Controversy: Distinguishing Fact, Theory, and Belief

Systems vs People

Belief systems have no theories, no hypotheses, no fact-checking, no experiments, and no system to test the accuracy of the beliefs contained in the belief system. Science on the other hand has no beliefs, no absolute truths, and no faith. A person can have moral values, understand the concept of fairness, natural justice, and empathy, all independent of either science or a belief system. In fact, for most people, theories, hypotheses, facts, experiments, testing accuracy, beliefs, absolute truths, faith, moral values, fairness, natural justice, and empathy are all mixed up together. Add to that our many other physical abilities, experiences, learned information, and cultural attitudes or behaviour patterns and that is the incredible porridge of what makes us who we are and shapes what we believe and think to be true.

Gravity – Fact and Theory

It is no wonder that some subjects are controversial. However, when belief and observation in the physical world coincide, there is no controversy. For example, If we throw a ball up in the air, it will always fall down unless something else gets in the way. We recognize that there is a force that pulls everything down to the earth. If we exert a force in the opposite direction, things go up. If the force is temporary, like tossing a ball up in the air, the things will come down again. If we continue to exert force long enough, like in a rocket ship, the rocket ship can go so high that the force of gravity is not enough to pull it down again. So, gravity is an observable phenomenon that everyone can test everyday and expect to get the same results under the same conditions all the time. In everyday life, that makes it a “fact”. We can also think of gravity as the force that gives things weight.

How gravity works is another matter. Can we explain gravitational force? Guess what gravity is a fact, but there are also theories of gravity! Here are a few:

#1) Aristotle “believed” that gravity acted more on heavy objects than on light objects. Drop a ball and a feather together and the ball gets to the ground first.

#2) Galileo tested this and found that gravity acts equally on all objects heavy or light — it is air resistance that slows the feather down.

#3) Later Isaac Newton described what he called the inverse square law of universal gravitational that said all bodies attract each other according to the inverse square to the distance from their centres. This means no objects can move unless another is exerting a force on it.

#4) Einstein suggested still another theory of gravity to explain why in fact bodies in space to move in a different manner. He said gravity is not a force at all. Instead it is an effect. In general relativity, he said that the effects of gravitation are due to spacetime curvature instead of a force. His theory of general relativity includes the equivalence principle in which free fall is equated to inertial motion, and at the same time describes free-falling inertial objects as being accelerated relative to non-inertial observers on the ground, that is to say it is a relative effect.

#5) It turns out that Einstein’s theory of general relativity is not compatible with quantum mechanics. Quantum effects are all based on particles. You may know the term “photon” used in quantum mechanics to describe light. In gravity, quantum mechanics suggests there are “gravitons.” The attractive force of gravity arises due to exchange of “virtual” gravitons.

So we have all kinds of competing theories of gravity. The most recent two (relativity and the space time continuum vs quantum mechanics) work equally well over large distances, but not smaller ones. So a new theory of gravity is needed in quantum mechanics — and we don’t have one yet!

Science is still debating the theory of gravity even though we know gravity is a fact.

What We Know and What We Think We Know

Well that’s interesting for several reasons. Gravity, the fact we observe, is not in question, it is only how it works that remains in question. And this is for something that is not in the least controversial. Imagine the problems when the observations do not match an important belief.

The usual controversy between belief systems and observations is when the belief is based on a concept from the non-physical realm which is then applied to a physical fact or event or process without thoroughly checking the accuracy of the belief in the physical realm.

We all know the sun comes up every day, right? Do we really know that? The words imply that the earth is standing still and the sun moves relative to the earth, so we see the sun come up. According to the ancient observer and mathematician Ptolemy, the Earth was the centre (well slightly off-centre) of the universe. After Ptolemy and until Galileo, the “belief” was that the earth was the centre of the universe and everything revolved around the earth (the sun comes up). This was the “Christian” belief at that time as well. Much later, when Galileo made observations that indicated that the earth in fact revolved around the sun, the church of the time threw him in jail. Today, of course, we have many ways of demonstrating that Galileo, not the church, was correct. While there may be a few people left who still think the earth is the centre of the universe and that the sun revolves around the earth, most everyone “knows” that the earth is moving relative to the sun. The subject is not controversial today – but it sure was for Galileo. Here is an example when a belief system rejected a “fact-checking” system as unnecessary to test the accuracy of a belief.

Predicting the Unknowable

What about controversial subjects that posit quasi-physical things such as the colour of angel hair, whether fairies can fly, the location of heaven, and others that do not impinge on the everyday physical realm? Predicting the unknowable is safe. While there are great debates over subjects like these, they in general do not have an impact on the choices that people can make in everyday life. Because they do not have an impact on everyday choices, they do not have any impact on people who ignore the debates.

Predicting the Knowable

Predicting the knowable from an unfounded belief or opinion is not safe, especially with controversial subjects where they do have an impact on everyday choices, and where they do have an impact even on people who ignore the debates. That is when the controversy becomes important to people in everyday life. In most cases, the controversy pits the laws or policies of a government that were derived from a belief system against the observed facts of the natural world. Typical modern examples of this include evolution, climate change, limits to population growth, environmental stewardship, sexual orientation, abortion policies, and many more.

Recall that there can be fact and theory together. The theory does not alter the fact, only how we perceive it to operate. Gravity is a fact, and we know a huge amount about it, how to measure it, how to use its effects with high accuracy, but we aren’t yet completely able to explain how it works in modern science. Is that a problem? Not with gravity because at least so far, no one has attempted to pass political laws that contravene the natural reality of gravity.

Here is where belief and observation can part ways in a pretty spectacular manner. Recall that belief systems have no theories, no hypotheses, no fact-checking, no experiments, and no system to test the accuracy of the beliefs contained in the belief system. The belief system has a code and a set of dogmatic statements that represent the “truth.” There is no need to have a theory, because the answer is known. In most belief systems there is a book of rules by which people govern their behaviour. The rule book is based on a set of principles laid out by the supernatural power and become the moral code.

Science on the other hand has no beliefs, no absolute truths, and no faith. There is no moral code contained in science. Science does have a rule book, developed over centuries to ensure a rigorous attention to detail and to the interpretation of observations made. Science does have observations, hypotheses, theories, fact-checking, experiments, and systems to test the accuracy of measurements and interpretations. Science also creates predictive models (best estimates of how things work), but science does not “prove” things to be absolute truths. Science does not demand faith or belief, instead the science rule book calls for skepticism and searching for accurate and repeatable observations that don’t fit the predictive models or theories. In fact, the basic requirement is for a description of a process (hypothesis) that can be falsified by a test. If it cannot be falsified by test, it is not a good enough hypothesis. So for example, science has no test for the existence of God because that is not a testable hypothesis. If I look for a God and don’t find one, that has no validity as a scientific test. “Science,” therefore has no opinion on God.

Scientists, on the other hand, as people, can have beliefs and opinions, just like anyone can. Many scientists adhere to belief systems, many do not have a formal allegiance but may have beliefs, many are not sure, and many are active non-believers. Science and scientists are not the same thing.

Is science mysterious? Not particularly. Anyone who is an experimental cook is very similar to a scientist. For example a cook who has a good cake recipe, but wants to change it has a predictive model for the cake (the recipe). To make a change, the cook sets up an hypothesis about what would happen if whole wheat flour were substituted for cake flour. Perhaps a little extra leavening will be needed, so add some baking powder and an maybe an extra egg. Prediction of hypothesis is that the cake will rise just as high as before and will both taste better and be healthier because of the extra egg and whole wheat flour. This is the testable hypothesis. Put it all together and bake it in the oven. Cut a piece and taste it (testing the hypothesis). If it works, we have a theory that the new recipe will work . We retest several times and modify slightly to continue to improve the result until we are satisfied. Now we have a predictive model (the revised recipe). So, no science is not mysterious in principle. Adding more and more detail as well as technology can make it look mysterious, but at the root, science is just like cooking. The process of making a new recipe does not entail any beliefs, faith, or moral values. It is just chemistry. How you interpret the results and what you do with the new cake recipe is not a part of the science you used to create it.

If you decide to share it with your pals or you decide to keep the recipe a secret is your choice and depends on your own personal set of values. If you try to feed it to your kids and handily forget to mention it is healthy, that is another decision you make based on your values, not the science of making the cake. Maybe the idea for the modification came from a magazine. Do you acknowledge the source in the recipe or not — again that is your choice. In the rule book of science, you need to acknowledge the source, but in home cooking, there is no rule book.

Age of the Earth as an Example

Many belief systems consider the world to be only a few thousand years old, others posit that there has always been an Earth in existence. Many people are curious. Some of those curious people wondered just how old the world really might be. It is not easy to figure this out because of course, new rocks are made from volcanic and other geological processes all the time. Over millenia, the newer rocks eroded to cover the older rocks. So it can be difficult to find old rocks and even more difficult to find the oldest rocks. The oldest rocks which have been found so far (on the Earth) are about 3.8 to 3.9 billion years old. The age of these ancient rocks is determined using radiometric techniques (the decay rate of isotopes). Some of these rocks are sedimentary, so they are the result of erosion and deposition. So while this doesn’t establish the age of the earth, it at least gives us a minimum age. These ancient rocks have been found in North America, Greenland, Australia, Africa, and Asia. Using the remains of meteorites, the best estimate of the earth’s age is about 4.55 billion years, but it is only a best guess based on as much direct and indirect evidence as we have been able to gather so far.

Evolution as an Example

The fact that the characteristics of organisms have changed over generations is observable and testable. People routinely use fact that the characteristics of organisms change over generations to produce many different kinds of goldfish, dogs, pigs, horses, cows, pigeons, flowers, grains, and ornamental shrubs. The fact that organisms have changed characteristics over very long periods of time is also observable – but not directly for most organisms because we don’t live long enough. For organisms that live for short periods of time, we can watch the change. We can watch viruses and bacteria change characteristics over many of their generations. We may not be able to watch large organisms change over generations, but we can observe evidence of the changes in characteristics of large animals over very long periods of time by digging up fossils and measuring their age using radioactive decay rates. By lining up similar fossils in a time sequence we can observe and describe the changes in their characteristics over time. So it is an observable and verifiable fact that organisms change their characteristics over generations. We can also measure the amount of change over time.

How this change of characteristics over generations works is another matter. In science, both the fact and the process of change in organisms over generations is called evolution. The word “evolution” has a long history beginning in 1622. It originally meant “unrolling of a book.” The next use of the word was by Bonnet, 1762 who was proposing the term to describe the progression of homunculus in the then theory of embryological development. In 1832, it was used by Charles Lyell the geologist. In actual fact Charles Darwin didn’t particularly like the word, and preferred “descent with modification.” He used the term only once in the closing paragraph of “The Origin of Species” (1859). Darwin did not consider his concept to be a progression, but only a series of modifications acquired by descendants. However, the belief in the ascendancy of people over animals won the day and the term evolution with its implication of progression became the popular term and remains the one used today.

Science has an explanation for how evolution works. Currently that explanation explains most, but not quite all of the observable and testable aspects of evolution. There are so many aspects to how organisms change characteristics over generations, and why they do so, that the explanation of every aspect has not yet been completed. The process of evolution is mostly known but not all of it. So it is called a theory. This means the theory of evolution as a process and the fact of evolution as observable events, can exist at the same time. The fact is what we observe, and the theory is an attempt to figure out how and why the characteristics of organisms change over generations.

When you toss a ball in the air and it falls down to the earth, you call that the effect of gravity and you know it will happen every time, but we are not completely certain how or why it does that. When animals reproduce over and over again, the young are not exactly the same as their parents. We see that happen every time – even twins are slightly different one from each other. We know that is going to happen every time, but we may not be completely certain of how or why that happens, and what the consequences are over very long periods of time when different youngsters grow up and have babies with others of their generation that are not exactly the same as they are. But over time the differences add up – that’s how we develop special flowers, pets, and crops.

Evolution is more complicated than gravity. Not only do organisms change over generations, but if the same kind of organism separates into two groups that don’t get back together again, they continue to change over generations, but not necessarily in exactly parallel ways. Given enough time the two groups start to look different, like trying to develop a rose that looks different – it takes time and many generations. Given enough time (and the Earth is certainly old enough to provide a long time period) the two groups that were similar may eventually look so different you would never call them the same thing. If the new rose breeds true to its form, it is given a different name from the original. The same is true in nature. If the two groups are different enough, and breed true over time, we give them different names.

All of these aspects of change over generation are facts, completely observable and testable.

The next aspect of evolution is where science interprets from the observable facts to attempt to figure out how evolution works. The theory of evolution is not about the fact of evolution, it is about how the changes accumulate over time to change existing species and to create new species. The theory of evolution has complex history, but the first person to really pull the whole idea together with lots of evidence was of course, Charles Darwin. The concept is simple: organisms reproduce with minor variations from parents to offspring. If the minor variation of one offspring breeds true and makes it easier for that individual to compete for resources more successfully, or to adapt to the biological and environmental conditions more successfully, or to generate more successful offspring themselves, then that characteristic will be carried on until a new one is even more successful. This process of selecting the better adapted form is called natural selection. We routinely use the same principle in artificially selecting the best from breeds in pets and crops. To create two species from one, the population needs to be split into two or more sub-groups that don’t get back together for a long time if at all. This can happen in many ways, and the subgroups will drift apart in characteristics until they are so different they are not able to reproduce together in a natural environment. The concept has been applied to all living organism as the best guess on how all the amazing variation in living things came to be. Everything from viruses and bacteria, to plants and animals of all kinds including human beings have been and are today subject to these physical variations and forces of selection.

Controversy Over Evolution

If people were not animals, it is unlikely any important controversy would have developed about “evolution.” In many belief systems, humans are in some way superior to the other animals, or in extreme cases, not really animals but something different. The theory of evolution — that the human species is really just another animal with different characteristics — undermines the belief that human beings are something unique within the animal kingdom. It may well be that humans are something unique, and that they have characteristics that science has not yet found or that science does not look for — characteristics that are in some way transcendent to the physical or animal realms. Science cannot carry out those types of tests and there is no way of discovering whether such characteristics can or do exist by using science.

But from a biological and evolutionary perspective people are animals. We all are made of flesh and blood, nerves and bone, with organ systems, and the means to reproduce that are repeated literally millions of times in other animals. You don’t need to be a scientist to see that other animals have eyes, brains, heads, livers, stomachs, muscles, and in most cases limbs. You don’t have to be a genius or to carry out complicated research to see that many animals learn from experience just like we do. The question of what separates people from the rest of the animal world is really the crux of the matter. Is there a uniqueness to humans clearly separates humans from what science demonstrates so far is a continuum with other species of animals? In modern evolutionary parlance, science theorizes that human beings have a common ancestor with other primates. Recent discoveries of fossils in Africa suggest that the details of that set of relationships still need significant clarification, but nothing suggests that the basic premise of a common ancestor with other animals is incorrect.

In many indigenous belief systems, this continuum between animal and human is assumed. In fact, in some indigenous belief systems, it is possible for humans to move back and forth between animal and human form in real time. In several modern belief systems, people are merely one stage in the cycle of animals in the world and can be reborn into any animal form. In the Christian and related belief systems, humans and animals alike were formed from the dust of the ground, so there is no intrinsic difference in their origins.

Much of the debate about evolution many countries centres on the idea that humans are unique; uniquely capable of understanding their world and of placing themselves in it. This is a concept derived from a non-physical realm of the superiority of people cast into the physical realm and manifested as qualitatively, not just quantitatively mentally superior. That the mental capability is not just superior by degree, but is of a different type.

Science is also interested in the human mental and emotional capabilities, specifically to measure the actual difference between humans and other animals to determine where our “human” capacities come from. The premise has been that humans are self aware in a way that no other animal shares, thus it is a unique characteristic. The idea of self aware is that people are uniquely empathetic, have a unique sense of fair play, and are uniquely able to understand the concept of justice and morality. A person can have moral values, understand the concept of fairness, natural justice, and empathy, all independent of either science or a belief system. None of these features were, until relatively recently, thought to be part of the repertoire of other animals. Within the last decade however, a wide range of animals including primates, elephants, some dolphins and whales, some birds such as ravens and parrots have been shown to possess, in a greater or lesser amount, all of these characteristics. So at least in-so-far as the existence of all of these characteristics in other animals is concerned, there is nothing unique about humans. On the other hand, no other animal has all of these characteristics developed as much as is found in humans. This does not mean that either humans or other animals always display fair play, empathic behaviour, or altruistic and moral intentions. Far from it. Humans are less monogamous than many animals, more capable of cheating, and gruesomely capable of intentional manipulation of the empathy of other people. Fortunately this is not true of most people, and nor is it true of most animals. In fact the heights of artistic expression and empathic behaviour as well as the sometimes astounding mental abilities of humans certainly places them in a class by themselves. Thus, while the elementary aspects of all of these characteristics are found in animals other than humans, no scientist has suggested that the animal expression of empathy or fairness or the sense of natural justice is the same as humans, it is nonetheless clear that the roots of all the “human characteristics” are present in other animals.

The controversy about evolution settles on the idea that a human is unique and different from the other animals. No scientist would dispute that claim, but would argue the difference is one of degree. Why does this matter? Once a non-natural entity is invoked, science has no further role or ability to participate in the conversation, other than to point out the consequences of using concepts derived in the non-physical realm to create rules of behaviour in the physical realm. Sometimes these consequences are grave indeed.

The Consequences of Controversy

The concept of evolution undermines the “permission” some people believe they have from the supernatural being to be exempt from the rules of the natural world. The science fact is that all natural things — even if there is a supernatural link — ultimately must obey the laws of nature. We cannot develop scientific theories that contravene this simple fact. We create belief systems that contravene this simple fact at our peril. Unfortunately if the policies derived from the belief systems actually contravene the rules of nature are implemented on a broad enough scale, human kind will not survive.

Let’s take the idea that evolution is disregarded in favour of humans being granted a divine right to exploit the earth, as opposed to having only the same natural “rights” as other animals.

In all countries where this is the dominant concept (and unfortunately just now that is most of them) there is an assumption that there need be no limit on population growth, no reason to artificially terminate unwanted or problematic births, no reason to limit access to finite resources, no reason to think that our collective pollution will overwhelm the earth’s ability to cleanse itself, no reason not to extend agriculture to handle all the new people even if it means cutting down a bunch of trees in some distant jungle or laying bare thousands of kilometers of tundra to extract oil, searching for new species of fish to exploit even if they are very vulnerable to over-exploitation, and so on. The current reliance on these basic assumptions is what fuels the world’s energy supplies, provides ample food for people (although over a billion people don’t actually receive the food that is available), drives the ever increasing wealth of nations (however badly distributed that wealth may be), and creates the many technological miracles that are so important to us all today.

Science predicts that the implacable laws of nature which govern all life within the confines of this planet will ultimately place limits on the use of a critical resource. The way nature places limits is not always a fun game. On rare occasions, organisms adjust their reproduction to the resource levels, but mostly organisms maximize their individual and therefore collective resources until the most successful competitors or the most successful at adapting win out and everyone else dies by disease or starvation. In human societies, people also die by internal warfare waged over resource allocation (a common occurrence already today).

In the case of humans, we are uniquely capable of rendering the entire planet unfit for our own continued existence. No other animal is capable of this action. One of the current controversies that is potentially capable of making the world unfit for human habitation (although we are a long way from that just now) is global warming due to burning fossil fuels which returns CO2 back to the atmosphere that was trapped there during much warmer periods in Earth’s geological past. This excess CO2, if allowed to build up with no attempt to control it, will eventually reach the point where very drastic changes to our temperature regime can occur. Large temperature increases would be accompanied by many adverse effects including rising sea levels sufficient to drown most coastal infrastructure and force the migration of millions of people, ocean acidification sufficient to interfere with productive ecosystems, and loss of or contamination of fresh water sources affecting nearly a billion people, to name but a few.

I have treated global warming in some detail in other blogs (here and here and here), so I won’t repeat it here, but this is another area of controversy in which many people do not believe the effect is occurring, or if it is occurring that people are not to blame, so there is nothing we can do about it. As in all controversy, people are entitled to their opinions, but nature doesn’t really care about your opinions if they are incorrect. Many who are not trained as scientists see fit to argue that the science is not correct or that the scientists are are all dishonest people and involved in a huge hoax.

The interesting point of discussing gravity, evolution, and global warming, is that all are facts, and all have theories. Gravitational theory so far does not interfere with belief systems, so is not controversial. By contrast, evolution, fact and theory, undermines the concept of human uniqueness, and is controversial because it directly interferes with the consequences of the belief system. Global warming flies in the face of the belief in many regions of the world that people have the right to dominate nature and use natural resources as they see fit to support as many people as are present in the world or who come unchecked in the future. Thus global warming as fact and theory is also controversial.

Transcending Controversy

If there is a unique aspect to humankind, it may be that they are uniquely capable of knowing the limits of nature. Controversy carried out in a manner that understands the limits of nature is good. Controversy carried out in a manner that ignores or denies the limits of nature is not good. The choice to ignore or respect nature’s limits is also uniquely human. If the limits of nature are ignored, humankind will likely also be unique in having modified the planet to exclude themselves from it, and knowingly drive themselves to extinction. On the other hand, I like to think that everyone will ultimately choose to acknowledge the limits of nature and bring the belief systems into synch in time to be the good stewards of earth that humans should be.

3 thoughts on “Controversy: Distinguishing Fact, Theory, and Belief

  1. Global warming is not a fact . Pure populist speculation . Do your research and you’ll find plenty scientific peer reviewed papers stating the earth is cooling . Plenty scientists also are aware of geoenginering ( chemtrails ) and their effect in climate .. that is deliberate . You write like know it all .. but you’ve shown your just following the most shouted about opinions as if that makes them facts ?

    • What did you say your qualifications were? The last five years have been the warmest on record since the early 1700s. There is no trend to a cooler Earth that is showing up in the actual thermometer readings. The natural cooling that “should” be happening has been overwhelmed by the emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities, that have resulted in the observed warming of the planet surface.

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