Facts & Theories Revised Version 12/29/04
©Allen B. Schlesinger, 2004
“It’s only a theory!” This dismissive comment has bothered me for most of the fifty years I was an active teacher. It was usually said to emphasize the affirmative connotation of “It’s a fact!” That a theory is to facts as a symphony is to a keyboard is a concept that is apparently very difficult for many people to comprehend. This essay may seem overly long for those who do but it wasn’t written for them.
Think of a fact as a small tile. It has a particular form: shape, color, thickness, etc. It is not readily altered but if examined under other than white light its apparent color may change. Facts, after all, are as we see and interpret them. To a butterfly, which, unlike us can see in ultraviolet light, some of our ‘facts’ about flower color would be ‘bad guesses’. Above all, a fact is not the same thing as Truth. Each of these words has its appropriate contextual usage.
Think now of a box of tiles of various sizes, shapes, and colors. Each is what it is. As the tiles lie, jumbled, in their container, the word ‘meaning’ is not one that comes readily to the mind.
If you are asked to find ‘meaning’ in the jumble you actually do not seek it in the tiles. Rather, you look at the tiles and your brain starts searching itself for any sort of pattern of which it is aware and with which it can make a connection with the visual information it is receiving.
So it is with facts. In isolation and without prior assembly, they convey nothing but themselves. Lead is lead. Water is water. If lead is placed in water the two substances remain as before, isolated, with the lead at the bottom of the water. If asked to find ‘meaning’ in what you have observed, you scan your ‘knowledge’ (the things you ‘know’) to see if the facts of which you have become aware, relate in some way to your previous understanding.
If, on your own, you are unable to find anything in your store of knowledge with which the lead/water facts can be related, you will conclude that there is no ‘meaning’. However, if you compare what you have just observed with previous observations, for example, a lump of sugar placed in water or a chip of wood placed in water, the facts, these isolated bits of reality, may become involved in a very remarkable mental activity. From the previously isolated and meaningless jumble, the brain has created a new construct: an assembly of facts. It is very much like using the tiles to create a picture, a mosaic. If you have a mental image of a house you are capable of assembling selected tiles to create an actual image that you can share with others.
An assemblage of facts so as to create a pattern with ‘meaning’ can be called a theory. Notice that the tiles don’t assemble themselves into a picture of a house. You must do the assembling so as to create a picture of a house based on your mental image of a house. It is your mind, your knowledge, and your ability to see the possibility of making a picture out of individual tiles that is the creative force. All Theories are human inventions
Evolution is the name we have given to the process of inheritable modification that living organism have undergone during their descent from ancestral forms. It is claimed to be a fact by many of the professionals who study the process. I think these scientists are emphasizing that in their opinion the process of evolution actually has occurred. By doing so I think they inadvertently devalue the term ‘hypothesis’. The use of the term ‘fact’ to mean ‘truth’ or ‘actuality’ is not a prudent idea in this case. It must be pointed out that the process of evolution is also a hypothesis since it was, historically, arrived at by the mental processing of a very large number of facts. For example, one critical fact is the existence of a tremendously abundant number of fossils embedded in datable, stratified, geological deposits, another is the fact that offspring of a single pair of parents vary, a critical fact is that in every generation of organisms differential survival of offspring occurs, and the indisputable facts of transmission genetics provide the mechanism whereby offspring can both resemble and differ from their parents. Taken as a whole these sorts of facts, and many others concerning the structure and development of organisms, have been interpreted as strongly supporting the view that evolution of organisms has occurred.
When students of evolution say that Natural Selection, Darwin’s explanation for the process of evolution, is not a fact, that is absolutely true. Darwin’s conception is a mental construct derived from an extraordinary deduction derived from many individual facts and at least three major hypotheses: variation, competition, and differential reproduction. Like the mosaic picture of the house it is a mental construct made possible by a mind seeking to create ‘meaning’ out of thousands of facts.
Is it possible to assemble facts in more than one way? Is it possible to create many alternative pictures, many alternative meanings? In principle this is possible but in practice it is extremely difficult to develop even one coherent theory in which all the applicable facts are logically related. Here we come to the heart of all arguments about whether or not a particular way of assembling facts has led to the construction of a truly meaningful one, a theory with a capital ‘T’, a Theory. A Theory is not only worthy of respect as an example of significant human effort (like a Beethoven symphony or a Michelangelo statue) but also is an accurate a statement about how the way the world behaves. All scientific Theories are subject to correction if the world behaves in a manner not compatible with them. A single fact, which cannot be accommodated by the theory, forces a reexamination of the entire construction.
Science has developed many robust Theories. The Cell Theory, for example, resulted from all sorts of observations of different kinds of cells and their behavior. After considering dozens of facts about cells, in the 1830’s two men, one a botanist and one a zoologist developed a theory that all living things were formed of cells. Now it is true that these two, Schleiden and Schwann, although they examined hundreds of different animals and plants, certainly didn’t examine all living creatures. So their theory, at the start, was an educated assumption that the sample of creatures they did examine was typical of all the ones they hadn’t. As the years passed, they and thousands of other scientists continued to find that all the organisms that were examined did, indeed, consist of cells. While it is possible that after millions of examinations a normal living creature not consisting of cells will be found, to date this has not occurred. The reason why it probably never will flows from another aspect of the Cell Theory.
What perplexed Schleiden and Schwann was where cells came from and how were they formed. Several proposals had been made which were based on the behavior of crystal formation from solutions of chemicals. Perhaps cells precipitated out of the watery environment of the body. Or perhaps they simply came into existence spontaneously, literally out of nothing then known. Schleiden and Schwann were operating with very few of the facts about cells we now know but from the observations they made they proposed that new cells were produced only by previously existing ones. The Cell Theory provided biologists with a new vision of what life really was. Cells were the means by which life passed from generation to generation. It is in the cell that the fire of life is perpetuated. Although individual organisms may die, life never ceases as long as a previously existing cell can form others. A normal organism not composed of cells would be a violation of this process of cellular descent. The power of a truly robust Theory is its ability to explain reality. It was the explanatory focus on the cell that led biological thought to the nucleus, then to the chromosomes, then to Mendel’s theoretical genes, and eventually to Watson and Crick’s proposal for the chemical nature of the gene. We now look to the nucleic acids as the primary chemical in the processes of life. It is as close to a complete explanation as biology has come.
The Atomic Theory has had a very long history. About 400 B.C. the Greek philosopher Leucippus proposed that all matter consisted of tiny particles. His student Democritus extended his teacher’s thoughts and added an important detail: the particles could not be cut into smaller particles. Democritus named these indivisible particles atoms. Although Isaac Newton, Galileo, and Francis Bacon thought about atomic structure, none of them added anything substantive to Democritus’s ideas. Rudjer Boscovich, a Croatian, in 1750 thought that some of the facts he had learned required that the atom be divisible into smaller parts. In fact, from the facts he proposed that the parts could be cut into still smaller parts until there was only a point in space, not a particle as we know it.
The modern Atomic Theory traces to John Dalton, a British chemist whose discovery of the fact that all chemicals combine only in certain fixed proportions led him to propose a theory that the atoms comprising each chemical element had a particular structure and that the atoms of elements which combined to form compounds did so in very specific proportions. From this theory and some additional facts that had been observed about the behavior of matter, in 1913 the Danish physicist Niels Bohr suggested a theoretical structure for the atom with a positively charged central nucleus orbited by negatively charged electrons. Bohr’s model (theory) of the atom assumed that the electron orbits were circular and unchanging. All the facts known at the time fitted into such a structure. However, by 1928, additional facts were discovered which did not. So the Bohr model was modified to accept the new facts. The orbits were no longer circular and unchanging.
When it was first proposed, Boscovich’s theory had no facts to support the ‘point in space’ idea. Quantum physics, since Albert Einstein, puts the known facts together in a way that makes the ‘point in space’ entirely possible. But remember, Einstein or not, it is a theory supported by assembling the facts in a particular way.
The point in discussing these theories is to draw a distinction between them. Nobody today asks, “Do you believe in the Cell Theory?” Nobody asks, “Do you believe in the Atomic Theory?” Students typically ask their teachers, “Can you explain the Cell Theory to me?” Or perhaps, “Why is the Atomic Theory important in explaining how nuclear bombs are made?” However, practically every teacher is asked, “Do you believe in the Theory of Evolution?” Why this difference?
Some students believe that the Theory of Natural Selection involves a denial of religious truths and that the Cell Theory and the Atomic Theory do not involve a challenge to religious teachings. It is the apparent confrontation between Genesis and Natural Selection that sets this Theory aside from all others. Genesis tells us that God created water but does not provide the details of combining two hydrogen atoms with one oxygen atom to form water (the kind of fact that John Dalton used), and Genesis assures us that God created all the animals and plants but doesn’t tell us out of what substances He created them or that all of them consist of cells. However, Genesis does explicitly state that God created Adam out of the dust of the ground. And from Adam’s body Eve was formed and from them all of us humans are descended. We tend to overlook ambiguity if the Bible omits details but we may become very combative if a Biblical detail appears to conflict with scientific information.
As the Cell Theory proposes, we humans consist of cells, along with DNA and all the other cellular components we share with the other creatures. A reasonable question to ask is did Adam, and from him Eve, consist of cells, DNA, and all the other cellular components of life? Cells, DNA, mitochondria, genetics, are all facts. How can a theory of life on earth best be assembled from these facts?
From dust to DNA to cells. It seems inescapable to me that God can do such things. I believe He can, and did. I realize that Genesis doesn’t provide the details but we are Adam and Eve’s cellular descendents and it seems reasonable to ponder the possibilities.
There are two versions of the process by which Adam came to be. Genesis is very clear as to the words: Dust and Created. Dust of the ground, the chemical atoms out of which, ultimately, all things are made, everything from stars to starfish. The Theory of Evolution proposes that once the chemistry of life came into being, and the first cells appeared on Earth, there was a new creation which would reproduce, branch, and flower in ways wondrous and unpredictable. Genesis doesn’t provide the details as to out of what God made sheep or fish or pine trees. It does give us the details for Adam. If God chose to go from Dust to Cells for Adam it seems entirely reasonable to me to imagine that this process was one well known to Him and that He might well have returned to it when He became lonely and decided to create us.