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Gerald O'brian

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Evolution: "just a theory". Scientific caution is sometimes confusing.

The fact that our best available theories are still speculations misleads some people to believe that these ideas are not founded. Hence, some people suppose their uneducated opinion is just as bad, or as good, as the mainstream scientific hypothesis.
This trend is probably led by the way science has been taught, i e as a flawless method that offers facts about reality.
And by pre-scientific philosophy, still strong in our modern societies.

Evolution is "just a theory" the way Notre Dame is "just a pile of rocks", isn't it?

Thoughts?

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    May 21 2013: Why is Evolution "just a theory"? What other information categories are available in which it could be properly included? Could Evolution be called "The Law of Evolution"? Or, how about "Darwin's Constant"? Is Evolutuion a Rule; an Axiom; a Postulate; a Proof; a Formula; an Equation; a Hypothesis; a Decree; an Edict; a Precept; an Ordinance; a Commandment; a Dictate; or a Ruling? The best descriptor for the suggested explanation of all life on Earth as natural selection of beneficial mutations over eons of time from a common ancestor is THEORY! The Scientific Method affords it that status. Relativistic Philosopy says there is no such thing as Truth so all we can do is allow a proposed explanation to be called Theory. Perhaps a better name for Darwin's proposal is "Darwin's Proposed Explanation of Life on Earth". That would rightly set it apart from other information like the Alphabet, the multiplication tables, etc.
    • May 22 2013: The problem with that expression ("just a theory") is that it assumes a colloquial definition of the word theory. In scientific terms it does not have the same meaning. There's no relativistic philosophy (though science is sometimes contaminated by such a kind of philosophy).

      Theory is science is the body of explanations about some kind of phenomena. This is why the theory of evolution, as a body of explanations, can be modified when new data show that, for example, somewhat random drift contributes a lot of what we see in nature besides natural selection. The theory now includes, for example, work around such things as what happens with different kinds of mutations, and their probability of fixation, rather than assume that only natural selection exists.

      So, for example, it is not that we have no confidence about gravitation, we have theories explaining the phenomena about gravitation, including the deformation of space-time by the mass of objects, and such things. Of course, gravitation is easier to grasp than something like evolution because evolution is more of a result of how life works, rather than some point-definable phenomenon.

      The idea that science is about defining laws is a simplification coming from the times when physics was the main scientific field where things were happening. I still don't understand why it keeps being taught as if the philosophy of science has not been "evolving" ever since. It's good to teach it as part of how science has developed and matured with time, but not as if that is what science is today.

      Also, evolution is not all about Darwin any more than gravitation would be all about Newton. Today many other scientists have contributed to both evolution and gravitation, and both those main scientists of old would agree that their fields of study have advanced way beyond what they contributed.
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        May 23 2013: Roger that Entropy! I'm down with Gravity (no pun intended)! Maybe it's time for the supporters of the Theory of Evolution to publicize their disassociation with The Origin of the Species. Perhaps it's time for a fresh explanation and a new name for what we have all been calling Evolution for the last hundred years or so. Is the process, whatever we name it, still based upon natural selection of beneficial mutations over eons of time from a common ancestor? And, does the "new" Evolution answer the question about how life came from non-living chemicals? Does "neo-Evolution" offer any explanation as to how the DNA code developed? Does "Non-Darwinian Evolution" offer an explanation regarding why genetic mutations, which are overwhelmingly non-beneficial, are said to be the reason for the vast diversity of life on Earth? Also, multiple protein/enzyme components are required for essential biochemical pathways and nano-machines to exist. Does "Evolution 2.0" offer any explanation as to how these components came to be? When a piece of ancient pottery is discovered it is accepted as a designed thing. But, when a new biological truth is discovered do the new Evolutionary Scientists still accept it as not being designed, but rather being a result of natural selection of beneficial. . . etc. etc.?. Has the latest version of Evolution answered Karl Popper's accusation that it. ". . . is not a testable scientific theory, but a metaphysical [religious] research program.” ? If Evolution, or whatever it is now called, is not "just a theory", then what is it?
        • May 30 2013: Science has been disposing of, or "answering" ordinary questions for hundreds of years, with great success. We no longer ask, "What Sin had Joe Blow committed that God struck him dead with a lighting Bolt"?. Some simple theories about Electricity kind of solve the problem. And so it goes. Personally , I think we are in the process of getting some answers to your questions about "Non-living Matter", right about now. And it is likely to come in the form of a larger, new "Theory", that Consciusness is a Field, like Electricity. That would neatly dispose of the puzzle about how "Matter" gets animated. Stay tuned.
    • May 23 2013: Hi Edward,

      There's no dissociation with the origin of the species. That is a foundational book. Quite important, only we know much more today than Darwin could have known. He did not know anything about genes, for example. Mutations came much later. He knew about variability and that variability was inheritable, but not about genes or DNA. Your comment has a lot of misconceptions, and I truly don't know where to start.

      For one, evolution has never been an explanation about how life came to be. That would be abiogenesis, and that is still a very hot area of research, where possibilities are still under investigation. Very hard because the evidence is eroded by eons of time.

      The evolutionary process still is about variation and changes in populations, only today it includes other processes besides natural selection, like genetic drift, and the calculation of probabilities for a mutation to survive depending on a range of possible effects. We know that it is not black and white, that mutations might be, for example, from bad to advantageous with everything in between, and we take into account that the size of a population determines how probable it is for mutations to survive regardless of how advantageous/disadvantageous they might be. We know now that most mutations have slight effects, while before scientists assumed that most were bad, we now know that a lot of changes are just drift, inconsequential. So we now know that natural selection plays part, but random drift plays a part too. Much more to say, but little space.

      Popper never accused evolution of being religious.

      Evolution is both a fact, and a theory, but a theory in the scientific meaning of the term. I told you: the body of explanations about some kind of phenomena.

      Running out of space, but no, we don't know everything, but we have enough evidence to know that evolution is a fact. That we share common ancestry with a lot of other life forms, like the rest of the apes.
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        May 24 2013: "Popper never said. . . ?" Look in Unended Quest, An Intellectual Autobiography. Lasalle, Il: Open Court. Page 168. QUOTE: "I have come to the conclusion that Darwinism is not a testable scientific theory, but a metaphysical research programme—a possible framework for testable scientific theories."
        Please stop assuming I don't know what Evolutionists mean when they say "theory". I also know there is a definitive difference between FACT and THEORY. They are not interchangeable no matter how evolutionists want them to be. Thanks for confessing to being non-omniscient, Entropy, that took courage, I'm sure. You do know there is a very real tendancy to let the public think Evolution is a FACT in totality? By the way, we ought not nitpick about the relationship between Darwin and modern evolution. He made some real blunders and seriously over-stepped the limits of his knowledge (like Heredity). I call it disassociation, you call it foundational and quite important. A spade is a spade and Darwin was often wrong. Thanks to its supporters and the lethargy'apathy of the average person, Evolution has a much higher reputation than it ought to. Be well Mr. Driven.
    • May 24 2013: Edward,

      I have seen you making a point about the misuse of language at times. I am therefore surprised that you would think that metaphysical is the very same as religious. Popper never ever accused evolution of being religious. Take a second look at what you said and what I answered. Also of note, Popper's "problem" was not with evolution, but with natural selection (he clarifies that he is talking about natural selection when he said "evolution" before that quoted phrase), and his problem was that because it's obvious that the most fit would survive better then it was not scientific, but it was still a framework useful to build a scientific programme. There's much more, but Popper respected evolution and it's contribution to our understanding of nature.

      Of course there's differences between fact and theory. I told you: there's the theory, the explanatory framework, and the facts that are explained. Unfortunately, the fact of evolution shares names with the theory, which makes it confusing. Most importantly because, unfortunately, we no longer teach philosophy of science to new scientists, which is a sure recipe for confusion.

      I didn't try and dissociate Darwin from evolution. What I told you is that evolution has grown up way beyond what Darwin was able to put together. Darwin was wrong about some stuff, but he was not wrong in the absolute sense that you pretend. Natural selection is a fact. That species are related by common ancestry is a fact. But of course Darwin had some mistakes. If you read his work you would see that he did not overstep anything. When he did not know he would say so. When he was speculating from little knowledge he would say so. He was so careful that I use his work to teach about proper presentation of data and ideas to my students.

      Evolution does not have high enough the reputation it deserves.

      Be well Mr. Long. Happy weekend.
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        May 25 2013: "Popper wasn't talking about Evoultion, he was talking about Natural Selection?" I wasn't talking about TED, I was talking about TED Conversations. I wasn't talking about World War II, I was talking about the Battle of the Bulge. Shall I go on? Please say no! Thanks for the heads-up on the total dissimilarity between the words metaphysical and religion. One problem though. . . they are actually similar enough to be commonly interchangeable. When a scientist/philosopher calls information metaphysical the obvious idea being communicated is that said information is absolutely, positively NOT science. Thanks for confessing that calling Evolution both a Fact and a Theory is confusing. Know why it's confusing? Because the Law of Non-Contradiction says nothing can be both A and NOT A. A clear-thinking mind will be confused by an infraction of this Law. We, astonishingly, also disagree on what it means to disassociate one'self from something. I see such statements as, "Darwin was wrong." and "Darwin had (interesting choice of words there) some mistakes." to be the opposite of support/endorsement/association. Don't the Neo-evolutionists eschew Charlie's name in their new look? Why is that? You can find better models of perspecuity and veracity than Darwin. The man declared that genetic traits BLEND in reproduction!! You willingly excuse such a monumental blunder perpetrated for the sole purpose of making (another of his blunders) Natural Selection appear more plausible? Hardly what I call proper presentation of data and ideas. I see him more as an appropriate example of the careless, hasty, ill-advised presentation of ideas. You also have a pleasing weekend, although I fear I will be preoccupied trying to figure out what phrase you left out of your closing statement: QUOTE-- "Evolution does not have high enough [gap in tape here] the reputation it deserves."
    • May 25 2013: Hello Edward,

      When a philosopher, such as Popper, says metaphysics, they mean it in philosophical terms, just like when scientists say theory they mean it in scientific terms. Philosophers do not mean mystical mumbo-jumbo, but that area of philosophy dealing with such things as epistemology. So, for example, Popper was not saying that natural selection was a fantasy worshipped by some bunch of people, he was saying that it is obvious, and he had a problem with calling the obvious scientific, he would put those things into metaphysics. There's no serious way in which metaphysics could be mistaken for religion. Religion might be an usurper against proper metaphysics, just like it is an usurper against proper science, but religion is not interchangeable with either.

      Look at my words about Darwin please. I did not say that he was absolutely wrong. I said originally: "evolution is not all about Darwin ..."

      Darwin did not propose that genetic traits blend in reproduction in absolute terms. He was careful to suggest such as a possibility (there's a lot of "ifs" in his presentation), that's it. You can't judge that proposition as a dishonest attempt at making natural selection more plausible. After all, all that's needed for natural selection is for traits to vary in a population and be hereditary. In other words, we need variability but offspring should resemble their parents. Guess what? Those things, population variability and similarity to parents, were already known to be facts by Darwin's times. If you think that Darwin was careless, etc., then you did not read his work.

      Evolution does not have high enough the good reputation that it deserves.

      Have a most excellent weekend.
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        May 25 2013: Well I do not have the insight you seem to have into the intimate workings of Karl's powerful brain. I just read what he said and assume he chose the words carefully prior to publication. His intent was clearly, I think we agree, to separate Evolution (Natural Selection) from Science. Make of that what you will, but don't toy with the clear intent of the words. I stand corrected for translating Popper's "metaphysical" into "religion". Thank you for the painless correction sir. I did not insert the word "absolutely" when I quoted your comments about Charlie's lack of accuracy. By the way, is there a big difference between absolutely wrong and just wrong? Does Science allow some kind of partial credit? Linus Pauling suggested the possibility that DNA structure took the form of a triple-helix. That cost him dearly in the annals of Science. Darwin made an equally, if not more, seminal (no pun intended) error regarding heredity and you want to overlook it? Me thinks there is bias in the air. I have read Origin of the Species through several times plus countless dabbling references and I still contend he was careless and jumped to conclusions. Evolution enjoys a far better reputation than it deserves. Thanks for filling-in that gap. By the way, thanks for not playing the "Evolution is too esoteric for the average person" card. Peace.
    • May 25 2013: Hello Edward, I hope you don't mind if I call you my friend.

      I read several of Karl's books (I'm an old-school scientist), so I know that he was not "separating" natural selection from science. After all, he was still proposing it as a useful metaphysical framework for developing a scientific research programme in the book you cited. Remember that Karl was trying to solve the problem of defining a philosophy of science in times when some philosophical problems were being thought about intensely.

      I know that you did not insert the word "absolutely" there, but you seemed to think that if Darwin had something like genetics wrong, therefore the whole of evolution was wrong. That's an absolutist position. Linus, one of the few scientists I admire, was wrong about the triple helix, but that did not cost him his career, it only costed him not being the discoverer of the right structure of DNA. His [other/overall] work was still foundational in fields from basic chemistry to structural biology even if he had that structure wrong. Being wrong about that did not mean that he was wrong about everything he proposed (that's what I meant by "absolutely," sorry if that was confusing).

      I don't overlook Darwin's mistakes in heredity, but I don't see how that mistake would mean that everything he proposed was wrong, as I explained before.

      If after reading Darwin's on the origin of species several times you still think that he jumped to conclusions, then you have very different standards to mine. But that we have different standards would seem obvious if you're inclined to think that being wrong about one thing means being wrong about everything.

      Thanks for the conversation.
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        May 25 2013: Iam pleased to be called you friend. I am not pleased to be called an absolutist. I know everyone makes mistakes, even my main brainiac Albert blundered when he called his Cosmological Constant his greatest blunder. I NEVER said Darwin was wrong about everything. What I wish could change is his supporters perpetuating the image that he was right about everything. Young people are being shielded from the very serious problems associated with Evolution. They are being taught that it is to be accepted as the definitive, comprehensive, factual explanation of all life on Earth. That is not the way it is. Let's lift the rug and see what has been swept under there. Don't be afraid I am trying to replace Darwin with Deity. My motive is far less ambitious. I think we should teach our youngsters the difference between what might be and what is. Evolution is not void of truth but it is brimming with error which has not yet been falsified. We should stop violating the Scientific Method by selling our youth an uncertified product. You are correct that our standards for choosing who should be honored as a hero of applying the Scientific Method certainly differ. I would choose Mendel whose work Darwin disregarded in an attempt to sell his own afflatus dubbed natural selection. Thank you too sir!
    • May 27 2013: Hello my friend,

      I have to confess myself puzzled. I have taught courses on genetics and on evolution at the undergrad and graduate levels, and checked many texts for the courses at the undergrad level on both subjects. No textbook teaches that Darwin was right about everything. I myself have never taught that Darwin was right about everything. Anyway, as far as I have investigated the matter Darwin most probably did not know of Mendel's work. On the side of Genetics it is well known that Mendel's work was mostly ignored. Many failed to understand what it meant until other scientists figured the same principles and in their literature research found what Mendel had done and resurrected that work with its very important implications. Not only that, those studying evolution realized that such discoveries helped extend the ideas behind evolution and after some years of discussions and discoveries a new synthesis about evolution was written. This was many years ago (1940s), but, to tell it simply, Mendel's work greatly helped evolution, for example the area called population genetics, which has enormous explanatory power and helped solve many open problems in evolutionary theory. Thus, Mendel's genetics was good for evolutionary theory, not bad. So I truly can't understand why would Darwin hide something that would have helped his theories.

      There's nothing under any rugs Edward. I truly don't know what you're talking about. Evolution is pretty much a given. There's open problems of course, but not problems about whether evolution is acceptable or not, that was solved many years ago, but rather things like what factors contribute the most, or the needs for extending population genetics to better understand evolution in asexual organisms, and the effects of new things that are discovered, like the prevalence of genetic transfer among different microbial species.

      Have a great week.
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        May 27 2013: Our debate is not about Biology or Cosmogony. We disagree on Philiosopy. As Popper said this stuff is metaphysical. We are butting heads about epistemology and religion. By that I mean I reject an exlanation of life which denies God. You embrace and defend what claims to be an explanation of life which aggressively contradicts, and, thereby, denies God. I come with beliefs founded upon a metaphysical, transcendental trait called Faith. I believe, a priori, and I pre-suppose that it is true that in the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. You come with different a prori information and pre-suppositions designed by men to explain a godless universe. For either of us to abandon our position is a matter of spirituality. I would have to lose my fatih, and you would have to find such faith in God's Word the Holy Bible. Neither of us can do anything to bring about either of those life-changing experiences. What we can assess is whether or not we share a belief that we ought to teach our youngsters only what we ourselves accept as Justified True Belief. We do them a disservice by inculcating them with unproven theory which we call "fact" or "pretty much a given". Evolution teaches, by omission, that God did not create the heaven and the earth. Supporters of Evolution openly denigrate, and ridicule Creationism as being "mystical mumbo-jumbo". Even the government is biased against Creationism and in favor of Evolution to the point of outlawing the very mention of Creationism in public school textbooks! So, I can continue to present you with what I find under the rug and you can continue to deny, refute, ignore, and explain them all away until the cows come home. Nothing will change. We are talking supernatural , spiritual causes here, Entropy, and we won't solve, or improve things by focusing on Charles Darwin. Thanks friend, and keep learning.
        • May 30 2013: "Science" will not prove GODS existence, because GOD was not created in the universe, GOD is the creator of the universe. GOD was not created by the smallest particles and or elements that are in the universe, science will only prove the existence of everything in the universe by the who, what, when, where, why and how but not GOD. Science is organized knowledge, whos knowledge? GODS knowledge, for GOD has given mankind the "understanding" of his knowledge he has gardened within the universe. without the "understanding" we would not have knowledge. GOD gave us, mankind the power over his knowledge he has gardened within the universe by giving us the "understanding" in birth. "But I speak Thy TRUTH, you would have no True power unless it was given to you from the Father our GOD"
    • May 28 2013: Of course Edward, that our main differences are philosophical. For me, reality comes first. For you your faith comes first. To me, if your god was real, we would not find evidence showing a history of the planet and of life that contradicted this god. Since we find such evidence I conclude that your god is false. This was exactly how it happened to me. I had faith, but the evidence showed it wrong, and I submitted to the evidence.

      In Popper's terms, natural selection was metaphysics rather than science because he had a problem calling scientific something that was evidently true, obvious. Faith on the other hand is neither evidently true, nor obvious. Faith is a very personal thing. So I would have a very hard time accepting that your faith is even at one millionth of the level of something like natural selection. So, even if you want to call your faith "metaphysics," it is a far different metaphysics than the one Popper was talking about when referring to natural selection.

      Yes, we will disagree about what should be taught to people. I am adamant that we should teach what the evidence tells. Evolution is not made up. It is about what evidence exists, and what the evidence means. Evolution is a given for good reasons.

      I would have to ask: since no amount of evidence will convince you, then what is wrong about teaching about this evidence and what it means in scientific terms? After all, people are free to believe otherwise just as you do. It is not as if people never hear about creationism. You were not taught faith in school, did you? Then what's the problem other than your a priori rejection of evidence in favour of your deeply held beliefs?

      Best my friend, and sorry if I offend you. I rather be honest.
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        May 28 2013: No offense taken. I wonder why Popper also said, QUOTE:"It can even be shown that all theories, including the best, have the same probability, namely zero."-- Conjectures & Refutations; 1965; p192. I am sure he included the Theory of Evolution in the "all theories". Also, what did he mean by, QUOTE: "Science is not a system of certain, or well-established statements; nor is it a system which steadily advances towards a state of finality. Our science is not knowledge (episteme); it can never claim to have attained truth, or even a substitute for it, such as probability; we do not know, we can only guess.The old scientific ideal of episteme– of absolutely certain, demonstrable knowledge– has proven to be an idol. The demand for scientific objectivity makes it inevitable that every scientific statement must remain tentative for ever."-- Logic of Scientific Discovery; p278, 280. You seem to have confidence in knowing what he meant to say versus what he actually said so maybe you can translate this remark of his, QUOTE: "Empiricists usually believed that the empirical basis consisted of absolutely ‘given’ perceptions or observations, of ‘data’, and that science could build on these ‘data’ as if on rock. In opposition, I pointed out that the apparent ‘data’ of experience were always interpretations in the light of theories, and therefore affected by the hypothetical or conjectural character of all theories. … there are never any un-interpreted data experienced by us…" --Conjectures & Refutations; 1965; p387 I claim Popper as my justification for doubting the many theories about evolution being taught to our children as fact. It seems your new god is Science and it has replaced the faith you once had. Be careful. "… we can never have perfectly clean-cut knowledge of anything. It is a general consequence of the approximate character of all measurement that no empirical science can ever make exact statements."-- P. W. Bridgman; The Logic of Modern Physics;page33,34.
    • May 28 2013: Edward my friend,

      Well, in the previous case, I had read the book in question. In this case, I have not read that book. In order to understand what Popper was talking about I would need to have those quotes in their context. Popper could be referring to some position that he then fixed, or he could be talking about his own position about something but some other philosopher has solved it. Without context I can't know.

      Anyway, I have been forgetting to tell you: we don't teach scientific theories as "fact." Check a few textbooks and you will read that they refer to these theories as the best scientific explanations available, not as final answers, reason being that we might discover something that solves the problems better. The best example for this is gravitation. There's no denying the facts of gravitation. However, Newton's theory, as well as it explained the facts, had problems that were only solved by Einstein. Today there's new facts that Einstein does not solve, and physicists are busy trying to find a new theory of gravitation. Same for the theory of evolution, it explains a lot of the facts about evolution, but not all of them. Example, some facts were escaping explanation by natural selection over mutation alone. So now we understand that a huge proportion of mutations fix randomly rather than because of selection, and we have two kinds of selections: negative and positive, where negative avoids changes, and positive selects for better variants (better for some environment). There's also horizontal gene transfer to take into account, and events of symbiosis. So evolution is still lots of facts, only natural selection on mutations is not all there is to it. Therefore we have to teach these as best so far as theories. So that might be what that Bridgman person you quote was saying. After all, Einstein added exactitude to gravitation, but some facts still escape it.

      So I see nothing wrong teaching science as it is, and that's what we do.
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        May 29 2013: I could not agree more. Teaching science as it is would be fine and dandy. But contrary to your experience, I , being a Creationist, am always rebuffed by evolutionists who proceed to argue that their explanation for life on earth is 100% consistent with the Scientific Method (LOL) and while not without gaps, it is without error.This is where you say, "They shouldn't be saying that!", and I agree with you. Nonetheless they do say it, often and regularly. A child growing-up in public school will think evolution is mature, robust, venerated, and the whole truth. They will also hear NOTHING about Creationism. That's wrong Entropy. That's just wrong. Public school should not teach creationism or evolution as the whole, infrangible truth. Whether a child is taught that God created the universe, or that it just exploded into existence from nothing for no reason or cause, is the parent's responsibility, not the schools. Teach science as it is. Amen. (Why haven't we been deleted? I think we are way off-topic). Live long and prosper.
    • May 30 2013: Perfectly on topic my friend. May the force be with you.
      (Of course evolution is 100% consistent with the scientific method!)

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