Judging from Katie Grieze’s Jan. 14 guest column in The News-Sentinel, it appears that since submitting her Nov. 21 article concerning including creationist theories in the science curricula of our public school system she has, indeed, engaged in some useful reflection about this matter. She seems to have received some thought-provoking responses, and I am pleased that I made a small, but evidently worthwhile, contribution to her considerations of this subject.
In this discussion there has been considerable talk of “theory,” among other things, but, so far as I can tell, no one involved has considered the meaning and significance of this term or why we should have an interest in it. It may be useful to do so here, though we must acknowledge that a thorough treatment of the many very complex related issues goes far beyond the scope of this simple essay.
In his book “The Structure of Science,” philosopher of science Ernest Nagel described theories as, “conceptual frameworks deliberately devised for effectively directing experimental inquiry, and for exhibiting connections between matters of observation that would otherwise be regarded as unrelated.”
Most simply, a theory is an explanation about why things are the way they are. We human beings seem to have an intense desire to make sense of our experience, and so we develop theories to accomplish this. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to characterize theories as “right” or “wrong,” “true” or “false” or “proven” or “unproven.” Rather, it is probably more accurate to think of them as good or bad, useful or not useful, or supported or not supported.
A theory allows us to develop hypotheses based upon it, which we can then test in a systematic and controlled manner. This, essentially, is the scientific method. No theory can explain everything, and every theory has its problems, but the best theories account for the greatest number of observations of our world with the fewest contradictions. A good theory is therefore very practical, allowing us to make predictions about our environment, which we can then use to our considerable benefit.
Theories evolve (no pun intended) as we become more sophisticated in our reasoning and investigatory technology. At one time, it was likely perfectly sensible to believe that thunder and lightening represented the gods’ displeasure with us, that the earth was flat, and that the sun revolved around the earth. However, as our ability to study the pertinent theoretical predictions improved, these theories fell out of favor. So it goes with theories, and so it has gone with so-called creation theories in the eyes of, it seems, most scientists, who for the most part now consider them of anthropological interest.
In the biological world, evolution has emerged as the top theoretical dog for the vast majority of scientists because, in their view, it does the best job of explaining the “facts” in these realms. It cannot be “proved” in the sense that it can never be shown to be absolutely “true,” as is the case with any theory. It is simply the best theory available for now, though one day it, too, may be eclipsed by a theory that we find more satisfactory.
Regarding astrophysics, it appears that we are still trying to develop satisfactory theories about the origin of the universe, or even deciding if this term is applicable to it (or deciding upon a definition of “universe” for that matter).
In her latest article, Grieze acknowledged the impracticality of “any and all beliefs being included” for study in our science curricula, but maintained, “Either the topic is opened up for discussion during class, as a matter of personal faiths ... or any ideas about ‘the beginning’ are left out of the science curriculum all together (sic) until mankind acquires sufficient enough technology to determine the absolute truth.”
Unfortunately, with theories it is impossible to attain “the absolute truth” that Grieze understandably desires. So what shall we to do with the science curricula in public schools? Should we devote considerable time and resources to revisiting a great many scientifically obsolete creation theories, or should we recommend studying the latest theoretical ideas entertained by the majority of the scientific community, developed using conceptual reasoning based upon our accumulated knowledge of the pertinent subject matter and available state-of-the art technology?
Or, as Grieze suggests, should we exclude such considerations altogether?
Whereas arriving at the answer to this question will no doubt involve continued public debate, in the scientific community this debate has long been over. In any case, I do hope that I have given Grieze some additional food for thought.