I like to ask big, hard, and scary questions. Questions where the answer is controversial. Because of this characteristic, I eventually came to ask if God exists or not. There is no easy answer to this question, as I soon found out. This question has led me into many different areas of study including philosophy, cosmology, history, chemistry, apologetics, physics, evolution and creationism. While studying one of those subjects, evolution, I very early on ran into a word who's definition was different when related to science than to general audiences. This word was theory. The meaning of the word is important because if theory just means a guess, then the theory of evolution could just be a guess as well. So, in this essay I'm going to be explaining what theory means in the scientific community.
According to Dictionary.com, the general definition of the word theory is simply “contemplation or speculation, ” a “guess or conjecture.” So if “theory” in the theory of evolution means just a speculation, then evolution doesn't sound very persuasive. The theory of evolution wouldn't hold anymore weight than my dad's theory that a mad scientist created the universe just to see what would happen.
As it turns out, a scientific theory has a much different meaning than just any old general theory. The New Britannica Encyclopedia defines a scientific theory as “systematic ideational structure of broad scope, conceived by the human imagination, that encompasses a family of empirical laws regarding regularities existing in objects and events, both observed and posited...In attempting to explain things and events, the scientist employs careful observation or experiments, reports of regularities, and systematic explanatory schemes (theories)” (Solovets, 553). Another simpler definition from Webster's Third New International Dictionary states a theory is “a working hypothesis given probability by experimental evidence or by factual or conceptual analysis but not conclusively established or accepted as a law” (2371). Wow, so that means a scientific theory isn't just some random speculation, it's something that has empirical evidence to back it up. Indeed, my Chemistry textbook says that “formulating conceptual models, or theories, based on experiments is what distinguishes scientific thinking from speculation” (Silbergberg, 13).
In defining theory, it's critical to mention the process by which a theory is developed. In order for an idea to become a scientific theory, it must go through a rigorous system called the scientific method. In the scientific method, an observation is made about something in nature. The observer then develops a hypothesis, an educated guess at why the observation happens. It is important to note that the hypothesis must be testable in order for it to be scientific. It may be true that gravity happens because magical, invisible, undetectable fairies pull objects of mass toward each other, but this hypothesis is untestable, and therefore not scientific. After a testable hypothesis is proposed, an experiment is performed to test the hypothesis. If the hypothesis accurately predicts the experimental results, it can then be called a theory. As one final not on the process, the World Book Encyclopedia also states that “a theory developed by a scientist cannot be accepted as part of scientific knowledge until it has been verified by the studies of other researchers” (Duuben, 191).
The definition of a scientific theory in the Britannica Encyclopedia has a statement that I feel needs to be addressed, as it is somewhat misleading. The entry states that because some of the aspects of a theory cannot be directly observed that “it is evident that theories are imaginative constructions of the human mind-the result of philosophical and aesthetic judgments as well as observation-for they are only suggested by observation information rather than inductively generalized from it” (Solovets, 553). This may lead a person to think that any explanation that accounts for all of the facts is a reasonable theory. However, this logic is not used in everyday thinking let alone science. If a person comes home one day to find their home a mess, back door kicked open, front door unlocked, with their stuff laying on the floor and the safe smashed open, it is reasonable for the person to assume that a small earthquake happened directly under their house, not big enough to be felt by the neighbors, wasn't strong enough to damage the infrastructure of their house, but strong enough to crack open their safe, and just happened to shake the front door the right way for it to unlock? No, this explanation accounts for all the facts and could have happened, but realistically it has far to many assumptions. This type of reasoning is referred to Occam's Razor, which simply states that given two hypotheses (or theories) that account for the facts equally, the one with the least assumptions is most likely to be true. Science operates on this philosophy. On scientific theory Wikipedia states, “a theory should be the simplest possible tool that can be used to effectively address the given class of phenomena.” Therefore, scientific theories are not just “ imaginative constructions of the human mind, ” where any theory can be made based on the observations and evidence, but also the result of the philosophy that the simpler answer is the more likely answer. So, going back to evolution, if a scientific theory arose that was simpler then evolution that accounted for all the facts just as well, this theory would replace evolution.
The knowledge I have gained by researching what a scientific theory is has allowed me to realize that evolution is not just a theory in the general sense. By being a scientific theory, “the theory that life on earth developed gradually from one or several simple organisms (appropriate molecules) to more complex organisms, ” is not just some random guess, but an idea that has observation and empirical evidence to back it up, as well as the support of the vast majority of the scientific community (Nostrand, 1862-1863). So finally, as my search of whether God exists or not continues, I'll always keep in mind a theory proposed by science is not something that I can afford to ignore.
Blumer, A. "Occam's Razor." Information Processing Letters 24.6 (1987): 377-80. Print.
Considine, Glenn D., and Peter H. Kulik. Van Nostrand's Scientific Encyclopedia. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley- Interscience, 2008. Print.
Duuben, Joseph W. The World Book Encyclopedia. Chicago, IL: World Book, 2009. Print.
Silberberg, Martin S. Chemistry: the Molecular Nature of Matter and Change. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2009. Print.
Solovets, Reti. The New Encyclopedia Britannica... Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1975. Print.
"theory." Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 17 Feb. 2011.
"Theory." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 18 Feb. 2011.