Science is just a theory?
© EBS Administrators
It is common for Biblical Literalists to defend their faith by saying that in science, everything is "just a theory," while they take the Bible as fact. Indeed, facts are more robust than theories. But the entire Literalist argument is built on mismatched definitions of words.
In science, a fact has to be confirmed by independent and reliable methods. It cannot be an article of faith that one takes something as fact. Facts are undeniable, as they are immediately and directly accessible, requiring no pre-existing beliefs. Anything that requires faith is not a fact — it's a working hypothesis.
An hypothesis is an unproved set of assertions. A complex problem might take an elaborate effort to pull together a series of statements that could be true. Before attempting to prove them, they might be checked for self-consistency. If no errors in the logic can be found, the more substantial effort necessary to prove them might be undertaken.
A "working hypothesis" is a set of assertions that have not been proved, but which nevertheless have utilitarian value. For example, a motorist looking for fuel might get off the freeway on a working hypothesis that there is a gas station somewhere on the side-road. Proof is only established when the gas station is actually located.
Hence a literal interpretation of the Bible might "work" in the sense that it provides a useful belief system, even though its tenets have not been scientifically proved. That it "works" does not prove it to be true, and it definitely does not make it "fact."
A theory is an hypothesis that can be proved. Those who remember high school geometry know the difference between a postulate and a theorem. A postulate is a formalized way of approaching a problem, and is what a scientist would call an hypothesis. A theorem is that for which the definitive proof can be demonstrated, and is what a scientist would call a theory.
Without realizing it, when Literalists say that science only has theories, they're actually saying that science only has stuff that can be proved by rigorous methods.
The reason why rigorous science considers theories to be the most substantial stuff that it is capable of producing, and not facts, is that there is, and always should be, a difference between a theory and a fact. A fact is a directly observable phenomenon, such as the sunlight coming in through the window, or water flowing downhill. A theory is the explanation of one or more facts. For example, the sunlight coming through the window moves slowly across the floor, which is explained by the theory that the Earth revolves on its axis.
The reason for maintaining the distinction between theories and facts is simple. In good science, theories can be disputed, but facts cannot. While an existing theory might explain all of the known facts pertaining to a certain kind of thing, it's always possible that someday a new fact might become known, which the existing theory cannot explain. In this event, the existing theory is considered wrong, and work begins on a new theory that can explain the newly enlarged set of known facts. This progress of scientific theories is made easier by maintaining a firm distinction between theory and fact. In bad science, where theories (or even hypotheses) are taken as indisputable facts, when new information becomes available that contradicts the existing explanations, that information is typically suppressed. This means that the facts have become disputable, while the "theories" are not, and that's backwards from how it should be. Suppression of facts is something that good science never does. And for scientists to never consider their best work to be above dispute is evidence of the humility of the scientists. It does not mean that there is a lack of proof for the theories in question. For example, the Heliocentric Theory of the solar system is just a theory, not a fact. But with this theory, we can explain the motion of all of the planets and moons in simple terms. Furthermore, we can send astronauts to our Moon, which would not be possible without the ability to know exactly where it's going to be at any given point in time. Nevertheless, the Heliocentric Theory of the solar system is a theory, not a fact. The position of a planet or a moon in the night sky is a fact. Any explanation of why that body is there and not somewhere else is just a theory, not a fact.
Using the proper definitions, we can then say that a literal interpretation of the Bible does not make it fact.

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