When I was in elementary school, I memorized the definition of science. You probably did, too. But as I made my way through high school, college and even became a scientist myself, that definition of science changed along the way. I didn’t notice or question it until much later, but when I did, I realized there are two different types of science.
One type is experimental science (sometimes called hard science) and the other is historical, or earth origins, science. Each type of science has its own challenges and both try to answer different questions. Experimental science answers the questions we have about our planet and ourselves in the here and now. Things like: How can we cure cancer? How much force is required for this rocket to break out of the atmosphere? Is this volcano going to explode soon?
In contrast, the historical sciences focus on what has happened on the planet in the past. Both are referred to as science, but only one fits the definition of science that most of us memorized in school. According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary:
sci·ence noun \ˈsī-ən(t)s\ : knowledge about or study of the natural world based on facts learned through experiments and observation
Science helps us learn through experiments and observation. This works great in the experimental sciences, like biology, physics or medicine. But what about the historical sciences? Did anyone observe how the world was created? Can we design an experiment to test how we think the world was created? Can we recreate the conditions under which life first formed?
The answers, of course, are no, because the historical sciences don’t fit the true definition of science. This was a difficult realization for me because somewhere along the path to my geology degree, I adjusted my definition of science to include the historical sciences. Don’t misunderstand, I’m not trying to say geologists and other historical scientists don’t observe what they see and develop theories, but we must remember that’s what they are—theories. And they will stay theories, because we will never be able to test them the same way we test the measles vaccine or the design for a new airplane.
This is why any belief in earth origins requires a certain amount of faith. Faith in a particular theory. Faith in the assumptions behind the theory (because there are always assumptions).
I’m sure you caught the key word. Faith.
More to come on faith and science next week. Please share your thoughts on faith and how it relates to science by leaving a comment.