An email popped up in my inbox last week and caught my interest. “Science explains everything…doesn’t it?” – it read. Now this was a bit odd as I have yet to come across a science book where the scientist has claimed that science explains everything. Science by its very nature is a continuous work in progress.
Nevermind, I thought, I’ll bite, and read the rest of the email which appeared to be an invitation to attend a forthcoming talk by a Muslim speaker called Hamza Tzortzis. A quick check on Google revealed that this chap had written a lengthy 2013 article entitled “Has Evolution Been Misunderstood? Revelation, Science and Certainty.”
Now, I have read many articles by Muslims about evolution. The vast majority of them have been disappointingly poor and I have written elsewhere about the misinformation I have come across about evolution from Muslims and have also debated the issue with Harun Yahya (a prolific Muslim author of anti-evolution polemics). Would Hamza Tzortzis prove different and discuss the topic of evolution sensibly? The title of the email did not inspire much hope in that direction but who knew? So I read his article…
Well, it was almost 8000 words long. 8000 words of tedious mind-numbing waffle. Scrape away the bullshit and the argument that he appeared to be making was that the topic of evolution should be discussed from an “epistemic approach. We believe that this approach exposes the false assumption that the theory of evolution is a fact, or is certain.”
Tzortzis criticised the way the discussion around evolution has usually been framed and said that “… there is a hidden premise. This premise is that science produces certainty, evolution is fact and science is the only way to establish or verify truth claims.”
Just like the title of the email, this passage was misleading. I have yet to come across a scientist that claims that science produces certainty. Every decent book I have read says that the scientific method produces only approximations to truth and that as our theories improve over time, so should our understanding of reality or truth, but that we can never achieve 100% certainty (and there is a reason for this as we will see in a minute or two).
Now, as it happens, evolution is a fact. It is also a theory. I could try and explain this but why bother when the Harvard palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould explains it so much more clearly in an extract on the Talk Origins website (the full article “Evolution is a Fact and a Theory” at the above link is a must read – just compare it with the one from Tzortzis and the difference is between day and night).
In the American vernacular, “theory” often means “imperfect fact”–part of a hierarchy of confidence running downhill from fact to theory to hypothesis to guess. Thus the power of the creationist argument: evolution is “only” a theory and intense debate now rages about many aspects of the theory. If evolution is worse than a fact, and scientists can’t even make up their minds about the theory, then what confidence can we have in it? Indeed, President Reagan echoed this argument before an evangelical group in Dallas when he said (in what I devoutly hope was campaign rhetoric): “Well, it is a theory. It is a scientific theory only, and it has in recent years been challenged in the world of science–that is, not believed in the scientific community to be as infallible as it once was.”
Well evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts don’t go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein’s theory of gravitation replaced Newton’s in this century, but apples didn’t suspend themselves in midair, pending the outcome. And humans evolved from ape-like ancestors whether they did so by Darwin’s proposed mechanism or by some other yet to be discovered.
Moreover, “fact” doesn’t mean “absolute certainty”; there ain’t no such animal in an exciting and complex world. The final proofs of logic and mathematics flow deductively from stated premises and achieve certainty only because they are not about the empirical world. Evolutionists make no claim for perpetual truth, though creationists often do (and then attack us falsely for a style of argument that they themselves favor). In science “fact” can only mean “confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional consent.” I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms.
Evolutionists have been very clear about this distinction of fact and theory from the very beginning, if only because we have always acknowledged how far we are from completely understanding the mechanisms (theory) by which evolution (fact) occurred. Darwin continually emphasized the difference between his two great and separate accomplishments: establishing the fact of evolution, and proposing a theory–natural selection–to explain the mechanism of evolution.
So, to return to Tzortzis’s epistemology argument – that evolution cannot be proven with 100% certainty, this is a familiar trope and every bit as misleading as the argument about “facts”. Here is H.J. Muller as quoted in Talk Origins:
The honest scientist, like the philosopher, will tell you that nothing whatever can be or has been proved with fully 100% certainty, not even that you or I exist, nor anyone except himself, since he might be dreaming the whole thing. Thus there is no sharp line between speculation, hypothesis, theory, principle, and fact, but only a difference along a sliding scale, in the degree of probability of the idea. When we say a thing is a fact, then, we only mean that its probability is an extremely high one: so high that we are not bothered by doubt about it and are ready to act accordingly. Now in this use of the term fact, the only proper one, evolution is a fact. For the evidence in favor of it is as voluminous, diverse, and convincing as in the case of any other well established fact of science concerning the existence of things that cannot be directly seen, such as atoms, neutrons, or solar gravitation ….
So enormous, ramifying, and consistent has the evidence for evolution become that if anyone could now disprove it, I should have my conception of the orderliness of the universe so shaken as to lead me to doubt even my own existence. If you like, then, I will grant you that in an absolute sense evolution is not a fact, or rather, that it is no more a fact than that you are hearing or reading these words.
It is always depressing to hear Muslims such as Tzortzis offer such breathtakingly poor arguments against evolution. It reminds you of the terrible contemporary state of much of Muslim civilisation. Tzortzis claims in his article that Islam is “pro-science” and I do agree with that. It is just that I am not convinced that most Muslims (including Tzortzis) are pro-science. And that is a tragedy.