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Theories and Facts

Nicholas Wade in the NY Times reviews Richard Dawkins’ new book, The Greatest Show on Earth, about evolution. The review is at

Wade spends some time and space pointing out that Dawkins gets his “knickers in a twist” in trying to argue that evolution is a fact, rather than a theory. He quotes Dawkins claim that evolution “is a fact in the same sense as it is a fact that Paris is in the Northern Hemisphere.”

That Paris is in the Northern Hemisphere seems to me a matter of definition rather than fact. Evolution is not a fact in that sense at all.

I would call a fact something that you ignore at your peril, in particular your peril in the material world. A fact is Maxwell’s equations, Newton’s laws, the germ theory of disease. You can’t ignore these without severely crippling your ability to live in the (modern) world. Ignore or refuse to make use of their results and you will get harmed. Ignoring these is like the Nazi’s making science Judenrein.

Mechanics and electromagnetic theory and germs are theories but they are facts too. Goethe, in his Theory of Colour, wrote that every fact is a theory, and I think that’s right, about which more some other time, but that doesn’t mean that every theory is a fact. You are in trouble if you decide to ignore the germ theory of disease, or the structure of DNA, or the theory about the metabolism of the cell, because these theories allow you to influence the material world in the present and future and affect your well-being. In that sense, these are facts. But evolution for the most part is an explanation of history, and if you ignore it it’s less clear to me that it has deleterious consequences, as long as you don’t ignore what you know about molecular biology. I don’t think that evolution is exactly equivalent to molecular biology. Even more clearly, you can ignore psychoanalytic theory without obvious harm, so I wouldn’t call Freud a fact either.

Don’t think I don’t accept evolution; I do.

On a recent airplane trip I read bits of Goethe on science, and in one essay he writes a few sentences that seem relevant to Dawkins’ narrow obsession with atheism:

“ We are well enough aware that some skill, some ability, usually predominates in the character of each human being. This leads necessarily to one-sided thinking since man knows the world only through himself, and thus has the naive arrogance to believe that the world is constructed by him and for his sake. It follows that he puts his special skills in the foreground, while seeking to reject those he lacks, to banish them from his own totality. As a correction, he needs to develop all the manifestations of human character sensuality and reason, imagination and common sense into a coherent whole, no matter which quality predominates in him. If he fails to do so, he will labor on under his painful limitations without every understanding why he has so many stubborn enemies, why he sometimes even himself as an enemy.

“Thus a man born and bred to the so-called exact sciences, and at the height of his ability to reason empirically, find is hard to accept that an exact sensory imagination might also exist, although art is unthinkable without it. This is also a point of contention between followers of emotional religion and those of rational religion: while the latter refuse to acknowledge that religion begins with feeling, the former will not admit the necessity for religion to develop rationally.”

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