The darkest secret of science.
The above question was posed at a forum at Quora.com. Below is a copy and paste of my answer:
The darkest secret of science is that the science of one age becomes the myth or pseudo-science of the next. Biologist Lynn Margulis, winner of the U.S. Presidential Medal for Science, put it best in her book What Is Life?:
…Science is asymptotic. [“asymptote” is derived from a Greek word meaning “not falling together.”] It never arrives at but only approaches the tantalizing goal of final knowledge. Astrology gives way to astronomy; alchemy evolves into chemistry. The science of one age becomes the mythology of the next.
Those with a short-sighted view of the history of science are prone to overlook the fact that alchemy (which believed that metals such as lead could be turned into gold) and astrology were once considered scientifically respectable. In fact, as Margulis alludes to above, the scientific consensus of one age usually becomes the myth or superstition of the next age. Elite physicists Paul Davies and John Gribbin cite examples of this trend among scientific theories in their book The Matter Myth:
A classic example concerns the “luminiferous ether.” When James Clerk Maxwell showed that light is an electromagnetic wave, it seemed obvious that this wave had to have a medium of some sort through which to propagate. After all, other known waves travel through something. Sound waves, for example, travel through the air; water waves travel across the surface of lakes and oceans. Because light, which Maxwell discovered is a form of electromagnetic wave, can reach us from the Sun and stars, across seemingly empty space, it was proposed that space is actually filled with an intangible substance, the ether, in which these waves could travel.
So sure were physicists of the existence of the ether that ambitious experiments were mounted to measure the speed with which the Earth moves through it. Alas, the experiments showed conclusively that the ether does not exist…for nineteenth-century physicists, however, the ether was still very real.
But science has provided us with air travel, amazing medicines, computers, and a whole list of other advances! Considering such facts, shouldn’t we just listen to what science has to tell us? Freeman Dyson, who holds the professorship in physics at Princeton University formerly held by Albert Einstein, comments in his 2011 essaythat the usefulness of scientific theories should not be confused with their truth:
Among my friends and acquaintances, everybody distrusts Wikipedia and everybody uses it. Distrust and productive use are not incompatible. Wikipedia is the ultimate open source repository of information. Everyone is free to read it and everyone is free to write it. It contains articles in 262 languages written by several million authors. The information that it contains is totally unreliable and surprisingly accurate. It is often unreliable because many of the authors are ignorant or careless. It is often accurate because the articles are edited and corrected by readers who are better informed than the authors.
…The public has a distorted view of science, because children are taught in school that science is a collection of firmly established truths. In fact, science is not a collection of truths. It is a continuing exploration of mysteries.
…Science is the sum total of a great multitude of mysteries. It is an unending argument between a great multitude of voices. It resembles Wikipedia much more than it resembles the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Popular thought suggests that scientific knowledge is on an ever advancing march towards final truth. However, in his pivotal work on the history, philosophy, and sociology of science titled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, physicist Thomas Kuhn describes how the history of science makes it difficult to justify the characterization of science as “an ever growing stockpile [of] knowledge” or a “process of accretion.” In part, this is because most scientific theories (or models) which were accepted by the scientific communities of the past are now perceived as pseudo-science or myth.
Kuhn cites the examples of Aristotelian dynamics (which was superseded by Newtonian physics), phlogistic chemistry (which said that a fire-like element called phlogiston is contained within combustible bodies and released during combustion), and caloric thermodynamics (which said that heat is really a self-repellent fluid called caloric that flows from hotter bodies to colder bodies). (for many more examples). If these theories were regarded as “science” in their day, but as “error” and “superstition” today, then why should we not assume that the scientific theories of today will become the error and superstition of tomorrow? Kuhn writes:
Historians confront growing difficulties in distinguishing the “scientific” component of past observation and belief from what their predecessors had readily labeled “error” and “superstition.” The more carefully they study, say, Aristotelian dynamics, phlogistic chemistry, or caloric thermodynamics, the more certain they feel that those once current views of nature were, as a whole, neither less scientific nor more the product of human idiosyncrasy than those current today. If these out-of-date beliefs are to be called myths, then myths can be produced by the same sorts of methods and held for the same sorts of reasons that now lead to scientific knowledge. If, on the other hand, they are to be called science, then science has included bodies of belief quite incompatible with the ones we hold today. Given these alternatives, the historian must choose the latter. Out-of-date theories are not in principle unscientific because they have been discarded. That choice, however, makes it difficult to see scientific development as a process of accretion.
Atheist science popularizers are fond of assuring us that science “figures things out” without the need for God. Just give it enough time—the atheist reasoning goes—and science will figure out everything, leaving no need whatsoever to cite God as an explanation. But physicists Davies and Gribbin continue by warning about the danger of confusing scientific models, on one hand, with reality, on the other hand, in The Matter Myth:
“The case for the scientific world view rests on the claim that science deals with truth. The image of science as a pure and objective distillation of real world experience is, of course, an idealization. In practice, the nature of scientific truth is often much more subtle and contentious.”
“At the heart of the scientific method is the construction of theories. Scientific theories are essentially models of the real world (or parts thereof), and a lot of the vocabulary of science concerns the models rather than the reality. For example, scientists often use the word ‘discovery’ to refer to some purely theoretical advance. Thus one often hears it said that Stephen Hawking ‘discovered’ that black holes are not black, but emit heat radiation. This statement refers solely to a mathematical investigation. Nobody has yet seen a black hole, much less detected any heat radiation from one.”
So what does the history of science suggest the future holds for Darwin’s theory? The best case scenario is that it will go down in history in a similar manner to Isaac Newton’s science. Newtonian mechanics was not completely overthrown, but it was eventually shown to have a far more narrow range of applicability than once thought. William Dembski notes:
“It is always a temptation in science to think that one’s theory encompasses a far bigger domain than it actually does. This happened with Newtonian mechanics. Physicists thought that Newton’s laws provided a total account of the constitution and dynamics of the universe. Maxwell, Einstein, and Heisenberg each showed that the proper domain of Newtonian mechanics was far more constricted than scientists first believed. Newtonian mechanics works well for medium sized objects at medium speeds, but for very fast and very small objects it breaks down. In the latter case, we need to invoke, respectively, relativity and quantum mechanics.”
What’s the worst case scenario for Darwin’s theory of evolution? Biologist Lynn Margulis (cited above) believes that history will ultimately judge neo-Darwinism as, “A minor twentieth-century religious sect within the sprawling religious persuasion of Anglo-Saxon biology.”
Darwin’s theory of evolution—atheists suggest—provides answers to questions in biology without the need for God. So why should we invoke God as the ultimate answer to any questions? Why not just patiently withhold judgement while waiting for science to provide the answers? The simple answer to this very common atheist objection is that the history of science demonstrates that science, alone, doesn’t provide ultimate answers. Dominant scientific theories have a history of eventually being radically revised, and outright rejected. William Dembski notes in Uncommon Dissent:
Despite all the propaganda to the contrary, science is not a juggernaut that relentlessly pushes back the frontiers of knowledge. Rather, science is an interconnected web of theoretical and factual claims about the world that are constantly being revised. Changes in one portion of the web can induce radical changes in another. In particular, science regularly confronts the problem of having to retract claims that it once boldly asserted.
Consider the following example from geology: In the nineteenth century the geosynclinal theory was proposed to account for the origination of mountain ranges. This theory hypothesized that large trough-like depressions, known as geosynclines, filled with sediment, gradually became unstable, and then, when crushed and heated by the earth, elevated to form mountain ranges. To the question “How did mountain ranges originate?” geologists as late as 1960 confidently asserted that the geosynclinal theory provided the answer. In the 1960 edition of Clark and Stearn’s Geological Evolution of North America, the status of the geosynclinal theory was even favorably compared with Darwin’s theory of natural selection.
Whatever became of the geosynclinal theory? An alternative theory, that of plate tectonics, was developed. It explained mountain formation through continental drift and sea-floor spreading. Within a few years, it had decisively replaced the geosynclinal theory. The history of science is filled with such turnabouts in which confident claims to knowledge suddenly vanish from the scientific literature. The geosynclinal theory was completely wrong. Thus, when the theory of plate tectonics came along, the geosynclinal theory was overthrown.