Why scientific theories can’t be proved absolutely

Benedict XVI, the Roman Catholic Pope, has pointed out that the theory of evolution cannot be proved because “we cannot haul 10,000 generations of animals into the laboratory.”  The pope is right that the theory of evolution cannot be proved in the ultimate sense.  Neither can Newton’s theory of gravity or Einstein’s theory of relativity, or Dalton’s atomic table, or for that matter, Galileo’s idea that the earth revolves around the sun.  We can’t even prove absolutely that 2 + 2 = 4.  Actually, there are numerous occasions when it doesn’t.

What many people don’t understand is that scientific theories can never be proved in the final, absolute, ultimate sense.  Scientific theories are accepted when they are the best, most effective explanation for what we observe, or the most effective way of enabling us to solve some problem or accomplish some goal.  So Newton’s theory is accepted because of all the theories, it explains better than any other theory why apples fall to the ground and the stars don’t.  There are a lot of explanations about why we see the sun come up in the morning and go down at night.  We accept Galileo’s explanation because it tallies better than other theories with so many things we observe.  Einstein’s relativity has been in practical use since it first was used to land the first space craft on the moon, but it might still be wrong.

So it is possible that any of these theories might be replaced by other theores that are even better at explaining what we observe or solving some urgent problem facing humanity.  For myself, Darwin’s theory of evolution currently explains the world better than intelligent design or creationism or the biblical version. 

I think the biblical story was never intended to be understood as the literal truth, but as a parable, a poetic paean in praise of the great world that the early biblical writers observed with awe.  As do most people even today, believers and unbelievers, scientists and poets alike.


About Terry Sissons

Terry Sissons is the author of The Big Bang to Now: All of Time in Six Chunks, and this blog is a dialogue about the universe and what’s happened in the last 13 billions years.
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17 Responses to Why scientific theories can’t be proved absolutely

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  4. Your style is very unique compared to other folks I’ve read stuff from. Many thanks for posting when you have the opportunity, Guess I’ll just book mark this blog.

  5. Can you explain more why 2 + 2 = 4 can’t be proven absolutely (assuming that we are working in base 10 and dealing with the conceptual numbers, not objects)?

    • Thank you for this superb question. I will respond by Monday when I can access my computer keyboard.

    • You have asked me to explain more fully why 2+2 can’t be proven absolutely. The difficulty is that there is a fundamental difference between conceptual systems including scientific theories on the one hand, and the objective world we are trying to explain and predict on the other. 2+2 might always = 4 within the very specific rules or assumptions of any particular human construction, therefore, but might fail frequently to describe the objective world.

      Your question, for instance, sets up a mini-conceptual system with several rules: that we are working in base 10 and dealing with conceptual (presumably positive) numbers and not objects. Won’t, then, 2+2 always = 4? Yes. Because it is we who are making the rules within which we operate.

      But we can’t assume that the same rules we set up to govern the conclusions we draw using our conceptual systems always apply to the objective world. You seem to recognize this, in that you are specifically limiting your question to conceptual numbers not objects. As you appreciate, discrete objects, even in our every day world, do not necessarily obey the constraints of our conceptual systems and theories. Objects often do not remain discrete when they are combined. Two glasses of water poured into a single larger glass quite legitimately and logically can be said to become 1 glass of water, for instance. Objects in the “real world” also often change their identity when they are added together, so that, as the Gestalt philosophers and psychologists pointed out a century ago, the whole can no longer be adequately described simply in terms of its individual parts. Water, composed of 3 atoms, does not behave in the same way as 2 atoms of hydrogen and 1 oxygen. We know now as well that on the quantum level, particles go in and out of existence, and from Einstein’s theory of relativity that time and space themselves are not absolute. In outer space, even a concept like a minute changes, depending on where we are in space and the speed at which we are travelling. To get to the moon, astronauts had to take this into account. If they had not, they would have gone whizzing off into space missing the moon altogether.

      Our human systems and theories are incredibly powerful, immensely useful, even essential to our every day survival. But when I say they can never be proven absolutely, what I mean is that our human constructs and rules cannot be proven to always describe the objective world. In fact, as I have suggested, they don’t. The great geniuses — or perhaps most especially great geniuses have understood this about their theories. Newton did. Einstein did. Stephen Hawking does.

      This is why, if one really understands the nature of human thought, one does not go to science for absolute proof. The more we understand, the bigger becomesthe space outside our circle of knowledge to which we don’t have the answers. We live in uncertainty, in mystery.

      As you can perhaps see, I find your question a fascinating one, which many people never think to ask. Thank you again for asking it. If you wish to add, ask, or even argue anything further on this topic, I would be delighted to hear from you. In the meantime, I hope this very short “explanation” helps to answer your request for an explanation.

      Terry Sissons

      • I actually had a feeling that’s what you meant, but I wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing what you were saying, and I think you explained it very well. I love your blog and I actually have referred people to this post when they argue with me when I say that theories have not been proven. Thanks!

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  8. “I think the biblical story was never intended to be understood as the literal truth, but as a parable, a poetic paean in praise of the great world that the early biblical writers observed with awe.” Actually the Bible was written as adjustable truth. At first it was all literal, but God intended it to get progressively less literal as science (which he knew was coming) chipped away at it. The rule is that you should believe everything except that which you can prove is not true.

    • This is an interesting rule: “to believe everything except that which you can prove is not true.” How do you deal with apparent contradictions, none of which can be proven conclusively to be wrong?

      Be interested to hear your thoughts.

  9. Johnd36 says:

    Inspiring story, where did you quote it from? dbgecdfeedcd

  10. Johnk828 says:

    I appreciate, cause I discovered just what I used to be looking for. You have ended my four day long hunt! God Bless you man. Have a nice day. Bye adcccedcadec

  11. Dan Kamei says:

    Great article…
    So, we r not certain of what’s going on in this universe…
    As a matter of fact we don’t need to know everything what’s going on…. But one thing is certain that God had, once, landed on the Earth.

    The conclusion of all the matter is to fear God and obey His commandments.This is the whole duty of man on earth… (Ecclesiastic Ch 12 vr 13)

    • Dan – Thank you for your comment. I appreciate it when readers understand that we learn some things through scientific analysis of evidence, but that matters of faith are just that – beyond proof and that we accept them because we intuit that they are true.

      Just as what we learn through science does not eliminate uncertainty, what different people and different religions, even different views of Christianity, intuit as “certain” often contradict each other. So we are still left with the possibility that our own personal certainty could be wrong. Or at least partially wrong or incomplete.

      I would be most interested in hearing your further thoughts on this.

      Again, thank you. Terry Sissons

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