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Mixing Up Faith And The Existence Of Unobservables

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Posted by Harvey on June 4, 2002 17:45:45 UTC

Sam,

Let me explain.

***"As I mentioned to Mario (whom I think very well understands this issue, but you do not), a belief in an unobservable is not 'unscientific'." Not nessaserially unscientific, but you must have faith. That is my point.***

Yes, belief in an observable rests on certain inferences and ultimately one must have faith in the inferencing process. However, this is not an unscientific faith since we have established reason for accepting certain conclusions of science. For example, we have faith that our inferences lead us to correctly believe that nuclear fusion occurs in stars. Without faith in making inferences, then the scientific enterprise would largely collapse. We would have to back off from any unobservable, even those unobservables that are 'observable' with an instrument (e.g., telescope, microscope) would need to be rejected. Obviously, we could have very little useful science if we couldn't use our instruments to tell us what to believe about nature.

***H: "If that were the case, then we would have to admit to being stupified by the operation of the sun. No one has ventured into the core of the sun to observe the nuclear fusion supposedly taking place inside." S: No, because we can observe the sun from earth today. Can we observe MACROevolution from earth today?***

You observe the sun, but you do not observe the working of the sun. You cannot observe nuclear fusion of heavier elements. We must infer nuclear fusion of heavier elements in a star even though we have never created a nuclear fusion experiment capable of fusing heavier elements. Nuclear fusion of carbon, for example, is entirely theoretical and unobserved. Similarly, we infer much of evolutionary changes based on compelling evidence. This evidence includes observed speciation, transitional fossils, results of biochemistry, etc. Without the occurrence of massive evolutionary processes from common ancestors, we would have no means to account for the tremendous amount of evidence being studied by science. Similarly, without nuclear fusion of heavier elements we would have no means to account for the tremendous amount of evidence studied by astrophysicists.

***Is there a theory of evolution that explains both the universe and life?***

Evolution is a concept meaning natural change taking place over time leading to new structures. The concept is applied throughout science. It is a unifying principle of science. It is not a general theory, per se, it is more of a principle. Sometimes the evolutionary principle is of no use. For example, we don't say that virtual pair particles evolve from non-existence (speaking in terms of particle physics), rather we might say they 'pop in' and 'pop out' of existence.

***My point was you do not know how the universe was started, but you know it did. That requires faith. You do not know how life arose from non-living material, but you know it did. That requires faith. I don't know how you can argue it doesn't!!***

The key term in your statement is the word 'know'. The word 'know' is one of those ill-defined words and means various possibilities. It might mean that we have good physical evidence for believing something to be the case, or it might mean that we have a formal proof of something (e.g., mathematical proof), or it might mean that we directly observe something with our own eyes, or it might mean that we are like God and have absolute knowledge of something being the case (there are other uses of the term).

When we talk about science facts, we are usually talking about acceptable scientific inferences that lead us to believe something is the case with the natural world. For example, we infer that carbon is fused from lighter elements within the furnaces of the stars. This is an example of something we 'know' from astrophysics. Now, we don't 'know' this scientific fact from the other definitions I gave of the word 'know'.

In the sense of the origin of the material universe, we are very close to the point of 'knowing' that the visible universe emerged from a big bang. We would like to have some more evidence to really say we 'know' it (in the scientific sense), but few cosmologists would doubt the big bang as a real achievement of science.

The thing about scientific knowledge is that it is always susceptible to being wrong. That is, it is not absolute knowledge, it is knowledge based on inferences, and inferences can always be wrong if new evidence comes to light which cast doubts on some of our inferences. In the case of the big bang, it is always possible that the universe was the size of our galaxy and before that it was something else entirely (which would invalidate the big bang model), but on the evidence we have this is by far the best explanation and one in which we are confident to accept as a valid explanation. Any scientific fact is susceptible in the same manner.

If you want to call it a belief based on faith, then do so, but please understand what we mean by faith. The faith is in the scientific process itself, not a pick and choose of theories. For example, you can't say that Maxwell's theory of electromagneticism is based on proof and big bang cosmology is based on faith. The basis of both scientific beliefs is scientific inferences which we have faith that our inferences are aptly chosen to understand the world around us.

***Just answer this. Can MACROevolution be observed and repeated in a labratory?***

Like most of science it cannot be. We cannot make the sun in the lab, but that doesn't mean that our understanding of the sun's inner working is incorrect. All it means is that humans are limited to using theory and prediction/best explanation as a means to understand which theories are approximately correct.

Warm regards, Harv

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