I’ve tried on many posts to explain why theology and science co-exist but do not trump each other. Science is about observations and experimentation. Theology is faith. Trust in both but don’t try to make one justify the other.
I believe there are two subtle alternative definitions of the word, “Falsifiable,” and much of the debate between creationists and evolutionists revolves around these definitions.
* Ideas are falsifiable when there is some conceivable experiment to test them, but the test may or may not be possible today. This was the view of Karl Popper;
* Ideas are falsifiable when there is some experiment which can be conducted under present scientific knowledge to test them.
If we adopt the first definition, an idea is falsifiable if some conceivable experiment could test it, then we run into a major problem: Which experiments are conceivable?
First, if the history of science has shown anything, it’s that scientists are capable of devising new and ingenious experiments to test ideas. For thousands of years, the Greek and Pagan geocentric Ptolemaic system was adopted by the Church as truth, until Copernicus and Galileo found means to test it. An experiment may be inconceivable one day and conceivable the next. The only difference is the presence of a scientist to conceive of a new experiment to solve the problem.
Second, the ability to conceive is a very subjective and imaginative ability. One person may “conceive a possible experiment” while another may not. Thus our definition of which experiments are “conceivable” or not depends entirely on our imagination. It does not depend on objective facts at all. For example:
I can conceive of an experiment to test for creation vs. evolution. I can build a time machine, travel 6,000 years in the past, and see if there is a Garden east of Eden with two naked people in it (as predicted by creationism), or countless tribes of nomadic men and women settling into agriculture. This would certainly falsify creationism or evolutionism once and for all. But the experiment cannot be conducted, because I don’t have a time machine. Consequently, although this experiment is conceivable, the ideas are still not falsifiable, because the experiment cannot be conducted.
Clearly, defining ideas as falsifiable when they could “conceivably” be falsified is not a useful definition, for two reasons:
* First, scientists conceive of new experiments that were once inconceivable on a daily basis, thus making unfalsifiable ideas falsifiable. Unfalsifiable ideas are in fact the lifeblood of science, because they are the fuel that drives the experiments of tomorrow.
* Second, the definition is not useful because it leaves the criteria for “science vs. non-science” entirely in the imagination of the scientist. For while many experiments may be conceived, they are not useful unless they can be conducted.
This leaves us with the second definition: “Ideas are falsifiable when they are capable of being tested under today’s scientific knowledge.” This leaves us with a much better defined list of ideas which are falsifiable and those which are unfalsifiable. Falsifiable ideas can be tested today, and unfalsifiable ideas cannot be tested today. There is no ambiguity. Nothing is left to our imagination. The experiment either can be conducted or cannot be conducted.
This leads us to a second point: Unfalsifiable ideas are not necessarily false. We simply can’t test them. If we adopt the first definition of falsifiability, that we must be able to “conceive” of an experiment to test the idea, then unfalsifiable ideas are useless, because they can never be tested and thus never become science.
But if we adopt the second definition of falsifiability, that we must be able to perform the experiment to test the idea, then we acknowledge that things which are not testable today may become testable tomorrow, and the goal of science becomes to expand the range of human knowledge by finding ways to test what is not yet testable. Under this definition, unfalsifiable ideas become the lifeblood of science, because it is from them that new experiments are tested, new discoveries made, and new science developed.
So, when we define as falsifiable ideas which may “conceivably be tested,” we call things unfalsifiable and unscientific when we cannot “conceive” of an experiment to test them, and call things falsifiable and scientific when we can conceive of such an experiment. But no actual experiments need be conducted. Therefore there is no objective test to determine whether or not an idea is scientific. The whole process takes place in our imagination, and is subject to the scope of our imagination. And if a person is incapable of imagining a test for an idea, then that idea becomes eternally unfalsifiable and unscientific, never to be tested. Ideas which may be true are tagged as unscientific simply because scientists cannot yet test them.
In the end, a superficial definition of falsifiability is used to exclude those ideas which, although possibly true, do not fit into the scientist’s “paradigm.”
But when we define as falsifiable those ideas which may “be tested today,” we call things unfalsifiable when we cannot test them and falsifiable when we can test them. Consequently, there is an objective test to determine which are falsifiable and which are not; it does not depend on our imagination, it depends on objective science. Further, unfalsifiable ideas are not seen as a roadblock to science, but as the future of science, as scientists develop and improve their ability to experiment, and turn unfalsifiable ideas into falsifiable ones.