in the scientific sense of the word, not in the, “I have an idea” sense when you are (or think you are) struck by a flash of inspiration. There is a veritable mountain of evidence in favour of evolution and more continues to surface every day. At any stage, this evidence could have tipped the other way, a human fossil could have been found next to a dinosaur fossil, human DNA could be somehow different from other animals on account of our divine Creator, but this is not the case. Despite the abundant opportunities for evolution to have been proven wrong, the evidence continues to overwhelmingly support it. This is why it is considered such a strong theory by every serious scientist (even the religious ones) today. It is completely falsifiable and is built within a systematic, logical framework. It completely aligns with our definition of a scientific theory.
What about intelligent design then? Which category of ‘theory’ does this fall under? Let’s jump straight in and ask they key question to determine if the argument is non-falsifiable… can there be any evidence that would disprove ID?
Irrespective of what anyone claims or what discoveries are made, ID proponents will always be able to fall back on the defence, “Well, that’s how God made it.” The fossil record conforms to a clear pattern of evolution? That’s how God made it. All life is composed of identical building blocks called DNA? That’s how God made it.
So ID can’t be proven wrong. How about our second falsifiability test? Can it be proven right? What evidence appears in support of ID? Interestingly enough, virtually none. The bulk of ID commentary contains little more than attacks on evolution. The only positive element in ID revolves around complexity, but even that is mainly focused on whether or not evolution can support it.
This is bad for ID for two reasons. First, the complexity argument does not unavoidably result in a Creator; a little research in the appropriate direction shows that there are plenty of reasons to think evolution can in fact build complexity the likes of which are seen in nature and second, no scientific theory can survive with only a single, highly contentious claim at its foundation.
All in all, the ID claim is virtually identical to my earlier claim that I created the universe ten seconds ago:
“God created all life.”
“But the fossil evidence shows a clear history of progressive evolution.”
“God created it that way.”
“But many species of whale have vestigial pelvis and leg bones.”
“God created them that way.”
“But I have an appendix that can be completely removed and not adversely affect me at all. However, if it isn’t removed, it can cause my death. Why would anyone design that?”
“God didn’t design that. Humans’ sinful behaviour caused defects in God’s handiwork…”
As you can see; ID is classically non-falsifiable. Does this mean that it’s wrong? Not necessarily. It just means that it doesn’t count as a scientific theory and definitely doesn’t deserve to be taught alongside a theory as robust as evolution.
A divine Creator may have in fact made everything the way we see it but there isn’t much evidence to support that and as you saw, the debate with an ID believer fails to adequately explain anything. ID can never be considered a theory anything remotely like evolution and does not belong as part of our education curriculum any more than Muslim or Hindu beliefs do.