“But How Can We Ever Be Sure Anything Is True?”:
Such Philosophical Relativism Offers
Creationists Easy Pickings
February 10, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us
Following is an excerpt from The Science of Evolution and the Myth of Creationism: Knowing What’s Real and Why It Matters. This excerpt is available as downloadable PDF here.
It’s important to think about how you can tell whether something is really true or not. What are the methods and approaches which can be used for getting at the truth and distinguishing it from falsehood? Without a basic grasp of these approaches and methods it’s easy to fall into accepting just about any lie or falsehood, especially if it seems to be put forward with conviction by people in positions of power and influence (governments, religious authorities, TV personalities, and so on).
It’s good to have a critical mind and to question everything. But then again it’s also important to recognize when at least the basic truth of something has already been clearly established. If human beings always went around thinking that “nothing is ever sure,” how could we ever survive or get anything done? Should we walk in front of a moving bus because “we can’t ever really know for sure” whether we’ll get run over? Should we not bother setting an alarm clock because we “can’t ever know for sure” that it will ring, or that it even really exists, or that we really exist and have a reason to get up? These examples may seem silly, but they make the point that, even just to function in day-to-day life, we human beings really need to have some way, some approach and method, which can help us to determine when something is actually true (or false).
Of course we’ll never have absolute truth—in the sense that we’ll never know everything there is to know about everything—but we do have some means and methods for getting to the point that we can say, with a high degree of confidence, that something is true—meaning that it actually corresponds to some aspect of material reality as it really is.
Again, the point is that it’s good and important to question everything, but it’s also good and important to recognize that not everything is forever up for grabs—sometimes we can know enough about something to accept it as true, stop agonizing about it, and move on. Such is the case with the basic theory of evolution.
But a lot of people in the United States today still don’t realize that we can be that sure about evolution. Anti-evolution and anti-science Christian fundamentalist Creationists have worked to confuse people’s thinking on this since the late 19th century, typically becoming particularly active and aggressive in times of social turmoil and when the overall direction of society is being broadly questioned and debated. It’s especially at such times that reactionaries resist all forms of social progress and call instead for looking backward and “restoring core values and traditions.” Today is no exception.
The Creationists have waged such determined anti-evolution and antiscience campaigns in recent years that U.S. universities are now reporting that they are getting very worried about growing scientific illiteracy in the country as a whole as they notice that more and more freshmen are arriving on campuses so poorly trained in even basic science that they actually believe “the scientific community is divided on whether evolution happened” and that “evolution is still just an unproven theory.” To state it clearly again: both those notions are completely false. The scientific community (in the U.S. and worldwide and in every field of science) is not “divided” on the basic facts of evolution. The consensus is overwhelming that (a) life has definitely evolved and that (b) the basic mechanisms involved in how life evolved and continues to evolve (such as natural selection) are by now well understood.
The “Theory of Evolution”—What a Scientific Theory Is
As for the question of evolution being “just an unproven theory”: this is also false. As spoken to throughout this book, there is an incredible amount of accumulated and mutually reinforcing evidence for evolution, and the general scientific consensus is that the theory of evolution is among the best-proven and best-documented theories in all of science.
But one of the favorite methods of the Creationists is to play on people’s ignorance and confusion about some basic words: in regular everyday English, the word “theory” often means “a guess” or something that has not been proven to be true. So the Creationists hope that when you hear the words “theory of evolution” you will automatically think it hasn’t yet been proven to be true. But, in scientific circles, the word “theory” has a very different meaning: a “scientific theory” is what scientists call a complex body of thought that ties together a number of different ideas and proposals which successfully explain—from a number of different angles—the basic principles and mechanisms involved in a natural process, such as the origins and later change and development of some part of actual material reality. So, for instance, scientists talk about the “theory of gravitation” or the “Copernican theory” (of the motion of the planets, including the earth, around the sun) but that doesn’t mean they’re “guessing” that objects fall towards the earth because of the pull of gravity or that they’re “guessing” that the earth goes around the sun rather than the other way around. The theory of gravitation and the Copernican theory are by now well documented and supported by the accumulated scientific evidence, and the same can be said of the scientific theory of evolution.
Of course scientific theories are always being further extended and developed as human knowledge expands and comes to understand some things that we didn’t previously understand. And as knowledge develops, it is inevitably the case that some old ideas are discovered to be wrong and therefore need to be discarded. Science actually advances by calling into question and critically reviewing previously established scientific notions. It is true that there is always going to be more to learn and discover about everything. But that doesn’t mean that we can never come down and say that something is true. People who like to say things like “but you can never be sure” fall into the mistaken outlook and approach known as philosophical relativism. (Of course, since human knowledge is never complete and perfect, and is always developing, people who think and act like they have “absolute truth” about everything, or everything important, fall into the erroneous method known as dogmatism, which is the “flip-side” of relativism.) But when we say something is “true” it simply means that there is good, compelling and concrete evidence (preferably from a number of different and mutually reinforcing sources and directions) that our understanding of something actually does closely correspond to how that something really is in objective reality, that is, in the real material world—which includes all that is part of the natural world and which encompasses the features and workings of human social organization as well. (See “Reality and Distortions of Reality—Objective Truth and Subjective Influences.”)
Scientific theories (whether pertaining to the world of nature or human society) do not get proven to be “true” overnight. Before any great idea or set of ideas can be confidently said to be “true,” it has to get put through the scientific crucible—that means it gets poked at and critiqued and challenged and tested over and over again and from countless different directions. A good scientific theory puts forward some predictions about what we should expect to find in the real world if the theory is true; and it is also makes predictions about some of the things we should not be able to find in the world if the theory is true. This is known as the principle of “scientific falsifiability”: a genuine scientific theory, as a matter of principle, has to be capable of being disproved by facts (things which, if discovered, would prove your theory to be wrong). The theory of evolution could be falsified (proven wrong) if, for instance, fossilized dinosaur and human footprints were ever found in the same undisturbed rock layers, because that would mean dinosaurs and humans lived at the same time, and this would completely contradict everything we know about how and when different species evolved. Biologists can give many such examples of the kinds of things that—if they were ever found to exist—would make a complete shambles of evolutionary theory. So, like all good scientific theories, the theory of evolution is falsifiable in principle—but, as a point of fact, science has never found anything (not a single thing) that actually falsifies it. It has, however, found many, many things that support it.
The theory of divine Creation is a religious belief, not a scientific theory. One of the sure signs of that is that the theory of divine Creation is, by its very nature and definition, impossible to falsify. The Creationists refuse to give people any examples of any kind of scientific discoveries that they could accept as proof that their divine Creation theory is wrong after all. They make a principle of this, because for them it is a matter of absolute religious faith. But if you make a principle of saying that there is no possible way that any information could ever come to light that would prove your theory wrong, then you are, by definition, not being scientific, and your theory has nothing to do with science!
Again, the theory of evolution was, from its very beginnings, falsifiable as a matter of principle. But as it turns out, all the actual scientific data that has been collected in the nearly century and a half since Darwin published his major work on evolution has repeatedly supported the theory of biological evolution; and none of it has ever provided evidence to the contrary. This more than anything is why there is such a broad and solid scientific consensus on the matter.
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