Supplanting the Theory

On the Shape of that Something-Shaped Hole in You

On paper, scientists have queer standards for the conclusions they accept. A conclusion should arise out of the sum of the evidence under consideration, rather than merely test against it. A conclusion should comply with all known results. Finally, a conclusion meeting these criteria should not be overturned unless there is a better conclusion to replace it with. If applied to our day to day comings and goings, such criteria would seem rather harsh and excessive. We may wish to believe that something good is going to happen in the near future, and the long-term benefit of this may outweigh the singular disappointment—that’s called optimism. But what of the philosophy that underlies our daily comings and goings? Does this need to be scientifically rigorous? Perhaps in some sense.

Because it is considered wrong to lightheartedly overturn scientific conclusions without replacing them, it is possible for us to be wrong about something while still doing the “right” thing. Almost all the science we learn in school is, technically, wrong. Furthermore, even the best science we have available to us is known to be wrong or incomplete—but it works. It only stops working if you pull a very select handful of strings, or ask a very select handful of questions.

All this is germane because of the arguments I often hear put forth against my faith. There are powerful destructive arguments on the side of atheism and agnosticism, but they are accompanied by the opinion that poking holes in a position is all that is required. This is not to say that there cannot be a replacement for a worldview based on faith. It is to say that making destructive arguments is of very limited use, and it’s what everyone spends most of their time doing. [2]

Destructive arguments can easily be concocted against any position, no matter how sound. If their limits were acknowledged, the naïveté of many Christians (on certain issues) might also fade away. To evidence this, consider something that almost everyone can comfortably agree on—the earth is round [3] [4]. It is possible to generate a list of simple evidence that the earth is not round, such as “It doesn’t look round to me!” and “Why don’t people fall off the bottom, then?” If you were highly convinced that the earth was flat, the responses to these challenges might sound long-winded and unconvincing, because the bit of thinking they require is seen as manufactured justification. It is only when the flat-earth model is asked to explain satellite photographs, in contrast to the idea of a round earth, that the answer becomes obvious. I’d say that saying “It’s ridiculous to believe in God, since we can’t see him” is similar to saying “The earth looks flat to me”—it demands an unreasonable level of obviousness. [5] Any questions lending themselves to such obviousness will never be asked in the first place, thoroughly explaining their scarcity. This, however, is beside the point.

To illustrate the above, I posit that science will never accept a supernatural explanation for, say, abiogenesis, because the alternative to naturalism—that is, supernatural intervention—does not conform to the tenets of scientific inquiry. In this way, scientists are able to say “we don’t know,” while maintaining that they are making the “right” decision: they are holding the best theory that they have, the idea that “somehow, by the fundamental mechanisms observed to have caused all other known phenomena, this has occurred.” Despite the severe difficulties involved in this line of research, scientists feel quite comfortable excluding the supernatural, provided they are not definitely proven wrong. In the same way, it is reasonable for a Christian to maintain faith in light of certain theological, historical, or scientific difficulties, when no overarching, core replacement is considered feasible. [6]

I am not dismissing the alternatives to faith out of hand, nor am I saying (here) that they are not feasible. I am suggesting primarily that there are serious difficulties with every form of opinion, philosophy, and belief—you will accomplish nothing by pointing out the ones in mine, turning up your nose, and leaving the room.


[1] Please bear with me as I call these “essays.” I could call them “posts,” but a blog post is something that takes me about this many minutes:

(Number of words) / (My typing speed in words per minute).

I call these essays because they take more time than that, and I wrote essays in university that we were shorter than these.

[2] My point here, that “a negative argument is not equivalent to a positive one,” will be the subject of another essay that will regurgitate much of what I’ve just written. In the words of one of my professors from the structural department:

“People deny global warming. They say ‘well, this iceberg here is getting bigger,’ or ‘it was cold at my cottage this year,’ but that’s not really how it works … it’s not about explaining each and every individual event, it’s about [choosing a theory that makes the best sense of the evidence]”

[3] I have been enthusiastically told by several people—who I imagine would derive a bit of an ego boost from it—that the present-day flat-earth society is not a joke. There are two kinds of gullibility: the willingness to believe ridiculous things, and the willingness to believe that certain people believe certain ridiculous things.

[4] As a side note, the sphericity of the earth was known as early as the third century B.C. The Christian church never made noteworthy objections to a round earth. Columbus did not think he was going to sail off the edge of the world. Were you amused by seeing “the earth is round” with two footnote citations beside it? I find that funny.

[5] Yes, that point needs much more support. I stand by it, but it needs its own essay, which I will get to in good (slow) time.

[6] You might point out that a theory can simply be exploded through a proof by contradiction. You’d be right if you did. But the theory still works in all the cases it was developed to explain and it can probably be modified sufficiently to take the new information into account, which is generally how things have gone in science.


4 Responses to “Supplanting the Theory”

  1. That was well thought out. Thank you for that. You enriched my evening.

  2. 1)

    Have you been reading Brief History of Time? I like the way Hawking deals with the idea of God. I think he’s fairly diplomatic about it, and he approaches the question the same way he approaches the rest of his science. He doesn’t try to poke holes in the theory, but rather asks where God fits into what has been observed. Hopefully those are two different things in your mind, otherwise I’m not explaining it correctly, or we simply have differing opinions on Hawking’s writing.


    “it’s about [choosing a theory that makes the best sense of the evidence]”

    I agree! And I also agree that you can’t just generate contradictions to show that an argument is wrong. I see this all the time in debates, where people simply attack the other side without supporting their own. But anyway, if you believe your Professor’s quote, then how is a Christian viewpoint of the universe (let’s say Creationism and Abiogensis for lack of better examples) following this mantra?


    You had the atheists cornered in a couple of your arguments, but I think the agnostics still managed to wriggle free. I can’t speak for all of them, but if you tell me that the world is sitting on a bunch of turtles, I’m fine with saying, “Yeah, that could happen. Doesn’t look likely but hey, who am I to judge?”

  3. 1) Yep.
    2) Did you hear that? It was the sound of assumptions being made about what the “Christian viewpoint” is 😉
    3) I’m a little unclear on how this relates to what I wrote, but in any case, I wasn’t trying to prevent all forms of wiggling here.

    I’m also not about stopping people from wiggling.

  4. 2.1) Even so, that’s a big question. If it could be answered in a comment box I wouldn’t need to write these things anymore. My personal opinion on that will become clear soon enough.

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