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The Nature of Science

Updated: Jan 28

In order to come to a proper understanding about what science says about origins, it is essential to understand the nature of science. Yet, in my experience, most people do not understand it. They fail to grasp science’s methodology, its limitations, the relationship between theories and laws, and so on. So let us clarify these matters.

Science begins simply with observation, with looking carefully at what goes on around us in the world. Science looks for patterns in the things that happen, noticing when things repeatedly happen in the same way under the same circumstances. Consider the proverbial story of Sir Isaac Newton sitting under a tree when an apple fell on his head and from this initial observation ended up discovering gravity. The simple observation he made is that objects, left to themselves, naturally fall to the earth. If I hold up an apple and then let go, it will fall to the earth. If I repeat this a million times, every time it will fall to the earth. We conclude, inductively, that objects always fall to the earth (absent interference of some sort). This, in its most basic form, is the law of gravity.

Through further observation and experimentation, we try to refine our understanding of the law. Newton discovered that it was not simply a matter of objects falling to earth but of masses exerting a pull towards each other. Modeling this phenomenon with the concept of “force,” Newton was even able to describe it mathematically as F = G(M1)(M2)/r², where F is the force of attraction (in Newtons) between two objects of masses M1 and M2 (in kg) separated by a distance of r metres, and G is the gravitational constant he worked out, 6.67*10⁻¹¹. This equation describes how two masses are ALWAYS attracted to each other. (Of course, not every law in science can be modeled mathematically.)

In science, then, a law is a statement of what is always seen to happen, and never seen to be violated. In other words, a law tells WHAT happens. It is the most fundamental and certain knowledge provided by science.

A theory, on the other hand, is an attempt to explain WHY something happens. Okay, masses attract each other, but why do they do so? Here we get into not the law of gravitation but theories of gravitation, e.g. perhaps space is curved. This process begins with a hypothesis, a suggestion to explain the phenomenon. Through repeated experimentation designed to disprove the hypothesis, the hypothesis is either shown to be inadequate, in which case it should be discarded, or it is supported. As it gains more support, it becomes more widely accepted, and may be accorded the status of a theory.

It should be obvious now that the common misconception that we start with a hypothesis, which through supporting data is promoted to the status of a theory, and then, through further supporting data attains the status of a law, is completely incorrect. A LAW tells WHAT happens; a THEORY tries to explain WHY this happens.

Finally, it is essential to reiterate that the laws are the most fundamental and certain knowledge yielded by science. Theories are provisional. And, since they attempt to explain the laws, ANY THEORY THAT REQUIRES THE VIOLATION OF A LAW IS CLEARLY WRONG AND MUST BE DISCARDED. This is beyond any possibility of dispute.

Consider, for example, the first law of thermodynamics, viz. that matter/energy cannot be created or destroyed, but only changed from form to form. A proposed theory of, say, mountain formation, that suggested that the matter of which the mountain is made spontaneously appears out of nothing and then grows into the mountain would certainly be rejected out of hand. A theory that requires the violation of a law of science cannot be valid.

We shall see the implications of this for the theory of evolution.

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