I have a love of learning and exploration, especially when it comes to ideas. The biggest ideas of all are religions and in my pursuit to learn about religion I’ve read the Bible, Quaran, Book of Mormon, texts by the Dalai Lama and also books on Hare Krishna movement. I’ve also explored Greek, Roman, Celtic, Native American and Norse religions to a point.
However, to get a full balanced view, I’ve also read books with opposing ideas such as The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. I don’t identify with any religion but neither am I an athiest. However, out of all the books I’ve read, The God Delusion is the one that makes the most sense. Why? Because it’s backed up by rigorously tested theories.
But what IS a theory?
The word theory is often misunderstood, especially in my experience by strongly religious people, to mean “something that is unproven and is just an idea” for example the commonly heard “but evolution is just a theory”.
However, when the scientific community uses the word theory, they are talking about something different entirely. A theory is a an explanation of a phenomenon that is based on observation and experimentation. Experimentation produces observable facts and these facts are connected together to create a theory.
A fact is a simple, undeniable (except to philosophers) observation about the world around us. For the purposes of this post, a single fact is represented by an orange dot and will be treated as a piece of evidence.
A hypothesis is a proposed explanation for different observations. Hypotheses are formed by combining multiple known facts and serves as a basis for further exploration. These hypotheses are tested under different conditions. During the testing process, new evidence is added to our understanding allowing us to form a better idea of what is happening. However, these pieces of evidence can be interpreted in a number of ways (e.g. string theory vs. loop quantum gravity).
These hypotheses are tested rigours under different conditions.
During the testing process, new facts are added to our understanding allowing us to form a better idea of what is happening. This new evidence is then used to disprove theories that contradict the evidence and can provide support for theories which include and help explain it.
After the initial process of elimination, there may still be multiple legitimate combinations and interpretations of the facts. However, the combination which makes the fewest assumptions is deemed to be more likely.
When enough evidence is gathered to support an idea, a scientific theory is proposed.
The theory explains all existing pieces of evidence, and while it gives us a much better idea of what is actually happening, there’s often still quite a way to go until full understanding.
In summary, when a scientist explains that there is a theory, what they actually mean is “we’ve gathered a large body of evidence and through repeated experimentation and a rigorous process of elimination we’ve developed an explanation of this phenomenon which is supported by all the evidence that is available on this phenomenon.”
So next time you hear “it’s only a theory”, whether related to religion or motivation theories, feel free to point this out.
P.s. This post was influenced by an image I saw on Imgur by ThereIsNothingCommonAboutSense.