Can Faith Be Built On Theories?

There is danger in confusing facts and theories. Let it not be held, however, that theories are in themselves objectionable. They play an important part in human progress. They are man s best inferential explanations of existing facts. The history of theories is largely the history of the world of thought. They have been steppingstones to the discovery of truth. Only when theories have been held aloft as unchanging facts or guides to life, have they become dangerous in the search for truth.

New facts of observation as discovered either confirm or disprove a theory. When increasing knowledge confirms a theory, that theory approaches the status of an unchanging fact of nature; if such knowledge weakens the theory, the inference must be modified or abandoned. Most theories are forever changing as new truth appears. That is the main reason why one cannot build firmly and finally on a theory, and feel assured that he is on the safe road to truth.

Claudius Ptolemy, an Egyptian astronomer, living about one hundred fifty years after Christ, inferred from the daily movement of the sun from east to west, that the earth was the center of the solar system. This theory ruled for many centuries until an accumulation of observations threw doubt on its correctness. At last, Copernicus, born 1473 A. D., from existing facts concluded that day and night result from the earth's rotation upon its axis. The theory of Ptolemy fell with a crash. The telescope was invented; more observations were recorded. All heavenly bodies were found to be in motion and rotation. Mighty men appeared: Bruno, Galileo, Kepler, and many others. Our new theories of the solar system are supported by all available knowledge. Yet we are ready to change or modify them as new knowledge appears.

The best thinkers among the Greeks believed that fire was an element, the ultimate principle of the universe. In the seventh century after Christ, a careful investigator, Stahl, set up the theory that an inflammable principle, largely immaterial, devoid of weight, escapes from a burning substance. This he called phlogiston. Every combustible body contains, therefore, more or less phlogiston. This theory was accepted by the scientific world only to be overthrown within a hundred years. Lavoisier, called the father of chemistry, showed by a simple experiment that fire is but the energy released where combustible substances combine with the element oxygen.

Modern theories of the structure and origin of the earth, of the structure of matter, of heat, light, disease, population, the mind and man, are but heirs of earlier, mistaken inferences. The history of theories forms one of the most engaging chapters of human progress. No fault is found with those who propose theories, provided they base their theories on existing facts, and treat them as theories and not as facts.

The history of the theory of evolution is an excellent answer to the question at the head of this writing. The theory of evolution, a storm center of thought for many years, has been modified until it is vastly different from its original form. Leaving aside the doctrine that all life has a common beginning (see also pages 150-158), the basic idea in Darwinism was that the many life forms on the earth could be traced back to "natural selection," the "survival of the fittest in the struggle for existence. Students of life in every department seized avidly upon this explanation of conditions among men and lower animals. Thousands of books and pamphlets in the fields of natural, economic, and social sciences have been based on the theory of natural selection.

During the last generation, however, facts have appeared to cast serious doubt upon the validity of the doctrine of natural selection. Recently, two books, almost epoch-making, written by men of the highest scientific standing, declare natural selection to be insufficient to explain the variety in nature. Moreover, these two notable investigators have proposed new explanations inferences from their own work and that of others, to replace the doctrine of natural selection.

Dr. Richard Goldschmidt American scientist declares, among other things, that "species and the higher categories," originate in single steps, independent of natural selection as completely new genetic systems." That is, they appear by sudden variation, which is mutation. He adds that he believes

Dr. J. C. Willis, European scientist, frankly entitles his book The Course of Evolution, "by differentiation or divergent mutation rather than by selection." He concludes that "The process of evolution appears not to be a matter of natural selection or chance variations of adaptational value. Rather, it is working upon some definite law that we do not yet comprehend. The law probably began its operations with the commencement of life, and it is carrying this on according to some definite plan.... Evolution is no longer a matter of chance, but of law. It has no need of any support from natural selection.... The theory of natural selection is no longer getting us anywhere, except in politics (the dead hand)." He goes on to argue for the explanation of "the increasing divergences of characters as one goes up the scale from species to family," by mutation, a law in opposition to natural selection.

In essence these two eminent experimenters and thinkers are in agreement. Future basic changes in the doctrine of evolution may well be expected.

Had the proponents as well as the opponents of evolution, as a whole or in part, kept in mind that they were discussing a theory, subject to frequent and fundamental change, the civilized world would have been spared much unseemly behavior.

Again the warning: Distinguish clearly between facts and the inferences from facts.

Certainly, it is a mistake to accept theories in building faith in anything, from religion to our everyday life pursuits.

(John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations [Salt Lake City: Improvement Era], 28-30.)


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