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Theory: A Word with Multiple Meanings
An Education World At Home Editorial to
Help Parents Understand the Evolution Controversy

By Forrest Stone

In everyday speech, a "theory" is sort of an educated guess. The word has been the center of a lot of controversy with regard to evolution, however, in part because its specialized use in scientific discourse isn't as widely understood.

In science, a "theory" is a whole structure that brings together related ideas in order to explain all observed phenomena in a particular area. In this sense, a theory is particularly important because it is used to predict how things will occur. The "theory" that matter is made out of atoms and molecules, for example, or the "theory" that illness can be caused by microscopic organisms, helps us predict how matter and how medicine will operate in certain circumstances. Without such "theories," our ability to help sick people would never have progressed, nor would we have been able to develop cars, airplanes, or computers.

Theories in science that last a long time and that are seen to accurately predict a lot of observed phenomena end up rising to the highest rank among scientific ideas. The theory of relativity, quantum theory, evolution, and so on, are theories just as gravity is a theory – they all help us understand and predict how the universe behaves.

No human concept, idea, perception, or artifact is perfect. In fact, one important "theory," the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, says that it is impossible to know both the speed and location of any given electron. In short, this means that there are always limits to human knowledge, at least in the sense of being able to quantify everything exactly.

In this sense, it seems we will always need some degree of "faith," to use another very controversial word, in order to feel we have a complete "picture" of the universe. Whether that faith is in further scientific experiment and observation and theorizing or in a religious or mystical belief system is a matter of personal choice ... and there is no reason not to choose both!

Therefore, evolution and religion, for example, or medicine and religion, or physics and religion, are not mutually exclusive. They are simply two different "tracks" along which the human mind operates. In an important sense, science can never answer the ultimate question of "why" the universe is the way it is because it is not the job of science to look for the meaning of the universe. It is the job of science to look for the "how" – the mechanisms and, yes, theories upon which the universe seems to operate.

In our humble (and inherently limited) opinion, therefore, the evolution versus "intelligent design" controversy really is a non-controversy, because evolution is within the "science" track and "intelligent design," the central thesis of which is simply that there is a higher intelligence driving the development and "design" of life forms, is within the "religion" track.

The New York Times recently reported that science museums are in fact training staff to answer questions from creationists, and those training programs, as we understand them, follow our same logic.

If anyone would like to respond to this editorial, we'd be delighted to hear from you!

Please write to: [email protected] and include "theory" in the subject line!


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